For Israel, Syria Intervention is Both a Security Imperative and Risk

Daily Beast 8/27/13

After Secretary Kerry’s strong statement yesterday, there is little doubt that the U.S. and its allies plans to carry out a military strike against Syria in the coming days. With over 1,000 people dead following a chemical weapons attack, there is really little choice in the matter.

It seems that Israeli military intelligence discovered the smoking gun via intercepted calls between senior commanders in Assad’s army.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a statement about the use of chemical weapons in Syria at the Department of State August 26, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

On Friday, Israel’s Channel 2 News reported that the weapons were fired by the 155th Brigade of the 4th Armored Division of the Syrian Army, a division under the command of the Syrian president’s brother, Maher Assad. The nerve gas shells were fired from a military base in a mountain range to the west of Damascus, according to the report.

The images of children gassed to death in the country next door galvanized leading voices from across Israel’s governing coalition to urge for international intervention. From the Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett on the right, to the dovish president Shimon Peres, there is broad agreement: From both security and ethical perspectives, Israel cannot allow chemical weapons to be used on its door step.

Over the past three years there has been an ongoing debate between foreign policy analysts about whether Israel wants Assad to stay or to go. On the one hand, it’s good to have a strong man in place to keep things quiet across the border. But this particular strong man is also in league with Iran and Hezbollah, with his survival directly tied to theirs.

By urging international intervention in Syria, Israel is of course running a security risk. Much like Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War of 1991, Assad’s most obvious response would be to attack Israel. If Israel responds, that could potentially enflame the region, which would play right into Assad’s hands. The Syrian dictator probably hopes the Arab world would rally around the flag and be distracted from the atrocities he is responsible for in his own country.

I am sure that there are many high level discussions going on now, with Israeli officials urging their American counterparts not to respond in case of a Syrian counter attack, as they did in 1991 when the enemy was Iraq. But the U.S. is not the same as it was 22 years ago and neither is Israel. Netanyahu has been clear today—Israel is not part of the Syrian Civil war, but if they are attacked, they will respond with force.

With Obama’s “red line” regarding chemical weapons now breached, the situation is worrying. If the U.S./NATO forces respond with military action against Syria, would Assad lash out by unleashing chemical weapons on Israel? This is an open question. But there is no doubt that the stakes are higher now than they have been since 1973.

I believe that the international community must act and should have acted long ago, given that at least 100,000 Syrians have been killed over the past two years. A failure to respond to the use of chemical weapons would be a green light, signaling that non-conventional weapons are back on the table. But it is vital to remember that Israel that will be on the front lines of a response even if they do not participate in any military action against Syria.

The unfolding events of this week are a constant reminder that Israel is located in an unstable region and faces security challenges every day. While we should all understand the need for an international response to chemical weapons we should remember that the Syrian response will attempt to make Israel into its whipping boy.


Flying into Israel on the wings of hope

Haaretz 4/3/13

When the Jews left Egypt, G-d did not take them the quick way up through Gaza lest they be scared by war. Instead, he took them the long way around to help turn them into a nation. On my own trip to Israel for Passover this year, I too was made to go the long way around, not to avoid war, but for the sake of peace. Why? The day that my flight arrived in the Holy Land happened to be the same day that U.S. President Barack Obama departed from it.

A presidential visit always has a tremendous amount of logistical nightmares for a host country. The hellish traffic jams, closed off streets and cordoned off attractions are the cost the public always pay for having the leader of the free world pop by for a few days.

One of the main effects of this presidential visit was the closed off airspace while Air Force One was at the airport. This would be a challenge for Ben Gurion International Airport on any normal day. Double that challenge when considering that Obama left on a Friday – the day when passengers flock to Israel in an attempt to arrive before Shabbat. Then triple it when considering that it was the weekend before Passover, when thousands of Jews from around the world arrived ahead of the holiday.

The airlines were briefed and delayed accordingly. I was on a British Airways flight from London to Israel that was scheduled to depart at 8:30 A.M. and land in Israel at 3:30 P.M. My wife and I had come in from New York earlier, and the London to Tel Aviv leg was supposed to be the shorter leg of the journey.

At Heathrow Airport, we were delayed by an hour to make sure that we would not arrive while the Israeli airspace was still closed. We were warned that we might have to circle for a little while, but that the airline had extra fuel to allow for this.

The flight itself was a normal affair: lots of small children, a few religious folk, and your average northwest London Jew on his way to Israel for Passover. But things went awry when the plane arrived to Israel before its airspace had been reopened, and after 45 minutes of circling, the pilot informed us that he had run out of fuel. So instead of landing in Israel slightly behind schedule, we had to land in Cyprus to refuel – and wait until Israel’s airspace was opened.

At this point, we passengers realized there was no chance we would make it into Israel in time for Shabbat. Cut off from the world, many on the plane silently cursed the supposed lackadaisical attitude of Air Force One and wondered why Obama could not just take a helicopter to Jordan anyway.

Upon landing in Cyprus, there was a flurry of text messages sent by people waiting at the airport. While every El Al flight had managed to hold enough fuel and would land only an hour or two late, we, together with another flight, were pushed back to after 7 P.M. Israelis desperately tried to find out the score of the Portugal-Israel soccer game, flight attendants reassured the elderly passengers that despite the current Cypriot economic difficulties we would be able to buy fuel, and angry British passengers started talking about refunds.

Surprisingly, the religious folk were calm. Without any control of their situation, there was no point complaining that they would not make it in time for Shabbat, and instead they just sat silently, waiting to find out when we would take off.

After an hour on the ground in Cyprus, we were informed that we were clear to take off, and away we went, flying the one-hour trip to Tel Aviv.

When we did land, we discovered that our detour was for the sake of peace: the delay of Air Force One was due to Obama pulling a diplomatic rabbit out of his hat and getting Israel to apologize to Turkey.

Getting waylaid for the sake of peace was a nice start to my Passover trip. A diplomatic ray of light, the delay was a phenomenal way of demonstrating the message at the Passover seder that the Jewish people do not despair; it is not in their vocabulary. We are a people that have survived the challenges and tribulations of each generation of the world, always searching for new ways of looking at difficulties. While in this case we needed a little help from our friends, flying into Israel on the wings of hope, however slight, was the best way possible for me to start my Passover.

Nine Steps that will Kill the Two-State Solution

Daily Beast 3/21/13 also Ottomans and Zionists

With Obama visiting Israel, many groups are trying to get his attention so they can let the President know what they think he should do. Included within the pleas from the peace camp and the ‘Free Pollard’ camp is a document prepared by the Yesha council titled, “Judea and Samaria – It’s Jewish, It’s Vital, It’s Realistic.”

Questions answered within this Kafkaesque document include: why the demographics are on the Settlers’ side, why are the Palestinians stealing water from Israel, and what is the legal history of Israel’s settlement enterprise. Most interesting, however, is the nine-step plan that the Yesha council has created at the end of the document to fulfill their vision.

The main tool that the Yesha council has to achieve its vision are its political advocates in the Knesset and in the government. Their building in the West Bank happens through the good graces of the state authorities. Of course the main party for the Yesha council is HaBayit Hayehudi, but they also have representation through the Likud and Yisrael Beytanu and a scattering of MK’s in some of the center parties. Members of their communities operate across the center and right of the Israeli political spectrum.

Looking at the nine steps we can see the underlying HaBayit Hayehdui strategy during the coalition talks. Additionally we can start to make sense of some of the other Knesset and moves and statements by members of the settler community on the national stage.

Step 1: Renewing the strong belief in the supremacy of the Jewish claim to the Jewish Homeland and the justness of taking measures to maintain control of it

In the coalition agreement between Likud and HaBayit Hayehudi was a bill to make the Jewishness of the State supreme. This is a redo of the Avi Dichter bill from the last Knesset. No one is quite sure of which version will hit the Knesset, if it gets through Livni, but it is part of a big move to decouple the concepts of Jewish and Democratic state as equal and promote the former at the expense of the latter. The motivations behind this become clear in a strategy that is tied into biblical land claims and preparing for a situation where the civil rights of millions of Palestinians are going to have to be restricted.

Step 2: Uniting the nation and its leadership

Throughout the coalition talks, Bennett was the peacemaker between Lapid and Netanyahu and has pledged to be a leader for all of Israel, not just the settlers. His party has also taken over key ministries that can affect the cost of living across Israel. Bennett has been very keen to be seen as responding to the J14 protests and be a transformative politician that can transcend the tribal politics of the moment and be one of the new leaders of Israel alongside Lapid. By also slipping in the raising of the electoral threshold into the coalition agreement, he can ride the wave of HaBayait Hayehdui current popularity and force others from his camp to work with him if they want any representation at all. By forcing people into a broad tent he gives himself a broader appeal and solidifies himself and by extension the Yesha council firmly into the mainstream.

Step 3: Military strength and control of the territory by the security establishment

Though many ex-military and security men veer to the left after they retire from service (just see The Gatekeepers), the new Defense Minister, Moshe Yaalon, most definitely veers to the right and was the first choice of the settler community. Though the security establishment is pretty much entrenched in the West Bank already, Barak had been the thorn in the side of the Yesha council. With him removed the security establishment can work in concert with the Yesha council in helping it expand both from the Knesset and on the ground itself.

Step 4: The elimination of terror and cessation of incitement in Palestinian schools

While all Israelis want to see an end to terror and incitement, the previous governments’ flat-out rejection of the State Department’s school textbook report demonstrates a complete unwillingness to examine the issue of incitement on both sides of the border. It is essential to demonize the Palestinian national narrative while maintaining that individual Palestinians are ok and stating that the Settlements actually have had great relationships with the communities pre the first intifada.

Step 5: Creating a situation where it becomes clear to the international community that another state west of the Jordan River is not viable

The serious policy community is split about whether the two-state solution has already been killed by the settlements and the Yesha Council or if it is merely on life support. Needless to say, the Yesha Council is well on its way to pulling the plug. The new Deputy Foreign Minister, Ze’ev Elkin, already ascribes to this point of view. Though many advocates of one-state agree that the settlements have killed the two-state solution they do not share the Yesha councils vision of what a one-state solution would look like. The power and establishment will be with the Yesha council and in doing so they will have a tremendous momentum on the ground when two-states is officially abandoned to fulfill their vision before anyone else gets a look in. Yes Israel will lose friends and allies and there might be a brain drain that could seriously affect the economy. But I sadly have less faith that pressure will force Israel to give up its reason d’état of providing the Jewish People with self-defense and power by giving those they have been occupying full civic rights. The death of the two-state solution will mean the Yesha council has won, read the rest of their document to see how they view Palestinians.

Step 6: The further immigration of one million Jews to Israel to secure a permanent Jewish majority in Israel

In the coalition talks, Bennett managed to carve the Diaspora portfolio out of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and into his own portfolio. The reason for this now becomes crystal clear, he is desperate to get more Jews to immigrate. Bennett demanding this portfolio always seemed odd. The Settlements are often the largest bone of contention between Israel and her Diaspora (amongst Jews who are engaged at least). Passing on this responsibility to the former general secretary of the Yesha council looks on the surface to be a recipe for disaster. This step helps us understand the real consequence of why this demand was made. What will be interesting to see is how Bennett attempts to bring the Diaspora to Israel and how their aliyah will be tied to step 7. Is the aim just to lock in the demographics regardless of where the Jews live or to get them to move to the West Bank and lock in the settlements?  We will have to wait and see but watch to see where new job incentives will be made for new immigrants, Bennett has the ability through Trade and Industry to create incentives where he chooses.

Step 7: One million Jews in Judea and Samaria, tripling its Jewish population

With the housing and trade ministries, Habayit Hayehudi can now start working on this. The proof will be in where the new low-income housing is built. Even if just restricted into the settlement blocs, if this plan is being followed the aim will be a massive increase in settlers. As with step 6, we will have to see if alyiah and settlement are linked. President Bush (1st one) conditioned the aid to help resettle the Russian Jews on them not being housed in the West Bank understanding the threat there. One other important step to remember, Bennett received the public diplomacy portfolio as well. Through this he can push the settlements into the official Israeli government narrative both at home and abroad.

Step 8: The creation of large residential areas surrounding the current communities of Judea and Samaria

Housing, Trade, Knesset Finance chair – between these three portfolios and a willing defense minister the sky is the limit on step 8. I predict the concept of settlement bloc will expand and large scale projects begin to be planned as expansions in key areas. Even more so then Yaalon, Danny Danon is a particular fan of the Yesha council and he is deputy Defense Minister.

Step 9: The execution of a construction, development and economic plan for the million residents of Judea and Samaria

Habayit Hayehudi has already indicated that they would rather release prisoners and transfer taxes to the PA than freeze settlement construction. Looking at this nine-step plan, it is easy to see why he would rather give any other ‘confidence building measure’ than allow the slowing of the settler population.  The one thing that they cannot allow is a settlement freeze as it destroys the plan above.

This should be seen as nothing less than a strategic effort to kill the two-state solution. Keep in mind that Prime Minister Netanyahu just committed his new government to two states for two peoples in his joint press conference with the President on Wednesday. Looking at how this is planned out it is clear that the only thing that could stop this from happening is freezing settlement construction. The sad fact is that a settlement freeze has already been tossed by the US administration as a failed attempt.

The Yesha Council is very open about their aims, objectives and methods. If people want to do more than pay lip service to the idea of two-states, they must not only oppose the Yesha council at every turn of this plan but offer their own step by step approach to how to create a two-state reality today. Though it is the establishment opinion that two-states will happen, those opposing it literally are executing on a plan to kill it. Those of us who wish to see it come about must equally set out a plan and start building today facts on the ground to make it so.

5 Paragraphs I hope the President says in his public speech in Israel

During the upcoming Presidential visit to Israel and the West Bank, the Administration has decided it wants to speak to the people of Israel and the region rather than the government.

I think is is a good move. While his speech will touch on many other themes,  he will obviously mention the peace process. Obama has a very hard job in this regard- needing to reassure the Israelis he gets them while making sure that the Palestinians don’t lose hope in him. Add to this the traditional political back-and-forth of DC and Obama has a lot on his plate.

With that in mind, if I was his speech writer (a dream gig if ever there was one), this is what I would suggest he say:

“Despair is not a Jewish value; you are a people of hope and your message of freedom has been an inspiration to countless millions throughout history. In your quest for peace, know that you are not alone. Peace takes risks, it takes courage, it takes conviction. Know that whenever you extend your hand in peace, the United States stands with you.

Self-reliance is a lesson that the Jewish People have had to learn in the hardest way imaginable. The trials and tribulations that history has taught you has engraved the message of ‘never again’ into your hearts and into your souls. We as a nation, as a people, stand in locked step with you as a message to the world that the Jewish People will never find themselves alone in their hour of need, that they always have a reliable ally in the people of America.

It is not just America who stands with you in your quest for peace. Yesterday, I was visiting Palestinians in the West Bank. The conflict has forced these two great peoples to build walls between each other, to cut out the every day human interactions so necessary to build the trust needed to sustain peace. So today I carry a message to you from the West Bank that the people there are ready for peace. They want to live side by side, free from a occupation that robs them of their dignity and prevents Israel from achieving the security it so desperately deserves.

Time, however, is not unlimited. As the winds of change sweep through the Middle East, Israelis and Palestinians must be clear-eyed about the new realities that surround them. While you cannot control the direction of the countries around you, you can control your own. Extremism grows in the vacuum of hope and we have all failed to provide real hope to Israelis and Palestinians that they will see the security and sovereignty that is their right. From Gaza City to Tel-Aviv, Jerusalem to Jericho, we must continue to support those who have never given up the quest for peace, despite the challenges they face. We must support those who wish to live in peace and security and marginalize those who would sacrifice their people on the altar of violence.

I have met brave pioneers of peace this week. True peace is one that is owned by the people, not just their leaders. In the face of overwhelming odds and a political reality that they cannot control, they have carried their message and cause on despite the cynicism they are greeted with. Today I pledge to you that whatever challenges at the negotiating table we might face, we will redouble our efforts to work within each society to support those who support peace and marginalize those who oppose it. As we move forward towards a two-state solution, we will make sure that progress on the political level is matched by that on the civic level – taking the momentum from the negotiating table to the streets, towns, and villages of the people most affected by the conflict. “

Romney shows his worse side

Progress 10/17/2012

The one certainty it seems we can take from the past three debates is that the moderator improves every time. Candy Crowley delivered a masterful performance in the hardest of the debate formats, controlling two incredibly combative men.

The town hall format is the most restrictive, rule-laden and complicated of the debating formats. The ability to master the narrative, the moderator, the camera and the live studio audience simultaneously is incredibly hard. While neither candidate demonstrated a Clintonesque knack for it, the format deeply unsettled Mitt Romney.

It seems that the topic that Romney had at the top of his mind was that of the debating rules and time and time again he challenged the moderator for more time, pivoted to previous questions and was generally dismissive and disrespectful. In an election in which the female vote matters so much, Romney demonstrated his worse side, looking peevish and childish when he felt he was not getting his share of airtime.

While Romney talked down to the moderator, Obama tried to charm her and the audience, achieving laughs from the audience, who were under strict instructions not to show emotion all night. Indeed, the whole audience had to go through a rehearsal to practise how to act.

The chuckles clearly rattled Romney and he performed the majority of the night as if he was in enemy territory.

Both candidates were incredibly feeble and weak in dealing with a gun control question that was asked. Despite the spate of recent mass shootings over the past four years in the US, gun control has not been raised in this cycle. Obama ducked and weaved through the question around banning semi-automatic weapons. Romney decided to make the issue about single mothers raising kids, and the fact that two parents are needed to raise a child.

The unwillingness of either candidate to deal with this question demonstrates the tremendous power and reach of the National Rifle Association, by far the most powerful lobby in Washington today.

While the vast majority of the evening was on domestic issues, the pivotal moment came on the single foreign policy question surrounding Libya. After Obama accused Romney of playing politics with the attacks in Benghazi, Romney accused the Obama administration of playing politics with the death of an US ambassador. He then double-downed saying that the president going fundraising the day after was inappropriate.

With a deadly cold fury the president took to task the governor for accusing his administration of playing politics with national security and said that he was being offensive. Rather then back off, Romney came at Obama for not saying that the attack was a terrorist incident the day after. A furious Obama just started and demanded that Romney read the transcript of the speech that he made from the Rose Garden. At this point the rehearsed, neutral audience actually clapped for the president. They clapped again as the moderator stated from the transcript backed the president and Romney came out looking like he was scoring cheap political points on the death of a US ambassador.

Now to be fair, Obama does take every single opportunity to mention the death of Osama Bin Laden no matter what the question. Yet the almost personal nature of Romney’s attack on Obama over the Benghazi attack showed America a deadly focus and passion in the president that few knew was there.

Both Obama and Romney showed up for this one and it was Romney who showed his nasty side. His discomfort at the application of the carefully constructed rules led to his condescending manner and peevish attitude that lost him the audience and ultimately the debate itself.

Ignore the polls and look at the substance

Progress 10/12/12

The vice-presidential debate was a far more enjoyable affair then the presidential one a week ago. People actually enjoyed staying up through it, watching two engaging politicians going up against each other.  Perhaps it was the chairs, the low bar set by the previous debate, a great moderator or that VPs can say more; but it was far more watchable.

In addition to being watchable it will be seen (and this is a prediction) as a far more normal presidential debate then the one that preceded it last week. The polls will show that both parties feel that they won it but will not make big waves in the polls.

The Obama slaughter of the previous week created a stunning poll swing of 12 points to Romney. This debate will follow the traditional motto that while they make great theatre – presidential debates don’t really matter.

Yet despite the combative tone, the good put-downs and great zingers, the viewers actually got to see two heavyweight politicians argue against each other beyond soundbites. These debates are the rare times that the parties will go up against each other on stage; with no PMQs these offer the only chance for the leaders of the ideological camps of US politics to question each other.

The rareness of these moments was part of the reason for the outpouring of frustration at Barack Obama last week. While Joe Biden helped, the party will look to see if Obama can speak like a human, confident of his views and positions at the next debate.

Taking stock this VP debate gave us three truly remarkable things. First, the US public were privy to a bigger debate about the red lines on Iran then the Israelis will be in the run-up to their election on 22 January.

Secondly, Biden and Paul Ryan had the most informed public discussion about withdrawal from Afghanistan and what that means perhaps ever heard between two elected politicians.

Third, and perhaps most importantly for a British audience, the excellent late question about the candidate views on faith and abortion gave the world a chance to see the culture war that drives so much passion in the States. There was a lot of foreign policy, yet it is the social issues, particularly those to do with the abortion debate, that are in the mind of swing voters.

The moderation throughout was phenomenal, particularly around the faith and society segment and it allowed both campaigns to share with America what they feel deeply and what they will do with one of the most hotly contested issues in the country.

So despite the small effect it will have in the polls (a draw will be declared) the VP  debate made up for the waffle of the previous week and set a standard of clarity and communication that Romney and Obama will have to meet.


In search of momentum

Progress 7/12/12

Turning on to watch the new season of comedy series Louie I saw my first presidential election advert. Living in true blue Boston MA I figured the only reason the president must be spending money here is that he wants to annoy his opponent on his home turf. The ad boldly cast President Obama as the in-sourcer and Gov Romney as the out-sourcer. Replete with blue and red colours, pictures of closed mills and Romney’s company Bain Capital flashing ominously across the screen, it fitted nicely into the glut of superhero movies that Hollywood is churning out at the moment.

Having studied at the Kennedy School this year, I have seen my fair share of political ads and this one fitted into the standard compare-and-contrast to demonstrate the negatives of one’s opponent. With the employment figures stubbornly refusing to turn in the president’s favour it is little wonder the campaign chooses this spot above others.

Yet I could not help feeling disappointed that a few days after the president’s signature policy had passed through the Supreme Court in a surprise victory for the administration, the ad ignored it. Rather then seeing the airwaves dominated with the fact that every American can now be insured (regardless of birth defects or pre-conditions) the message did not shift.

The very absence of healthcare from the president’s pitch for his re-election demonstrates the phenomenal messaging job that the GOP has managed since it was tabled in the first two years of the administration. The policy is so radioactive to the public that even the fact that Judge Roberts crossing the aisle to save it will did not make a difference in its popular appeal. And the fact that the Republicans in Congress managed to stop the vast majority of the Affordable Care Act taking affect until 2014, handed them licence to bury it in 2010 and 2012.

Taking the president’s historic policy off the table, the GOP has managed to make this election about the economy alone. Foreign policy is but a distraction with the employment and economic challenges the USA faces, much to the annoyance of embassies and policy analysts around DC.

With little to talk about between the Department of Labor’s monthly job figures, process stories and small issues continue to dominate the political news cycle. One in particular that had me fearing for the Obama campaign was their latest fundraising idea.

June marked a month where Romney out-raised Obama by $20m. Never missing a beat, and recognising that the summer marked the beginning of the wedding season in the US, the Obama campaign emailed its supporters the option to switch out a gift registry for a donation to the Obama campaign. Instead of gifts to a newly wedded couple, give to the president’s reelection bid.

As someone who is getting married to a diehard fan of the president in a month, I can tell you that the best way to demotivate your young, poor, recent graduates is to steal their wedding gifts.

This odd idea is symptomatic of a campaign that assumes that the momentum is still there and all they need to do is ask. Yet as the election comes down to the wire, supporters are going to need to feel inspired again rather then just tapped for donations.