Analysis from Israel

Foreign Affairs and Defense

On any other day, the Wall Street Journal’s report on Tuesday would have been a major bombshell. Instead, it was unjustly overshadowed by the news that Donald Trump had shared sensitive third-party intelligence (apparently provided by Israel) with Russia. Granted, the intelligence story reveals something important about the U.S. president. But the WSJ story revealed something important about long-term trends in the Middle East–and for once, it’s unabashedly good news. Major Arab states have grown tired of having their relationship with Israel held hostage to the Palestinian problem, and they’re actually seeking to do something about it.

The Journal reported that the Gulf States are discussing a proposal to normalize certain types of commercial relations with Israel in exchange for Israeli gestures toward the Palestinians (the report is behind a paywall, but the Times of Israel helpfully provided a detailed account of what the WSJ article said). Two countries, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have already told both America and Israel that they’re willing to adopt it, the Journal added.

But the real bombshell–actually, several bombshells–lay in the proposal’s details: In exchange for Israel freezing settlement construction in “certain areas” of the West Bank and relaxing its blockade of Gaza, the Arabs would establish direct telecommunication links with Israel, let Israeli aircraft overfly their countries, lift certain trade restrictions and perhaps grant visas to Israeli athletes and businessmen. All these details are significant even in the likely event that the proposal goes nowhere.

First, they show that Arab leaders–unlike Trump–understand that Israeli-Palestinian peace is nowhere on the horizon. They didn’t merely say so to the Journal; it’s clear from the proposal itself. All it asks of Israel are gestures that would leave the status quo essentially unchanged, not concessions on any final-status issue. Granted, many of these same Arab leaders have told Trump that solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict should be a high priority, but that merely proves the old truism that what Arab leaders say to their Western counterparts shouldn’t be taken at face value.

Second, and more importantly, Arab leaders are no longer willing to give the Palestinians (or Syria) a veto over their relations with Israel. The last time Arab states proposed normalization with Israel (in the Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative of 2002), they conditioned it on Israel signing final-status agreements with both the Palestinians and Syria and withdrawing completely to the 1949 armistice lines (also known, wrongly, as the pre-1967 border). Even eight years ago, when President Barack Obama urged Arab states to make gestures toward Israel in exchange for an Israeli settlement freeze, they unanimously refused, saying steps toward normalization were impossible until an Israeli-Palestinian final-status deal was signed. Now, they’re seriously discussing partial normalization even without a final-status deal.

Third, unlike the Palestinians, Arab states have abandoned the fantasy of an Israeli retreat to the 1949 armistice lines. Their decision to demand a settlement freeze only in “certain areas” of the West Bank clearly implies that they see no reason for a freeze in other areas. They would remain Israeli under any final-status deal. This, incidentally, is something the Obama Administration never grasped. It treated construction in major settlement blocs or Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem as identical to construction in isolated outposts.

Fourth, after decades of spearheading boycotts of Israel, Arab states are now keen to do business with it. That’s clear from the fact that, aside from visas for athletes, all the Arab gestures under consideration are aimed at facilitating business. As a senior Arab official involved in discussions of the proposal told the Journal, “We no longer see Israel as an enemy, but a potential opportunity.”

In one sense, this is no surprise. In February, Bloomberg reported that Israeli high-tech firms were already doing booming business with the Gulf States via pass-through companies. What is surprising, however, is that then, just three months ago, the “experts” Bloomberg consulted were still insisting that open trade between Israel and the Gulf would be impossible without Israeli-Palestinian peace. Now, leading Arab countries are proposing open business ties without a peace deal.

Thus, even though the proposal doesn’t include formal diplomatic ties, it’s a huge step forward over any previous Arab offer.

Admittedly, it might well go nowhere at this stage. First, Saudi Arabia and the UAE won’t do it alone, and it’s not yet clear whether a critical mass of other Arab states will join them. Indeed, the WSJ report makes that less likely, since it will give opponents of normalization a chance to mobilize public opinion against the idea.

Second, it’s not clear what the Arabs states will ultimately demand in exchange. By the time they finish negotiating among themselves, the proposal may be significantly worse, just as the Arab Peace Initiative adopted by the Arab League in 2002 was significantly worse than the initial Saudi proposal (for instance, the Arab League version included language which Arabs interpret as requiring Israel to absorb millions of Palestinian refugees).

Finally, even if this doesn’t happen, the demands as stated could be unacceptable to Israel, depending on how the Arabs interpret them. For instance, Israel has long been willing to take some steps to help Gaza, but it would not agree to end the blockade entirely, as that would enable Hamas to import masses of lethal weaponry. Similarly, while Israel could agree to freeze construction in isolated settlements, it couldn’t accept a public freeze on construction in Jerusalem, its capital, which Arabs consider part of the West Bank.

Nevertheless, the very fact that this proposal is being openly discussed shows that Arab-Israeli relations are thawing at a faster pace than anyone would have predicted a few years ago. The credit for that goes primarily to changing geopolitical circumstances, but secondarily to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has worked hard and successfully to expand Israel’s foreign relations precisely because he never accepted the “expert” consensus that this was impossible without progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Just last summer, Israeli pundits from across the political spectrum were united in asserting that normalization with the Arab states would require an Israeli-Palestinian deal. At the time, I termed this assertion “sheer folly,” given how fast things were already changing; today, it looks even more ridiculous. And that’s good news not just for Israel, but for the entire Middle East.

Originally published in Commentary on May 17, 2017

The U.S. Army recently announced that it has horrifying video footage of Islamic State fighters herding Iraqi civilians into buildings in Mosul. The plan was not to use them as human shields–that is, to announce their presence in the hope of deterring American airstrikes. Rather, ISIS was deliberately trying to ensure that American troops killed them, by “smuggling civilians into buildings, so we won’t see them and trying to bait the coalition to attack,” an army spokesman said at a briefing for Pentagon reporters. The motive, he explained, was hope that massive civilian casualties would produce such an outcry that the U.S. would halt airstrikes altogether.

There’s an important point to this story which the spokesman neglected to mention: This tactic is borrowed directly from Hamas. And it was borrowed because the world’s response to successive Hamas-Israel wars convinced ISIS that creating massive civilian casualties among residents of its own territory is an effective strategy. Admittedly, Hamas hasn’t yet been caught on video actually herding civilians into buildings before launching attacks from them. But there’s plenty of evidence that Hamas prevented civilians from leaving areas whence it was launching rockets or other attacks at Israel, thereby deliberately exposing them to retaliatory strikes.

During the 2014 Gaza war, for instance, the Israel Defense Forces warned civilians to evacuate the town of Beit Lahiya before launching air strikes at Hamas positions. But according to Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid, who based himself on interviews with Palestinians in Gaza, Hamas gunmen showed up and warned that anyone who left the town would be treated as a collaborator. Since Hamas executes collaborators, that was equivalent to saying that anyone who tried to leave would be killed on the spot. Thus, faced with the alternative of certain death at Hamas’s hands, most Beit Lahiya residents understandably opted to stay and take their chances with the IDF.

There’s also plenty of evidence that Hamas deliberately launched attacks from buildings where it knew civilians were present. Just last month, for instance, I wrote about a case during the 2009 Gaza war in which Hamas directed sniper fire at Israeli troops from the third floor of a well-known doctor’s home, thereby forcing the soldiers to choose between becoming sitting ducks or shooting back and risking civilian casualties. Unbeknownst to the soldiers, Hamas was also storing explosives in the house (using civilian buildings as arms caches or wiring them with explosives is standard practice for Hamas). Consequently, when the soldiers fired at the Hamas position, an unexpectedly large explosion ensued, killing three of the doctor’s daughters and one of his nieces.

In short, Hamas repeatedly used tactics aimed at maximizing the number of civilian casualties on its own side. Yet instead of blaming Hamas for this, the world largely blamed Israel. Mass demonstrations were held throughout the West condemning Israel; there were no mass demonstrations condemning Hamas. Journalists and “human rights” organizations issued endless reports blaming Israel for the civilian casualties while ignoring or downplaying Hamas’s role in them. Western leaders repeatedly demanded that Israel show “restraint” and accused it of using disproportionate force. Israel, not Hamas, became the subject of a complaint to the International Criminal Court.

Hamas thereby succeeded in putting Israel in a lose-lose situation. Either it could let Hamas launch thousands of rockets at Israeli civilians with impunity, or it could strike back at the price of global opprobrium.

Alan Dershowitz, who aptly calls this the “dead baby strategy,” has been warning for years that unless it “is exposed and rejected in the marketplace of morality, it’s coming to a theater (or school or hospital) near you.” After all, why wouldn’t other terrorist organizations adopt a strategy that has so obviously proven successful?

Now, ISIS has proven his point: It has chosen to deliberately sacrifice civilians rather than employing the more obvious tactic of using them as human shields. Granted, the organization enjoys killing, but based on its track record, it’s also far from stupid. So if it has concluded that dead civilians are more useful than living human shields, it’s because, like Hamas, it considers this a win-win strategy. At worst, America’s reputation will be tarnished, since many people worldwide will blame it for the civilian casualties rather than putting the blame on ISIS, where it belongs. And at best, negative public opinion will force America to abandon the airstrikes altogether.

Nor is the latter hope as far-fetched as it may seem at first glance. It’s true the “dead baby strategy” never persuaded Israel to stop airstrikes against Hamas, but there’s a fundamental difference between the two cases: Israel’s citizens were under direct attack by Hamas rockets and tunnels, and in a choice between sacrificing its citizens’ lives and suffering global opprobrium, any self-respecting country would choose the latter. But ISIS isn’t launching rockets at America from Mosul; the threat it poses is far less immediate. Consequently, the incentive for America to simply back away from the fight if the civilian death toll climbs too high is much greater.

In short, by blaming Israel for civilian casualties that were actually deliberately caused by Hamas’s actions, the world ensured that other terrorist organizations would adopt a similar strategy. Or to put it more bluntly, it ensured that many more civilians would die, because terrorist groups would see a profit in their deaths.

ISIS obviously bears primary blame for all civilian deaths in Mosul. But a portion of that blame is shared by every journalist, “human rights” activist, politician and demonstrator who blamed Israel rather than Hamas for civilian deaths in Gaza–because they are the ones who persuaded ISIS that deliberately sacrificing civilians is an effective way to fight a war.

Originally published in Commentary on April 5, 2017

A review of a comedy of manners set in England in the 1920s wouldn’t seem the obvious place to look to understand why the average Westerner really has no business trying to tell Israelis how to run their country. But two sentences in this New York Times book review encapsulate the problem perfectly: “Historical details, which abound, are often fascinating. (Who knew that beards interfere with gas masks?)”

I’m sure most New York Times readers don’t know that. But virtually every adult Israeli does, other than a few recent immigrants. That’s because almost every adult Israeli either has a gas mask or did at one time (mine still lives in my closet), and many of us have actually worn them. They were distributed nationwide before the 1991 Gulf War, out of fear that Saddam Hussein would put chemical warheads on the missiles he launched at Israel during the war. Israel, incidentally, was one of only two countries Saddam launched missiles at, even though it wasn’t one of the 39 countries actually waging war on Iraq at the time.

Since then, Israel has run several nationwide campaigns to get people to exchange their old gas masks for new ones. That gas masks have an expiration date is another fascinating “historical” detail most Westerners probably don’t know (the campaigns ended a few years ago, after the implosion of both Iraq and Syria reduced the risk of a chemical attack). Israel also passed a law requiring every new house to include a bomb shelter capable of doubling as a sealed room, since ordinary bomb shelters offer no protection against chemical attacks (yet another little-known “historical” detail). That’s one of many factors contributing to the country’s sky-high housing costs, but not one Israelis complain about. In-house bomb shelters are even more necessary today, given the thousands of rockets launched at Israel by both Hezbollah and Hamas over the last 10 to 15 years.

Even Israelis who were children in 1991 undoubtedly remember being woken by sirens in the middle of the night, rushing to makeshift sealed rooms (heavy-duty plastic wrap, tape and damp towels), putting on their masks and sitting for hours waiting for the all-clear. The adults also remember being unable to fall asleep at night while awaiting that siren. The chronic sleep deprivation experienced by people under missile bombardment is another little-known historical detail (somehow, it never seems to interest human rights organizations as much as the sleep deprivation of captured terrorists during interrogations).

As for beards, this being Israel, a public battle raged for months in 1990-91 over whether Haredi men, who normally don’t shave for religious reasons, should be given special, more expensive masks that can accommodate beards, or whether they could reasonably be expected to shave, given that in Jewish law, saving a life trumps most other religious precepts. There was even a high-profile court case by a secular bearded man charging discrimination because Haredim got the special masks while he did not (he won).

Of course, there’s no reason why reviewer Susan Coll or any other Westerner should know any of these “historical details.” Thankfully, no Western country has faced the threat of bombardment with chemical warheads, or even conventional rockets, in more than 70 years. The problem is that so many Westerners who share her ignorance feel fully qualified to tell Israel what it should do, despite not knowing the most basic facts about the security challenges it faces.

If you don’t even know that beards interfere with gas masks, something every Israeli has been forced by hard necessity to learn, or if you see that fact as nothing but a “fascinating historical detail,” what makes you qualified to give advice to a country whose security challenges are so clearly outside your knowledge and experience? What makes you qualified to decide how Israel should cope with the hundreds of thousands of missiles pointed at it? What makes you qualified to insist that withdrawing from the West Bank doesn’t pose a serious risk, or that bombing rocket storehouses in Gaza causes disproportionate harm?

Most people wouldn’t dream of proposing solutions to, say, the mystery of dark matter unless they were experts in cutting-edge astrophysics. Yet hundreds of thousands of people worldwide see no problem with propounding solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict despite not knowing even elementary facts.

It would be nice if some of those people would evince a little more humility. But as long as they don’t, they really shouldn’t be surprised that Israeli voters keep rejecting their prescriptions.

Originally published in Commentary on March 22, 2017

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the Trump Administration’s plan to slash funding for the State Department, so I’d like to offer my own modest proposal in that direction: Kill the department’s human rights bureau.

This isn’t because I think America shouldn’t care about human rights. On the contrary, I think it ought to shine a spotlight on the world’s worst abusers, given that the UN Human Rights Council and so-called human rights organizations fail to do so. But since the bureau, judging by its latest annual human rights report, does nothing but channel those institutions’ Israel obsession, I see no reason to waste taxpayer dollars on it.

Haaretz reporter Amir Tibon did a numerical analysis of the report earlier this month and discovered two astounding facts. First, the document “devotes 141 pages to the human rights situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, more than to any other country in the world except China,” which gets the same number. Second, “Even when viewed as two separate reports, the number of pages devoted to each of the areas–Israel and the occupied territories–surpasses that of any other country in the Middle East region.” For instance, Israel alone, excluding the territories, gets 69 pages; by comparison, Iran gets 48 and Syria 58.

Since a normal reader would assume the amount of space devoted to a country bears some relationship to the magnitude of its human rights offenses, any such reader would have to conclude that Israel is a far worse human rights violator than, say, Syria, where the government has slaughtered hundreds of thousands of its own citizens. It must certainly be worse than Iran, which has abetted that slaughter with both money and troops.

But the report becomes even more surreal when you start examining the “crimes” to which the State Department devoted all that ink. Take, for instance, the demolition of illegal construction in the Israeli Bedouin town of Umm al-Hiran.

We’ll leave aside the question of why demolishing illegal construction–with the approval of several courts, including the Supreme Court, and while offering the residents alternative land plus cash compensation–constitutes a human rights violation at all. It’s enough to consider a single sentence, which is based on a report by an Israeli NGO, the Negev Coexistence Forum: “The NCF reported that construction work on [the planned new town of] Hiran progressed and expanded during the year, reaching to within a few yards of Bedouin houses in Umm al-Hiran, and residents suffered from the dust raised by construction.”

Is this a joke? Or do State’s human rights gurus seriously think people suffering from the dust of nearby construction constitutes a human rights violation? By that logic, the only place anyone could build without violating human rights would be in wilderness areas. In other words, we’d essentially have to shut down all construction worldwide.

Or take its section on press freedom, which quotes another NGO, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. It begins as follows: “The independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction. In December, however, ACRI published a report detailing a variety of legislative and rhetorical attacks on media throughout the year by elected officials, especially Prime Minister Netanyahu, and expressed concern about the chilling effect of these attacks on press freedom.”

In other words, State thinks it’s reasonable to fear a “chilling effect” on Israel’s media even though its own first sentence admits there’s no evidence of any such thing (“The independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views”). Even worse, however, the nonexistent human rights problem it alleges would be solvable only by creating a real one. How could Israel possibly prevent elected officials’ “rhetorical attacks on media” without suppressing their own freedom of speech?

But far worse than such inanities is the way the report traffics in unsupported libel. Take, for instance, this gem: “There were reports some children worked in forced labor in the West Bank, including in settlements. NGOs reported employers subjected Palestinian men to forced labor in Israeli settlements … The PA was unable to monitor and investigate abuses in these areas.”

In other words, the State Department accused Israel of subjecting Palestinians–including children–to forced labor, without citing a single example to substantiate this accusation. It did so despite admitting that it doesn’t actually have any evidence aside from unspecified “reports” by unspecified “NGOs,” which even the Palestinian Authority wasn’t prepared to back (it “was unable to monitor and investigate” the allegations). Nor is this lack of evidence surprising, since the accusation is groundless (shockingly, Israel isn’t running forced labor camps in the settlements). So why was such a vile, unsubstantiated allegation even included in the report?

A human rights report worthy of the name would prioritize, devoting most of its attention to the world’s worst abusers. It would reflect enough basic good judgment to excise inanities like “suffering from construction dust.” It would either try to confirm unsubstantiated allegations or omit them because they were unsubstantiated. And it might even include some original investigating about human rights abuses in the many oppressive dictatorships that “human rights” organizations find less enthralling than democratic Israel.

Instead, the State Department apparently just copy-pasted anything it could find from such organizations, no matter how ludicrous or unsubstantiated. That inevitably resulted in paying absurdly excessive attention to Israel, because that’s what most “human rights” organizations do. If you doubt that, just consider this stunning graph from the Elder of Ziyon blog analyzing Amnesty International’s tweets during one month in summer 2015: Amnesty spared only four tweets for Syria’s ongoing civil war, but devoted over 60 to Israel and Gaza, most of them rehashing a war that had ended a year earlier with less than half a percent of Syria’s death toll.

In short, the human rights bureau simply generated a U.S.-sponsored version of the same anti-Israel bias Ambassador Nikki Haley so rightly condemns at the UN. And if so, then really, who needs it?

Originally published in Commentary on March 20, 2017

I’m not naïve enough to think that better PR would solve all of Israel’s international relations problems. But there’s no question that incompetent PR makes its situation much worse. As one example, consider Tuesday’s shocking revelation: Within about 24 hours of the most high-profile civilian casualty incident of the 2009 Gaza war, Israel had obtained evidence casting doubt on its responsibility for that death. But it sat on this evidence for more than eight years, finally releasing it only as part of a defense brief in a civil suit by the victims’ father.

The incident in question took place on January 16, 2009, when Israeli troops fighting in Gaza came under sniper fire. The troops fired two shells at an observation post that seemed to be directing the snipers. The observation post was located on the third floor of a building which, unbeknownst to the soldiers, was also the home of a well-known doctor, Izzeldin Abuelaish. Three of Abuelaish’s daughters were killed, along with one of his nieces; several other family members were wounded. Abuelaish, who worked in Israel, maintained good relations with Israelis and advocated for Israeli-Palestinian peace, later became famous worldwide when he published a book about this incident and his response to it, called I Shall Not Hate. Israel was blamed worldwide for the Abuelaish casualties and never publicly challenged the assumption of its guilt. Yet it now turns out that within a day after the incident, it had evidence indicating that its shells may not have caused the carnage.

The evidence came in the form of laboratory tests conducted on six pieces of shrapnel extracted from the two casualties treated in Israel (the other wounded weren’t brought to Israel, nor were any of the dead, so no shrapnel from the other victims was available). The tests showed that alongside traces of various explosives used by both the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas, at least one fragment contained an explosive called R-Salt, which isn’t used by the IDF but is commonly used in improvised explosive devices in Gaza. Moreover, all six fragments contained potassium nitrate, another substance not used in IDF weaponry that is used in Hamas’s homemade Qassam rockets.

A follow-up report a month later, which compared the shrapnel to the specific type of Israeli shells fired, concluded that four of the six fragments could not possibly have come from those shells; a fifth “may have come” from an IDF shell, and apparently, no conclusions were possible about the sixth.

All of the above indicates that Hamas or a smaller Palestinian organization was using the house as a weapons cache. According to the IDF, there is no other way to account for the presence of non-IDF explosives in the shrapnel.

This in no way implies culpability on Abuelaish’s part; Palestinian terrorists routinely store weaponry in civilian houses without the owners’ consent or even knowledge. But it does raise the possibility that the Israeli shells, which were intended to take out the observation post without significant damage to the house, would not have caused such extensive casualties had the house not contained a concealed weapons cache–something the soldiers couldn’t have known–which exploded when the shells hit. And if so, then Israel clearly isn’t responsible for the deaths: It used a reasonable amount of force to respond to a legitimate military threat and could not have foreseen the deadly consequences.

One of the most common accusations leveled at Israel by its critics is that because it possesses precision weaponry capable of feats like destroying a single room without damaging the rest of the building, any civilian casualties it causes must be the result of criminal negligence at best and deliberate murderousness at worst. That conclusion is obviously possible only if you ignore various salient facts, such as that mistakes are inevitable in wartime when soldiers must often make split-second decisions based on imperfect information.

But one of those salient facts is Hamas’s habit of storing arms and ammunition in civilian houses–without, obviously, informing Israel of the caches’ locations. This means that no matter how carefully Israeli troops choose their munitions, they have no way to protect against the possibility that an arms cache they didn’t know about will set off secondary explosions, resulting in far more extensive damage than they intended.

This fact is essential to understanding why the blame for most civilian casualties actually rests not with Israel, which does try hard to use proportionate military force, but with Hamas, which deliberately endangers its own civilian population by hiding weapons in their houses. Yet since it is frequently not well understood overseas, Israel has every interest in publicizing high-profile examples as heavily as possible.

Instead, it sat on its information about the Abuelaish case for eight years. The lab report was kept so secret that even Abuelaish’s lawyers didn’t know of its existence until last week, although the suit was filed back in 2010. And then, having finally been forced to disclose the report to defend against the lawsuit, the government nevertheless made no attempt to publicize it; it came to light only because a reporter took the trouble to read the defense brief and realized that the information was newsworthy.

Obviously, information like this won’t change a single Israel hater’s mind. But there are many people of goodwill, especially overseas Jews, who sincerely want to believe that the IDF strives to avoid civilian casualties, but can’t understand why, if so, they nevertheless keep occurring.

Israel has many valid answers to that question, including the fact that its civilian-to-military casualty ratio is actually lower than that of other Western armies. But these answers are useless if it doesn’t take the trouble to publicize them. Sitting on exculpatory information about a high-profile case for eight years is hardly the way to assuage its supporters’ concerns.

Originally published in Commentary on March 15, 2017

One demand that President Donald Trump repeatedly raised before taking office is for U.S. allies to contribute more to the costs of their defense. Given that Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. military aid, it would seem an obvious target for this demand. Indeed, asked by a reporter last March whether Israel should pay for American protection, Trump replied affirmatively. Thus, it’s worth recalling why Israel is America’s largest recipient of military aid, and why it’s cheap at the price.

Unlike all the other allies Trump complains about, Israel isn’t under America’s military protection and doesn’t want to be. It never has and never will ask American troops to defend it. The annual aid is intended to ensure that this situation continues, by helping Israel purchase the weaponry it needs to defend itself by itself.

Israel is perhaps unique among American allies in that it genuinely doesn’t want America to protect it militarily. The belief that it must defend itself by itself is deeply ingrained in Israel and enjoys virtually wall-to-wall consensus, and this would remain true even if America gave it no military aid at all.

Moreover, while the price tag may sound astronomical–aid to Israel currently totals $3.1 billion a year, and is slated to rise to $3.8 billion in 2019–it’s cheap compared to the cost of U.S. troop deployments to protect other American allies. For instance, maintaining U.S. bases in Japan costs America about $5.5 billion a year, and that’s in a country where troops haven’t had to fire a shot in decades. The costs rise sharply when America actually has to send soldiers into action.

The 1991 Gulf War, for instance, was fought to liberate one ally, Kuwait, from Iraqi invasion and protect another, Saudi Arabia, from falling to Iraq as well. Even with allies picking up most of the estimated $61 billion tab, it cost the U.S. about $9 billion, and that’s just the money spent on the war itself. It doesn’t include the incalculable human cost of the 383 U.S. soldiers who were killed and the 467 who were wounded or the costs of treating the latter. Yet the Gulf War was a short, low-casualty war; most U.S. wars have been far more expensive and had much higher casualty tolls.

Nor can Israel be accused of failing to contribute financially to its own defense. It’s pathetic that 23 of NATO’s 28 members spend less than 2 percent of GDP on defense when that’s the alliance’s own agreed-upon floor, and most member states could easily afford it. But Israel can hardly be faulted on that score: Its defense spending constitutes 5.2 percent of GDP, well above America’s 3.5 percent, and is the largest single item in Israel’s budget by a large margin. By comparison, America’s defense spending comes in well below its spending on both healthcare and social security.

Needless to say, the U.S. also gets many tangible benefits from the Israeli defense capabilities that its aid helps finance. One is intelligence. Just last July, Haaretz reported that in the battle against ISIS, “According to Western intelligence sources, Israel has supplied more intelligence to its allies than any other intelligence organization.” Another is combat testing of weapons systems and ensuring beneficial modifications. For instance, America’s F-16 fighters contain over 600 modifications introduced by Israel. As Haaretz reported in 2010, “between 10 percent and 15 percent of every new F-16 made in America … consists of Israeli systems.”

In addition, America derives strategic benefit from having an ally willing to police its own neighborhood to some degree rather than relying on the U.S. to do so. For instance, as I’ve noted before, Israel’s destruction of a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007 prevented ISIS from getting its hands on the raw material for a nuclear bomb. The reactor was located in one of the swathes of Syria ISIS captured. Similarly, America was able to defend its allies in the Gulf War only because Israel had destroyed Iraq’s nuclear program a decade earlier. After the war, then-Defense Minister Dick Cheney publicly thanked Israel for doing so, though the U.S. had condemned the operation at the time. Had America had an Asian ally willing to take similar action in, say, North Korea, the U.S. wouldn’t now be worrying about Pyongyang’s nukes.

Nevertheless, Israel would doubtless continue providing these services even if the U.S. slashed its military aid, and obtaining them is not the aid’s main purpose. Rather, that purpose is to ensure that American soldiers, who are expected to put their lives on the line to defend most other U.S. allies (at least as long as America continues to see defending its allies as an American interest), will never need to do so for Israel.

Consequently, the aid is a win-win situation. Israel gets help in buying the arms it needs to defend itself. And America gets an ally that doesn’t need or want its military protection. That’s infinitely preferable to having to put its soldiers in harm’s way. And it also turns out to be a lot cheaper.

Originally published in Commentary on January 25, 2017

If you want to understand why no rational person should take the United Nations seriously, consider the following three facts: Last week, the World Health Organization, a UN agency, named Israel the first country in the world to be awarded its highest ranking for medical emergency response teams deployed overseas. In other words, the organization deemed the Israel Defense Forces its first responder of choice for any disaster worldwide. Two weeks ago, the daily Israel Hayom reported that the UN’s peacekeeping service asked Israel to train its peacekeepers in emergency field medicine; the seminar is expected to take place in the coming weeks. And every year, this same UN labels Israel the world’s worst violator of health rights, the only country deserving of a country-specific condemnation.

So if you take all three of those decisions seriously, you’re forced to conclude that the UN thinks the world’s worst violator of health rights is the ideal choice to be first on the scene in any medical disaster worldwide and also to train the UN’s own peacekeepers. The UN, by an overwhelming majority, regularly passes resolutions that even its own professional staff knows to be nonsense. Its latest condemnation of Israel for ostensibly violating health rights, for instance, passed in May by a vote of 107-8 with eight abstentions.

And lest anyone thinks there might be some way to square this circle, no, the contradiction can’t be resolved by assuming that Israel’s disaster relief efforts are somehow divorced from its regular medical practices. Over the past few years, for instance, thousands of Syrians wounded in that country’s civil war have willingly come to the Golan Heights and handed themselves over to an enemy army (Israel and Syria are still officially at war) in order to obtain medical care from Israel that they can’t obtain elsewhere. That’s the same Golan Heights where, according to the resolution, Israel is regularly violating Syrians’ health rights.

Similarly, West Bank Palestinians have higher life expectancy and lower infant mortality than Mideast neighbors like Egypt and Jordan or even OECD member Turkey, due in part to their access to Israeli hospitals. That’s the same West Bank where, according to the resolution, Israel is regularly violating Palestinians’ health rights.

One might argue, looking at the decisions cited in the first paragraph, that the UN’s periodic passage of delusional anti-Israel resolutions doesn’t really matter. After all, its annual condemnations of Israel’s medical practices didn’t stop either WHO or the peacekeeping service from recognizing that Israel actually shines in this field and seeking to benefit from its expertise.

The problem is that those decisions are a rare exception to the norm. Far more often, the UN’s non-reality-based resolutions actually serve as the basis of international policy.

Consider, for instance, the UN’s 2012 vote to recognize “Palestine” as a nonmember observer state, even though it didn’t meet the basic requirements of statehood set out in the 1933 Montevideo Convention. That convention requires states to have an actual government. “Palestine” has two, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, with the result that its ostensible president can’t even enter the latter territory and his writ doesn’t run there.

While it’s still unclear how this acceptance will affect the ICC, its effect on UNESCO has been devastating. Not only did it result in the loss of U.S. funding–a full 22 percent of the agency’s budget–but the Palestinians’ nonstop submission of resolutions denying historical fact in Jerusalem has become so embarrassing that even UNESCO’s director publicly repudiated the latest one.

Back in 2002, responding to worldwide criticism of the IDF’s efforts to stop a murderous wave of Palestinian suicide bombings, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan famously asked, “Can Israel be right and the whole world wrong?” It turns out even the UN recognizes that the answer to this question is “yes.” After all, two UN agencies just conferred accolades on Israel’s medical conduct despite the UN’s own 107-8 vote lambasting that same conduct.

But that’s precisely why Israel has refused ever since its establishment to take UN resolutions seriously: No sane country would agree to determine its policies based on the demands of an organization so often disconnected from reality. Indeed, the only sensible conclusion that can be drawn from the UN’s schizophrenia toward Israel is that the organization is in desperate need of comprehensive reform to cure its own illness.

Originally published in Commentary on November 15, 2016

Back in July, trying to make sense of developments like the Brexit vote and the rise of Donald Trump, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen argued that we live in an age when people are indifferent to truth–when facts are “little annoyances easily upended.” That, however, is a self-serving excuse. The real problem is that people no longer trust the media and other gatekeeping institutions to tell them the truth, and therefore feel the “facts” provided by these institutions are unreliable things on which to base decisions. And that distrust is merited, as two recent examples show.

The first is the obituary for Shimon Peres that ran in the print edition of the International New York Times. It described the collapse of the Oslo peace process as follows:

Mr. Peres, Mr. Rabin and Arafat were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994.

But the era of good feelings did not last. It was shattered in 2000 after a visit by the opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the sacred plaza in Jerusalem known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. The next day, the Israeli police fired on stone-throwing protesters, inaugurating a new round of violence that became known as the second intifada.

Needless to say, this picture of events is totally false. The “era of good feelings” didn’t sail serenely on until Sharon “shattered” it by visiting the Temple Mount. It was actually shattered almost immediately after the Oslo Accords were signed by a wave of Palestinian terror that claimed more Israeli victims in two and a half years than all the terror attacks of the preceding decade.

Yet two things make this warped presentation of reality particularly remarkable. First, in an obituary for Shimon Peres, you’d think it would be hard to ignore facts that played a seminal role in his political career. The multiple suicide bombings of early 1996, which the obituary omits, were the direct cause of his narrow loss to Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1996 election, a loss that permanently ended his prime ministerial ambitions.

Second, this wasn’t an innocent mistake stemming from ignorance. The obituary’s online version actually does include a paragraph about the bombings and the election, right after the paragraph about the Nobel Prize. It also correctly says that the violence “accelerated” after Sharon’s visit to the Mount, rather than depicting this visit as shattering a nonexistent calm.

In other words, some editor in the Times’ European offices deliberately distorted the obituary writer’s facts to present a false picture of how the Oslo Accords collapsed. He or she cut any mention of the 1996 bombings; substituted the false sentence about “the era of good feelings,” which doesn’t appear in the online version; and then replaced the “acceleration” of the conflict with the false assertion that Sharon’s visit “shattered” the peace.

Nor is the reason for this distortion any mystery. The standard narrative in most of Europe, and also at the Times, is that Oslo’s collapse was Israel’s fault, while the Palestinians were largely blameless. Informing readers that massive suicide bombings began immediately when Oslo’s architects—Rabin and Peres—were still in office contradicts that narrative. So faced with a conflict between the facts and his or her preferred narrative, an editor at one of the world’s most prestigious newspapers chose to rewrite the facts. And then Cohen wonders why so many people are indifferent to the “facts” as promulgated by his profession.

The second example was last week’s astonishing report by the Council of Europe’s human rights agency, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, which effectively urged the British media stop informing readers that terrorist attacks committed by Islamic extremists are in fact committed by Islamic extremists. Granted, it didn’t say so explicitly. If you read the recommendations devoid of context, they merely urge “more rigorous training for journalists to ensure better compliance with ethical standards” and that “the authorities find a way to establish an independent press regulator.” But it’s quite clear what ECRI intends by these seemingly innocuous recommendations because they are immediately preceded by the following paragraph:

ECRI urges the media to take stock of the importance of responsible reporting, not only to avoid perpetuating prejudice and biased information, but also to avoid harm to targeted persons or vulnerable groups. ECRI considers that, in light of the fact that Muslims are increasingly under the spotlight as a result of recent ISIS-related terrorist acts around the world, fuelling prejudice against Muslims shows a reckless disregard, not only for the dignity of the great majority of Muslims in the United Kingdom, but also for their safety. In this context, it draws attention to a recent study by Teeside University suggesting that where the media stress the Muslim background of perpetrators of terrorist acts, and devote significant coverage to it, the violent backlash against Muslims is likely to be greater than in cases where the perpetrators’ motivation is downplayed or rejected in favour of alternative explanations.

So unless you assume the recommendations have no connection to the paragraph immediately preceding them, it’s hard to avoid concluding that ECRI, in fact, wants the press to hide the Muslim identity of Islamic terrorists and attribute their motive to something other than Islamist ideology. In other words, it wants the press to lie to the public about who the terrorists are and why they’re committing attacks. And then Cohen wonders why so many people are indifferent to the “facts” as promulgated by the European Union.

I don’t like our brave new fact-free world any better than Cohen does. But it’s the inevitable result of one very ugly fact: Institutions people used to trust, like the media and the EU, have forfeited that trust by repeatedly lying to the public in order to promote their own agendas. And the only way to start repairing the damage is for these institutions to acknowledge their own role in destroying the credibility of “facts” and then finally start telling the truth as it is, rather than as they would like it to be.

Originally published in Commentary on October 10, 2016

In my last post, I explained some of the reasons why Israel’s diplomatic future looks promising despite the ongoing freeze in the peace process. But two other factors are also likely to have a positive impact down the road. The first is that the Arabic/Islamic world, which for years was at the forefront of pushing the notion that the Palestinian issue is the world’s number-one problem, is starting to get fed up with the Palestinians’ utter self-absorption at a time when so many Arabs and Muslims are suffering far worse. The second is a small but growing cadre of Israeli Arabs who are proud citizens of Israel and willing to defend its cause overseas.

For an example of the first development, consider the blistering interview with a Palestinian spokesman conducted last month by Orient News TV, a Dubai-based Syrian opposition station. Interviewer Dima Wannous relentlessly pressed her guest, Muhammad Masharqa, on why the Palestinian issue should be “the world’s number one cause.” Following are some of the points she raised with him, as translated by MEMRI:

In 1948, the years of the Nakba, the Palestinian people were driven out of their homes and their land. Approximately 750,000 people were displaced … 750,000 Palestinians were displaced, only 150,000 of whom were expelled from Palestine. The others remained in their historical homeland, although in different places. If you take the total figure of 750,000, this is equal to the number of people who fled Syria and Iraq in the past three months. I repeat the question in another way, because you did not answer me the first time. Why is the Palestinian cause the world’s number one cause…

How come yours is the world’s number one cause? With all the great crimes perpetrated by the Israeli enemy – how many people were killed in the Palestinian ‘Land Day?’ You know better than me. Six people were killed…

Saddam Hussein was idolized by the masses for firing 36 or 39 Scud missiles at Tel Aviv, while he was perpetrating crimes on a daily basis against his own people. The Palestinian greatly appreciated Saddam Hussein for this deed. If we want to talk about the Palestinians’ approach to the liberation of the peoples, is it conceivable for them to support a murderer, an arch-killer, a dictator … just because he fired missiles at Tel Aviv? What about the [Iraqi] people?

Nor was Wannous the least impressed by Masharqa’s attempts to justify Palestinian centrality on the grounds that Israel was a “colonialist” country. “In other words, you’ve benefitted from the enemy being Jewish and Israeli,” she retorted.

Granted, her attitude is far from being the majority position in the Arab world. But it’s no longer unique, either. Just two months ago, I wrote about a former senior Egyptian official who was similarly disgusted by all the attention lavished on fake Palestinian refugees when real Syrian refugees are in dire need of assistance.

The Palestinian cause didn’t become a Western obsession by mere chance; it became a Western obsession in large part because the Arab/Islamic world spent decades relentlessly telling Westerners that this was the Middle East’s biggest problem. By now, this view has become entrenched dogma in the West, and it clearly won’t lose that position overnight. But as Arab/Islamic countries start downgrading the importance of the Palestinian issue, this will eventually have an impact on the West as well.

Reinforcing this development is the increasing emergence of homegrown Arab advocates for Israel. Earlier this month, the Jerusalem Post profiled one such activist–Mohammed Ka’abiya, an air force veteran and university student who has been advocating for Israel on overseas campuses as a StandWithUs Fellow.

It’s relatively easy for anti-Israel activists to persuade ignorant young Westerners that Israel is an “apartheid state” when the main opposition to this canard comes from Jews, who can be smeared as “interested parties.” It’s much harder when a Muslim Bedouin comes up afterward and says, “My name is Mohammad, and I served in the Israel Air Force, and I’m preparing Bedouin guides to serve. I’m here to protect Israel from the BDS lies. You must know that Israeli Arabs have the freedom to live, work, worship and travel.”

Like Wannous, Ka’abiya is still very much in the minority, but again, neither is he unique. His best-known colleagues include diplomat George Deek, who argues that Israeli Arabs can and should “live as a contributing minority” in Israel just like “the Jews in Europe, who kept their religion and identity for centuries but still managed to influence,” and Father Gabriel Naddaf, who has been successfully encouraging his fellow Christian Arabs to serve in the Israeli army and has defended Israel at the UN.

In arguing that the Israeli-Palestinian status quo is unsustainable, both the Israeli left and its American Jewish counterpart rely heavily on fears that the ongoing conflict is eroding Western support for Israel, and that therefore, time is on the Palestinians’ side. But given the West’s growing and unhappy acquaintance with radical Islam, Israel’s improving status in other parts of the world (as detailed in my previous post), and the nascent change in Arab attitudes toward the Palestinian issue, it’s looking far more likely that time is on Israel’s side.

In the long run, these developments could also help solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by convincing Palestinians that Israel isn’t likely to disappear, so negotiating a reasonable peace deal is their best option. But whether or not that ever happens, there’s no reason for Israel to feel pressured to make hasty concessions for fear of diplomatic isolation. As recent developments make clear, Israel can afford to wait.

Originally published in Commentary on August 26, 2016

In a world where entire countries are collapsing, it’s not surprising that the collapse of a decades-old diplomatic axiom has been largely ignored. This axiom holds that Israel’s international relations are dependent on the fate of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Relations will improve if the government makes progress toward peace and worsen if the peace process stalemates. Yet Israel today, under a government widely (though wrongly) deemed its “most right-wing ever” and equally widely (though equally wrongly) blamed for the nonexistent peace process, has been expanding and deepening its diplomatic relationships at a dizzying pace, as the past week once again shows.

On Monday, on the way home from a visit to Guinea–a Muslim-majority country with which Israel resumed relations this summer after a 49-year hiatus–Foreign Ministry Director General Dore Gold stopped off in another African country with which Israel still has no formal ties. According to Haaretz, no Israeli diplomat has ever before been invited to this country. That same day, Kazakhstan’s defense minister came to Israel to meet with his Israeli counterpart prior to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned visit to this Muslim-majority country later this year. According to the Jerusalem Post, that will make Netanyahu the first sitting Israeli premier ever to visit Central Asia. And while Nigerian opposition has apparently stalled a bid by several African countries to invite Netanyahu to this year’s summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the president of Togo has announced that he will host a meeting between Netanyahu and ECOWAS leaders next spring, in yet another first. Nor are such developments unusual these days; just last month, I wrote a post listing several other such firsts.

Granted, the main impetus for this change has nothing to with Israel; rather, it’s the global upsurge in Islamist terror, which has spurred more and more countries to seek to benefit from Israel’s unhappily vast experience in combating such terror. Nevertheless, it’s no accident that these blossoming diplomatic ties are happening specifically under a “right-wing” government.

Netanyahu and his cabinet have been able to exploit this opening to the fullest precisely because they never bought the diplomatic axiom so beloved of the Israeli left. Had the government actually believed diplomatic success depended on progress in the peace process, it wouldn’t have invested much effort on trying to expand Israel’s ties with the traditionally pro-Palestinian non-Western world at a time when the peace process was stalemated because it would consider such efforts doomed to failure. And in fact, before Netanyahu took office in 2009, Israeli diplomacy did focus almost exclusively on the West.

But Netanyahu and certain other key cabinet ministers (most notably former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman) have toiled for years to improve ties with non-Western countries. Thus when changing geopolitical circumstances provided an opportunity, they were fully prepared to seize it, with a skill that won admiration even from diehard critics like Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit.

Yet despite the growing evidence to the contrary, many Israeli pundits still insist that further progress is impossible without movement on the peace process, seemingly oblivious to the possibility that circumstances can change. And it isn’t just leftists; even intelligent center-rightists like Yaakov Amidror have joined the recent chorus proclaiming, to take one example, that formal ties with Saudi Arabia are impossible without an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. In the short term, of course, they’re undoubtedly right. But to declare it impossible in the longer run, given how fast things have been changing recently, is sheer folly.

For instance, had anyone predicted, as recently as six weeks ago, that a Saudi delegation headed by a former senior government official would openly visit Israel–a move experts widely agree would be impossible without Riyadh’s approval–they would have been dismissed as crazy. And yet, it happened. Had anyone predicted a few years ago that under-the-table Saudi-Israeli defense cooperation would become an open secret, they would also have been dubbed crazy. But that, too, happened.

Or to take another example, had anyone said, as recently as last week, that an Egyptian foreign minister would tell Egyptian high-school students that Israel couldn’t be accused of state terrorism and had legitimate concerns about self-defense, they would have been dubbed crazy. And yet, that also happened, according to Arab media reports, which were lent credence when Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry issued a “denial” that didn’t actually deny either of those statements (he merely denied that dead Palestinian children were mentioned in either the student’s question or his response).

Indeed, it’s far more likely that such “firsts” will continue, because not only has rising Islamic terror made Israel a more desirable ally, but attitudes toward the Palestinian issue are also slowly changing, even in the Arab world. As I’ve noted before, the collapse of several Arab countries (Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen) has prompted a growing realization that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is far from the Middle East’s worst problem. And as that realization sinks in, the argument for continuing to eschew potentially beneficial relationships with Israel becomes less convincing.

Still, one might ask, what about the West, where the Palestinian issue actually seems to be growing in importance? It’s true that, being more insulated from the impact of the Middle East’s collapse, many Westerners have been slower to abandon the theory of Israeli-Palestinian centrality. But the West’s insulation is fraying, as the flood of refugees and rising terror show. And though in the short term, as I’ve explained before, that may make Europeans even more anti-Israel, over the long term, reality tends to become hard to ignore.

When you add in the fact that Israel already has strong bases of support in the West – even in hostile Europe, as activist Ariel Bolstein discovered on a recent tour of British pubs – there’s no reason to think Israel’s relations with the West will remain hostage to the Palestinian issue forever. The real mistake would be for Israel to throw up its hands and insist no improvement is possible rather than preparing to take advantage of new opportunities if they arise. And that, based on its record, doesn’t seem like a mistake this government will make.

Originally published in Commentary on August 25, 2016

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How a Changing American Liberalism Is Pulling American Jews away From Israel

In his essay “Why Many American Jews are Becoming Indifferent or Even Hostile to Israel,” Daniel Gordis lists, as key sources of tension, four major differences between the American and the Israeli political projects. His analysis strikes me as largely accurate, yet I think he misses something important by treating the differences as longstanding and perhaps even inherent. In fact, most are of recent vintage, and there is nothing inevitable or intractable about them. They are the product, first, of dramatic changes in the tenets of political liberalism, and second, of a collective decision by many American Jews to follow the new liberalism wherever it leads—even when it contradicts longstanding axioms of both American politics and traditional Judaism.

Take, for instance, the issue of universalism versus particularism. It’s true, as Gordis notes, that unlike Israel, America was not founded to serve a particular ethnic group. Nevertheless, throughout most of its history, America has viewed itself and functioned as a nation-state. Thus, despite promoting supranational projects like the European Union, which entail forfeitures of sovereignty, America has shunned any such project for itself, preferring jealously to preserve its own sovereignty. This preference traces straight back to the founders’ distrust of “entangling alliances.” Even today, there is bipartisan agreement that America’s first responsibility is to itself, whether or not the “international community” agrees; that’s why even a thoroughly liberal president like Barack Obama didn’t hesitate to launch strikes against anti-American terrorists worldwide without waiting for UN approval—something few European countries would deem thinkable.

Of course, the agreement isn’t wall-to-wall. In recent decades a vocal subset of American liberals, mostly housed in the left wing of the Democratic party, has come to believe that—in the words of Walter Hallstein, first president of the European Commission—”the system of sovereign nation-states has failed.” As perhaps inevitable corollaries of this belief, they argue that national decisions require “global legitimacy,” and that one’s fellow citizens have no more claim on one’s allegiance than do citizens of other countries.

Princeton University, my alma mater, exemplifies this evolution. When I graduated in 1987, the university’s motto was “Princeton in the nation’s service,” which nobody considered problematic. A decade later, the idea that a university should dedicate itself to serving its own country in particular had become unacceptable in advanced liberal circles. And so, in 1996, the motto was changed to “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.” Two decades later, even this was deemed too particularistic; last year, the university’s trustees recommended a new version: “Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.”

The change is hardly trivial. Americans who view their country as a nation-state, even if not the state of a particular ethnic group, have no trouble understanding why, when Israeli and Palestinian interests clash, Israel puts its own interests first: why it is reluctant to cede more territory to Palestinians when every previous such cession has massively increased terror, or ready to fight wars to stop rocket fire on its civilian population. Only for liberals who believe that countries have no right to prioritize their own citizens over other human beings are such decisions unacceptable.

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