Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Needed: An Honest Broker

Despite enormous concessions by Israel, bordering on the unbelievable, agreement on ending the Palestinian Arab-Israeli portion of the more general Arab-Israeli conflict (of which it is both a part and a consequence) is further away than ever before. Among the reasons: the Palestinian Arabs still refuse to make any real compromises and Palestinian Arab society has been increasingly radicalized since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority.

While the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the leadership of the Palestinian Arabs, starting with Yasser Arafat and now resting with the so-called "moderate" Mahmoud Abbas, the role of the United States has not been helpful. While the U.S. has tried to play the role of an "honest broker" and anti-Israel activists frequently argue that the American government cannot be an honest broker because it is too close to Israel, the reality is that successive American administrations have put virtually no pressure on the Arabs to compromise while constantly pressuring Israel to make unreasonable concessions and "good-will gestures."

These actions by the United States only reinforce the intransigence of the Arabs and their refusal to make peace with Israel, regardless of the terms. This, of course, is the heart of the conflict and the reason it continues.

The United States has also repeatedly backtracked on commitments to Israel, including commitments made in order to get Israel to make one-sided, unreciprocated concessions to the Palestinian Arabs. Recall, for example, the way the Obama administration pressured Israel into a ten-month construction freeze with assurances it would be reciprocated by good-will gestures by the Palestinian Arabs along with various Arab states. No such gestures were ever made, but the United States continues to pressure Israel to strangle the Jewish communities in the disputed territories and even in Jerusalem.

These mistakes have been made both by presidents who were friendly to Israel, such as Reagan, Clinton and the younger Bush, and presidents who were/are not very friendly to Israel, such as Carter, the elder Bush and Obama.

It's instructive to look back at some of the "highlights" since the start of the failed Oslo process.

The start of the Oslo process was a time of hope, but it was unintentionally subverted at the very beginning by President Clinton and then fatally damaged by the aftermath of Camp David.

To put things in context: In the beginning, the United States supported United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. In reality, it no longer acts in support of those resolutions. The United States joined Israel in opposing the establishment of another Palestinian Arab state in the disputed territories. It supported the continued free access to united Jerusalem. (This is still the official policy of the United States, enshrined in the law calling for the relocation of the American embassy to Israel's capital, but the administration today acts contrary to that law.)

The original understandings between Israel and the PLO called for the PLO to amend its charter, removing the portions calling for the destruction of Israel, before any documents were actually signed. President Clinton, in his eagerness to get the process going, pressured Israel to participate in the famous signing ceremony on the White House lawn before the PLC charter was amended, with assurances the charter would be amended shortly thereafter.

Two decades later, the charter has yet to be amended.

This has set the pattern. America pressures Israel to make concessions and gestures, with assurances that they will be reciprocated by the Palestinian Arabs. It shouldn't be surprising that the Arabs have always tried to weasel out of their commitments.  With America generally looking the other way, unfortunately they generally have reneged.

At the famous Camp David talks in 2000, the ground rules included the provision that nothing was agreed upon until everything was agreed upon.

In the context of that provision and in the hope of inducing the Palestinian Arabs to finally make peace, Israel proposed making enormous, indeed unprecedented and bizarre concessions, crossing numerous red lines. It considered a division of Jerusalem; it considered giving the Palestinian Arabs sovereignty over Judaism's holiest site, the Temple Mount; it considered giving the Palestinian Arabs roughly 95 percent of the disputed territory; it considered forcibly removing all Jews from the areas to be given to the Arabs . It even considered the absurd proposition of "swapping" some land within Israel proper in exchange for keeping some of the disputed territory - as if the disputed territory was the property of the Palestinian Arabs.

Arafat, of course, rejected peace and launched his so-called "Al Aksa intifada," murdering thousands of innocent Israeli civilians in bus bombings and other suicide attacks.

However, despite the American guidelines that nothing was agreed upon unless everything was agreed upon, since then the United States has used all the proposed Israeli concessions as a baseline, effectively rewarding the Palestinian Arabs for their refusal to make peace. This has poisoned the "peace process" ever since.

At that time, the United States still officially opposed the establishment of another Palestinian Arab state. That changed in 2002, when in the midst of the Arabs' brutal terror offensive, President Bush announced his support of "two states for two peoples." (This, of course, really meant three states for two peoples, since the Palestinian Arabs already had a state in Jordan, comprising nearly four-fifths of mandatory Palestine.) The real strategic mistake here was this action amounted to an enormous reward for terrorism. Especially so soon after 9/11, it sent precisely the wrong message to terrorists around the world: it demonstrated, loudly and clearly, that terrorism pays!

This flawed policy change was tied in with another, the famous "Road Map for Peace," which was officially launched in conjunction with the "Quartet" in 2003.

This document was deeply flawed. Typically, it called for additional, unfair concessions by Israel, such as a freeze of construction in "settlements" - even in areas everyone knows will be retained by Israel under any conceivable agreement (if one considers the Palestinian Arabs ever agreeing to peace as conceivable) - and allowing the opening of illegal Palestinian Authority offices in Jerusalem, while not calling on the Palestinian Arabs to do anything they had not already agreed to several times over, such as abandoning incitement and terror.

The Road Map did have one saving grace. For the first time, the United States put forth a policy which was step-by-step, where the process would not proceed to the next step until both sides - not just Israel - had adhered to its commitments of the previous step.

Unfortunately, but typically, when the Palestinian Arabs completely ignored their commitments in the very first phase - primarily the ending of incitement and terrorism - the Bush administration rewarded them in 2007 by jumping right past the first two phases and organizing the Annapolis conference to jump start final status negotiations.

In the meantime, in 2005 the Israeli government under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had decided to completely leave Gaza. It even evacuated Jewish communities which were adjacent to Israel proper and which were on land which had been owned by Jews at the time of the War of Independence, when Gaza was occupied by Egypt and the Jews thrown out of their homes.

In the context of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, President Bush wrote a letter to Prime Minister Sharon acknowledging something obvious, that negotiations over any border between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs would have to recognize demographic realities, particularly the existence of significant, primarily Jewish cities in areas beyond the temporary armistice lines in effect between 1948 and 1967.

It was also supposedly understood by all that once Israel completely left Gaza there was not even a scintilla of justification for any attacks on Israelis from Gaza and that Israel would not be inhibited in defending its people from terror attacks launched from Gaza.

The Bush letter and the understandings made the withdrawal from Gaza and the ethnic cleansing of the Jewish communities there less unpalatable.

Unfortunately, the terror attacks from Gaza not only didn't cease when Gaza was free of any Israeli control, but they increased. And whenever Israel did anything to defend its civilian population, the world condemned Israel and even the United States invariably called on Israel to act with "restraint."

The coup de grace came when President Obama entered the White House and declared the United States would not be bound by the Bush letter of understanding!

But President Obama didn't stop there. He also figuratively tore up the armistice agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors along with Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 when he called for borders between Israel and a future Palestinian Arab state to be based on the temporary armistice lines with agreed upon "land swaps."

The armistice agreements specified the armistice lines were not to have any political significance; in other words, they were specifically not to be used as a basis for negotiating permanent borders. Thus President Obama was declaring his support of violating those agreements.

The Security Council resolutions called for withdrawals from land captured by Israel in 1967 and the negotiation of secure and recognized borders. The armistice lines, described as "Auschwitz borders" by the dovish Abba Eban, obviously could never be the basis for secure borders. Hence, in calling for borders based on the armistice lines, President Obama is also calling for the violation of Security Council resolutions 242 and 338.

These actions by successive American presidents have a negative impact well beyond the Arab-Israeli conflict. Indeed, they probably harm the United States, the Western world and even the Palestinian Arabs more than they harm Israel.

Although they have made Arab-Israeli peace even less likely and pushed it further into the future, Israel has learned to cope with a lack of its most fervent wish. It has shown the ability to defend itself against each new wave of Arab terror and still thrive.

The rest of the world is not so fortunate.

American policy has sent out the message that terror and intransigence work. It has changed from opposing another, separate Palestinian Arab state to strongly supporting it, while ignoring the desire for independence of numerous other national groups, groups which have not repeatedly turned down the opportunity for independence and have not resorted to terrorism the way the Palestinian Arabs have.

American policy changes have also sent the message that America's word is not its bond, that America can no longer be trusted. Unless this message is reversed, this has the potential for catastrophic consequences in the future.

These policies of appeasing Arab terror and intransigence have perhaps hurt the Palestinian Arabs most of all. They have made it easier for the Palestinian Arabs to continue their fruitless, genocidal quest to destroy Israel rather than, however reluctantly, choosing peace and enabling their children to live normal lives rather than being indoctrinated in the glorification of suicide bombing and martyrdom.

What Should the American Administration Do?

In general, it? needs to start applying most of its pressure to the intransigent party, the Palestinian Arabs. The Israelis have several times offered the Arabs far more than any reasonable settlement calls for. Rather than reacting to Arab rejection by pressuring Israel to make more concessions, the American government should make it clear that the previous offers are off the table and the longer the Arabs reject peace the less support they'll get.

Rather than pressuring Israel to not build, even in communities which everyone knows will remain with Israel, the American government should be encouraging Israeli construction and telling Mahmoud Abbas that he's wasting time and his future state is shrinking.

The American administration should make it clear "land swaps" are off the table and the side need to come up with a reasonable partition of the disputed territory.

President Obama should repeat what he said the night he clinched the Democratic nomination for president, that Jerusalem must remain the united capital of Israel and he should finally implement the long-stalled Embassy Relocation Act and start building America's embassy to Israel in that nation's capital.

The American mediation role reminds one of Zeno’s Paradox. In Zeno’s Paradox, one argues it is impossible for anyone to leave a room, since before one leaves the room one first must get halfway to the door. But after one gets halfway to the door, one must still first get half of the remaining distance to the door, and so on. The, obviously faulty conclusion, is that one can never get all the way to the door.

America always seems to look at the positions of the Palestinian Arabs and the Israelis and urges the parties to meet halfway. The Israelis try to meet halfway, but the Arabs never budge. By now, the Israelis have moved almost all the way to where the Palestinian Arabs started, but rather than moving towards the Israelis the Palestinian Arabs, if anything, have moved backwards.

In general, rather than reacting to Arab intransigence by trying to appease it, America should start over and begin paying attention to what would be a fair solution. It needs to be an honest broker and encourage peacemaking rather than peace-blocking.

Sunday, December 8, 2013


By Ervin Birnbaum
The Chanukka story contains a significant completely overlooked  angle -- namely its crucial relevance to our very own days. In historic perspective we see two "rights" emerging from Chanukka, that become involved in a titanic struggle with each other. In order to appreciate what the two "rights" are, we need to briefly begin the story several decades prior to the Maccabean uprising.
For clarity's sake we go back to the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, signaling the collapse of the huge empire. Two of his generals divided the spoils between them. Ptolemy took the posessions south of Israel, focused on Egypt. Seleucus posessed the territory north of Israel, from Syria to the borders of India. As was so common throughout history, the Land of Israel became the battleground between these two powers. By 200 BCE  the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus III, also called the Great, wrested the Land of Israel for good from the Ptolemais in the Battle of Banyas. To the Jews in Israel, settled mainly around Jerusalem, it was of little consequence who was the overlord of the Land. Both empires were deeply Hellenized, under the impact of Greek civilization. Both were at peace with Judea, respecting the difference of its traditions and way of life. Josephus portrays Antiochus as friendly to the Jews, lowering their taxes, and letting them live "according to the law of their forefathers", and even resettling 2,000 Jewish families from Babylon in Judea.
Not long thereafter Antiochus the Great became involved in a conflict with a fledgling Eurepean power, the Romans, in his attempt to regain Alexander the Great's European possessions. The Romans would not allow the spread of Seleucid influence in Europe. In the ensuing Battle of Magnesia between the two superpowers in 192 BCE, Antiochus's 70,000 troops were decisively beaten by a Roman force of 30,000. According to the Alexandrian historian, Appian, Antiochus had to yield his 200 remaining elephants (the "tanks" of those days), most of his ships, an enormous financial indemnity and 20 hostages to the victorious Romans. Among the hostages was his son, who eventually became known as Antiouchus IV of the Maccabees. 
Young Antiouchus in Rome was royally treated. He was allowed to take advantage of all the splendor of the scintillating and dynamic metropolis. The great forum and the magnificent boulevards awakened his unbounded admiration. The gladiatorial combats and the precision drills of the centurions made the young man understand how a Roman force could beat a Seleucid army more than double its size. Taking in that unbounded power, the skill, dedication and vitality of the Roman Legions, coupled with the political and administrative skills of the Roman Senate and its appointed Consuls, the ceremonials of the Vestal Virgins and its luxurious religious festivities, pervaded him with a sense that no power like the Roman power has ever surfaced on our globe.    
Five years after young Antiochus's confinement in his glorious captivity, his father Antiochus the Great died. An elder brother of his was killed. Now came the turn of Antiochus IV to rule. The Romans had released him and offered him royal accompaniment to reach the capitol of the Seleucid Empire, where he ascended the throne.
Antiochus IV returned from Rome with the utter conviction that it is only a matter of time before he will have to face the Romans in battle as his father did. Soon events proved to him that the Romans are taking posession of Ptolemaic Egypt and are treating him, the Seleucid king, as an underling. His experience in Rome taught him that to have any chance of success in face of that monstrous European military super-machine, he must forge his country into a solidly unified front. He was convinced that for this it was supremely important to unite all of his subjects. Such union meant one nationality, one religion, one culture, one loyalty. He had no problem with most of his subject nations. They were idoloters, reveling in the loose morals of the Hellenic civilization that Antiochus enthusiastically embraced and they readily seemed to follow him. Only one nation was radically different: the Jews.
Antiochus IV, also called Epiphanes (the Glorious), was determined.to squeeze the Jews into his phalanx in order to forge a solid wall of resistance against the Romans. He completely reversed his predecessors' lenient policy toward them. The story is well known. He forbade practices of the Jewish tradition on pain of death.Study of the Torah was forbidden. A statue of Zeus ws installed in the Holy Temple. Jews were forced to sacrifice to the multitude of idols placed in the heart of Jewish settlements. Force, oppression, brutality became the order of the day in the obsessive drive of Antiochus to stand up to the might of the Romans with success.  
A picture emerges of Antiochus who did not act  as a bigot, an antisemite, a racist, driven by unreasonable hatreds, but rather a person who had rational aspirations to safeguard his empire -- an aspiration to which he was logically entitled. How than do we react to the moment when Mattathias and his five sons, gathered in Modin, began the Revolt that leads to years of Jewish resistance in order to safeguard the Jewish People, its Tradition and way of life?
What emerges are two "rights" posited one against another. Antiochus has a right to safeguard his empire. The Maccabbees have a right to safeguard the Jewish People.
What makes this a fascinating observation is that on that score the world changed little in 2081 years, from the day the Maccabean Revolt exploded to this day. For today too we see two rights embraced in a struggle on the question of what kind of a policy to adopt vis-a-vis Iran, a dangerous atomic power emerging on the globe. The USA is sick and tired of being the policeman of the world. Since World War II ended, it was involved in major wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, lost soldiers in Lebanon, men in Lybia. The thousands of caskets of its sons that are shipped home from far-away shores do not  fill Americans with pride, but rather with continual questions of despair and disgust of why their young should bleed away in countries they know little about and care about even less. In short, the USA wants no further involvement abroad, even if Iran would be developing atomic weapons. By and large the European nations share this attitude.
Israel, on the other hand, feels threatened in its very existence. Iranian leadership has repeetedly issued statements menacing to Israel, referring to it as the cancer of humanity, as mice, rats and vermin, and calling for its destruction. Such statements must not be taken lightly. In the face of repeated threatening declarations it has become obvious that it is not one person's caprice but rather a national long-range policy that motivates Iran and that posits the idea that the very first atomic instrument produced by them will be unleashed at Israel. Israel is therefore obligated, as an act of self-defense, to do everything in its power to prevent Iran from reaching the capability of producing an atomic weapon.
Centuries back Antiochus Epiphanes wanted to safeguard the peace and security of his empire. Today the USA wishes to guarantee a world that will not claim any further American victims. In order to attain their goal, the Empire of Old and the Empire of Today do not seem to hesitate to sidestep a numerically small people, which happens to be a people shunned, despised and even hated so often in the course of history. Antiochus of old like the USA of today, would be hurt to the quick if accused of bigotry, racism, religious fanaticism, or anti-semitism. 
We are dealing with highly cultured and enlightened individuals who are genuinely convinced that they aim solely for the best interests of their people and of mankind. From their point of view, they may be right, despite Heine's prescient warning that where they burn Synagogues today they will burn Cathedrals tomorrow.
But what should Israel say? Because Antiochus wanted to safeguard his empire should the Jewish People allow itself to be erased, its traditions wiped out? The Maccabbees made their choice. They declared in word and deed: Our prople has a right to live. We shall not stretch our neck out for the butcher's knife. Our first concern is our survival. Despite what bigots say, we were never a burden on mankind. We always contributed more than we received. It is our obligation to sustain ourselves, to perpetuate ourselves, to assure our continuity and to look forward to a glorious tomorrow.
Indeed, what should Israel say today, when the powers that reached an agreement with Iran will extend dire warnings to it in days to come that in case it attacks the atomic facilities of Iran it will be the sole one blamed for unleashing a world-wide atomic conflagration threatening the whole globe?  
The situation should be crystal clear. Israel has an unquestioned right to take all the steps necessary to assure its national survival. In the light of recent history Israel has learned that it cannot rely on other nations, no matter how cultured and civilized these nations are, to come to its rescue. Iranian leaders have recently made solemn promises to Western powers to cut back in its operations leading to further development of an atomic arsenal. Israel sees these as self-serving promises to secure increased economic cooperation, support and lifting of sanctions from the West. To Israel these promises echo the solemn promises  of Hitler made to Neville Chamberlain and Daladier in the Munich Agreement of October 1938. For a scrap of paper carrying the banner of "peace in our time" the Western allies sacrificed the staunchest democracy of the European continent only to be led to a world war that cost mankind 70 million lives and the Jewish People fully one-third of its total number less than a year later. 
 For lack of alternative, should the chips fall Israel will have no other recourse but to stand up for itself even if it stands alone. Like the glorious Maccabbees so this generation of Jews, will fight for its right to assure its continuity. In the glow of our Chanukka lights we will identify with our precursors who recognized that if there are two rights it is our undisputed obligation to fight for our right.  
Rabbi Ervin Birnbaum, founder and director of first Russian Outreach program in Israel, "Shearim Netanya," was Professor of International Relations and History at City University of New York. He is also Rabbi Emeritus at Bet Israel Masorti Congregation in Netanya.