Foreign Affairs and Defense
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
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Donald Trump last week, he had two main items on his agenda: thanking Trump for his decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and urging U.S. action on Iran. At first glance, these items seem unrelated. In fact, they’re closely intertwined. The decision to relocate the U.S. embassy has turned out to be a strategic building block in Trump’s effort to renegotiate the nuclear deal with Iran.
To understand why, consider the dilemma facing his administration when it first took office. Without a serious American threat to scrap the nuclear deal, there was no chance that even America’s European allies–much less Russia, China and Iran–would agree to negotiate a fix for some of the deal’s biggest flaws. Yet conventional wisdom held that the administration would never dare flout the whole rest of the world, along with virtually the entire U.S. policy community, by withdrawing from the deal. So how was it possible to make the threat seem credible short of actually walking away from the deal?
Enter the embassy issue. Here, too, conventional wisdom held that the administration would never dare flout the whole rest of the world, along with virtually the entire U.S. policy community, by moving the embassy. Moreover, the embassy issue shared an important structural similarity with the Iran deal: Just as the president must sign periodic waivers to keep the Iran deal alive, he must sign periodic waivers to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv.
Consequently, this turned out to be the perfect issue to show that Trump really would defy the world and nix the Iran deal if it isn’t revised to his satisfaction. In fact, the process he followed with the embassy almost perfectly mimics the process he has so far followed on the Iran deal.
The first time the embassy waiver came up for review last June, Trump signed it. He vowed, however, that he wouldn’t keep doing so forever. The second time, in December, he officially announced the embassy move, but said it would take several years to find a site in Jerusalem and construct the new building. So, in the meantime, he signed the waiver again. Then, last month, Trump announced that the embassy would officially relocate to temporary quarters in the existing U.S. consulate in Jerusalem in May. In other words, there will be no third signing of the waiver.
The Iran waivers have so far followed a similar pattern. The first time the deal came up for review, Trump issued the requisite certification that Iran was in compliance and that the deal served America’s national interests, but vowed he wouldn’t keep doing so forever. The second time, he formally decertified the deal, but once again signed the waiver that prevents sanctions on Iran from being reinstated. The third time, he signed the waiver once again, but explicitly threatened that this would be the last time.
If it weren’t for the embassy move, this threat would be treated in capitals around the world as so much bluster. Instead, world leaders are forced to take it seriously. True, there’s a chance that Trump is just bluffing. But there’s also a real chance that he’s serious, just as he proved to be on the embassy issue.
This means that European leaders, who initially refused even to discuss any changes to a deal they like just the way it is, are now feeling pressured to offer at least some sop to Trump if only to keep him from blowing the deal up entirely. Last month, for instance, French President Emanuel Macron threw his support behind a plan to impose surveillance and sanctions on Iran’s unfettered ballistic missile program, which is one of several key loopholes the administration wants closed.
The Iran deal didn’t motivate Trump to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. The primary reason to relocate the embassy to Jerusalem was because it was the right thing to do. It’s something Congress decided should be done over 20 years ago, and it’s something presidential candidates from both parties have repeatedly promised but never fulfilled. Above all, it’s because the reality is that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, and it is ludicrous to keep pretending otherwise.
But it just goes to show that the right thing is also sometimes the smart thing. Granted, there’s no guarantee that Trump’s effort to fix the Iran deal will bear fruit; the Europeans are trying hard to fob him off with mere cosmetic tweaks. Yet there would be no chance at all if it weren’t for the credible threat created by the embassy move. And if anything meaningful does come of this effort–even if only a modest improvement, like cracking down on Iran’s ballistic missiles–it will be largely because Trump did the right thing on Jerusalem.
Originally published in Commentary on March 12, 2018
State Department officials have spent a lot of time in Lebanon recently. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited the country two weeks ago, and Acting Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield made an appearance last week. Among other issues, they are trying to mediate two Lebanese-Israeli disputes. The problem is that only one of these is a quasi-legitimate conflict; the other is a patently illegitimate Lebanese land grab. By treating that claim as legitimate, the State Department is not only encouraging aggression but proving, once again, that international guarantees to Israel are worthless.
The quasi-legitimate dispute relates to where the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon runs. As I noted back in 2011, Beirut is currently claiming maritime territory that it didn’t consider Lebanese as recently as 2007, when it signed (but ultimately didn’t ratify) a deal demarcating its maritime border with Cyprus. That makes the State Department’s proposal to award Lebanon 75 percent of this territory outrageous. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Israel and Lebanon have no agreed maritime border, and international law doesn’t provide an unequivocal answer as to where it should run. So State’s mediation is justifiable, even if its proposal isn’t.
The second dispute, however, is over Lebanon’s claim that Israel’s planned new border wall encroaches on Lebanese territory in 13 places. And on this, there should be no question whatsoever, because a recognized international border, known as the Blue Line, already exists and the UN has twice affirmed that Israel isn’t violating it.
The first time the UN affirmed realities on the ground was after Israel unilaterally withdrew from Lebanon in 2000. Then, the UN Security Council unanimously confirmed that all the areas Beirut now claims were, in fact, on Israel’s side of the border. The second was earlier this month when the UN Interim Force in Lebanon reaffirmed that all the new construction is on Israel’s side of the border.
The latter, incidentally, is particularly noteworthy because UNIFIL usually sides with Beirut in any Lebanese-Israeli dispute, for the simple reason that its peacekeepers are located on Lebanese soil and therefore vulnerable to reprisals if it ruffles Lebanese feathers. Indeed, as reported by the Jerusalem Post just last week, members of UNIFIL’s French contingent recently told a French paper that they routinely refrain from doing the job they’re officially there to do—ensuring that Hezbollah conducts no military activity in southern Lebanon, as mandated by Security Council Resolution 1701 of 2006—for fear of clashes with the Lebanese Army.
Given the existence of both a recognized international border and unequivocal UN confirmation that Israel hasn’t violated it, the only proper response to Beirut’s protest over a new fence would be to politely tell it that it has no case whatsoever. The territory in question is unarguably Israel’s, and Israel is free to build whatever it pleases there. Instead, the State Department has treated Lebanon’s claim as legitimate. Tillerson demanded that Israel halt construction until it reaches an agreement with Lebanon on the border, while Satterfield proposed land swaps to satisfy Lebanon’s claims. In other words, State is asking Israel to cede land which the Security Council unanimously recognized as sovereign Israeli territory just because a thuggish neighbor covets it and has threatened war if its demands aren’t satisfied.
Needless to say, this is an excellent way to encourage aggression. If Lebanon can get Washington to pressure Israel to cede internationally recognized Israeli territory merely by claiming land to which it lacks any vestige of right and then threatening war if its demands aren’t met, why wouldn’t Lebanon—or any other country interested in grabbing Israeli land—keep repeating this tactic?
But it also makes a mockery of the international guarantee contained in that Security Council resolution from 2000. After all, it’s hard to imagine a stronger guarantee of the validity of Israel’s northern border than a unanimous Security Council resolution affirming it. Yet ever since that resolution was passed, Lebanon has made repeated demands for territory on the Israeli side of the border. Every single time, the State Department and the rest of the international community has treated Beirut’s demands as valid and pressed Israel to offer concessions to assuage them.
This began almost immediately when Lebanon laid claim to the Shaba Farms region in the early 2000s. The Blue Line border actually assigns Shaba to Syria, meaning it isn’t Lebanon’s to claim; any dispute over it would have to be resolved between Israel and Syria. But instead of telling Beirut to get lost, the Security Council asserted, in that same Resolution 1701 of 2006, that parts of the Lebanese border it unanimously affirmed just six years earlier were now “disputed or uncertain” and thus required a new UN demarcation. The Bush Administration subsequently pressured Israel (unsuccessfully) to turn Shaba over to Lebanon.
Today’s State Department has gone even further. Instead of demanding that Israel give Lebanon territory which the UN previously deemed Syrian, it’s now demanding that Israel give Lebanon territory which the UN previously affirmed as Israel’s own. In other words, it’s telling Israel that international affirmation of its borders is no protection against future demands by other countries for chunks of its territory; the U.S. government—and also, naturally, the rest of the international community—will support any claim whatsoever against Israel, even if it lacks any shred of validity.
Admittedly, it’s not news that international guarantees are useless; Israel has learned this lesson many times before. But you still have to wonder what State Department officials are thinking. After all, they’ve been trying for years to mediate peace deals between Israel and its neighbors, and all their proposals are based on Israel ceding strategically important land in exchange for international recognition of its borders and guarantees of their validity. Yet at the same time, they’ve been doing their utmost to prove that international recognition and guarantees are worthless. And then they wonder why Israelis don’t think the international guarantees they’re being offered are a good substitute for the defensible borders they would lose.
Originally published in Commentary on March 2, 2018
After issuing a rare rebuke of Iran’s repeated calls for Israel’s destruction on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov added that Moscow also opposes “attempts to view any regional problem through the prism of fighting Iran.” Unfortunately for him, that’s precisely the way most of the Middle East does view many regional problems, as revealed by a stunning informal poll which an Al Jazeera talk show host conducted among his tens of thousands of Arabic-language Twitter followers on February 10. Asked which side they supported in a recent Israeli-Iranian clash in Syria, fully 56 percent–12,800 people–said they backed Israel.
Needless to say, this is not because the respondents love Israel. But it’s a stunning measure of just how much they hate Iran and its Syrian protégé, the Assad regime. As one Syrian wrote, “no Syrian in his right mind” would support Israel in most situations, “but you will find millions of Syrians queuing up with the blue devils”–his charming term for Israel–“against the fascist sectarian regime that has surpassed all the monsters on earth in killing Syrians.”
What makes the results even more noteworthy is that the poll was conducted by the host of a show on Al Jazeera, a Qatari-owned station that still views Israel as public enemy number one. Unlike Saudi Arabia, whose government openly loathes Iran and whose media outlets routinely echo this view, Qatar maintains close relations with Iran. Indeed, these close relations are one of the main reasons why Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states severed ties with Qatar last year. In other words, this wasn’t a case of respondents telling a pollster what they thought he wanted to hear; Al Jazeera’s coverage would have encouraged them to label Israel a greater evil than Iran. Yet a decisive majority nevertheless backed Jerusalem against Tehran.
That most Arab governments now consider Iran a greater enemy than Israel isn’t news; their behind-the-scenes cooperation with Israel against Tehran has become an open secret. Indeed, if you read Reuters’ interview from the Munich Security Conference on Sunday with the names blacked out, you could easily think the interviewee was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rather than Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. The four steps Al-Jubeir deemed crucial–reining in Iran’s ballistic missile program, reining in its support for terror, canceling the sunset provision in its 2015 nuclear deal, and altering the deal to allow inspections of undeclared and military sites–are the same steps Netanyahu advocates at every opportunity.
But since Arab governments are far from democratic, anyone unwilling to abandon his faith that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the root of all Mideast evils had an out. Arab regimes might view Iran as the number-one problem, they argued, but for ordinary Arabs, the Palestinian issue still has pride of place.
What Al Jazeera’s informal poll shows is that this argument is simply false. It’s not just in Arab capitals that Iran is now more widely loathed and feared than Israel, but also on the Arab street, to the point that Arabs are even willing to openly back Israel in a clash with Iran. If Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians were still their top concern, they would instead be rooting for Iran against Israel–just as most of the Arab world did back in 2006 when Israel fought a month-long war with Iran’s wholly-owned Lebanese subsidiary, Hezbollah.
This sea change in Arab attitudes has serious foreign policy implications for anyone who calls himself a realist. As John Podhoretz correctly argued in COMMENTARY’s March issue, the realist view that Israel was the source of most Mideast problems could always more properly have been termed “fantasist”; most of the Arab world’s ills have nothing to do with Israel. But realists did have one unassailable fact on their side: When you stack Israel up against the Arab world, the latter has both the numbers and the oil. Consequently, it was at least tenable to argue–as long as you ignore all the other considerations Podhoretz cites–that America’s interests were better served by siding with the Arabs against Israel.
Today, the Arab world still has the numbers and the oil, but it’s siding with Israel against Iran. So for any realist who holds that America should align itself with Arab concerns because numbers and oil are crucial considerations, the top priority now shouldn’t be another fruitless Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but reining in Iran’s malignant behavior. To its credit, that is something the Trump Administration is trying to do by threatening to scrap the nuclear deal unless the four Israeli-Saudi-American concerns cited above are addressed.
As for all the self-proclaimed realists who remain fixated on Israel despite the change in Arab attitudes that has destroyed their main argument, perhaps it’s time to drop the “realist” label. The more accurate term for people who see Jews as the root of all evil under any and all circumstances is “anti-Semite.”
Originally published in Commentary on February 21, 2018
If I were compiling a foreign policy wish list for 2018, high on the list would be ending the fiction that Lebanon is an independent country rather than an Iranian satrapy governed by Iran’s foreign legion, Hezbollah. The Western foreign policy establishment maintains this fiction out of good intentions; it wants to protect innocent Lebanese from suffering the consequences of Hezbollah’s military provocations against its neighbors. But this policy has enabled Hezbollah to devastate several neighboring countries with impunity, and it’s paving the way to a war that will devastate Lebanon itself.
Sheltering Lebanon from the consequences of Hezbollah’s behavior is both a bipartisan and a transatlantic consensus. This was evident from the West’s wall-to-wall outrage in November, when Saudi Arabia abortively tried to end the pretense that Hezbollah doesn’t rule Lebanon by pressuring the organization’s fig leaf, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, to resign. The International Support Group for Lebanon, which includes the U.S., UN, European Union, Arab League, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, China, and Russia, issued a statement demanding that Lebanon be “shielded from tensions in the region.” The State Department’s acting assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, David Satterfield, demanded that Saudi Arabia “explain why Riyadh was destabilizing Lebanon.” French President Emmanuel Macron proclaimed it vital that Lebanon remains “disassociated” from regional crises. And the list goes on.
Yet the West has shown no similar concern for shielding the many Mideast countries which Lebanon’s de facto ruling party has destabilized for years. Thousands of Hezbollah troops have fought in Syria’s civil war, helping the Assad regime to slaughter hundreds of thousands of its own citizens. Hezbollah also has troops in Yemen to support the Houthi rebels in that country’s civil war, and it may have been involved in firing missiles from Yemen at Saudi Arabia. It has trained Shi’ite militias in Iraq and fought alongside them. And, of course, it has built an arsenal of some 150,000 missiles–bigger than that of most conventional armies–for eventual use against Israel.
Granted, Hezbollah isn’t Lebanon’s official ruling party; it’s part of a coalition government led by Hariri, who actually belongs to a rival party. But not only does Hezbollah have official veto power over all government decisions, it’s also the country’s dominant military force. Hariri has no power to stop Hezbollah from sending its troops all over the region; he can’t even stop it from doing as it pleases within Lebanon itself.
One small example perfectly illustrates his impotence. In early December, Qais al-Khazali, the head of an Iraqi Shi’ite militia, was videotaped accompanying Hezbollah operatives to the Lebanese-Israeli border and proclaiming his militia’s willingness to help Hezbollah fight Israel. Hariri termed the visit a “flagrant violation” of Lebanese law and ordered the Lebanese army to make sure no such incident recurred. A few weeks later, as if to underscore Hariri’s powerlessness, Hezbollah took another senior commander from a Syrian Shi’ite militia to the border for a similar videotaped pledge.
Yet despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the West has insisted on maintaining the fiction that Lebanon is somehow independent of Hezbollah rather than ruled by it. And in so doing, Western countries have actually enabled Hezbollah’s aggression.
Thanks to this fiction, the West gives hundreds of millions of dollars in both civilian and military aid to Lebanon. Civilian aid, of which the EU has provided over $1 billion in recent years, frees Hezbollah of the need to pay for the consequences of its actions, like caring for the 1.1 million Syrian refugees its own aggression helped drive from Syria into Lebanon. American military aid, of which Lebanon is the world’s sixth-largest recipient, has given Hezbollah access to training, intelligence, equipment and other military capabilities, since the Lebanese army shares everything it receives with the organization, whether willingly or under compulsion from Hezbollah’s greater strength.
Moreover, thanks to this fiction, the West has repeatedly watered down sanctions on Hezbollah to avoid harming Lebanon and has also repeatedly pressured other countries not to penalize Lebanon for Hezbollah’s aggression. This has allowed Hezbollah to wage its foreign wars without its own Lebanese constituency paying any price. If Hezbollah knew its own citizens would suffer for its actions, it might think twice about foreign adventurism.
But aside from destabilizing other Mideast countries, this Western policy is liable to boomerang on Lebanon itself. Serious observers currently rate another Hezbollah-Israel war as somewhere between likely and inevitable. And because Hezbollah has 150,000 rockets pointed at Israel’s civilian population, Israel would have no choice but to employ maximum force to end such a war as quickly as possible. Against a threat of that magnitude, protecting its own people would trump any international pressure for “restraint.”
The result would be massive civilian casualties, given Hezbollah’s habit of embedding troops and weapons in urban areas, as well as the destruction of Lebanese infrastructure, which Hezbollah uses to move and resupply its troops. In short, Lebanon would be devastated.
The only way to prevent such a war is to reverse the Western policies that have enabled Hezbollah to grow to its current monstrous proportions. This means exerting massive pressure on Hezbollah, even if it also hurts Lebanon. Such pressure should include targeting Hezbollah’s drug trade and sanctioning Lebanese banks that handle its finances. This might keep the organization so preoccupied with its own survival that it has no energy to spare for taking on Israel. In addition, the West must be clear that it can’t and won’t protect Lebanon if war does break out. If Hezbollah believes the West will once again intervene to shield Lebanon, it’s liable to make the mistake of thinking it can fight Israel without intolerable consequences to its own people.
Several decades of “protecting” Lebanon have only strengthened Hezbollah, and it’s folly to think more of the same will produce different results. Thus, it’s long past time to acknowledge that Lebanon is a fully-owned Iranian subsidiary and to treat it accordingly–not only for the sake of Lebanon’s neighbors but for the sake of Lebanon itself.
Originally published in Commentary on January 11, 2018
The fact that Iran’s anti-regime protests appear to have died down is not a reason to relax the pressure on Tehran. On the contrary, it’s a reason to increase it through serious sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program as well as its support for terror and regional aggression. The protests will only become a truly mass movement if enough Iranians come to realize what the protesters already have: Contrary to the promise held out by the nuclear deal, Iran can’t have it all. Terror and military aggression are incompatible with a thriving economy.
To understand why more pressure is needed, it’s worth revisiting a New York Times article from November that has been widely but somewhat unfairly derided. In it, reporter Thomas Erdbrink wrote that “The two most popular stars in Iran today—a country with thriving film, theater, and music industries—are not actors or singers but two establishment figures: Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s regional military effort, which is widely seen as a smashing success; and the foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, the symbol of a reasonable and measured Iran.”
The derision stems from the fact that the protesters assailed both Suleimani’s military adventurism and the government of which Zarif is a pillar, proving that neither is quite as popular as Erdbrink thought. Like many Westerners reporting from abroad, he committed the cardinal error of thinking that the fairly narrow circles he frequents represent the country as a whole. Yet within those circles, his analysis of the status of these two men appears to be accurate. That was made clear by the fact that Tehran’s educated middle classes, who formed the core of Iran’s 2009 protests, largely sat this round out.
And in truth, Suleimani and Zarif deserved star status. Together, they seemed to have severed the inverse relationship between military adventurism and economic wellbeing. Thanks to the nuclear deal Barack Obama signed with Iran in 2015, it seemed as if Iran really could have it all. It could maintain an active nuclear program (enriching uranium, conducting research and development, and replacing old, slow centrifuges with new ones that will make the enrichment process 20 times faster); expand its ballistic missile program; become a regional superpower with control, or at least major influence, over four nearby countries (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen); and still receive sanctions relief worth billions of dollars and have European companies lining up to do business with it, resulting in booming 12 percent growth and plummeting inflation.
That’s precisely why this status was accorded equally to both the “moderate” Zarif and the “hardline” Suleimani, defying the “moderates versus hardliners” prism through which many Westerners misread Iran. Iranians understand quite well that “moderates” and “hardliners” are both part of the ayatollahs’ regime and, in this case, they worked together seamlessly to produce the best of all possible worlds.
Zarif negotiated the nuclear deal, which provided the sanctions relief and the European business interest while Suleimani parlayed it into regional dominance–not merely by orchestrating Iran’s successful military interventions in other countries, but above all by understanding that the nuclear deal enabled Iran to conduct such interventions with impunity. As noted by commentators across the political spectrum–from Samuel Tadros of the conservative Hoover Institute to left-wing Haaretz analyst Zvi Bar’el–both the Obama Administration and the European Union were afraid to penalize Iran’s military adventurism lest Tehran use this as a pretext to quit the nuclear deal.
Iran’s decision to spend most of its sanctions relief on guns rather than butter meant ordinary Iranians saw little improvement in their own situation. Until recently, however, the regime could mollify public anxieties by stalling for time. The money is going to keep pouring in, they’d note, and soon there will be enough for everyone.
But President Trump’s decertification of the nuclear deal in October upended this calculus. European companies became more reluctant to do business with Iran, fearing loss of access to the much more important American market. And new American sanctions on Iran became a real possibility.
Consequently, the continued influx of money was no longer guaranteed. The billions Suleimani spent on his military adventures weren’t necessarily going to be replaced by a flood of European investment, and surging economic growth might once again be crimped by new sanctions. Ordinary Iranians were suddenly back in the pre-nuclear deal world, where the regime’s bad behavior had real economic costs.
In this sense, the media debate over whether the protests were “economic” or “political” was ludicrous. They were both because the protesters understood that their economic woes stemmed from their government’s political choices. That’s why they chanted slogans like “Forget about Palestine, forget about Gaza, think about us” and “Leave Syria alone, think about us instead.”
They also understood that those political choices were a product of the regime’s very nature, which is why they chanted slogans like “Death to the Dictator” and “Death to the Islamic Republic.” The nuclear deal was the Islamic Republic’s best shot at reconciling its desire to export Shi’ite revolution with its need to satisfy its people’s desire for a decent quality of life. If that doesn’t work, the regime clearly doesn’t have any solution to this dilemma and never will.
But if protests are ever to grow to the point that they actually threaten the regime, many more Iranians–especially the middle-class Tehranis who sat this round out–must come to understand this. And easing economic pressure on Iran would send the exact opposite message: that the world actually will let the Islamic Republic have its cake and eat it, too.
Thus to drive home the message that the ayatollahs’ regime is incompatible with economic wellbeing, America must counteract the effect of the nuclear deal by imposing stiff new sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missiles, support for terror and military aggression – together with Europe if possible, but alone if necessary. Additionally, assuming Trump signs the nuclear sanctions waiver on January 15, he should make clear that he is doing so only to give Congress, which has been too busy with tax reform to do much else recently, time to pass serious legislation to fix the nuclear deal’s flaws.
The nuclear deal told Iranians they really could have it all. Trump’s job now is to prove that was a delusion.
Originally published in Commentary on January 10, 2018
That Arab and European leaders are protesting President Trump’s intent to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is no surprise. Nor is it any surprise that groups like J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace joined them. I was, however, genuinely shocked that the leader of America’s largest Jewish denomination also joined the denunciations. Until recently, any mainstream American Jewish leader would have been embarrassed to oppose U.S. recognition of Jerusalem publicly.
And yet, it’s of a piece with recent decisions by non-Orthodox Hillel directors to bar mainstream Israelis from speaking on campus, and with the fact that Birthright Israel recently dropped the Union for Reform Judaism as a trip organizer because it was recruiting too few students. Taken together, all these facts paint a worrying picture.
I’ve always objected when I hear people on the right term the Reform Movement anti-Israel because of its stance on the peace process. After all, its views aren’t far from those of Israel’s mainstream center-left, and any mainstream view ought to be legitimate within the pro-Israel camp.
But in its opposition to recognizing Jerusalem, the URJ has zero support from Israel’s Zionist center-left. The chairman of the Labor Party, currently Israel’s largest opposition party, praised Trump’s expected decision. Yair Lapid, head of the other main opposition party (which is currently outpolling Labor), demanded that the rest of the world follow suit.
Indeed, only two Israeli parties shared the Reform Movement’s reservations: the Arab community’s Joint List and the far-left Meretz, which used to be a Zionist party but no longer is. Its platform doesn’t define it as Zionist, its official spokeswoman defines it as “a non-Zionist Israeli party,” and key backers of its current chairwoman are busy floating the idea of an official merger with the anti-Zionist Joint List. Thus, in opposing U.S. recognition of Jerusalem, the Reform Movement has aligned itself with the country’s anti-Zionists against the entire spectrum of Israeli Zionist opinion.
In his statement, URJ President Rick Jacobs insisted that the Reform Movement does consider Jerusalem to be Israel’s “eternal capital,” to which the U.S. Embassy should move someday. But the URJ “cannot support” Trump’s “decision to begin preparing that move now, absent a comprehensive plan for a peace process,” Jacobs said, as it objects to any “unilateral steps.” Other Reform Jewish organizations, including the Association of Reform Zionists of America, the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Women’s Rabbinic Network, endorsed this statement.
Maybe to American Jewish ears, Jacobs’s statement sounds innocuous and reasonable; indeed, as a poll published in September showed, a whopping 80 percent of American Jews oppose moving the embassy right now. But effectively, what it means is that the Reform Movement–and 80 percent of American Jewry–has ceded sovereignty over Jerusalem to the Palestinians. They, and only they, have the right to decide if and when anyone else recognizes the city as Israel’s capital. Absent Palestinian consent, Israel isn’t entitled to have a recognized capital.
If the Reform Movement really believed Jerusalem was Israel’s “eternal capital,” then American recognition of it would be a bilateral issue to be decided between America and Israel. The Palestinians would have nothing whatsoever to say about it.
The URJ’s claim that recognition would impede the peace process holds no water. Moving the U.S. Embassy to western Jerusalem in no way precludes a Palestinian state with its capital in eastern Jerusalem, which is what Palestinians claim to want. The Reform Movement has given the Palestinians veto power over territory that even the Palestinians themselves don’t claim.
This same disregard for Israel is evident in the URJ’s failure to fill its participant quotas for Birthright trips to Israel, which resulted in Birthright dropping it as a trip operator a few weeks ago. Though the vast majority of people who go on Birthright trips are non-Orthodox, most of them sign up with Orthodox trip operators rather than non-Orthodox ones. Why? Because, unlike the non-Orthodox operators, the Orthodox put time and money into actively recruiting students.
“They actually have student recruiters working for them who go around literally knocking on doors,” one Hillel advisor complained to Haaretz. “That’s not how the rest of us operate.” The Orthodox groups even use time-honored capitalist methods like paying successful recruiters. One operator, for instance, offered a free return trip to Israel or a $600 gift certificate to any participant who signed up ten friends.
In other words, Orthodox groups think getting college students to Israel is important enough to warrant an investment of time and money. The URJ and other non-Orthodox groups don’t consider it important enough to warrant investing time and money—even though the non-Orthodox community, theoretically, has far greater resources at its disposal, being both larger and far wealthier than the Orthodox community.
For any pro-Israel group, having the younger generation get some firsthand acquaintance with Israel would seem an obvious desideratum. But evidently, the Reform Movement thinks otherwise. And it’s not just trips to Israel that non-Orthodox groups consider unnecessary. Increasingly, they aren’t even interested in hearing from Israelis, as recent cancelations of mainstream Israeli speakers by several campus Hillels show.
There’s been a lot of talk in both America and Israel recently about the fraying relationship between Israel and liberal American Jews. But I’m starting to think all this talk is missing the point. If the URJ sides with the Palestinians against Israel over Jerusalem and evinces no interest in exposing young people to mainstream Israel through either visits or speakers, is there really any relationship left to maintain?
Originally published in Commentary on December 6, 2017
North Korea’s demonstration of a ballistic missile capable of reaching most of the United States prompted gloomy commentary in Israel about the failure to halt Pyongyang’s nuclear program and, by analogy, the seeming impossibility of stopping Iran’s nuclear program. As Haaretz commentator Anshel Pfeffer put it, Kim Jong-un “proved that a dictator who wants a nuclear weapon badly enough,” and is ruthless and determined enough, “will ultimately achieve it.” Yet the North Korean example proves no such thing because it says nothing about the efficacy of the one tactic America never tried: military action, or at least the credible threat thereof.
North Korea has proven, if anyone had still any doubts, that sanctions and negotiations alone can’t stop a determined dictator from acquiring nukes. In contrast, the jury’s still out on military action. It has only been tried twice, both times by Israel, in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007. And it’s still too soon to say conclusively that it worked. But at least so far, neither country has nuclear weapons.
Moreover, many of the arguments against military action are fatuous. Take, for instance, the claim that military action is pointless once a country has the know-how to build a bomb, because “You can’t bomb a people’s knowledge out of existence,” as New York Times columnist Roger Cohen said of Iran. That’s true, but it’s completely irrelevant. Knowledge is only one of many components needed to build a bomb. Get rid of the others–like Iran’s heavy-water reactor, its stockpile of enriched uranium, and its centrifuges for enriching more–and no amount of knowledge will suffice to produce nuclear weapons.
Then there’s the argument that military action does nothing but buy time. That’s far from self-evident. Some countries might conclude that the effort of rebuilding their nuclear program only to be bombed again isn’t worth it. But even assuming that’s true, buying time has also been proven to be the most sanctions and negotiations can achieve (except in the rare cases where countries actually agree to give up their nuclear programs).
Thus the relevant question is which course of action buys more time, because the more time you buy, the better the chances of an unexpected development—say, regime change in Iran—that could lead to permanent success. Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor, for instance, bought just enough time for Iraq to make a critical mistake nobody could have foreseen: the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which led to the Gulf War and America’s subsequent imposition of an intrusive and effective nuclear inspection regime.
For two reasons, military action probably buys the most time. First, sanctions and negotiations leave much of a country’s nuclear infrastructure in place, whereas military action destroys it. Rebuilding from scratch always takes longer than expanding or improving existing infrastructure, especially if military action is combined with sanctions to impede the rebuilding process. Second, unlike military action, negotiations always require concessions, which can actually facilitate nuclear progress by allowing countries to do openly what they would otherwise have to do secretly. The Iran deal, for instance, allows Tehran to replace its old, slow centrifuges with fast new ones, so that when the deal ends—or earlier, if it follows the North Korean model and cheats—it will be able to enrich the uranium needed for a bomb 20 times faster than it could when the deal began.
There is, of course, one serious reason for avoiding military action: fear of painful retaliation. That certainly played a role in America’s reluctance to bomb North Korea; the latter’s conventional forces are quite sufficient to launch devastating reprisals against both South Korea’s civilian population and the tens of thousands of American troops stationed there. Various estimates put the potential casualties in South Korea at tens or even hundreds of thousands.
Low-cost military action was eminently feasible when Iran’s illicit nuclear program was discovered 15 years ago. Unfortunately, that’s no longer true (which is a damning indictment of three successive Israeli governments). Eleven years ago, when Israel fought a month-long war with Tehran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah fired around 4,000 rockets and killed 163 Israelis. Today, Hezbollah has upward of 150,000 rockets, including many with longer ranges, heavier warheads, and greater accuracy. Moreover, back then, Syria had no interest in joining the war, whereas today, it might have little choice. Significant portions of what are euphemistically called “Syrian government forces” are actually militias (both Syrian and foreign) that answer directly to Tehran.
Thus, preparing a military option on Iran starts with taking steps to make this option less dangerous, and therefore more feasible. Those preparations must start with making serious efforts to push Iran out of Syria, curb Iran’s conventional missile program, and persuade Europe to finally outlaw Hezbollah (rather than only its “military wing,” as if this were somehow distinct from its political wing).
All of the above are things America should do anyway to roll back Iranian influence in the Middle East and thereby restore some measure of regional stability. But the nuclear issue gives these steps added urgency.
Most likely, any military action will end up being Israeli rather than American. America has never taken military action to stop any country’s nuclear program, and decision-makers have often gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid doing so. Even though the sanctions/negotiations track has failed repeatedly, Washington is unlikely to scrap this decades-old, bipartisan policy in Iran’s case. A nuclear Iran simply isn’t the existential threat to America that it is to Israel.
But America must begin working now to make Israeli military action feasible at a reasonable cost. For as the North Korean failure shows, only military action is likely to stop Tehran from following in Pyongyang’s footsteps.
Originally published in Commentary on December 4, 2017
The International Committee of the Red Cross, self-appointed guardian of the laws of war, has embarked on an exciting new online project: destroying the very laws it ostensibly seeks to protect. Of course, the ICRC would put it differently; it would say it’s teaching the laws of war. The problem is that the “laws” it teaches aren’t the actual laws of war, as codified in international treaties, but a made-up version that effectively denies countries any right of self-defense against enemies that fight from positions inside civilian populations. And it is thereby teaching anyone unwilling to concede the right of self-defense that the laws of war should simply be ignored.
The website has four sections – “behavior in war,” “medical mission,” “torture” and cultural property.” But the big problem is the first one, which consists of three questions users must answer correctly to receive a “medal of integrity.”
Question number one: “You’re a military commander. The enemy is hiding in a populated village across the front line. Can you attack?” The correct answer, according to the website, is “no.”
This is simply false. The laws of war do not grant immunity to enemy soldiers simply because they choose to hide among civilians, nor do they mandate avoiding any military action that might result in civilian casualties. They merely require that civilians not be deliberately targeted (the principle of distinction), that reasonable efforts be made to minimize civilian casualties, and that any such casualties not be disproportionate to the military benefit of the operation (the principle of proportionality).
The second question was, “What if you know for a fact that many civilians would be killed? Can you attack?” Since the ICRC had already ruled in the first question that attacking populated villages is never permissible, I’m not sure what purpose this question served; it would only make sense if the answer to the first question had been “yes” and this were a follow-up meant to explore the limits of the license to attack populated villages. But let’s ignore that incongruity and examine the question on its own merits.
The ICRC’s answer, of course, was “no.” But the correct answer is “insufficient information.” As noted, the laws of war don’t prohibit civilian casualties as collateral damage of a legitimate military operation. They do, however, require that such casualties not be disproportionate to the military benefit, and the question doesn’t supply the information necessary to determine whether this attack would be proportionate. For instance, how many civilian casualties does “many” actually mean – 10? 100? 1,000? Even more important, what price will your own side pay if it doesn’t attack? For instance, how many of your own civilians might be killed if you don’t stop the enemy’s rocket and mortar fire?
The laws of war were never meant to be a suicide pact; they do not require countries to let their own civilians be slaughtered in order to avoid harming enemy civilians. But in the ICRC’s version, they do. Its website teaches users that military action which harms enemy civilians is never permissible, so all an enemy has to do to slaughter the other side’s civilians with impunity is set up shop among its own civilian population. By that logic, no action should have been taken to stop, say, the Islamic State’s genocide against the Yazidis, because it operated out of populated villages and couldn’t be dislodged without civilian casualties. Is that truly what the ICRC wants?
Incidentally, using civilians as human shields is a war crime in itself, but you’d never guess that from the website. The implication of the ICRC’s questions is that the laws of war actually encourage using civilians as human shields, because doing so buys you immunity from attack under those very same laws.
Before moving to the third question, the website provides the average scores of respondents from 16 countries on the first two. Unsurprisingly, Israel had the lowest percentage of respondents who gave the “right” answers (followed by America). That’s because Israelis, who are regularly attacked by enemies operating from populated villages, understand better than most that the “right” answers would require them to sit with folded hands while their enemies kill them.
This is highly relevant to the website’s third and final question: “The Geneva Conventions, the core of the international humanitarian law, are now 70 years old. Warfare today is very different; does it still make sense to impose limits in war?” The ICRC’s answer, which I agree with, is “yes.” But limits on warfare will gain wide acceptance only if they still allow for the possibility of effective self-defense. If obeying the laws of war requires letting your own civilians be slaughtered with impunity, no country under attack would agree to do so.
That is precisely the danger of the ICRC’s position. The real laws of war set a challenging but achievable goal: reducing civilian casualties to the minimum consistent with effective military action. But the ICRC’s made-up laws set an impossible goal: avoiding any civilian casualties whatsoever, even if this precludes effective military action. Thus any country that engages in military action would end up violating the ICRC’s laws no matter what steps it takes to minimize civilian casualties. And if so, why even bother to take those steps?
Indeed, this very argument has raged in Israel for years now. Despite Israel’s great efforts to comply with the real laws of war – it “met and in some respects exceeded the highest standards we set for our own nations’ militaries,” a group of high-ranking Western military experts wrote in a report on the 2014 Gaza war – it is repeatedly accused by the UN, “human rights” organizations, and world leaders of grossly violating those laws. Hence many Israelis wonder why they should keep making those efforts, which often increase the risk to their own soldiers and civilians, if they get no international credit for doing so.
The ICRC is not only encouraging terrorists to operate from among civilian populations by granting them immunity; it is also discouraging efforts to comply with the civilian protection measures mandated by the real laws of war. In other words, it’s actually making civilian casualties more likely on two counts – and thereby betraying its own humanitarian mission.
Originally published in Commentary on November 14, 2017
Many people nowadays accuse Israel of being a racist state that considers its Arab minority second-class citizens. I wonder, then, how they explain what happened last Friday?
For the third time in the last two years, Israel threatened military action to stop an attack by extremist Syrian rebels on the Syrian Druze village of Khader. It did so despite the fact that Syrian Druze have sided with the Assad regime in that war, meaning they’re aligned with Israel’s arch-enemies, Iran and Hezbollah; despite the fact that Khader itself has been the source of several anti-Israel terror attacks; and despite the fact that such intervention risks entangling Israel in Syria’s civil war, something it has hitherto tried hard to avoid–and all just because it was asked to do so by its own Druze minority, which was worried about its coreligionists across the border.
To most Israelis, it seems both obvious and unremarkable that Israel should accede to this request. But in fact, though Israel has always considered itself obligated as a Jewish state to try to protect Jews anywhere, it’s not at all obvious that it would consider itself equally obligated to try to protect Druze beyond its borders. Threatening cross-border military action on behalf of foreign nationals aligned with your worst enemies, simply because they’re the coreligionists of one of your own ethnic minorities, isn’t an obvious step for any country. And it’s especially not obvious for a country accused of considering said minorities to be second-class citizens.
Thus, the fact that Israel has repeatedly taken action to protect the Syrian Druze says a lot about the true state of anti-Arab “racism” in the country. But to understand exactly what it says, it’s first necessary to understand the difference between Israeli Druze and other Arab Israelis.
The Druze are ethnically Arab, and their religion is considered an offshoot of Islam. But in their attitude toward the Jewish state, Israeli Druze differ markedly from most Muslim and Christian Arabs. All Druze men serve in the army, whereas Muslim and Christian Arabs generally do not. Druze politicians can be found in every major political party (except the explicitly religious ones), and Druze voting patterns aren’t markedly different from their Jewish counterparts. In contrast, other Arabs generally support ethnic Arab parties that are openly hostile to the Jewish state. Druze overwhelmingly identify as Israeli rather than Palestinian, whereas among other Arabs, the reverse has been true until very recently. Finally, given their superior integration, Druze unsurprisingly feel much less discriminated against than other Arabs.
The Druze consider themselves to be and act as loyal Israelis in every respect, so Jewish Israelis consider themselves bound to show equal loyalty to the Druze. Therefore, when Israeli Druze (some of whom even have relatives in Khader) were concerned about what might happen to their Syrian brethren if the extremist militias succeeded in capturing the town, Israeli Jews–who can readily understand concern for the fate of one’s coreligionists in another country–fully agreed that something had to be done. Hence the army, as it has twice before, warned the extremists that if they didn’t retreat, they would be attacked by Israeli planes and artillery. And the extremists, as they have twice before, got the message and abandoned their attack.
In contrast, Israeli Jews feel far less commitment to other Israeli Arabs because other Israeli Arabs demonstrate far less commitment to Israel. This is obvious in their refusal not only to do military service–something most Israeli Jews could reluctantly accept–but even to do civilian national service in their own communities, because they consider it unacceptable to do anything that might be construed as identification with the hated Zionist state. It is equally obvious in their repeated reelection of Arab Knesset members who, in marked contrast to Druze MKs, routinely refuse to condemn Palestinian terror and sometimes even actively defend it, hurl calumnies like “apartheid” and “genocide” at their own government, and side with the Palestinians against Israel on virtually every issue.
Thus while prejudice and discrimination definitely exist in Israel, as they do in every society, they do not, for the most part, stem from “racism.” Rather, they are a response to the objective fact that many Israeli Arabs demonstrate their contempt for and opposition to the Jewish state on a daily basis. While Israel can and does ensure equality before the law for its Arab citizens, it can’t change human nature. And it is human nature to be less generous and more suspicious toward people who openly side with your enemies than toward those who side with you, because loyalty is a two-way street. Indeed, what’s truly remarkable is that Israel has made such great efforts to integrate its Arab minority despite the barrier posed by Arab behavior.
As I’ve noted many times before, Israeli Arab attitudes toward Israel are slowly changing. As they do, anti-Arab prejudice and discrimination will lessen in the same way that prejudice and discrimination against the Druze already have. And nothing demonstrates this better than last Friday’s incident in Khader, when Israel put its army at the service of non-Jewish enemy nationals across the border just because their Israeli coreligionists asked it to do so.
Originally published in Commentary on November 7, 21017