Friday, December 7, 2007

Reading the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran

The operative part of the NIE Report on Iran's nuclear intentions and capabilities is not long. So rather than offer yet another long analysis, I suggest that you read it for yourself. I will limit my commentary to highlighting some of the salient points, and end with a very brief summary:

A. We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program (For the purposes of this Estimate, by “nuclear weapons program” we mean Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment); we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons. We judge with high confidence that the halt, and Tehran’s announcement of its decision to suspend its declared uranium enrichment program and sign an Additional Protocol to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement, was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work.

We assess with high confidence that until fall 2003, Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons.

• We judge with high confidence that the halt lasted at least several years. (Because of intelligence gaps discussed elsewhere in this Estimate, however, DOE and the NIC assess with only moderate confidence that the halt to those activities represents a halt to Iran's entire nuclear weapons program.)

• We assess with moderate confidence Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007, but we do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.

• We continue to assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Iran does not currently have a nuclear weapon.

• Tehran’s decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005. Our assessment that the program probably was halted primarily in response to international pressure suggests Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we judged previously.

B. We continue to assess with low confidence that Iran probably has imported at least some weapons-usable fissile material, but still judge with moderate-to-high confidence it has not obtained enough for a nuclear weapon. We cannot rule out that Iran has acquired from abroad—or will acquire in the future—a nuclear weapon or enough fissile material for a weapon. Barring such acquisitions, if Iran wants to have nuclear weapons it would need to produce sufficient amounts of fissile material indigenously—which we judge with high confidence it has not yet done.

C. We assess centrifuge enrichment is how Iran probably could first produce enough fissile material for a weapon, if it decides to do so. Iran resumed its declared centrifuge enrichment activities in January 2006, despite the continued halt in the nuclear weapons program. Iran made significant progress in 2007 installing centrifuges at Natanz, but we judge with moderate confidence it still faces significant technical problems operating them.

• We judge with moderate confidence that the earliest possible date Iran would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon is late 2009, but that this is very unlikely.

• We judge with moderate confidence Iran probably would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame. (INR judges Iran is unlikely to achieve this capability before 2013 because of foreseeable technical and programmatic problems.) All agencies recognize the possibility that this capability may not be attained until after 2015.

D. Iranian entities are continuing to develop a range of technical capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons, if a decision is made to do so. For example, Iran’s civilian uranium enrichment program is continuing. We also assess with high confidence that since fall 2003, Iran has been conducting research and development projects with commercial and conventional military applications—some of which would also be of limited use for nuclear weapons.

E. We do not have sufficient intelligence to judge confidently whether Tehran is willing to maintain the halt of its nuclear weapons program indefinitely while it weighs its options, or whether it will or already has set specific deadlines or criteria that will prompt it to restart the program.

• Our assessment that Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure indicates Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs. This, in turn, suggests that some combination of threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressures, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways, might—if perceived by Iran’s leaders as credible—prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program. It is difficult to specify what such a combination might be.

We assess with moderate confidence that convincing the Iranian leadership to forgo the eventual development of nuclear weapons will be difficult given the linkage many within the leadership probably see between nuclear weapons development and Iran’s key national security and foreign policy objectives, and given Iran’s considerable effort from at least the late 1980s to 2003 to develop such weapons. In our judgment, only an Iranian political decision to abandon a nuclear weapons objective would plausibly keep Iran from eventually producing nuclear weapons—and such a decision is inherently reversible.

F. We assess with moderate confidence that Iran probably would use covert facilities — rather than its declared nuclear sites—for the production of highly enriched uranium for a weapon. A growing amount of intelligence indicates Iran was engaged in covert uranium conversion and uranium enrichment activity, but we judge that these efforts probably were halted in response to the fall 2003 halt, and that these efforts probably had not been restarted through at least mid-2007.

G. We judge with high confidence that Iran will not be technically capable of producing and reprocessing enough plutonium for a weapon before about 2015.

H. We assess with high confidence that Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so."


The authors of the NIE believe that Iran views developing nuclear weapons to be a key national security and foreign policy objective. The Iranians might be convinced to halt the program, but given the importance of the program to Iran's national security and foreign policy, the authors of the NIE have no idea how it might actually be possible to convince Iran to stop.

The NIE states that the only way for Iran to obtain enough fissible material for nuclear weapons would be to import it - which it may already have done - or to manufacture it - which it is doing.

The authors of the NIE think that Iran may have stopped its covert weapons development, but admit that they were previously unaware of Iran's covert weapons development program. The authors of the NIE also believe that if Iran were to resume its weapons program, it would again do so covertly.

The authors of the NIE believe that Iran is not currently developing nuclear weapons, but also assert that Iran is continuing to develop delivery systems and to manufacture the fissible material needed for nuclear weapons.

The authors of the NIE also realize that Iran can manufacture nuclear weapons if it wants to, and while they aren't sure that Iran wants to, they believe that developing nuclear weapons is a key national security and foreign policy objective of Iran.

The NIE report on Iran can be read HERE.

To read the National Intelligence Estimate that, in September 1962, advised President Kennedy not to worry because it would be contrary to Soviet policy and practice to place medium or long-range missiles in Cuba, click HERE.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Saeb Erekat and the Jewish State

According to the Ha’aretz newspaper, “Saeb Erekat, chief negotiator for the Palestine Liberation Organization, rejected on Monday the [Israeli]government’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

In an interview with Israel Radio, Erekat said that ‘no state in the world connects its national identity to a religious identity.’”

Saeb Erekat is no stranger to distorting the truth to promote his cause. Like the creators of urban myths, he knows that the average person will accept a rational-sounding statement as true without checking. He knows that people are likely to accept a statement that validates what they believe should be true. And he knows that repeating a lie often enough will make it commonly accepted as truth.

And so he boldly pronounces: “no state in the world connects its national identity to a religious identity.” But Mr Erekat knows this to be absolutely false.

Article 1 of the Saudi Arabian Constitution:

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a sovereign Arab Islamic state with Islam as its religion; God's Book and the Sunnah of His Prophet, God's prayers and peace be upon him, are its constitution, Arabic is its language and Riyadh is its capital.

Aritcle 6 reads:

Citizens are to pay allegiance to the King in accordance with the holy Koran and the tradition of the Prophet, in submission and obedience, in times of ease and difficulty, fortune and adversity.

And Article 7:

Government in Saudi Arabia derives power from the Holy Koran and the Prophet's tradition.

Article Two of the Constitution of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan reads:

Islam is the religion of the State and Arabic is its official language.

And lest we think that such statements are limited only to the constitutions of totalitarian Arab dictatorships:

The Preamble to the Constitution of the Republic of Ireland reads begins:

In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred, We, the people of Eire, Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial …

Part I section 2 of the Argentinian Constitution reads:

The Federal Government supports the Roman Catholic Apostolic religion.

Section 4 of the Constitution of Denmark states:

The Evangelical Lutheran Church shall be the Established Church of Denmark, and, as such, it shall be supported by the State.

But why go on? Suffice to say that all of the following states have established religions, and connect their “national identity to a religious identity”:

Bolivia, Costa Rica, Denmark, England, Greece, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Norway, and of course, Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Brunei, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Tunisia, Yemen…

Oh, and before I forget, according to Article 4 of the Basic Law of the Palestinian National Authority, which Mr. Erekat represents:

(1) Islam is the official religion in Palestine…
(2) The principle of Islamic Shari’a shall be the main Source of legislation.

And one last note: Jews have historically been viewed, and have viewed themselves, to be a nation. It is not at all clear that when Israel is referred to as a “Jewish State” the intention is to Judaism as a religion or faith. On the contrary, it would appear that in referring to Israel as a “Jewish State” the intention is that Israel is the state of the Jewish people or the Jewish nation.

But Mr. Erekat knows that, and that is what he rejects. Mr. Erekat and Mr. Abbas want a Palestinian state for the Palestinian people and will recognize the existence of the State of Israel only as a state of its citizens. If those citizens are mostly Palestinians - as, for example, the result of their demand of the "right of return" - then Israel will be a Palestinian state. That potential for the eradication of the Jewish State is the limit of their willingness to compromise. Recognition of Israel as a Jewish State - as legitimately belonging to the Jewish people - means relinquishing the possibility of the destruction of Israel. It means giving up the struggle. That is a comporomise Mr. Erekat and Mr. Abbas will not make. The preservation of the struggle with Israel is as central to their thinking as to that of the Hamas. It is the core belief that binds all Palestinians, and it is the main obstacle to peace.

Sunday, September 23, 2007


There’s a story about a rebbe whose disciples ask him why it is that he is always perspiring after he finishes meeting with people. He responds: Whenever I meet with someone, I can’t sit and listen dressed in my clothes, because I have to see the world as he sees it. So I have to take off my clothes and put on his clothes. But then, in order to give advice, I can’t remain in his clothes. After all, he is in his clothes, which is why he can’t see the answer. In order to help, I have to look at the problem from my point of view. So I have to take off his clothes and put on my clothes. So every time I meet someone, I have to dress and undress four times. So if I sit with three people in the course of an hour, I have to dress and undress a dozen times. Now, if a person dresses and undresses a dozen times in an hour, how can he not perspire?

The story provides us with a good example of avoiding a common strategic error sometimes referred to as “cognitive egocentricism,” the assumption that the other side thinks the way I do.

In trying to understand the Middle East situation today, it is important that we try to understand not how we would perceive us if we were in their place, and not how we would act if we were in their place, but rather we have to try to understand how the other side perceives things, what the other side’s goals and interests are, and then try to predict how the other side will act based on the way it sees things.

That is what I would like to do in trying to assess the current situation in the Middle East in the light of the recent changes in the geopolitical map.

How does Israel see its situation?

In the north, Hezbollah is rearming at a fierce pace. The UN is doing nothing to carry out its mandate to guarantee that Southern Lebanon will be free of any armed personnel other than the Lebanese Army. Indeed, Hezbollah flags can be seen flying beside the UNIFIL flags. The Lebanese government is also doing little if anything to implement UN Security Council resolution 1701 in terms of the unconditional return of kidnapped Israeli soldiers, stopping the influx of arms from Syria to Hezbollah, and denying Hezbollah an armed presence in South Lebanon. So, Israel has a Syrian proxy state to north, preparing for war.

In the south, the Hamas controls Gaza and has created a radical Islamist terrorist entity with the help of Syria and Iran. The Hamas state takes its marching orders from Syria, and as much as Israel may like to believe and behave otherwise, it is increasingly clear that decisive action will have to be taken against Gaza, either in terms of a major military incursion or the imposition of economic and other sanctions in order to stop the daily firing of missiles and mortars at Israeli civilian targets.

Syria is working in cooperation with Iran in support of Hezbollah and Hamas, while building up its military arsenal, its antiaircraft emplacements and its ground-to-ground missile systems. Syria claims that it is merely putting up a defensive array, but its antiaircraft systems seem primarily intended to shield ground-to-ground missiles aimed at Israeli civilian targets. Syria has made it clear that it is prepared to go to war against Israel, and that in such a war, Hezbollah will be a strategic partner.

In the West Bank we have the remains of the Palestinian Authority. The PA showed itself to be utterly ineffective in creating any viable sort of governance in Gaza. The PA is currently in power in the West Bank to a not insignificant degree thanks to the actions of the IDF in frustrating Hamas attempts to infiltrate and take over key centers of power and influence.

Those are the facts on the ground from an Israeli perspective. Facts that translate into an existential threat from what are, in effect, three Arab states supporting, sponsoring or controlled by radical Islamic terrorist organizations, and with a Palestinian entity to the east that is hostile to Israel, but that Israel must prop up in order to prevent it from becoming part of the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas alliance.

How does America perceive the current situation?

America, led by a President with an idealistic, moral worldview, went to war with Iraq to bring down Saddam Hussein, liberate the Iraqi people from the yoke of tyranny and create a situation conducive to democracy. The war on Iraq is also perceived to be part of America’s wider struggle against the threat of Global Terrorism, which the American administration portrays in terms of a conflict with Radical Islam.

When America first got involved in this, its hoped to create a coalition of Western democracies. But even then, and more and more, as things progressed, America also had a strategic interest in bringing the Arab world into the coalition. That interest has become more and more important as America realizes that it needs an endgame strategy for getting out of Iraq.

This brings us to our first issue of misunderstanding the other side. The Iraqis don’t necessarily think like Americans. Liberating them from tyranny will not, necessarily, open the door to democracy. At least not in the short term. In order for America to pull out without making the pullout seem a failure or defeat requires a new endgame other than a democratic Iraq. Making Iraq an Arab problem, to be solved by the Arab world in its own way, is a possible way for the US to leave Iraq and make it appear that it has achieved it goals.

And so, America needs the Arabs on its side on the Iraq issue.

In the case of the War on Terror, here, too, America wants the Arabs on its side, or at the very least, it does not want the perception of the US in the Arab world to be that America is the enemy of the Arabs or of Islam or that America is at war with the Arabs or with Islam.

This need is not cosmetic or “political” in the narrow sense. It is strategic. In its propaganda, the other side – Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, radical Islamic groups, Iran, - paints a picture of America as the enemy of the Arabs and of Islam. America and the West are portrayed as the enemy of Islam.

In order for America to refute that, it must prove the opposite. It must say and show that its argument is not with the Arabs or with Moslems but with “Radical Islam.”

Now that is not an easy thing for America to sell. From an idealistic, moral point of view, the Arab world is not on America’s side. America stands for republican democracy, freedom, pluralism, equality and tolerance. The Arab states are all totalitarian dictatorships. Even the most moderate, “pro-Western” Arab leaders – like Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah – are totalitarian dictators.

And so, in this area, America cannot act entirely idealistically. It has to act in pragmatic, realistic terms. And so it has to take the view that the issue right now – realistically – is not a struggle between Democracy and Totalitarianism, but a war against Radical Islam. In that war, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia are on the “good” side. Radical Islam is a threat to them, too. And so the Middle East breaks down into Arabs and Islamists. America is not at war with the Arabs or the Moslems, but with the Islamists – the common enemy.

This pragmatic view, it is hoped, will make it possible to keep the moderate Arab states on America’s side while providing a means for withdrawing from Iraq victoriously without achieving the goal of a democratic Iraq.

So, where does this place Israel?

Of course, Israel and America share a common worldview on the most fundamental level. Israel and America share common ideals. From an idealistic, moral point of view, Israel and America are on the same side, and America cannot abandon Israel just as Israel cannot help but identify with and support America.

But, in the framework of Arabs versus Islamists, and in the framework of bringing the Arabs on board, America’s friendship with Israel represents a problem.

As far as the Arabs are concerned, Israel is at war with the Arabs. In order for America to maintain its alliance with Israel, and still bring the Arab’s onboard, it must change the Arab perception of America’s ideological alliance with Israel.

Practically speaking, that means that Israel, too, cannot be at war with Arabs or Moslems, but rather with Radical Islam. If Israel is at war only with Radical Islam, then an enemy of my enemy is my friend.

In practice, this meant – last year – that Israel had to go to war against Hezbollah not against Lebanon. War against Lebanon would be war against an Arab state. War against Hezbollah is war against a radical Islamic threat. That, of course, had pronounced effects on how Israel could conduct the war. It also affects how Israel is supposed to view the current Hezbollah build up in Lebanon, a build up that is not being hindered by the Lebanese army or by UNIFIL.

In a similar vein, once Hamas took over Gaza, Israel – from an American standpoint – must make it clear that it is not at war with Gaza, or the Palestinians, but rather with Hamas. Being at war with Hamas is okay. Hamas is part of the Moslem Brotherhood. The Moslem Brotherhood presents a threat to Egypt and other Arab states. America can be friends with a country that is fighting the Hamas or the Moslem Brotherhood without jeopardizing its standing with the Arabs.

If we look at the current situation vis-à-vis Syria, we see something similar, although a little more complex.

Syria is an Arab state. It is also a client state of Iran, a supporter of Hezbollah and of Hamas. The fact that Syria is an Arab state, and that Assad wishes to promote himself as an Arab leader, means that in terms of Arabs versus Islamists, Israel must be encouraged to negotiate with Syria, to reach an accord with Syria, and to hand the Golan over to Syria. This is important for two reasons.

1) Because it is an Arab state, America requires that Israel not to be in a hostile relationship with Syria. If Israel is in negotiations, then America’s support of Israel is tolerable. If America is also pressing Israel to give in to Syrian demands, then America can be viewed as less one-sided in the Arab view.

2) Because Syria is aligned with Radical Islam, it is important to try to sever that tie. As Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War: “The superior militarist strikes while schemes are being laid. The next best is to attack alliances.” From an American point of view, if Israel can be brought to a deal with the Syrians that will give the Syrians what they want, then it might be possible to sever the relationship between Syria and Iran.

In light of all that, it should be fairly clear why America is pushing hard for an international conference in the Middle East. Getting Israel to sit down at the table with the primary Arab states – not just with the Palestinians or the Syrians – serves the American interest. Particularly when the understanding is that Israel is coming to the table to make concessions. The conference lines up America’s Arab friends to receive gifts from Israel at America’s urging. America is no longer pro-Israel, but an honest – i.e. pro-Arab – broker, using its influence to solve the Aran-Israeli conflict with appropriate appreciation of the Arab view and interests and based upon the Arab plan.

Of course, America also thinks that, overall, this is all good for Israel. There will be peace. The conflict will be at an end. More or less. And maybe any outstanding issues or hurdles – like Hamas – can be ironed out by the Arabs. This “ironing out” will, needless to say, be a lot easier to achieve if Israel hands the West Bank over to Abu Maazen and gives him whatever he may ask in terms of other concessions like freeing prisoners, and some compromise on the “Right of Return.”

That’s the American view.

How does Israel see that American view?

From the Israeli perspective, the American distinctions are problematic. Israel necessarily sees a different reality.

Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians is not limited to the Hamas. The Hamas is not merely a terrorist organization. Hamas was elected as the government of the Palestinian Authority. Until June, it ruled in a shaky coalition with the PLO, and at that time, Israel was in a conflict with the Palestinian Authority. Since June, it is the sole ruler of Gaza. But that takeover of Gaza did not change the underlying nature of the conflict, it just made it clearer that the conflict is not with terror organizations as opposed to the Palestinians, but with the Palestinians.

To say that the issue is with the Hamas is very problematic for Israel. It means that when Hamas – the government of Gaza – holds a kidnapped Israeli as a hostage, Israel cannot act against Gaza. It must act only against the Hamas as opposed to Gaza, and it must continue to do so even when Hamas, as government of Gaza states that it is holding Gilad Schalit, that it refuses to allow the Red Cross to see him, and that it will continue to try to kidnap Israeli soldiers.

Before June, it might have been possible, although disingenuous, to say that Schalit was being held by a terrorist cell, and not by Gaza. But once the Hamas took full control and full responsibility, one can no longer say that the issue is with Hamas as opposed to Gaza. When rockets and mortars are fired daily from Gaza at Israel’s civilian population, one cannot make believe that those responsible are a group of rogues when it is the government of Gaza that takes responsibility and that declares that the attacks will continue.

Such an approach is not only ludicrous, it also makes any serious military response or economic sanctions out of the question.

If Gaza and the Hamas are viewed as one and the same, then there are a variety of options open to Israel. For example, Israel could present the Hamas government of Gaza with an ultimatum: Stop the mortars and missiles or Israel will stop supplying Gaza with gasoline, as Charles Krauthammer recently suggested. Free Gilad Schalit or Israel will institute an air, land and sea blockade. Start behaving responsibly or Israel will no longer sell electricity to Gaza.

If Gaza is at war with Israel, those responses are all legitimate. The problem is that if Gaza is not at war with Israel, if Israel maintains the fiction that only the Hamas organization as distinct from Gaza is at war with Israel, then any such otherwise legitimate actions could be deemed unlawful collective punishment of the Palestinian civilian population.

In other words, accepting the American view of the conflict means that Israel’s arsenal of responses is very, very limited.

The same is true regarding the Hezbollah. The Hezbollah is not a rogue organization in Lebanon, or a Syrian-supported foreign presence on Lebanese soil. It is an organization with representatives in the Lebanese government. It is a Syrian backed organization in a country that is a Syrian vassal state. It is a military force operating with the consent of the State.

When the Hezbollah acts against Israel, the address should Lebanon not Hezbollah. When a country tolerates hostile action from its soil against another state, it is not the individual actors alone who should be held accountable but the state. It is not Israel’s role to police Lebanon for the Lebanese, it is Lebanon’s duty to police its own state, and if it does not do so, and if it reuses to live up to its obligations under Resolution 1701, then it is Lebanon that should be held accountable.

But there, too, the Israeli perception of reality is problematic from the point of view of US policy, which requires that Israel imagine that Hezbollah is unrelated to the Lebanese government and represents a hostile threat to it. And so, a response to aggression from Lebanon cannot be met by a war against Lebanon but must be limited to actions that target Hezbollah, actions that Israel cannot now take because of its agreement to the presence of the UNIFIL force in accordance with Resolution 1701.

Clearly, from an Israeli perspective, fighting Hamas and Hezbollah in accordance with America’s distinctions is problematic, since it means doing nothing, or at least doing nothing effective.

Now let’s look at Syria. What are Israel’s interests in regard to Syria?

On the face of it, Israel wants peace and Syria wants the Golan. Easy. But why does Syria want the Golan? And what will Syria give for the Golan?

Assad is the Alawite leader of a Sunni Moslem country. He is the head of the Baath pan-Arabist party. His primary goal, as that of any totalitarian dictator, is to remain in power. Beyond that, he wants Syria to be recognized as the leader of the Arab world, and he wants control of Lebanon.

Now, how does the Golan fit into the overall picture of Assad? Getting back the Golan, first of all, represents a victory over Israel, especially if it can be achieved without any substantial concessions. That serves Assad’s desire to strengthen his position at home and in the Arab world.

What does that give Israel? It is supposed to give Israel peace. It was commonly believed that Israel really had nothing to gain from peace with Syria, since – in fact – Israel already had de facto peace with Syria. Giving up the Golan would mean relinquishing a deterrent element of strategic depth, which would give an expansionist Syrian regime an enticing military advantage.

The former situation has changed in Syria’s perception. By using the threat of the Syrian-controlled Hezbollah on the northern border, and the threat of a Syrian-controlled Hamas-Gaza in the south, Assad believes he is now in a position to say that it is to Israel’s advantage to negotiate because, while Syria was not in a good strategic position to attack Israel before, it is now. In can use its proxies to go to war against Israel even without the Golan. Now it is worthwhile for Israel to negotiate with Syria and give Syria what it wants – or else. That’s how it looks to Syria.

So let us imagine that Israel gives Assad the Golan, then what? Then the situation on the ground would look something like this from an Israeli perspective: Syrian-controlled Hezbollah to the north. Syrian-controlled Hamas in the south. Syria controlling the Golan Heights right down to the Kinneret. Syrian anti-aircraft missiles between the Golan and Damascus, and behind those missiles an array of Scud ground-to-ground missiles that can strike any part of Israel.

What would you do then if you were Assad?

Ii is hard to be sure. But from an Israeli point of view, the situation would appear to be one of existential threat. If Assad would choose to attack, the scenario might be something like this: The Hezbollah would begin firing rockets at northern Israel – like last summer – and Israel would have to dedicate a certain amount of military resources to counter that assault. The Hamas would begin an intensive offensive against Israel in the south, requiring that Israel dedicate a certain amount of military resources to counter that assault.

And then Syria could begin firing missiles at Israel and move tanks and troops down the Golan in the hope that with so much of Israel’s ground forces dedicated to fighting in Lebanon and Gaza, at the very least, Syria would be able to force Israeli to fight a war on the battleground of the Galilee, and even a brilliant military response will, nevertheless, require getting ground forces up the Golan and deep into Syrian territory in order to get at the Scuds. Not a very happy prospect for Israel, and a very alluring scenario for Syria. It’s win-win. No matter how things go, Israel will suffer tremendous military and civilian losses. It is unlikely that Israel will find itself better off after the war than before it. A UN or US sponsored ceasefire, imposed while Syrian troops remain anywhere in the Galilee or even the Golan will be viewed by Syria and the Arab and Islamic world as a military victory.

Facing that possible scenario, Israel has no interest in ceding the Golan to Syria.

As for negotiating with Abu Maazen, here too there is a question of what Israel has to gain. If Israel gives Abu Maazen everything he wants, what does it gain?

First, a deal with Abu Maazen doesn’t solve the problem of Gaza, it simply results in a PLO-led Palestinian state in the West Bank, at least at first glance. But actually, it doesn’t even give that. One of the great problems in negotiating with Abu Maazen and Co. is that they already proved in Gaza that they couldn’t deliver. One reason for that is that any concession they make with Israel on anything – even the so-called right of return – will be viewed as “collaboration” with the enemy. A second reason is that they lack the will power, desire, willingness, readiness or whatever to go to war – if necessary – with the Islamic opposition groups in order to create a state that has one government, one army, and one policy.

But let’s imagine that all of that is not true. Let’s imagine that Abu Maazen can deliver. Then what?

Then the Hamas will take over the West Bank.

The reason for that is, unfortunately, very simple, and has to do with Palestinian perceptions. Giving Abu Maazen everything he desires will create a vacuum in Palestinian identity – a Palestinian identity crisis.

What does it mean to be a Palestinian? Unfortunately, since its inception, Palestinian nationalism has been based upon the idea of a struggle with Israel. Palestinian identity is defined in terms of that struggle. In the post-Oslo period, one would have hoped that the Palestinian leadership would have applied itself to building an independent Palestinian identity. But it did the opposite. It strengthened the concept of armed struggle against Israel as the central, defining characteristic of Palestinian nationalism.

And so, if Israel gives the Palestinians what they want, there will be nothing left of Palestinian identity. And then the Hamas will step in, because the Hamas remains true to the fundamental values of what it means to be a Palestinian – armed struggle against Israel.

For those who doubt that, consider what happened to Hezbollah when Israel withdrew form Lebanon. In principle, Hezbollah should have ceased to exist. In fact, had it admitted that the goal of its struggle against Israel had been achieved, it would have had to disappear. Instead, in order to survive, it continued the struggle against Israel, since that is the core value of its existence.

And so, Israel really has little or no interest in reaching any long-term accord with the Palestinian Authority. It cannot do so until the Palestinians do the hard work of defining who they are independent of Israel. Then they can be independent without threatening Israel. Before that, independence means an increased threat to Israel, either due to an Islamic takeover, or arising from the need of the PA to maintain its armed struggle against Israel in order to prevent an armed struggle against the Islamists.

And on that note, we go to the International Conference: Israel on one side; all of the Arabs on the other. And Israel is expected to make concessions. And those concessions are supposed to be real progress towards establishing an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank.

The bottom line is that, from a purely Israeli point of view, the Middle East cannot be viewed in terms of Arabs on one side and radical Islam on the other, it cannot be viewed in terms of a confrontation with Radical Islam but not with Arabs.

For Israel, that worldview leads to incapacity and to existential threats.

What we see, then, is that Israel and the United States have very different perceptions of what’s going on, and on what has to be done in order to win the war on terrorism.

So, why is Israel’s leadership willing to view Hezbollah as separate from Lebanon? Why is Israel willing to make believe that it is at war with Hamas alone? Why is Israel willing to talk to Syria and to go to an international conference even when Israeli leaders and members of the Cabinet say that we have nothing to gain from negotiating with Syria and nothing to offer the Palestinians that will satisfy their demands?

It is not because Israel sees the geopolitical situation the same way that America does. It doesn’t.

It would be easy to say that it is because Israel has no choice but to America’s bidding, but that isn’t really true. While the pragmatic needs of America require that Israel conduct itself in accordance with the American political worldview, America is, nevertheless, ideologically motivated at a very fundamental level. At base, it is America’s ideological worldview – its desire to bring peace, stability and democracy to the Middle East that motivates its current pragmatic program in the Middle East.

But the same ideology that requires America to pursue its pragmatic program in the Mideast is also an ideology that believes in Israel as a bastion of freedom and a kindred spirit. The ideology that wants to bring democracy to the Middle East will not, or should not accept the sacrifice of Israeli existential interests to the needs of pragmatic alliances with totalitarian states.

Summary: Israel and the United States understandably assess the geopolitical situation differently. From the American point of view, the Middle East breaks down into Arabs and Islamists, and since the immediate threat is from the Islamists, it is important to align the Arabs with the US. This alignment will neutralize opposition, weaken the Islamists and therefore contribute to success.

Israel cannot make the same distinction. For Israel, there is an Islamist threat and an Arab threat and the two are intertwined in a way that means that appeasing the Arab threat is very dangerous. Appeasing the Arabs hampers Israel’s ability to confront the Islamist threat, and it may even increase that threat. At most, appeasing the Arabs may neutralize or lessen Arab hostility from Arab countries that do not currently pose a direct threat – like Saudi Arabia and Jordan – while at the same time it will increase the danger of war with those Arab states that do pose a threat, like Syria.

The result is that within the same theatre we have two completely different shows, and both share the same actors.

America feels that Israel must accommodate its agenda, and that without Israeli cooperation, America will not have the credibility it needs in the Arab world. But Israel cannot cooperate fully without taking existential risks. This means that ultimately, at some point, the two countries will not be able to cooperate in a crisis.

If that inevitable crisis is to be avoided, America will have to reconsider whether its current view of the Middle East is one that best serves its interests.

Is the US correct in its working assumption that pressuring Israel will actually align the Arab states with America’s program?

If Israel continues to play ball with America’s strategy, Israel ability to defend itself may be seriously undermined. Once Israel is seriously weakened, or once it has nothing more to sacrifice or relinquish to the Arabs, will the Arabs have any reason to continue to side with America? If not, what will America’s strategic position be when faced with a weakened Israeli ally and Arab states that no longer have anything to gain from an alliance with the US?

Some people might argue that in the face of the threat that radical Islam presents to countries like Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the Arabs will have no choice but to remain aligned with the US in any case. But if that is true – and I think it is – then why bother pressuring Israel when, ultimately, that pressure will weaken Israel for a short-term gain of little real importance?

But beyond that, there is a moral aspect: Does it really serve America’s interests to align itself with countries that reject its fundamental values? Can the United States fight what is at root a war against one destructive ideology by aligning itself with allies that hold an ideological position that is inimical to what America stands for?

Can you ignore your principles in order to achieve your ideological purpose? That is a question that Israel and the IDF grapple with every day. Maybe it is about time that America and Americans begin to ask themselves that question, too.

I think the answer is that America has to rethink its strategy, and forcefully support Israel not because it’s good for Israel, but because it is essential for America if America is going to remain true to itself. Ultimately, the US will have to find a way to bridge the gap between what it believes and what it does.

The above is a summary of a geopolitical analysis delivered by Avinoam Sharon while a scholar-in-residence in the United States in September 2007.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Confidence Games

Israel's decision to release 250 Fatah prisoners as a confidence building measure demonstrates that Ehud Olmert's government lacks not only a vision for the future, but also a firm grasp of the present.

Faced with a changing reality, Mr. Olmert has chosen to continue to deal with the Palestinians by employing methods that have proven futile in the past. What makes this strategy particularly dangerous is that it reflects Olmert's incapacity to recognize the significance of regional changes, and his inability to initiate the kind of policy that is required to confront the challenges that face Israel and the West in combating terrorism.

The release of Palestinian prisoners as a confidence building measure predates the Palestinian Authority and the Oslo peace process. Its logic often goes unquestioned, and its true effects are rarely acknowledged. But it is no secret that immediately prior to such releases, judges clear their dockets, as defendants plead guilty in the midst of their trials so that their names can be added to the lists of candidates for release. More than one accused terrorist has told a prosecuting attorney that he is foregoing a trial because he knows that his name will be on the next list, or that he doesn't care what his sentence may be, since he knows he will not serve it out.

The confidence that is built by prisoner releases is that of the perpetrators of terrorism. They are confident in their belief that they will not be held fully accountable for their crimes.

The logic of deterrence argues that releasing imprisoned terrorists is counterproductive. It returns terrorists to the ranks of their organizations and makes recruitment of new operatives easier. If it increases confidence in the Palestinian leadership, it is only the confidence that it can continue the struggle against Israel. It does not give the Palestinian leadership the confidence to make the political choices and concessions that would lead to a negotiated settlement and an independent Palestinian state living peacefully side-by-side with Israel.

The confidence of terrorists in their early release is, of course, bolstered by the knowledge that Israel will negotiate a "prisoner exchange" to release captured Israeli soldiers. This has led both Hezbollah and Hamas to declare kidnapping of Israeli soldiers to be an integral part of their strategy. That such declarations have not stopped Israel from negotiating with the kidnappers is itself surprising. More surprising is that even after the Second Lebanon War, the Hamas overthrow of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza, and Iran's unrelenting quest for nuclear weapons, Israeli and Western leaders continue to believe that "confidence building measures," releasing terrorists, territorial compromise, troop withdrawals and other "incentives" will purchase peace.

In negotiating with totalitarian regimes and in seeking to combat terrorism, Israel and the West need not prove that they are trustworthy or well meaning. Nor must they build up the self-image of those who rule by personality cult or who believe that God has appointed them or commanded them to pursue holy war. On the contrary, as a precondition to any concessions, it is the terrorist and totalitarian regimes that should be expected to show that they are reliable, that they have abandoned murder as a political strategy, and that they intend to join the family of nations and abide by the norms of the international community.

The case of Gilad Shalit is telling in this regard.

A year ago, Shalit was kidnapped by the Hamas. The reigning logic was that, ultimately, the only way to achieve Shalit's release would be to pay the kidnappers' ransom demands. But despite the best efforts of Israeli, Arab and European mediators and negotiators, Shalit was not released. Since then, the Hamas has usurped power. Shalit is no longer being held captive by a renegade group of gunmen but rather by the self-declared government of Gaza. In continuing to hold Shalit hostage, that government is in violation of international law, and every day that passes without Shalit's unconditional release represents a continued refusal to comply.

If the Hamas government of Gaza wishes to receive humanitarian aid, if it wishes to conduct negotiations, if it wishes to be acknowledged for any purpose by the community of nations, one would think that, first and foremost, Israel and the West would require that it minimally comply with the law of nations. The logic of the new political reality in Gaza would argue that it is Hamas that must pay the price of Shalit's kidnapping and its violation of international law. In continuing to negotiate for Shalit's release, while supplying Gaza with electricity, water, medical supplies and food, the Olmert government daily demonstrates that it has yet to realize that things have changed. Confidence building is required. And it is required of the Hamas.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Olmert and his government seem not to have considered that, having fully withdrawn from Lebanon, Israel can now expect Lebanon to make confidence-building gestures to show that the Lebanese government is in charge and can be trusted, and to allay Israel's fears that Hezbollah may again seize control of southern Lebanon and resume its rocket attacks on Israeli cities. Israel can reasonably expect that, in accordance with the Security Council's resolution, Lebanon will release Israeli soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, who were kidnapped by Hezbollah. In the current situation, it is the Lebanese government that should be negotiating with Hassan Nassralah's parliamentary representatives for the release of Israeli hostages. Israel should not be considering paying ransom to release its soldiers from the clutches of an independent member state of the United Nations that refuses to comply with international law. If Lebanon wishes to be taken seriously, it should be making confidence-building gestures towards Israel and toward the Western countries that it has turned to for aid.

It can also safely be assumed that the Olmert government will never realize that the response to the threats of an increasingly bellicose Syria should not be a repeated expression of readiness to relinquish the Golan Heights as the preordained price that Israel must pay for peace. Rather, Syria's threats should be met with a response that that if Syria wishes to negotiate a settlement with Israel, it must show that its intentions are peaceful. It is Assad who must consider what price he will pay for peace. In the changing reality of the Middle East, offering Israel sovereignty over part or the Golan Heights might be a good start as a confidence building measure on the part of a state that is a client of the Iranian regime that has sworn itself to Israel's destruction.

The daily incendiary pronouncements of the Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran make it clear that if there is any need to calm the fears of the other side, and to convince the world of the possibility of reaching peaceful, negotiated accords in the Middle East, it is not Israel and the West that need to make confidence-building gestures.

Saturday, March 3, 2007


In his classic Dictionary of the English Language, Dr. Samuel Johnson wrote that “pension” was “generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country.” This is just one instance of the many famous examples in which Johnson’s personal prejudices got the better of his professional detachment.

Nowadays, we expect more objectivity in our reference books. We would be more than a little surprised if a dictionary or encyclopaedia editor would allow defining “excise” as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid.” Although we might agree with Dr. Johnson’s opinion, it is hardly the kind of information we seek from a dictionary or an encyclopaedia.

Of course, no reference work can be absolutely objective. The beliefs, understanding and worldview of the authors and editors will always be reflected to some extent, even in the best works. The Hebrew Encyclopaedia Ha-Ivrit provides a telling example. The entry on “Religious Humanism” defines the concept as self-contradictory, and rejects the very possibility of Jewish Humanism. According to the Encyclopaedia Ha-Ivrit, religious humanism is an atheistic form of idolatrous worship of the self. Although Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Eliezer Schweid would no doubt disagree, the article reflects the idiosyncratic views of its author, the late Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who as one of the encyclopaedia’s editors, seems to have allowed himself Johnsonian license.

It is this fear of radical subjectivity that leads some of us to be particularly suspicious of a source like Wikipedia. After all, anyone can write an article for Wikipedia, and anyone can edit existing articles. Some might expect that anarchic approach to result in a nightmare, but surprisingly, it has not..

Yet, even if Wikipedia is the product of collective authorship that does not reflect an editorial perspective, it nevertheless inevitably reflects the society that produces it. For example, the Hebrew version of Wikipedia is quintessentially Israeli. There are articles on the weekly Torah portion, Jewish law, the Knesset and its various committees, “Kalanterism” (the Israeli term for crossing party lines), the Shas party, Peace Now, the Yesha Council, Mizrachi, National Service, Black Hebrews, Land Day, the so-called “Bouzaglo test”, Jewish holidays, and Israeli cities, towns and settlements.

Tellingly, while there is a balanced, factual article on the late Rabbi Eliezer Schach’s infamous “Rabbits and Pigs Speech,” there is no entry for “pig”. There is also no entry for “shrimp,” which is, however, discussed in the article on seafood, where we are informed that shrimp and the like are not kosher and not common on Israeli tables. Although we think of Israel as a modern, western democracy, it is interesting to note that the Hebrew Wikipedia has merely brief “stubs” on pluralism, and cultural pluralism. That’s all, and that says a lot.

Napoleon’s declaration about the Jews of 1799, Sarah Aaronson’s last letter, the Balfour Declaration, the Torah, and the Laws of the State of Israel can all be found in the Hebrew Wikipedia, along with the text of Hatikva, and the original poem Tikvateinu. Surprisingly, there are detailed articles on baseball and American football, but the only thing you’ll find on lacrosse is an article on the Buick LaCrosse. Hebrew Wikipedia is still in its infancy. But reading its articles, and taking note of what its contributors have written and what they have not written can provide some interesting insights into Hebrew-speaking society.

And then there’s Yiddish Wikipedia. This is not a joke. is really out there, in more ways than one.

One might venture a guess that, as in the case of other boutique languages, the Yiddish Wikipedia represents a fairly small, and relatively homogenous society. One might also imagine that the primary surviving group of native speakers of Yiddish - Hyper-Orthodox Jews – would not have Internet access, let alone the inclination to devote time to contribute articles to an online encyclopedia. Yet, reading the articles would seem to contradict those a priori assumptions.

First, there is no mention of Conservative Judaism, and the article on Reform Judaism informs us that Reform Jews “behave half as Jews and half as gentiles, which is why assimilation is very high among them.” The definition of Lithuanian Jews (“Litvaks”) is no less quirky. Litvaks, we are told, are very religious. They follow the teachings of Vilna Gaon, and believe that Torah study is the main reason for living. However, the Litvaks do not speak Yiddish, they trim their beards, and wear their payis behind their ears. (This is a recent correction. The article used to say that Litvaks hid their payis behind their ears).

There is an entry for Coca Cola, which provides us with the important information that in Israel it is certified kosher by Rabbi Landau of Bnei Brak. This tendency to provide “useful” information is also evidenced in other articles. Thus, for example, we are told that one twists one’s payis to calm one’s nerves.

The article on Herzl begins by informing us that he was an assimilated Jew. The article on Ariel Sharon makes a hash of his military career and of history, making him an Israeli army general in 1945, at the age of seventeen, and three years before the establishment of the State of Israel. The sale of The New Republic was described as a sale of Martin Peretz's shares to a "Zionist goyish publisher, the Canadian CanWest company." Needless to say, the article on the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Mehachem Mendel Schneerson, does not mention that he may have died.

The above articles, and the fact that there are articles on virtually every Hassidic dynasty and rebbe, but only a few on the heads of the “Lithuanian” yeshivas, leads one to suspect that while the Litvaks are busy studying Torah, the Hassidim have discovered a way to give new meaning to avodah be-gashmiyut – worshiping God through the material world .

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Peace for our time or The year is not 1938, Iran is not Nazi Germany

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has brought us comforting news: The year is not 1938. Iran is not Nazi Germany.

Rice favours diplomacy in dealing with Iran: "The United States is on a diplomatic path and we believe in this diplomatic path."

In his infamous speech before the House of Commons on September 27, 1938, Neville Chamberlain said:
However much we may sympathize with a small nation confronted by a big and powerful neighbor, we cannot in all circumstances undertake to involve the whole British Empire in war simply on her account. If we have to fight it must be on larger issues than that. I am myself a man of peace to the depths of my soul. Armed conflict between nations is a nightmare to me; but if I were convinced that any nation had made up its mind to dominate the world by fear of its force, I should feel that it must be resisted. Under such a domination life for people who believe in liberty would not be worth living; but war is a fearful thing, and we must be very clear, before we embark upon it, that it is really the great issues that are at stake, and that the call to risk everything in their defense, when all the consequences are weighed, is

For the present I ask you to await as calmly as you can the events of the next few days. As long as war has not begun, there is always hope that it may be prevented, and you know that I am going to work for peace to the last moment.

And so that champion of appeasment continued to negotiate peace at the expense of Czechoslovakia, and ultimately, at the expense of the world.

Asked for her response to the analogy between the appeasement of Nazi Germany in 1938 and the international community's current approach to Iran, Rice responded: "I am fond of historical analogies, but not that fond."

I, too, am fond of analogies, but not so fond as to make a false analogy between Condoleezza Rice and Neville Chamberlain. After all, Chamberlain followed his policy of appeasement in the belief that Hitler was a rational actor, and with a predisposition to believe that Germany had reasonable grievances stemming from the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles. He also had to balance his fear of the seemingly modest expansionist appetite of Nazi Germany with the existential danger posed by what he no doubt perceived as the insatiable hunger of Joseph Stalin's Communist regime for world domination.

Rice faces no such quandaries. Ahmadinejad is not a rational actor. His willingness to sacrifice millions of his own people in pursuance of his mystical faith in a divine mission to bring about the return of the Mahdi cannot be confused with a hardline realpolitik. Powerful, oil rich Iran has no grievances that might excuse a feeling of humilation. If it harbours territorial claims, they are those dictated by the apocalyptic quest of radical Islam. Since it is radical Islam itself that is currently the primary threat to world peace, Rice faces no rock-and-a-hard-place dilemma of navigating a course between two evils.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid?

Once, Zionism was labelled racism. Now it is called apartheid.

Former President Jimmy Carter picked up on a winning slogan, and wrote a book called “Palestine: Peace not Apartheid,” and the debate began. The questions addressed both the form and the content. Is Carter’s portrayal of the conflict accurate? Is it balanced? Is he a puppet of Arab oil money or an honest broker dedicated to seeking a just solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict? Is the name of the book an antisemitic slur, or merely a cunning marketing strategy?

While the debate on the book’s claims rages on, the issue of the title has quickly been settled. Carter has explained that the title does not refer to the situation within the State of Israel, but merely reflects Israel’s conduct toward the Palestinians as the occupier of the West Bank.

The justification for that portrayal of Israeli conduct can, no doubt, be found in the book. Buy it and see. Read it and you will understand.

I will not buy it, and I have no intention of reading it. For me, the title is more than enough.

The title makes an accusation of apartheid. Apartheid describes the legal order of racial segregation established by the government of South Africa in 1948. That system of separation and oppression provided the impetus for the drafting of the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. The Convention was adopted and opened for signature by the UN General Assembly on November 30, 1973.

The Convention was a Soviet initiative, and the United States, Canada, and the other Western democracies refused to ratify it. But the Third World embraced it, and several Arab states saw it as a vehicle to delegitimize Israel. Thus Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Egypt (which later retracted is reservation), Iraq, and Bahrain ratified the Convention with the reservation that their accession to the Convention did not imply their recognition of the State of Israel. And so, already in 1975, with the accession of Iraq, the Convention was cynically exploited to create a linkage between Israel and the “crime of apartheid.” This should not have been entirely surprising. After all, the Soviet ambassador to the UN had already accused Israel of a “racist policy of apartheid” as early as 1971.

Nevertheless, the above might have remained merely an historical footnote to the background of the political abuse of the term “apartheid” in Arab anti-Israel rhetoric, were it not for a later development in international law. In 1998, “the crime of apartheid” was defined as a crime against humanity under Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Now, when the term “apartheid” is employed, the above must be borne in mind. Saying that Israel is pursuing a policy that constitutes, or that is similar to, or reminiscent of apartheid is no longer merely political hyperbole or hijacked rhetoric, it is an allegation of the commission of crimes against humanity. The seeds of vilification planted in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War have born poisonous fruit. With the publication of Carter’s book, the often-repeated lie has begun to sound like the truth.

I would never claim that all that Israel does is wise, justified, or even legal. Nor would I claim that there are no instances of discrimination, abuse, stupidity, or cruelty. Mistakes are made, and Palestinian suffering is real, and it is painful even when the cause is justified, and all the more so when it is gratuitous.

We all make mistakes, and some of them are very grave.

Consider Abu Ghraib. Weigh whether or not the US government’s policy in regard to detainees in Guantanamo reflects those noble values that America's enemies seek to undermine and that American soldiers fight and die to defend.

Think about “extraordinary rendition” of terror suspects to places where they can be tortured, and reflect upon the justifications proffered for permitting torture of terror suspects.

Remember that until well into the 20th century, racial segregation was the law of many American states. And do not forget that, if you are over thirty, then eugenic sterilizations were carried out in the United States in your own lifetime.

And yet, despite its many flaws, the United States was and remains the greatest democracy on earth. We do not look at the above list and compare the United States to Nazi Germany. We do not accuse the great Oliver Wendel Holmes Jr. of Nazi-like support of Nuremberg-style legislation, even if in justifying eugenics he delivered the opinion of the Court that “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind...Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” (Buck v. Bell, 274 US 200 (1927).

We do not compare Franklin Roosevelt to Hermann Goring for signing the Executive Order that led to the internment of 117,000 Japanese-Americans in concentration camps, nor do we accuse Earl Warren of being like Himmler for instigating that Order.

We do not make such accusations because they are perverse, and the equivalences they imply are manifestly untrue. We are careful not to bandy about the term “Nazi” not only because we fear devaluing the term, but because we recognize the enormity of the accusation.

Yet we are expected to tolerate such lack of restraint when it comes to using the harshest terms of opprobrium for Israel. We are asked to entertain the mitigating explanation that in the title of his book, Carter does not accuse Israel of enforcing a racist policy against its own Arab citizens; it merely accuses Israel of pursuing a policy of apartheid in the West Bank.

Of course, what that means is that Mr. Carter is not merely criticizing what he sees as the injustice of Israeli security policy, or questioning its justice. He is accusing Israel of committing crimes against humanity against the Palestinians. That is not a charge that is any way mitigated by saying that the crimes are committed only in the West Bank, particularly if you are one of those potentially accused. After all, in a country like Israel, with a compulsory military draft, the list of those potentially accused comprises almost anyone.

The list of criminals extends to such people as cabinet minister Shaul Mofaz and former prime minister Ehud Barak who served as commanders of Judea and Samaria, Labor Knesset member Ephraim Sneh, who served as the head of the Civil Administration, and even former General Security Services head Ami Ayalon, who has been trying to float a private peace initiative with Dr. Sari Nusseibah.

Those who understand how military policy is approved, and who realize that most if not all of the various actions and policies that are labelled “apartheid” have been challenged before the Israeli Supreme Court, must also conclude that Mr. Carter’s list of war criminals and perpetrators of crimes against humanity also includes every Israeli prime minister and defence minister, and all the justices who have served on the Supreme Court over the last 40 years.

Apartheid? Only in the West Bank? Please excuse me if I feel that I needn't go any further than the dust jacket in order to accuse Jimmy Carter of blatant antisemitism.

That may seem going too far. After all, Mr. Carter is a former US president and a man widely respected. But in this regard we might note that - as reported in the US Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2005 - a report on antisemitism commissioned by the government of France recommended that publicly equating Israeli policies with apartheid or Nazism be made a criminal offence
. Why? The French report stated, among other things:
The accusations of racism, of apartheid, of Nazism carry extremely grave moral implications. These accusations have, in the situation in which we find ourselves today, major consequences which can, by contagion, put in danger the lives of our Jewish citizens. (For the original French report, see: Jean-Christoph Rufin, Chantier Sur La Lutte Contre Le Racism Et L’Antisemitism, (Ministere De L’Interieur, De La Securite Interieure Et Des Libertes Locales (2004)), p. 30)
So, will I read Carter’s book? I realize that as a potentially accused war criminal, I may be biased. But when the title of a book puts people like Shimon Peres in a class with Slobodan Milosovic and Reinhard Heydrich, I don't feel much need to read the details.

Avinoam Sharon

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Conservative Survey: Divided Unity

Few were surprised when the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) adopted a liberal paper permitting the ordination of rabbis leading an openly homosexual lifestyle. Even if some eyebrows were raised, it was not a total surprise that the CJLS also approved the performance of same-sex commitment ceremonies. What may have been unexpected was that this so-called “inclusive” approach was adopted by a majority vote. Still more surprising – and more problematic – was the fact that a diametrically opposed paper, which forbade both ordination and commitment ceremonies, was approved by an equal majority vote.

Immediately following this majority approval of contradictory positions, four members of the CJLS resigned in the belief that the liberal view could not be deemed a legitimate statement of halakha. It would not be unreasonable to understand these resignations as possible harbingers of the divisive potential of implementing the inclusive position in the Conservative Movement.

Against this background, it is understandable that the Jewish Theological Seminary, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly commissioned Professor Steven M. Cohen to conduct a
survey on the issue of homosexual ordination.

The results of that survey were reported with some fanfare last week. The press release stressed that the survey showed overwhelming support for gay and lesbian ordination among Conservative clergy and laity, while reaffirming the Movement’s commitment to halakha. According to Professor Cohen, the consensus reflected in the survey’s results spoke to “the underlying unity and distinctiveness of the Conservative Movement.”

Almost concurrent with the celebration of the happy results of the survey came the announcement of the appointment of Rabbi Daniel Nevins as the new dean of the rabbinical school of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Although the concurrence of the two announcements was, no doubt, entirely a matter of chance, the fact that Rabbi Nevins was one of the authors of the inclusive paper on homosexuality may seem to some the ultimate validation of the liberal view.

But careful examination of the study’s results leads one to suspect that that the announcements studiously downplayed or even omitted what may be the most salient and troubling findings of Professor Cohen’s survey.

First, it seems that the majority of Conservative clergy who view themselves as ideologically conservative are opposed to the ordination of homosexuals.

Moreover, thirty-five percent of the Conservative Movement’s clerical leaders are of the opinion that “the legal reasoning in the permissive paper that was approved by the CJLS was outside the pale of acceptability of halakhic reasoning.” In other words, over a third of the Conservative clergy agrees with the position that prompted four rabbis to resign from the CJLS.

If that were not enough, the survey also shows that “about half the rabbis, cantors and JTS students have some doubts as to whether the liberalizing stance is compatible with Jewish law.” That statement may reflect a fundamental schism within the Conservative Movement that cannot be glossed over by assertions about underlying unity, nor even by more nuanced attempts to explain that some rabbis prefer an aggadic approach to halakha rather than one of legal positivism.

The reason for suspecting such a rift is that while about half of the clergy believe or suspect that homosexual ordination is incompatible with halakha, nevertheless two-thirds of the Conservative clergy support such ordination. This presumably means that a significant number of Conservative clergy supports an approach that it feels unable to justify in its own conception of Jewish law. Rather, the members of this group ostensibly believe that their personal views of justice and morality overrule even their own understanding of what is halakhically acceptable.

What that says is that regardless of whether one believes that the Jewish theological dialectic yields halakha as the practical realization of aggada, or views aggada as the handmaiden of the halakha, about half of the Conservative clergy is of the opinion that the ordination of homosexuals cannot be justified without leaving what it perceives as the bounds of it own theology of tradition and change. A significant number seem willing to do just that.

Seen in this light, the results of the survey appear less indicative of unanimity and distinctiveness than of what may be a deeply seated theological division in the Conservative Movement.
Avinoam Sharon