Analysis from Israel

Foreign Affairs and Defense

Like most pro-Israel commentators, I’m appalled by U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American forces from Syria. Nevertheless, this is the wrong issue for pro-Israel activists to pick a fight over. Criticizing the decision on grounds unrelated to Israel—of which there are many—is fine. But to imply that U.S. troops should remain in Syria for Israel’s sake is to betray the fundamental tenet of the American-Israeli alliance: Israel will defend itself by itself; it will never ask America to put soldiers in harm’s way for its sake.

It’s worth underscoring just how unique this makes Israel among American allies. America has fought to defend Europe repeatedly. It fought for South Korea in the 1950s, South Vietnam in the 1960s, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in 1991. And there’s an understanding, often anchored in bilateral or multilateral treaties (such as NATO), that America would fight for many other allies if necessary, like Japan, Canada or Australia.

But with Israel, the agreement has always been that Israel would see to its own defense, while America would provide it with the means to do so. That arrangement suited both sides. For America, it was much less costly in terms of both lives and money than having to defend Israeli militarily (a point I explained in detail here). And for Israel, it satisfied a deeply ingrained lesson of Jewish history: Relying on others for protection always ends badly for the Jews.

In that sense, Trump was right, but only partly so, when he rejected claims that the withdrawal would hurt Israel by saying, “We give Israel $4.5 billion a year. And they’re doing very well defending themselves.” Enabling Israel to defend itself is indeed why America gives it such generous aid ($3.8 billion annually, plus $700 million for missile defense in 2018). If Israel relied on American troops to defend it, that aid would have no justification.

But money alone isn’t enough to enable Israel to defend itself. In fact, it’s far less important than two other critical needs.

The first is a reliable arms supplier—one not only willing to sell Israel top-quality weaponry in peacetime, but also to keep the supplies coming during wartime, when they’re most needed. America is irreplaceable in this regard, as Israel has learned through bitter experience. France, for instance, famously halted arms shipments to Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War. Britain has done so repeatedly, most recently by threatening an arms embargo in 2014 if hostilities in Gaza resumed. This, even more than the fact that most American aid must be spent in America, is why Israel buys little military equipment from either country.

The second is support in the diplomatic arena, where Israel is highly vulnerable. Every time Israel fights, it comes under tremendous international pressure to stop immediately before it can defeat or even damage the enemy. Moreover, it’s routinely threatened with international sanctions over issues ranging from spurious war-crimes’ allegations to the settlements. America’s diplomatic umbrella, especially but not exclusively at the United Nations, is thus critical both to buying Israel the time it needs to fight and to protecting it from sanctions.

This brings us to the second reason why a pro-Israel fight with Trump over Syria seems counterproductive. Though Israel benefited significantly from the American troop presence in Syria, its most pressing needs are diplomatic support in general and support for its ability to defend itself in particular. And on both, Trump remains a vast improvement over his predecessor.

Granted, Israel hasn’t fought any wars since he took office, so there’s no guarantee of how he would act. But there’s no reason to think that he wouldn’t provide the needed support, given his administration’s staunch defense of Israel at the United Nations to date.

In contrast, Israel did fight a war while Barack Obama was president, so it knows what it’s like to be without American support. During the 2014 Gaza war, Obama’s administration famously refused to resupply Israel with Hellfire missiles. It sought to pressure Israel into a cease-fire agreement that met all of Hamas’s demands and none of Israel’s. It issued an endless stream of condemnations of Israel during the fighting, rather than supporting Israel’s right to self-defense against the thousands of rockets Hamas fired at Israeli cities.

Then, in 2016, Obama also stripped Israel of America’s diplomatic protection. The U.N. Security Council resolution against the settlements, which he allowed to pass, laid the groundwork for international sanctions against Israel and even prosecution at the International Criminal Court.

And that’s without even mentioning the minor detail that it was Obama who abandoned Syria to Iran and Russia to begin with. Tehran financed its massive Syrian intervention with the billions of dollars it reaped from Obama’s flagship act of diplomacy, the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. And Moscow entered the Syrian war only after waiting more than three years to make sure that America wasn’t planning to get involved. By the time Trump took office, Russian-Iranian domination of Syria was a fait accompli to which America’s scant 2,000 troops could make little difference.

None of this justifies the Syria withdrawal. It’s a terrible idea, and not only, or even primarily, because Israel benefited from having American troops blocking Iran’s long-desired land route through Syria to Lebanon. It further empowers Russia, Turkey and Iran—none of which wish America (or Israel) well. It also may enable a resurgence of the Islamic State, just as America’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 did. Abandoning the Kurds to Turkey’s tender mercies after they have been America’s best foot soldiers against the Islamic State for years is not only a moral crime, but a strategic one, as it will undermine America’s ability to recruit local allies in the future. And America will save little in terms of either lives or money by ending this low-cost, low-casualty mission.

But from a pro-Israel perspective, none of this changes two basic facts. First, there are things Israel needs from Trump more than troops in Syria. And second, asking America to keep soldiers anywhere for Israel’s sake violates a sine qua non of both the Israeli ethos and the bilateral alliance—that Israel defends itself by itself.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on January 3, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org

It’s no secret that UNIFIL, the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon, has never done the job it’s supposedly there to do. But this week, we learned that UNIFIL isn’t merely useless; it’s counterproductive. By the very fact of its existence, the organization deters the European Union from listing Hezbollah as a terrorist organization—something which, unlike UNIFIL, would genuinely impede Hezbollah’s operations.

This dirty little secret came out after Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini called Hezbollah “Islamic terrorists” during a visit to Israel on Tuesday. The Italian Defense Ministry promptly issued a press statement blasting Salvini for “embarrassing” Rome by calling a spade a spade. “These statements obviously put in a very difficult position our men who are deployed on that southern border,” the statement warned, referring to the Italian contingent of UNIFIL deployed along Lebanon’s border with Israel.

Originally published in Commentary on December 13, 2018

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is being assailed by his own base for his restraint last week following Hamas’s massive bombardment of southern Israel. But in considering what Israel’s policy should be, it’s important to realize that for now, the option of permanently ending Hamas terror doesn’t exist—not because it’s beyond Israel’s capability, but because it lacks sufficient public support.

If someone came up with an idea for destroying Hamas that could be executed quickly and with minimal casualties, Israelis obviously would support that, but nobody has. Thus the only plan with proven capability to suppress terror over the long term remains the one Israel executed in the West Bank in 2002 in response to the second intifada: The army goes in, and it never leaves. That’s how Israel defeated the second intifada, and how it has kept West Bank terror within tolerable limits ever since.

But doing the same in Gaza would have very high costs—in soldiers’ lives, in international opprobrium and possibly in saddling Israel with responsibility for Gaza’s civilian problems. It would be far more costly than it was to reoccupy the West Bank because Hamas has used its 11 years of total control over Gaza to become far better armed and far more deeply entrenched than West Bank terrorists were in 2002.

No democracy could undertake such a costly plan without widespread public support, but especially not Israel, because any major military operation requires a massive call-up of reservists, and Israeli reservists tend to vote with their feet. They’ll show up in droves for an operation with broad support, but an operation widely considered unjustified will spark major protests.

That’s exactly what happened when, during the second intifada, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon thought Israelis’ overwhelming support for reoccupying the West Bank created a golden opportunity to do the same in Gaza. He was forced to scrap that idea after a massive public outcry, especially from reservists.

The crucial difference Sharon had overlooked was the level of pain that Israelis were experiencing. The West Bank was wreaking havoc nationwide at that time. A wave of suicide bombings and other attacks in cities throughout Israel killed 452 Israelis in 2002, including 130 in March 2002 alone. But Gaza was causing most Israelis very little pain. Though there were attacks on soldiers and settlers in Gaza itself, there were almost no attacks from Gaza inside Israel. Consequently, most Israelis weren’t willing to pay the price that a major operation in Gaza would have entailed.

And for all the differences in today’s situation, that same basic fact remains true: Gaza isn’t causing most Israelis enough pain to make them willing to reoccupy the territory. It has made life hell for residents of communities near the border for the last seven months, and it did the same for the entire south during last week’s rocket barrage. But the vast majority of Israelis have been completely unaffected. For people in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem and most other major population centers, life continued as normal.

Hamas understands this very well. That’s why it deliberately confined itself to bombarding the south, despite having missiles capable of reaching most of Israel. It wanted to cause as much pain as possible without crossing the threshold that would provoke Israel into war—and it succeeded.

But with the option of reoccupying Gaza unavailable, the two main options left are both short-term fixes.

One is a smaller-scale military operation. The last such operation, in 2014, bought the south three-and-a-half years of almost total quiet, but at a price (for Israel) of 72 dead and massive international opprobrium. Another such operation might buy a similar period of calm, but at a similar or even higher cost. And it would have to be repeated again in another few years, by which time Hamas may be better armed and capable of exacting an even higher price.

The second option, which Netanyahu evidently favors, is to negotiate a long-term ceasefire. This might buy a similar period of quiet, though since it hasn’t been tried before, there’s no guarantee. And it has several obvious advantages: no deaths, no international opprobrium, and most likely, greater support within Israel (though judging by past experience, not abroad) for a more forceful response once the ceasefire collapses, as it will at some point.

But it also has some obvious downsides. First, it’s devastating to Israeli deterrence, since it shows that firing rockets is a good way to get Israel to capitulate to your demands. Second, it ensures that when the inevitable next round arrives, Hamas will be able to inflict much more damage than it could today.

To grasp just how much, consider that since the 2014 war, Hamas has been under a tight Israeli and Egyptian blockade. Yet according to Israeli intelligence, it has nevertheless managed to completely rebuild and perhaps even exceed the arsenal it had then. Indeed, Hamas fired more than 450 rockets in just two days last week, almost three times the daily average of 85 rockets during the 2014 war. If it managed such a massive rearmament despite the blockade, one can only imagine how much more military materiel it would acquire under a long-term truce that would relax the blockade and pour cash into Gaza (ostensibly for civilian projects, but Hamas makes sure to take a cut of every dollar that enters).

Either of these options would only postpone the inevitable: Barring a miracle, Hamas will eventually become overconfident and cause Israel enough anguish to provoke it to reoccupy Gaza. By postponing that day, and thereby allowing Hamas to further arm and entrench itself, Israel merely ensures that when it comes, it will come at a much higher price—in Israeli casualties, in Palestinian casualties and in international opprobrium.

But knowing that doesn’t change the political reality that such an operation isn’t possible now. In today’s reality, the most that Netanyahu can do is buy a few more years of quiet. And his only choice is whether to do so via a ceasefire or a limited military operation, each of which carries its own major price tag.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on November 21, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org

Listening to “experts” on the Mideast has been positively embarrassing recently. They admit that the Arab world has just taken some dramatic steps toward normalization with Israel, and they admit that they had previously considered such steps inconceivable without Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. Yet in the same breath, they assert unequivocally that progress on the Palestinian track remains a prerequisite for further normalization. In other words, the failure of their previous predictions hasn’t dented their confidence in their predictive powers.

Mideast experts obviously aren’t alone in this. It’s a common failing among experts in many fields, and it has contributed significantly to “populist” disdain for expert opinion. But recent developments in the Mideast offer a particularly clear example of the problem.

One of the most significant of these developments was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Oman, an Arab country with which Israel has no official relations, on Oct. 26. Given that even Egypt and Jordan, with which Israel does have relations, often keep Netanyahu’s visits secret, the fact that Oman made the trip public, with several Omani newspapers reporting it, may be even more noteworthy than the fact that it took place.

The next day, at the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain, Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah went even further, telling the Mideast security summit that “Israel is a state present in the region, and we all understand this. … Maybe it is time for Israel to be treated the same and also bear the same obligations.”

That same weekend, an international judo tournament took place in the United Arab Emirates. Although much has been made of the fact that Israeli judokas were allowed to compete under their own flag and anthem for the first time in the history of the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam, that actually proves nothing except that the International Judo Federation finally developed a spine: After cravenly forcing Israeli athletes to complete under the federation’s flag and anthem at last year’s tournament, this year, it threatened to strip Abu Dhabi of hosting rights unless Israeli athletes were treated the same as athletes from other countries (the success of this tactic should be a lesson to other sporting associations that still kowtow to Arab states’ refusal to grant Israeli athletes equal rights).

But Abu Dhabi went far beyond the federation’s mandate. Nothing in the federation’s rulebook, for instance, required the hosts to grant Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev the honor of awarding the medals at one of the tournament’s events. Nor did anything in the federation’s rules require Emirati officials to take Regev on an official visit to Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque—the first such visit by any Israeli minister. As Times of Israel reporter Raphael Ahren put it, this “was something veteran analysts said they never imagined could happen in their lifetime.” In other words, Abu Dhabi took advantage of the cover provided by the tournament to make some dramatic gestures toward Israel.

Mideast experts readily acknowledged that the Omani and Emirati moves, coming as they did at a time when the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is frozen, were both unprecedented and completely unexpected. Yet that didn’t stop most of them from asserting that “only a final status agreement with the Palestinians can inspire normalization,” as Evan Gottesman of the Israel Policy Forum put it. Or as Yoel Guzansky of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies told Ahren, “The Palestinians are still the glass ceiling for Arab-Israel normalization. … This visit should be the beginning of normalization, not the end, but for the Gulf states, it’s likely the end. This is the most they can do for now.”

Yet what makes them so certain? After all, they’ve been wrong many times before. Just two years ago, after another round of unprecedented gestures, the “experts” similarly declared (wrongly) that the rapprochement had gone as far as it could without progress on the Palestinian track. So why are they convinced that this time, they’re right?

There are two answers to this. The first is wishful thinking. The experts making this claim generally favor Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, so they don’t want Israel to be able to normalize relations with Arab states without such concessions. Similarly, the few experts who confidently predict that normalization is possible regardless of the Palestinians are generally people who oppose such concessions.

The second answer is that predicting change is hard. For decades, with the notable exception of the peace with Egypt, Arab attitudes toward Israel were in stasis, making it easy to predict that the future would resemble the past. But now, with Arab attitudes in flux, nobody can really know how far Arab states are willing to go; I doubt they even know themselves. There’s simply no precedent to judge by.

Yet since human beings don’t deal well with chaos, the normal human instinct is to cling to the past as a guide even when that guide is clearly no longer reliable. And that’s especially true for “experts” because if they admit to being clueless, then why should anyone listen to them anymore?

That’s precisely why experts are so often wrong on so many issues—not because they’re stupid or evil, but because they’re too arrogant to admit that even experts can’t predict the future. They can’t predict whether a complex policy will succeed or fail, they can’t predict when a seemingly stable country will suddenly implode, they can’t predict when long-held attitudes will suddenly shift.

That doesn’t make them useless; experts excel at concrete tasks that don’t require oracular powers. For instance, though Israel’s intelligence agencies failed to predict the second intifada, they became very good at the day-to-day task of thwarting terror attacks once they adjusted to the new situation.

But unless experts acquire enough modesty and honesty to admit that they have no special expertise about the future, they will keep getting big issues wrong. And eventually, like the boy who cried “wolf,” people will stop listening to them altogether, even on issues where they do have something to contribute.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on November 7, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org

It’s no secret that Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates loathe Iran. What’s far more surprising is that Iran seems to be wearing out its welcome even in the Arab countries with which it is most closely allied. That, at least, is the message of both a recent study of Syrian textbooks and a recent wave of violent protests in Iraq.

In Syria, Shiite Iran has been the mainstay of the Assad regime (which belongs to the Alawite sect of Shiism) ever since civil war erupted in 2011, pitting the regime against Sunni rebels. It has brought more than 80,000 troops to Syria to fight for the regime, mostly either from Shiite militias it already sponsored in Lebanon and Iraq or from new Shiite militias created especially for this purpose out of Afghan and Pakistani refugees in Iran. It has also given the Assad regime astronomical sums of money to keep it afloat.

Scholars estimate its combined military and economic aid to Syria over the course of the war at anywhere from $30 billion to $105 billion. Without this Iranian help, the regime likely wouldn’t have survived until Russia finally intervened in 2015, providing the crucial air power that enabled Assad to regain most of the territory he had lost.

Given all this, one would expect the regime to be grateful to its Iranian benefactors. Instead, as the textbook study shows, Assad is teaching Syrian schoolchildren a healthy dose of suspicion toward Iran.

The study, by researchers from the IMPACT-se research institute, examined official Syrian textbooks for first through twelfth graders used in areas controlled by Assad in 2017-18. Unsurprisingly, these books present Russia as a close ally. Students are even required to study the Russian language.

The portrayal of Iran, in contrast, is “lukewarm at best,” the report said. In part, this is because the “curriculum as a whole revolves around secular pan-Arabism” and Syria’s position as an integral part of the “Arab homeland,” to which non-Arab Iran emphatically doesn’t belong. And in part, it’s because Iran has historically been the Arab world’s rival. Even though the textbooks praise the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the Islamic Republic’s subsequent antagonism to Israel and the West, which Syria shares, they have little good to say about the country formerly known as Persia in all the millennia until then.

For instance, the books say, the Arab world suffered “cultural domination” by the Persian Empire during the Abbasid caliphate, and at times, Arab lands were even under “Persian occupation.” Nor is this occupation a thing of the past: Even today, the books list Iran’s Khuzestan province as one of “the usurped areas of the Arab homeland.” In fact, it’s dubbed one of “the most important usurped regions.”

And what about Hezbollah, the Iranian-sponsored Lebanese militia which played a key role in some of Assad’s most important victories, at the price of having over a third of its fighters killed or wounded? It doesn’t even merit a mention in the textbooks, the report said.

Now consider Shi’ite-majority Iraq, which also owes its very existence, in part, to Iranian support: After the Islamic State took over large swaths of the country a few years ago, Iranian-sponsored Shi’ite militias proved crucial to regaining this territory. The air power provided by the U.S.-led coalition also obviously played a key role, but on the ground, the Iranian-backed militias were among Iraq’s most effective troops. And aside from this massive military aid, Iran is one of Iraq’s biggest trading partners and an important supplier of electricity.

Yet the protests that have recently swept southern Iraq—the country’s Shi’ite heartland—haven’t focused solely on the Iraqi government’s corruption and dysfunction; they have also repeatedly targeted Iranian-affiliated organizations. The Jerusalem Post reported last week that protesters torched a base belonging to the Iranian-backed militia Kata’ib Hezbollah. They also raided the Najaf airport, and “locals claimed they ransacked planes belonging to Iran.”

In addition, they targeted offices belonging to the Dawa party, the Badr party, and the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia, “all of which are closely connected to Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps,” the report continued. “According to Iraq expert Haydar Al-Khoei, the protesters chanted ‘the Iranian Dawa party, the Safavids,’ a reference to the Persian Empire and an attempt to portray modern-day Iranian-backed parties in Iraq as a form of Iranian takeover of the country.”

Neither Syrian suspicion nor Iraqi hostility should actually be terribly surprising. Both countries understand that Iran didn’t provide such massive military aid out of the goodness of its heart. Rather, its goal is to turn both Syria and Iraq into Iranian satrapies, much as Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon already is. And neither Syrians nor Iraqis are enthusiastic over that prospect. (Russia obviously isn’t helping the Assad regime out of altruism either, but it seems to be seeking more limited quid pro quos, like oil concessions and naval bases, rather than total domination of the country.)

Needless to say, this doesn’t mean either Syria or Iraq will be showing Iran the door anytime soon; both are still too dependent on it. But it does mean Iran’s goal of Mideast domination may face more obstacles than were apparent a few years ago, making the goal of an Iranian rollback even more feasible.

Achieving rollback, however, will require continued efforts to make Iran’s military adventurism financially unsupportable. The Trump Administration’s planned new sanctions on Iran are an important step in the right direction. But the European Union is going in the opposite direction. It’s actually considering throwing Tehran a financial lifeline by letting Iran’s central bank open accounts with European central banks.

Washington must make it clear to Europe that any such effort will have severe ramifications for European access to America’s financial system. With Iraqis, Syrians and Iranians themselves now voicing growing discontent over Iran’s meddling in other countries, this is no time for the West to go wobbly.

Originally published in Commentary on July 20, 2018

I’ve been wondering recently whether I’m simply a hypocrite. After all, I think the world was wrong to close its doors to Jewish refugees during the Nazi era, yet I sympathize with the West’s unwillingness to welcome the seemingly endless stream of desperate people beating on its doors today. So in an effort to determine whether my position has any conceivable justification, I finally read the U.N. Refugee Convention of 1951, the foundational document codifying the international obligation to help refugees.

The popular view of this convention is that it protects anyone fleeing genuine danger. Moreover, that’s how many countries seem to have interpreted it in practice. Yet its plain language is far more restrictive than that—so much so that it would arguably exclude most of today’s migrants. And there’s a very good reason for this. But before considering the reason, let’s consider what the convention does and doesn’t say.

Its definition of a refugee has two clauses. The first covers specific groups defined as refugees under previous conventions—victims of the Nazis, Armenian victims of Turkey’s genocide, Russian victims of the Communist regime. The second covers anyone who has a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

That definition has several surprising omissions. Most notably, it never mentions war, though anyone in a war zone obviously faces real and life-threatening danger. This danger, however, doesn’t usually stem from persecution based on race, religion, etc.; rather, it’s inherent in the nature of war, affecting everyone in the area where bombs and bullets are flying. Thus people fleeing war zones seemingly wouldn’t be covered by the convention’s plain text, unless they’ve also been specifically targeted due to race, religion, etc.

Another glaring omission is dictatorship. Though dictatorships do oppress people on the basis of race, religion, etc., many also practice forms of repression that affect all their citizens, rather than targeting specific groups or individuals; think North Korea or Eritrea. Yet according to the convention’s plain text, simply living in an oppressive dictatorship wouldn’t entitle someone to refugee status, unless he were also specifically targeted due to race, religion, etc.

The third noteworthy omission is dysfunctional governments, which are incapable of protecting their citizens. That’s the problem for many of today’s Latin American émigrés, who are fleeing horrific gang violence that their governments can’t seem to stop. Again, the danger that they’re fleeing is real and life-threatening. But the gangs usually don’t target people due to race, religion, etc.; they tyrannize indiscriminately. Hence according to the convention’s plain text, most of their victims also wouldn’t be entitled to refugee status.

If the popular view of the convention were accurate, then it would apply to anyone fleeing war, dictatorship or dysfunctional government since all such people are genuinely endangered. But it’s no oversight that the convention doesn’t cover any of these cases; in fact, it was crafted so narrowly for a very good reason.

The reason is that international law is not a suicide pact. Indeed, it can’t be, because no country would sign an international convention whose terms, if honored, would undermine the country’s well-being. In this case, no country would have signed a convention requiring it to open its doors to a virtually unlimited number of migrants because there are limits to how many people any country can absorb without causing social upheaval.

The expansive definition of “anyone fleeing real danger” would comprise hundreds of millions or even billions of people. If anyone fleeing war were a refugee, for instance, then over the past few years alone, the entire populations of Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Somalia, Central African Republic and Iraq would have been entitled to refugee status—and that’s not even an exhaustive list. If anyone fleeing a dictatorship or dysfunctional government were a refugee, the world would have to open its gates to the populations of much of Africa, central Asia and Central America. And as the current backlash to immigration in both America and Europe shows, this is simply more than most countries will ever be willing to do.

Hence the convention’s drafters were careful to choose an inherently limited definition. Groups being persecuted due to race, religion, etc. are almost always comparatively small minorities that the world could manage to absorb—Jews under the Nazis, Yazidis under the Islamic State, Rohingya in Myanmar, and so forth.

Moreover, people targeted on the basis of race, religion, etc., are often the very people most in need of refuge. And if the world can only absorb a limited number of refugees, it makes sense to give priority to those most in need.

The problem with expanding the definition of refugees beyond the convention’s narrow bounds isn’t just that it violates the convention’s plain text, although that’s a danger in itself: If conventions end up entailing obligations far beyond those to which the signatories originally consented, then countries will eventually refuse to sign any convention at all.

The other danger, however, is that if everyone is considered a refugee, then in the end, nobody will be. If refugees are a limited class of people, there’s some hope that other countries can be persuaded to take them in. If they’re an infinite class of people, then ultimately, the world will shut its gates to them all. Indeed, some countries are already doing just that.

The desire to expand the refugee definition is motivated by real concern for people in real danger. But this is a classic case in which, as Voltaire famously said: “Perfect is the enemy of good.” In the real world, only by retaining a narrow definition of refugees will we be able to preserve any protections at all, even for those who need them most.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on July 18, 2018 © 2018 JNS.org

The news that Hungary’s prime minister will visit Israel next week has sparked outrage from liberal Jews both in Israel and abroad. Opponents raise two main objections. One would be serious if true, but it doesn’t seem to be. The other is sheer hypocrisy–and it’s an excellent example of the way liberal Jews routinely hold Israel to standards they apply to no other country on earth.

The hypocritical objection is that Viktor Orban is an authoritarian. “Sad company to keep,” tweeted Brookings Institute fellow Tamara Cofman Wittes after hearing that Orban was definitely coming and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte (who is admittedly more problematic) might be. Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro also questioned the wisdom of welcoming Orban and other authoritarians. “While Israel’s unique security and other requirements understandably impel it to develop as wide a network of relationships as it can,” he said, “I think it will want to avoid finding its own democratic identity tarnished by, of its own choosing, aligning less with the club of democracies and more with this very different coalition.”

This is simply ridiculous. Aside from the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also regularly hosted liberal leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel (several times) and Barack Obama, with French President Emmanuel Macron reportedly planning to visit later this year, the reality is that most countries in the world today are authoritarian, and even a growing number of Western democracies have authoritarian leaders. Thus, any country which wants to maintain relationships with more than a handful of other countries will end up hosting a lot of authoritarian leaders, which is why every other Western democracy also does so.

In fact, other Western democracies often host leaders considerably more objectionable than Orban, and with less justification. I can understand hosting Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping despite their aggressive foreign policies; Russia and China are too important to be ignored. But just this month, Switzerland and Austria welcomed Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, as did France and Italy in 2016, even though Rouhani’s government is actively abetting the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people in Syria and Yemen and brutally crushing dissent at home. That’s far worse than hosting Orban, whose government isn’t killing anyone.

Moreover, Hungary is genuinely important to Israel’s core foreign policy interests, since it has repeatedly helped quash anti-Israel decisions by Israel’s largest trading partner, the European Union. What vital contributions does Iran make to Europe’s core interests that justify overlooking its complicity in mass murder?

In short, liberal Jews are criticizing Israel for doing exactly what every other Western democracy does—except that other Western countries are even more egregious, and with fewer excuses.

Now let’s consider the serious objection, which is that Orban foments anti-Semitism in Hungary. Most Israelis would agree that their government shouldn’t whitewash anti-Semitism; that’s why Netanyahu’s recent statement downplaying Poland’s role in the Holocaust sparked outrage far beyond the ranks of his usual opponents. If true, this charge would be a valid reason to oppose Orban’s visit.

The problem is that the evidence doesn’t support it. That isn’t because Hungary has no anti-Semitism problem; indeed, a major study published last month showed that almost two-thirds of Hungarian Jews think it does. Moreover, Orban has undeniably made some problematic statements.

Nevertheless, the study found an objective and significant improvement over the past 18 years, almost half of which were under Orban’s rule. For instance, the number of Jews who reported hearing anti-Semitic remarks in the street dropped from an astronomical 75 percent in 1999 to 48 percent (still outrageously high) last year, while the number who reported experiencing three or more anti-Semitic incidents fell from 16 to 6 percent.

This jibes with JTA’s in-depth report on Hungarian anti-Semitism earlier last month. In light of the data cited above, the fact that the Hungarian Jewish community’s anti-Semitism watchdog, TEV, recorded just 37 anti-Semitic incidents in 2017 (down from 48 in 2016) only shows that anti-Semitic comments are massively underreported. What was noteworthy, however, is that not a single reported incident involved violence.

By comparison, reporter Cnaan Liphshiz noted, the United Kingdom, with a Jewish population only about 2.5 times that of Hungary, recorded 145 physical assaults in its total of 1,382 anti-Semitic incidents in 2017. Austria, with a Jewish population less than a tenth of Hungary’s, recorded five cases of physical violence among its 503 anti-Semitic incidents last year—and, incidentally, that was under a left-wing government led by the Social Democrats. Conservative Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz took power only in December 2017.

Thus, Jews in Britain or Austria were far more likely to suffer anti-Semitic violence than their Hungarian brethren. Indeed, unlike their counterparts in, say, France or Belgium, Jews with beards and kippahs told Liphshiz they feel safe walking Hungary’s streets.

Hungarian Jewish community leaders also said a 2014 revision of the legal code enacted by Orban’s government significantly increased prosecution and punishment of anti-Semitic offenses. “It was a big step forward,” said TEV’s secretary-general, Kalman Szalai. Nor, incidentally, did the Jewish leaders Liphshiz interviewed think Orban’s attacks on George Soros—Exhibit A in most liberal Jewish indictments of Orban—were anti-Semitic (a point I made last year).

In other words, as Szalai said, “It’s not that Hungary doesn’t have anti-Semitism . . . But it also has little to no anti-Semitic violence, and responsive authorities in the judiciary, the police force and also in government.” All of which makes it hard to argue that Orban should be shunned as a dangerous anti-Semite. That is, unless you think, as liberal Jews increasingly seem to do, that right-wing authoritarians are by definition dangerous anti-Semites.

And once you remove the straw man of anti-Semitism, you’re left with the double standard in all its glory: Israel alone has no right to host authoritarian leaders important to its interests, even as other Western democracies routinely host worse leaders with less justification. By insisting that Israel shouldn’t host Orban, liberal Jews are effectively saying that Israel, alone of all the countries of the world, has no right to conduct a normal foreign policy.

Originally published in Commentary on July 13, 2018

Note: After this article was published, Paraguay also moved its embassy to Jerusalem

After President Donald Trump announced in December that he was moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, a friend lamented that the move would have less impact than it should because Trump was so widely disdained both in America and overseas. Yet since then, I’ve heard more foreign acknowledgments of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital than I can ever remember before.

So far, only one other country is definitely moving its embassy—Guatemala, whose Jerusalem embassy is slated to open two days after America’s does. But at least four other countries—two in Latin America and two in Europe—are actively discussing an embassy move. And even if none actually happens, the very fact that this issue is now openly being debated in regions of the globe where Israel has faced considerable hostility in recent years is a remarkable change.

In both the European Union and most of Latin America, official policy has long been that eastern Jerusalem should be the capital of Palestine, while western Jerusalem should be . . . well, nothing. Few countries in either region have ever said that any part of Jerusalem should be Israel’s capital; in fact, some still explicitly declare the city a corpus separatum. In other words, they think Palestinians should get the eastern half while the western half should be an international city.

But now, a decades-old taboo has been broken. Suddenly, several other countries are where America was 20 years ago, with different branches of government actively arguing over Jerusalem’s status.

On April 12, the Honduras National Congress voted to move its embassy to Jerusalem by a sizable majority (59-33), though the decision hasn’t yet been approved by the executive branch. Later that month, Paraguay’s president said he’d like to move his country’s embassy before leaving office in mid-August, though buy-in from the rest of the political system is uncertain.

On April 19, Israeli Independence Day, Romania broke an even more significant psychological barrier by becoming the first European country to announce plans to move its embassy. The president of Romania’s Chamber of Deputies told a Romanian television station that the decision had been made the previous evening. Whether it will actually happen remains unclear; the country’s president opposes the move, and the cabinet hasn’t yet approved it. But the prime minister has formally asked the cabinet to do so.

And in the Czech Republic—whose parliament passed a resolution urging its government to promote “respect” for Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by a vote of 112-2 seven months before Trump’s announcement—the Foreign Ministry broke with E.U. policy by declaring, the day after Trump’s announcement, that it recognizes “West Jerusalem” as Israel’s capital. President Milos Zeman wants to move the embassy as well, but Prime Minister Andrej Babi refuses to defy E.U. policy to that extent.

There has also been a notable change in the conversation even in countries where an embassy move isn’t on the table.

In March, for instance, Belgian Secretary of State Philippe de Backer (whose position is equivalent to a deputy cabinet minister) told the local Jewish paper Joods Actueel: “There is no doubt that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. It’s clear; it’s reality. There’s no discussion on this issue.”

Former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls—who, admittedly, was the most pro-Israel member of former President François Hollande’s otherwise hostile government—made similar statements that same month in an interview with the Times of Israel. “I am very clear on this subject: Jerusalem is the capital of the Jews and of Israel—historically, religiously, and politically,” he said. “It’s at the heart of the foundation of the State of Israel.”

Neither statement heralds an imminent change in official policy. As De Backer explained, action isn’t possible now because “we’re in a political context where Europe sees Jerusalem as subject to negotiations toward a two-state solution.” But the very fact that current and former senior European officials suddenly feel they can openly acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is new.

Another intriguing example is Russia, which actually preceded Trump in recognizing “West Jerusalem” as Israel’s capital. A statement issued by Russia’s Foreign Ministry in April 2017 said that while Moscow continues to believe that eastern Jerusalem should be the capital of a Palestinian state, “we must state that in this context we view west Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.” Yet after Trump’s December announcement, Russia voted to condemn the U.S. decision in both the U.N. Security Council and the General Assembly, making it seem that the April decision had either been rescinded or was meaningless.

Then, in March 2018, Russia’s embassy in Israel issued a statement praising “the wise position of West Jerusalem” on a recent controversy (the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain, which Israel condemned, but without specifically mentioning Russia). Though it’s common to use a nation’s capital as a metonym for the country (“Washington” for the United States or “Moscow” for Russia), I can’t recall any use of “Jerusalem” to refer to Israel; that has always been taboo. So Russia is apparently sticking by its recognition; it just isn’t willing to give Trump any credit on the issue.

Obviously, Jerusalem isn’t going to be flooded with new embassies anytime soon, for reasons having little to do with Trump, as the Czech case makes clear.

But the more acceptable it becomes for people to admit that Jerusalem is and always will be Israel’s capital, the harder it becomes for others to maintain their decades-old denialism. And Trump has played an important role in moving this process forward.

In that sense, he’s like the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen’s famous fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” A young child obviously isn’t a respected role model for the adults around him, yet it was only after that little boy publicly declared the emperor naked that the adults could bring themselves to admit the same.

Andersen’s point was that telling the truth has a power of its own, regardless of the speaker. And Trump’s truth-telling on Jerusalem is already demonstrating a similar power, regardless of the speaker’s flaws.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on May 8, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org

UNRWA, the United Nations agency tasked with caring for Palestinian refugees and their descendants in perpetuity, is facing what it terms its worst financial crisis ever. “Crisis” is an exaggeration, but the agency undoubtedly has less money than it wants. Given Gaza’s multiple woes (which UNRWA’s aid ostensibly alleviates) and Israeli fears that these woes could spark another Hamas-Israel war, this may sound like bad news. In fact, it’s good news for anyone who cares about either Palestinians or Israelis.

Obviously, no one wants a humanitarian crisis, but UNRWA’s budget shortfall won’t cause one. True, the agency is nearly $350 million short of its $1.2 billion budget, despite obtaining $100 million in new pledges at an emergency conference in mid-March, mainly because the Trump administration cut America’s contribution to just $60 million this year, down from $364 million last year.

Yet even if additional emergency appeals later this year fail to raise another dime (which is unlikely), UNRWA would still have some $850 million to help around 5 million Palestinians. By comparison, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has $7.7 billion to help around 60 million non-Palestinian refugees and displaced people worldwide. In other words, UNRWA can still spend a third more per capita than UNHCR spends—$170 versus $128. So if UNHCR’s budget can provide for its refugees’ basic needs, UNRWA’s far more generous one can surely do the same.

Nevertheless, it will face some financial constraints, and such constraints often spur reform. That’s good news because UNRWA’s current modus operandi harms both Israelis and Palestinians.

Two reforms are particularly essential. First, UNRWA should stop financing Jordan’s outrageous apartheid system, under which 2 million Palestinians registered with the agency receive no services from the Jordanian government, even though most (as UNRWA itself admits) are Jordanian citizens. Instead of using Jordan’s health and education systems, they attend special UNRWA schools and health clinics; many even live in 10 designated refugee camps.

Clearly, people with citizenship in another country shouldn’t be considered refugees at all. Under UNHCR’s definition, which applies to everyone except Palestinians, anyone who obtains citizenship in another country automatically loses his or her refugee status.

But the situation is also unfair to the Palestinians themselves because they are denied the possibility of integrating into the country where they hold citizenship. Nobody can integrate if forced to live in special camps, and attend special schools and clinics, instead of being treated like all other Jordanians. Therefore, beginning a gradual handover of these services to Jordan would save UNRWA money while also helping 2 million people.

Second, UNRWA should stop financing the outrageous apartheid in the West Bank and Gaza—not the nonexistent “Israeli apartheid,” but the very real one imposed on Palestinian refugees by the Palestinian Authority.

After all, the P.A. styles itself the State of Palestine, and has been recognized as such by the U.N. General Assembly and 135 member states. That recognition has enabled it to join U.N. agencies like UNESCO and non-U.N. agencies like the International Criminal Court.

But if you thought a Palestinian state would alleviate the suffering of Palestinian refugees, think again. Like Jordan, the P.A. refuses to provide services to either the 800,000 registered refugees in the West Bank or the 1.3 million in Gaza. In other words, based on the P.A.’s self-reported population of 4.9 million, it’s refusing to provide services to a whopping 43 percent of the residents of its putative state.

These 2.1 million “refugees” live in 27 designated camps. They attend special UNRWA schools and health clinics, instead of the regular Palestinian ones. And senior P.A. officials have said explicitly that they are not and never will be entitled to citizenship in the Palestinian state.

Given that most of the world recognizes the existence of a State of Palestine, it’s ridiculous that 2.1 million Palestinians living in it should still be considered refugees. But it’s also unfair to the “refugees” themselves, who are denied the right to integrate into what’s ostensibly their own country.

And indeed, they abhor this situation. “The P.A. refuses to invest here because they claim it is the responsibility of UNRWA and the U.N.,” one refugee camp resident told the Times of Israel in 2014. “So we get screwed. We have been abandoned. The P.A. supports the residents of the cities and villages. But it ignores us.”

Thus, by beginning a gradual handover of services to the P.A., UNRWA could save money while also helping 2.1 million Palestinians.

The status quo is also bad for Israel—and not just because of the anti-Israel incitement taught in UNRWA schools and Palestinians’ use of UNRWA facilities as weapons depots. By denying Palestinians the ability to assimilate into Jordan and the P.A., UNRWA effectively tells them that “returning” to Israel is their only hope of escaping refugee status. Nurturing such fantasies of mass relocation merely perpetuates the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; peace is obviously impossible if Palestinians condition it on turning Israel into a Palestinian-majority state.

Yet the status quo is even worse for millions of Palestinian “refugees,” who are forced into dead-end lives with no hope of ever integrating into the places they should be able to call home.

Admittedly, there’s no guarantee that UNRWA will implement constructive reforms; it might instead slash essential services to blackmail the world into coughing up more money. But even in this worst-case scenario, at least America will no longer be propping up UNRWA’s shameful apartheid system and its perpetuation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. If European or Arab countries want this abomination to continue, let their taxpayers fund it.

There’s also a risk that even constructive reforms could produce enough short-term pain to provoke violence. But Israelis understand that sometimes, you have to do what’s right, even if it comes with a price. That’s why, in a poll published just last week, 69 percent of Jewish Israelis said the U.S. Embassy should move to Jerusalem in May as planned, despite the fact that most believed the move would spark violence.

UNRWA reform is no less critical. And after 70 years of stasis, it’s clear nothing short of a financial crisis has any chance of bringing it about.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on March 28, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org

Bipartisanship was the watchword at last week’s AIPAC conference, but it’s no secret that pro-Israel Democrats have trouble swallowing Israelis’ enthusiasm for President Donald Trump, whose approval rating in Israel hit 67 percent even before he decided to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. They can understand Israel’s joy over that decision. But they can’t understand its seeming disregard of Trump actions that harm Israel, like abandoning Syria to Iran and Russia or divulging classified Israeli intelligence to Russia’s president.

The explanation is simple, but unfortunately, Democrats won’t like it: Barack Obama set the bar for U.S-Israeli relations so low that there’s literally no Israel-related issue on which Trump has been worse than his predecessor. And there are many on which he’s been not just modestly better, but spectacularly so.

In Trump’s negative column, Syria is “Exhibit A.” Anyone who has heard Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lately knows that Iran’s growing presence there is a top security concern. Moreover, thanks to Russia’s presence in Syria, Israel can’t handle this problem alone; Russia is way out of its weight class. Consequently, it needs America’s help, which hasn’t always been so forthcoming.

Nevertheless, it’s not Trump who abandoned Syria to Iran and Russia; that was Obama’s decision. When Syria’s civil war first began, America could have prevented Tehran and Moscow from moving in at relatively low cost. But by the time Trump took office, both were well-entrenched; ousting them now would be far more difficult and costly.

Granted, there are still things America could do—and Israelis wish America would do them. But thanks to Obama’s choices, low-cost solutions no longer exist. In this situation, many U.S. presidents would have opted for inaction. Certainly, Trump’s Democratic rival would have; as Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton was party to his decisions. So despite their dismay about the current situation, Israelis can’t blame Trump for this.

Leaking Israeli intelligence to Vladimir Putin, in contrast, isn’t something Obama ever did (as far as anyone knows). But his administration did regularly leak classified Israeli information to major media outlets. And judged by the all-important standard of how likely the information is to reach Israel’s enemies, that’s considered even worse.

With Putin, there’s at least a reasonable chance that Israeli secrets won’t be shared with enemy countries, as proven by Israel’s hundreds of airstrikes in Syria in recent years. To avoid conflict with Russia, it gives Russia prior notice of all such strikes. Yet there’s no indication that Russia ever shared this information with Syria and Iran; if it had, one would have expected Syria’s aerial defenses to be ready and waiting. Instead, most Israeli strikes encountered no Syrian resistance at all. (In the one major exception—Syria’s downing of an Israeli plane last month—the warning almost certainly came from Iran; it would have alerted Syria to expect retaliation after an Iranian drone launched from Syria was downed over Israel.)

In contrast, information leaked to the media goes straight to enemy intelligence agencies, which routinely scan open-source material. And some of that information was potentially deadly. For instance, when Israel first began airstrikes in Syria, it deliberately refrained from claiming responsibility; that let the Assad regime save face by blaming Syrian rebels rather than Israel, thereby reducing the risk that it would feel compelled to retaliate. Yet the Obama administration repeatedly told the media Israel was behind those strikes, raising the risk of a Syrian retaliation that could spiral into war. Trump’s leaks haven’t been anywhere near that dangerous.

Now consider the positive side of the equation. The embassy move stands out by any standard; it’s something many presidents promised, but none before Trump ever delivered. And many pro-Israel Democrats seem to underestimate just how important this is. The global refusal to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is the starkest form of delegitimization. Not only is no other country in the world denied the right to choose its own capital, but if Jews have no right to their holiest city—to which they prayed to return for 2,000 years—what do they have a right to? For putting an end to this outrageous discrimination, and thereby encouraging other countries to follow suit, Trump would deserve the gratitude of Israelis even if he never did another thing.

His financial sanctions against the P.A. (for funding terrorists) and United Nations Relief and Works Agency (for perpetuating the conflict) are similarly unprecedented and welcome.

Other Trump moves, like Nikki Haley’s appointment as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, shine brighter due to the contrast with Obama. Though Israelis would always have adored Haley, in 2008 she would have been just the latest in a long bipartisan tradition of outstanding pro-Israel U.N. ambassadors (think Daniel Patrick Moynihan or Jeanne Kirkpatrick). But Obama’s ambassadors were a different breed. Even when opposing anti-Israel resolutions, they lambasted Israel in harsh terms, rather than actually defending it. And though it hurt Israelis deeply to have America join the world body’s round-the-clock “Two Minutes Hate Against Israel,” this isn’t primarily about hurt feelings.

Such speeches signaled to other countries that America would be fine with any anti-Israel action they chose to take as long as Washington didn’t have to be complicit in it. And that encouraged both the European Union and the United Nations to take steps towards anti-Israel boycotts (product labeling and compiling a corporate blacklist, respectively). Haley’s pro-Israel speeches send the opposite message: America has Israel’s back, and anti-Israel actions will rouse America’s wrath.

The same goes for Trump’s scrupulous avoidance of public spats with Israel. That, too, might have seemed unremarkable in 2008. But after eight years of Obama’s nonstop public feuding with Israel, which insinuated to other countries that Israel was fair game, Trump’s reversal of this behavioral message simply elates Israelis.

For most American Jews, Trump’s domestic policies are obviously more important than his Israel ones, and that’s legitimate; his domestic policies more directly affect their lives. But Jewish Democrats ought to grant Israelis the same courtesy. Accept that they judge Trump on his Israel policies rather than his domestic ones, as the former are what directly affect their lives. And after eight years of Obama, Trump’s Israel policies have so far been a welcome relief.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on March 14, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org

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Peace: The Missing Israeli Election Issue

Israel’s election campaign has only just begun, but one key issue is already notable by its absence: peace with the Palestinians. To many Americans—especially American Jews, who overwhelmingly consider this the most important issue facing Israel—the fact that almost none of the candidates are talking about the peace process may seem surprising. But several recent incidents help explain why it’s a very low priority for most Israeli voters.

Not so long ago, of course, the peace process was Israel’s top voting issue, almost its only one. But in a poll published last month, self-identified centrists and rightists both ranked the peace process dead last among six suggested issues of concern. Even self-identified leftists ranked it only third, below corruption and closing socioeconomic gaps.

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