Commentary Magazine


Topic: Suez Canal

What Will Happen to the Suez Canal?

The major U.S. interest and, indeed, the main international interest in Egypt is the fate of the Suez Canal—built by the French and completed in 1869, and then overseen by the British in the wake of the 1879-1882 ‘Urabi revolt until finally nationalized by Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956. Not only does commercial shipping pass through the Suez Canal, but so too do U.S. warships heading toward the Persian Gulf.

Oil has already spiked on fears that the uprising in Egypt could interrupt shipping in the Suez. Any unrest is always troubling, but if past precedent means anything, then much of the worry is unfounded. Certainly, the Egyptian chapter of the Arab Spring brought instability to the Sinai. Bedouins upset at the Egyptian central government and extremists upset at the idea of supplying gas to Israel (and Jordan), no matter how much the Egyptian government needs the cash, have bombed the Arab Gas Pipeline a number of times since 2011. But throughout all the chaos, the Egyptian army and police have secured the Suez Canal. No tourist let alone an Egyptian can get close to the canal without getting stopped by the police and questioned. In a country where factories sit idle and the tourist industry has dried up, the Egyptians recognize just how important the hard currency generated by the Suez can be.

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The major U.S. interest and, indeed, the main international interest in Egypt is the fate of the Suez Canal—built by the French and completed in 1869, and then overseen by the British in the wake of the 1879-1882 ‘Urabi revolt until finally nationalized by Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956. Not only does commercial shipping pass through the Suez Canal, but so too do U.S. warships heading toward the Persian Gulf.

Oil has already spiked on fears that the uprising in Egypt could interrupt shipping in the Suez. Any unrest is always troubling, but if past precedent means anything, then much of the worry is unfounded. Certainly, the Egyptian chapter of the Arab Spring brought instability to the Sinai. Bedouins upset at the Egyptian central government and extremists upset at the idea of supplying gas to Israel (and Jordan), no matter how much the Egyptian government needs the cash, have bombed the Arab Gas Pipeline a number of times since 2011. But throughout all the chaos, the Egyptian army and police have secured the Suez Canal. No tourist let alone an Egyptian can get close to the canal without getting stopped by the police and questioned. In a country where factories sit idle and the tourist industry has dried up, the Egyptians recognize just how important the hard currency generated by the Suez can be.

When ships pass through the canal—from small craft up to U.S. aircraft carriers—they take onto their bridge Egyptian pilots to navigate through the passage. No one in their right mind would call the Egyptian pilots professional in demeanor: They smoke, personify ornery, and solicit bribes of cigarettes, baseball caps, and other goods. But they did that before the Arab Spring and did not change their behavior under the Muslim Brotherhood regime. The future is uncertain. Washington Post deputy editorial page editor Jackson Diehl is right to sound the warning about how none of the instances in which mobs have cheered coups have actually resulted in liberal democracy. While governance in Egypt is uncertain for now, at least, worst-case fears regarding security in the Suez Canal appear unfounded.

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Uprising Goes Straight for the Canal

Navies and merchant fleets the world over are watching the riots in Egypt with concern. Friday’s news that protesters have attacked the main police station in the city of Suez is a grim development: it transforms the threat to the Suez Canal from a distant consideration to an immediate possibility. The port city of Suez overlooks the southern entrance to the canal; it hosts — along with Port Said, at the northern entrance on the Mediterranean side — Egypt’s security, administrative, and maritime-service forces. Ships queue up daily outside Port Suez to await the north-bound convoy through the canal, which leaves as soon as the south-bound convoy has finished its transit. Egypt provides security along the canal’s 120-mile length, a swath of desert abutting the 200-foot waterway on either side. Veterans of Suez transits know that nothing but armed vigilance will hinder enterprising terrorists or insurgents operating from the banks.

There can be no doubt that the uprising in Egypt, like the one in Tunisia, is fueled by popular sentiment. Ordinary Egyptians have many reasons to want to change their government. But reporting about the riots, in Suez and elsewhere, contains indications that the popular protests are being exploited by more organized groups. The police station in Suez was not stormed by a wave of bodies: it was firebombed by “protesters” wearing surgical masks. In a rural area of the northern Sinai, “protesters” fired RPGs at a police station from nearby rooftops, while several hundred Bedouins exchanged small-arms fire with police.

These are the not the typical actions of frustrated citizens. Mass protests, flag-waving, chanting, impromptu speeches, perhaps the burning of tires and garbage, as in Lebanon this week: these are the things angry citizens do, and the Egyptians have been doing them. But both Hamas and Hezbollah have recent histories of operating in the Sinai; the organized attacks on police are characteristic of their methods and weaponry. Egypt has been gravely concerned about the influence of their principal backer, Iran, for several years — and the organized attack on the main police station in the port city of Suez, situated on one of the world’s major choke points, bears the hallmark of Iranian strategic thinking.

As with Tunisia, the unrest in Egypt is erupting for good reasons and appears spontaneous. But self-appointed revolutionaries have long honed the art of exploiting popular unrest. We can expect Egypt to be beset by organized cells — some undoubtedly backed by Iran — in the coming days. The security of the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, and the eastern Mediterranean is at risk. No outcome is predestined, but this uprising is attended by the same kinds of predators who have sought their fortunes in the uprisings of desperate peoples since 1789.

We are taking a detour back into history, if by a new route — and the same thing is true that has been true since the end of World War II: no nation other than the United States is capable of addressing this emerging problem with an equal concern for freedom and security. Other nations will have to form coalitions to take it on, if Obama’s America sits on the sidelines. We won’t like the outcome if it is handled that way.

Navies and merchant fleets the world over are watching the riots in Egypt with concern. Friday’s news that protesters have attacked the main police station in the city of Suez is a grim development: it transforms the threat to the Suez Canal from a distant consideration to an immediate possibility. The port city of Suez overlooks the southern entrance to the canal; it hosts — along with Port Said, at the northern entrance on the Mediterranean side — Egypt’s security, administrative, and maritime-service forces. Ships queue up daily outside Port Suez to await the north-bound convoy through the canal, which leaves as soon as the south-bound convoy has finished its transit. Egypt provides security along the canal’s 120-mile length, a swath of desert abutting the 200-foot waterway on either side. Veterans of Suez transits know that nothing but armed vigilance will hinder enterprising terrorists or insurgents operating from the banks.

There can be no doubt that the uprising in Egypt, like the one in Tunisia, is fueled by popular sentiment. Ordinary Egyptians have many reasons to want to change their government. But reporting about the riots, in Suez and elsewhere, contains indications that the popular protests are being exploited by more organized groups. The police station in Suez was not stormed by a wave of bodies: it was firebombed by “protesters” wearing surgical masks. In a rural area of the northern Sinai, “protesters” fired RPGs at a police station from nearby rooftops, while several hundred Bedouins exchanged small-arms fire with police.

These are the not the typical actions of frustrated citizens. Mass protests, flag-waving, chanting, impromptu speeches, perhaps the burning of tires and garbage, as in Lebanon this week: these are the things angry citizens do, and the Egyptians have been doing them. But both Hamas and Hezbollah have recent histories of operating in the Sinai; the organized attacks on police are characteristic of their methods and weaponry. Egypt has been gravely concerned about the influence of their principal backer, Iran, for several years — and the organized attack on the main police station in the port city of Suez, situated on one of the world’s major choke points, bears the hallmark of Iranian strategic thinking.

As with Tunisia, the unrest in Egypt is erupting for good reasons and appears spontaneous. But self-appointed revolutionaries have long honed the art of exploiting popular unrest. We can expect Egypt to be beset by organized cells — some undoubtedly backed by Iran — in the coming days. The security of the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, and the eastern Mediterranean is at risk. No outcome is predestined, but this uprising is attended by the same kinds of predators who have sought their fortunes in the uprisings of desperate peoples since 1789.

We are taking a detour back into history, if by a new route — and the same thing is true that has been true since the end of World War II: no nation other than the United States is capable of addressing this emerging problem with an equal concern for freedom and security. Other nations will have to form coalitions to take it on, if Obama’s America sits on the sidelines. We won’t like the outcome if it is handled that way.

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Flotilla Thriller

This summer promises events that will thoroughly eclipse the diplomatic flurry over the recent Gaza flotilla. What few would have expected is the maritime character of the drama to which we have to look forward. And in a manner reminiscent of some seemingly minor operational decisions during the Cold War, Obama’s response to the challenge will be the most important security signal sent by his administration to date.

The distant drumbeat of the impending climax has been sounding for some time; Iran and Hezbollah have repeatedly threatened shipping in, respectively, the Strait of Hormuz and the waters off Lebanon and Israel, near the northern approach to the Suez Canal. Hezbollah’s most recent threat was issued in May, shortly before the deadly flotilla incident. Both Iran and Hezbollah are actively preparing to make good on their threats. This is not a theoretical menace. A complacent dismissal of their activities would be very dangerous.

Moreover, they are about to get help from — and take direct advantage of — the chaotic maritime situation brewing with the follow-on flotillas now in planning. Avram Rimon at Examiner.com had a good summary of them this weekend: they include a Gaza flotilla sponsored by German Jews; a counter-flotilla of Israelis hoping to bring aid to Cyprus, the Turkish Kurds, and Armenia (the latter under a Turkish blockade for more than 16 years); the Turkish flotilla for which Tayyip Erdogan has promised his own presence and a naval escort; and the flotilla being mounted by Iran, which is scheduled to leave Iran for Gaza on June 18.

The U.S. can do one of two things about these proliferating flotillas. We can organize NATO overtly to monitor and control eruptions in the Eastern Mediterranean, or we can simply leave it all for Israel to handle. Doing the latter will guarantee the early involvement of Hezbollah and Hamas in enlarging the scope of this maritime challenge. A hands-off approach by the Western nations makes it more likely that the terrorists, along with Iran and Turkey, will seek to precipitate crises — which may involve innocent commercial shipping — and press situational advantages. On the other hand, a declaration that the U.S. and NATO will prevent destabilizing eruptions, accompanied by obvious readiness to impose order if necessary, would be a salutary and effective signal. None of this need be done in a bellicose manner: quiet but unyielding is the appropriate demeanor.

Turkey’s involvement in the recent flotilla should already have resulted in a moment of reckoning with its NATO allies, if only behind closed doors. The West’s lackadaisical approach to its core alliance is on borrowed time. If the impending parade of flotillas produces only disorganized posturing from NATO, while allowing Israel’s enemies to create havoc at sea and score propaganda points against Israel, the next challenge is likely to emerge almost automatically in the Persian Gulf. Iran has threatened to begin stopping ships in the Strait of Hormuz if the inspection clause of the June 9 UN sanctions is actually applied against Iran-bound cargo. Tehran’s willingness to carry through on this will depend on the U.S. posture, which governs what the Iranians think they can get away with.

A strong stance in the Eastern Mediterranean is the lowest-cost, highest-payoff method of deterring Iran from the outset. Maintaining stability at sea and control of the world’s key chokepoints is an American naval task so basic we rarely think about it, but the impact from breaches of that order is immediate and far-reaching. Doing nothing is courting crisis; we should be working to head this one off at the pass. That approach would be far less costly than reacting to a series of crises.

This summer promises events that will thoroughly eclipse the diplomatic flurry over the recent Gaza flotilla. What few would have expected is the maritime character of the drama to which we have to look forward. And in a manner reminiscent of some seemingly minor operational decisions during the Cold War, Obama’s response to the challenge will be the most important security signal sent by his administration to date.

The distant drumbeat of the impending climax has been sounding for some time; Iran and Hezbollah have repeatedly threatened shipping in, respectively, the Strait of Hormuz and the waters off Lebanon and Israel, near the northern approach to the Suez Canal. Hezbollah’s most recent threat was issued in May, shortly before the deadly flotilla incident. Both Iran and Hezbollah are actively preparing to make good on their threats. This is not a theoretical menace. A complacent dismissal of their activities would be very dangerous.

Moreover, they are about to get help from — and take direct advantage of — the chaotic maritime situation brewing with the follow-on flotillas now in planning. Avram Rimon at Examiner.com had a good summary of them this weekend: they include a Gaza flotilla sponsored by German Jews; a counter-flotilla of Israelis hoping to bring aid to Cyprus, the Turkish Kurds, and Armenia (the latter under a Turkish blockade for more than 16 years); the Turkish flotilla for which Tayyip Erdogan has promised his own presence and a naval escort; and the flotilla being mounted by Iran, which is scheduled to leave Iran for Gaza on June 18.

The U.S. can do one of two things about these proliferating flotillas. We can organize NATO overtly to monitor and control eruptions in the Eastern Mediterranean, or we can simply leave it all for Israel to handle. Doing the latter will guarantee the early involvement of Hezbollah and Hamas in enlarging the scope of this maritime challenge. A hands-off approach by the Western nations makes it more likely that the terrorists, along with Iran and Turkey, will seek to precipitate crises — which may involve innocent commercial shipping — and press situational advantages. On the other hand, a declaration that the U.S. and NATO will prevent destabilizing eruptions, accompanied by obvious readiness to impose order if necessary, would be a salutary and effective signal. None of this need be done in a bellicose manner: quiet but unyielding is the appropriate demeanor.

Turkey’s involvement in the recent flotilla should already have resulted in a moment of reckoning with its NATO allies, if only behind closed doors. The West’s lackadaisical approach to its core alliance is on borrowed time. If the impending parade of flotillas produces only disorganized posturing from NATO, while allowing Israel’s enemies to create havoc at sea and score propaganda points against Israel, the next challenge is likely to emerge almost automatically in the Persian Gulf. Iran has threatened to begin stopping ships in the Strait of Hormuz if the inspection clause of the June 9 UN sanctions is actually applied against Iran-bound cargo. Tehran’s willingness to carry through on this will depend on the U.S. posture, which governs what the Iranians think they can get away with.

A strong stance in the Eastern Mediterranean is the lowest-cost, highest-payoff method of deterring Iran from the outset. Maintaining stability at sea and control of the world’s key chokepoints is an American naval task so basic we rarely think about it, but the impact from breaches of that order is immediate and far-reaching. Doing nothing is courting crisis; we should be working to head this one off at the pass. That approach would be far less costly than reacting to a series of crises.

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RE: How Obama’s Policy Ensures More Flotillas

Hard on the heels of Evelyn Gordon’s stingingly accurate analysis, the news comes that Iran is offering a naval escort for the next flotilla. The UK Guardian quotes a top Revolutionary Guard official speaking this past weekend:

“Iran’s Revolutionary Guard naval forces are prepared to escort the peace and freedom convoys that carry humanitarian assistance for the defenceless and oppressed people of Gaza with all their strength,” pledged Hojjatoleslam Ali Shirazi, Khamenei’s personal representative to the guards corps.

This is not an empty threat. Iran’s navy has deployed units to the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea for antipiracy operations since December 2008. The Iranians have taken great pride in expanding their maritime operating range across the region; extending their navy’s reach into the Eastern Mediterranean is now an incremental step, something no longer obviously beyond their force’s capabilities.

This is the kind of move President Obama could have deterred by affirming U.S. support for Israel’s right to secure borders and self-defense. Iran has been emboldened to take this step — one that must provoke a regional showdown — by the perception that Israel stands condemned and alone.

With his response implying U.S. disengagement, however, Obama has ensured that we will ultimately have to do more to protect our own interests. If Iran makes good on this offer, Egypt will quickly face the game-changing decision about whether to allow Iranian navy ships through the Suez Canal for such a mission. And if the U.S. is not acting overtly to give Egypt what the military calls “top cover” — political support and material backing for a negative decision — there is no guarantee that Arab regional fears of Iranian militarism will govern the Egyptian thought process.

Indeed, the long-term effects would be worse than the immediate consequences of an Iranian tactical triumph. A self-imposed posture of impotence on America’s part would drive nations like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia to turn elsewhere for patronage. In addition to giving them a reason for accommodation with Turkey and Iran, passivity and incoherence on our part would open regional doors further for Russia and perhaps for China, as well.

Events are moving quickly now. It was clear a year ago that Israel’s national security could not be put in question without a feeding frenzy erupting in the Middle East. The past week has demonstrated that Western nations need not actively repudiate Israel to galvanize Israel’s terrorist enemies. Simply withholding affirmation of Israel’s rights as a nation works equally well.

The enemies of Israel are also the enemies of Western civilization — and they are emboldened today to press for what they want. They do not want the global stasis on which our way of life depends, with its liberality of trade, travel, and culture. Obama still has a little time to avert the battle they are preparing for — a battle that will unfold excruciatingly over weeks and months of probing Israel and the West by unconventional methods — but now is the time to act. If he fails to do so, he will rapidly lose control over what the fight is about and what America’s role in it is to be.

Hard on the heels of Evelyn Gordon’s stingingly accurate analysis, the news comes that Iran is offering a naval escort for the next flotilla. The UK Guardian quotes a top Revolutionary Guard official speaking this past weekend:

“Iran’s Revolutionary Guard naval forces are prepared to escort the peace and freedom convoys that carry humanitarian assistance for the defenceless and oppressed people of Gaza with all their strength,” pledged Hojjatoleslam Ali Shirazi, Khamenei’s personal representative to the guards corps.

This is not an empty threat. Iran’s navy has deployed units to the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea for antipiracy operations since December 2008. The Iranians have taken great pride in expanding their maritime operating range across the region; extending their navy’s reach into the Eastern Mediterranean is now an incremental step, something no longer obviously beyond their force’s capabilities.

This is the kind of move President Obama could have deterred by affirming U.S. support for Israel’s right to secure borders and self-defense. Iran has been emboldened to take this step — one that must provoke a regional showdown — by the perception that Israel stands condemned and alone.

With his response implying U.S. disengagement, however, Obama has ensured that we will ultimately have to do more to protect our own interests. If Iran makes good on this offer, Egypt will quickly face the game-changing decision about whether to allow Iranian navy ships through the Suez Canal for such a mission. And if the U.S. is not acting overtly to give Egypt what the military calls “top cover” — political support and material backing for a negative decision — there is no guarantee that Arab regional fears of Iranian militarism will govern the Egyptian thought process.

Indeed, the long-term effects would be worse than the immediate consequences of an Iranian tactical triumph. A self-imposed posture of impotence on America’s part would drive nations like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia to turn elsewhere for patronage. In addition to giving them a reason for accommodation with Turkey and Iran, passivity and incoherence on our part would open regional doors further for Russia and perhaps for China, as well.

Events are moving quickly now. It was clear a year ago that Israel’s national security could not be put in question without a feeding frenzy erupting in the Middle East. The past week has demonstrated that Western nations need not actively repudiate Israel to galvanize Israel’s terrorist enemies. Simply withholding affirmation of Israel’s rights as a nation works equally well.

The enemies of Israel are also the enemies of Western civilization — and they are emboldened today to press for what they want. They do not want the global stasis on which our way of life depends, with its liberality of trade, travel, and culture. Obama still has a little time to avert the battle they are preparing for — a battle that will unfold excruciatingly over weeks and months of probing Israel and the West by unconventional methods — but now is the time to act. If he fails to do so, he will rapidly lose control over what the fight is about and what America’s role in it is to be.

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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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Hezbollah’s Maritime Threat

As Hezbollah’s Nasrallah issues new threats to commercial shipping in the Levant, it’s worth recalling the events of July 2006. During the conflict that summer with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Israel’s INS Hanit, a Saar-V class corvette, was hit by an anti-ship missile launched by Hezbollah from the Lebanese coast. Haaretz reported that a Cambodian-flagged freighter was hit by another missile in the same July 14 attack. The freighter sank afterward; its Egyptian crewmen were rescued from the Mediterranean, but four Israelis were killed in the attack on Hanit.

Austin Bay, who writes frequently on defense matters, posted this excellent analysis of the shipping attacks at his blog. The missiles Hezbollah used were a Chinese-designed C802 cruise missile, which Iran has produced for a number of years as the “Noor” missile, and the Iranian “Kosar” version of the Chinese C701 missile.

No question remains as to whether Iran has supplied anti-ship missiles to Hezbollah. The only question is whether Hezbollah is now being supplied with Iran’s newer anti-ship missiles. China and Iran launched a production facility in March 2010 for the “Nasr” missile, Iran’s version of the Chinese C704, a newer cruise missile with a passive homing capability. Iran’s navy fired the Nasr missile in its Persian Gulf exercise in April, a move similar to the introduction of the Kosar missile in the major naval exercise in April of 2006. Three months after that 2006 exercise, Hezbollah used the Kosar off the coast of Lebanon.

Israeli warships can defend themselves against Hezbollah’s cruise missiles. Hanit’s failure to do so was attributed to the constraints of an Israeli forces operating policy, which had been put in place to prevent unintentional firing on friendly aircraft.

But merchantmen have no defense against such weapons. Nasrallah’s threat is far from empty, as Hezbollah has already proved. The coastal region off Lebanon and Israel, through which ships approach the Suez Canal, is one of the busiest in the world. The likelihood is very real that the U.S. will find it necessary to take action if Hezbollah starts launching missiles at commercial ships. It bears noting that whether that task is approached passively (e.g., with defensive escort) or through active counterattack on Hezbollah’s positions ashore, the weapon systems suitable for the problem are the Aegis warships and aircraft carriers Defense Secretary Gates wants fewer of. No less-capable platform can handle the mission.

As Hezbollah’s Nasrallah issues new threats to commercial shipping in the Levant, it’s worth recalling the events of July 2006. During the conflict that summer with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Israel’s INS Hanit, a Saar-V class corvette, was hit by an anti-ship missile launched by Hezbollah from the Lebanese coast. Haaretz reported that a Cambodian-flagged freighter was hit by another missile in the same July 14 attack. The freighter sank afterward; its Egyptian crewmen were rescued from the Mediterranean, but four Israelis were killed in the attack on Hanit.

Austin Bay, who writes frequently on defense matters, posted this excellent analysis of the shipping attacks at his blog. The missiles Hezbollah used were a Chinese-designed C802 cruise missile, which Iran has produced for a number of years as the “Noor” missile, and the Iranian “Kosar” version of the Chinese C701 missile.

No question remains as to whether Iran has supplied anti-ship missiles to Hezbollah. The only question is whether Hezbollah is now being supplied with Iran’s newer anti-ship missiles. China and Iran launched a production facility in March 2010 for the “Nasr” missile, Iran’s version of the Chinese C704, a newer cruise missile with a passive homing capability. Iran’s navy fired the Nasr missile in its Persian Gulf exercise in April, a move similar to the introduction of the Kosar missile in the major naval exercise in April of 2006. Three months after that 2006 exercise, Hezbollah used the Kosar off the coast of Lebanon.

Israeli warships can defend themselves against Hezbollah’s cruise missiles. Hanit’s failure to do so was attributed to the constraints of an Israeli forces operating policy, which had been put in place to prevent unintentional firing on friendly aircraft.

But merchantmen have no defense against such weapons. Nasrallah’s threat is far from empty, as Hezbollah has already proved. The coastal region off Lebanon and Israel, through which ships approach the Suez Canal, is one of the busiest in the world. The likelihood is very real that the U.S. will find it necessary to take action if Hezbollah starts launching missiles at commercial ships. It bears noting that whether that task is approached passively (e.g., with defensive escort) or through active counterattack on Hezbollah’s positions ashore, the weapon systems suitable for the problem are the Aegis warships and aircraft carriers Defense Secretary Gates wants fewer of. No less-capable platform can handle the mission.

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Peace in Our Time: A Tale of Two Port Cities

There is a certain sense of melancholy in watching the “Syrian Missile Crisis” unfold this month. For the first time in two decades, U.S. and Russian warships have conducted — during the crisis itself — what we might call competing port visits to the principal nations involved. The Russian port visit was not related to Syria’s deployment of Scud missiles with Hezbollah, but its timing was certainly emblematic of the trend in Russian policy in the region.

The Russian nuclear-powered cruiser RFS Pyotr Veliky, flagship of the Northern Fleet, pulled into Tartus, Syria, on April 13. Pyotr Veliky is the warship that visited Venezuela and operated in the Caribbean in late 2008. Russia’s navy continues to struggle in rebuilding its once-aggressive profile on the high seas; port visits like this one have yet to become routine again, although Russia still keeps the small logistic detachment in Tartus that has been there for decades. The Tartus port visit this month was attended by ceremony, high-level meetings, and pointed statements from Russia’s ambassador in Damascus.

The day of Pyotr Veliky’s arrival, Shimon Peres announced Israel’s information on the transfer of Syrian Scuds to Hezbollah. The warship’s presence is not, of course, evidence of Russian involvement in that joint action by Syria and Iran, but it unquestionably symbolizes Russia’s regional links at an informative time. The media furor over the Scud transfer has produced very little reaction from Russia; it apparently interfered in no way with the fraternal amity of the port visit, which Russian media covered extensively. Pyotr Veliky left Tartus and headed south through the Suez Canal on April 16.

The visit to Haifa of USS Ramage (DDG-61), an Aegis destroyer, has presented an interesting contrast. The lack of even the usual low-level fanfare about the port visit may be due to Ramage’s peculiar capabilities: the destroyer is one of the U.S. Navy’s few Atlantic-based warships outfitted with the ballistic-missile defense (BMD) package. Ramage deployed to the Mediterranean in January specifically to provide a BMD contingency presence, a relatively new mission. The ship arrived in Haifa on the 18th, five days after the Peres disclosure was picked up by U.S. media.

Ramage’s quiet dispatch to Israel is thought-provoking, in light of Russia’s lack of embarrassment at favoring Syria with a flagship port call just when word was getting out about Syrian missiles being proliferated to the terrorist group Hezbollah. It reminds me that the Obama administration has not affirmed a commitment to Israel’s national integrity in the wake of the Scud story. Its spokesmen have emphasized instead that giving Scuds to Hezbollah could “destabilize the region” and “put Lebanon at risk.”

Perhaps Ramage has been sent to Israel’s coast solely as a counter to “regional” destabilization — and making a stop in Haifa is a mere convenience given Israel’s long history of logistic accommodation in that regard. But to make such disingenuous assertions, the Obama administration would have to be talking deliberately about defense commitments in the first place. It does not do so, however, nor does it occur to today’s U.S. media to ask it to. Russia, Iran, and Syria, by contrast, suffer from no such reticence.

There is a certain sense of melancholy in watching the “Syrian Missile Crisis” unfold this month. For the first time in two decades, U.S. and Russian warships have conducted — during the crisis itself — what we might call competing port visits to the principal nations involved. The Russian port visit was not related to Syria’s deployment of Scud missiles with Hezbollah, but its timing was certainly emblematic of the trend in Russian policy in the region.

The Russian nuclear-powered cruiser RFS Pyotr Veliky, flagship of the Northern Fleet, pulled into Tartus, Syria, on April 13. Pyotr Veliky is the warship that visited Venezuela and operated in the Caribbean in late 2008. Russia’s navy continues to struggle in rebuilding its once-aggressive profile on the high seas; port visits like this one have yet to become routine again, although Russia still keeps the small logistic detachment in Tartus that has been there for decades. The Tartus port visit this month was attended by ceremony, high-level meetings, and pointed statements from Russia’s ambassador in Damascus.

The day of Pyotr Veliky’s arrival, Shimon Peres announced Israel’s information on the transfer of Syrian Scuds to Hezbollah. The warship’s presence is not, of course, evidence of Russian involvement in that joint action by Syria and Iran, but it unquestionably symbolizes Russia’s regional links at an informative time. The media furor over the Scud transfer has produced very little reaction from Russia; it apparently interfered in no way with the fraternal amity of the port visit, which Russian media covered extensively. Pyotr Veliky left Tartus and headed south through the Suez Canal on April 16.

The visit to Haifa of USS Ramage (DDG-61), an Aegis destroyer, has presented an interesting contrast. The lack of even the usual low-level fanfare about the port visit may be due to Ramage’s peculiar capabilities: the destroyer is one of the U.S. Navy’s few Atlantic-based warships outfitted with the ballistic-missile defense (BMD) package. Ramage deployed to the Mediterranean in January specifically to provide a BMD contingency presence, a relatively new mission. The ship arrived in Haifa on the 18th, five days after the Peres disclosure was picked up by U.S. media.

Ramage’s quiet dispatch to Israel is thought-provoking, in light of Russia’s lack of embarrassment at favoring Syria with a flagship port call just when word was getting out about Syrian missiles being proliferated to the terrorist group Hezbollah. It reminds me that the Obama administration has not affirmed a commitment to Israel’s national integrity in the wake of the Scud story. Its spokesmen have emphasized instead that giving Scuds to Hezbollah could “destabilize the region” and “put Lebanon at risk.”

Perhaps Ramage has been sent to Israel’s coast solely as a counter to “regional” destabilization — and making a stop in Haifa is a mere convenience given Israel’s long history of logistic accommodation in that regard. But to make such disingenuous assertions, the Obama administration would have to be talking deliberately about defense commitments in the first place. It does not do so, however, nor does it occur to today’s U.S. media to ask it to. Russia, Iran, and Syria, by contrast, suffer from no such reticence.

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The Lessons of 1956: Nostalgia for a Betrayal of Israel

If you want an object lesson as to where contemporary Israel-bashing in the United States is headed, you can do no better than read an article published today in the Daily Beast by Kai Bird, the former Nation staffer, MacArthur Foundation “genius,” and Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

The title, “Time to Talk Tough with Israel,” promises the familiar tiresome refrain about how America must slap the Israelis around for their own good and doesn’t disappoint. But Bird’s frame of reference isn’t just the usual slander about AIPAC running American foreign policy. Instead, he writes from the perspective of an important event in his childhood: the 1956 Sinai campaign, which took place while Bird’s father was serving in the American consulate in East Jerusalem. At that time, about half the city was illegally occupied by the Kingdom of Jordan. Jews were forbidden entry into the Old City, and Jewish holy places such as the Western Wall were abandoned and desecrated.

In 1956, Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser massed  his army in the Sinai and allowed Palestinian terrorists to use Egyptian-occupied Gaza as a terrorist sanctuary. Acting in conjunction with Britain and France, who were angry about Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal, Israel cleaned out both Gaza and the Sinai, dealing a serious blow to Nasser’s aggressive ambitions. But the United States, which hadn’t been consulted, wound up backing Nasser against the former colonial powers and their Israeli ally. In the end Nasser wasn’t compelled to make peace with Israel. Instead, Israel was forced to withdraw from the Sinai. All it got in exchange was the presence of a United Nations observer force on the border.

Bird considers that American diktat as a model for our current diplomacy. Which is to say, he wants the United States to demand that Israel give up every inch it won in 1967, including East Jerusalem. If Israel refuses, Bird advocates “severe trade and financial sanctions.”

But let’s examine the results of Bird’s ideal moment in American diplomacy. What did President Eisenhower achieve in 1956? He saved the skin of a vicious Arab dictator who would use the rest of his career to keep fomenting violence in the Middle East. And he set the stage for the 1967 Six-Day War, which took place after Nasser marched his army back into the Sinai along Israel’s border, blockaded the southern Israeli port of Eilat, and then demanded — and got — the withdrawal of the UN force. Far from helping peace, America’s betrayal of Israel only guaranteed that another war would follow. That wasn’t tough love; it was a disaster for both countries.

Bird believes that a similar betrayal of Israel — this time by Barack Obama — will help “Israeli liberals” defeat Netanyahu and give a two-state solution a chance. But the reason those “liberals” were annihilated at the last Israeli election in February 2009 was because the Palestinians have conclusively demonstrated their lack of interest in peace. And no Israeli government of any political stripe will abandon the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

It takes a particular kind of chutzpah for a writer who seems to have fond memories of the days when those Jerusalem neighborhoods were Judenrein — “Jew-free” — to call for a return to a policy of American hostility to Israel to revive such a situation. But that is what passes for intelligent commentary in some publications.

If you want an object lesson as to where contemporary Israel-bashing in the United States is headed, you can do no better than read an article published today in the Daily Beast by Kai Bird, the former Nation staffer, MacArthur Foundation “genius,” and Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

The title, “Time to Talk Tough with Israel,” promises the familiar tiresome refrain about how America must slap the Israelis around for their own good and doesn’t disappoint. But Bird’s frame of reference isn’t just the usual slander about AIPAC running American foreign policy. Instead, he writes from the perspective of an important event in his childhood: the 1956 Sinai campaign, which took place while Bird’s father was serving in the American consulate in East Jerusalem. At that time, about half the city was illegally occupied by the Kingdom of Jordan. Jews were forbidden entry into the Old City, and Jewish holy places such as the Western Wall were abandoned and desecrated.

In 1956, Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser massed  his army in the Sinai and allowed Palestinian terrorists to use Egyptian-occupied Gaza as a terrorist sanctuary. Acting in conjunction with Britain and France, who were angry about Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal, Israel cleaned out both Gaza and the Sinai, dealing a serious blow to Nasser’s aggressive ambitions. But the United States, which hadn’t been consulted, wound up backing Nasser against the former colonial powers and their Israeli ally. In the end Nasser wasn’t compelled to make peace with Israel. Instead, Israel was forced to withdraw from the Sinai. All it got in exchange was the presence of a United Nations observer force on the border.

Bird considers that American diktat as a model for our current diplomacy. Which is to say, he wants the United States to demand that Israel give up every inch it won in 1967, including East Jerusalem. If Israel refuses, Bird advocates “severe trade and financial sanctions.”

But let’s examine the results of Bird’s ideal moment in American diplomacy. What did President Eisenhower achieve in 1956? He saved the skin of a vicious Arab dictator who would use the rest of his career to keep fomenting violence in the Middle East. And he set the stage for the 1967 Six-Day War, which took place after Nasser marched his army back into the Sinai along Israel’s border, blockaded the southern Israeli port of Eilat, and then demanded — and got — the withdrawal of the UN force. Far from helping peace, America’s betrayal of Israel only guaranteed that another war would follow. That wasn’t tough love; it was a disaster for both countries.

Bird believes that a similar betrayal of Israel — this time by Barack Obama — will help “Israeli liberals” defeat Netanyahu and give a two-state solution a chance. But the reason those “liberals” were annihilated at the last Israeli election in February 2009 was because the Palestinians have conclusively demonstrated their lack of interest in peace. And no Israeli government of any political stripe will abandon the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

It takes a particular kind of chutzpah for a writer who seems to have fond memories of the days when those Jerusalem neighborhoods were Judenrein — “Jew-free” — to call for a return to a policy of American hostility to Israel to revive such a situation. But that is what passes for intelligent commentary in some publications.

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