Foreign Affairs and Defense
I’m not naïve enough to think that better PR would solve all of Israel’s international relations problems. But there’s no question that incompetent PR makes its situation much worse. As one example, consider Tuesday’s shocking revelation: Within about 24 hours of the most high-profile civilian casualty incident of the 2009 Gaza war, Israel had obtained evidence casting doubt on its responsibility for that death. But it sat on this evidence for more than eight years, finally releasing it only as part of a defense brief in a civil suit by the victims’ father.
The incident in question took place on January 16, 2009, when Israeli troops fighting in Gaza came under sniper fire. The troops fired two shells at an observation post that seemed to be directing the snipers. The observation post was located on the third floor of a building which, unbeknownst to the soldiers, was also the home of a well-known doctor, Izzeldin Abuelaish. Three of Abuelaish’s daughters were killed, along with one of his nieces; several other family members were wounded. Abuelaish, who worked in Israel, maintained good relations with Israelis and advocated for Israeli-Palestinian peace, later became famous worldwide when he published a book about this incident and his response to it, called I Shall Not Hate. Israel was blamed worldwide for the Abuelaish casualties and never publicly challenged the assumption of its guilt. Yet it now turns out that within a day after the incident, it had evidence indicating that its shells may not have caused the carnage.
The evidence came in the form of laboratory tests conducted on six pieces of shrapnel extracted from the two casualties treated in Israel (the other wounded weren’t brought to Israel, nor were any of the dead, so no shrapnel from the other victims was available). The tests showed that alongside traces of various explosives used by both the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas, at least one fragment contained an explosive called R-Salt, which isn’t used by the IDF but is commonly used in improvised explosive devices in Gaza. Moreover, all six fragments contained potassium nitrate, another substance not used in IDF weaponry that is used in Hamas’s homemade Qassam rockets.
A follow-up report a month later, which compared the shrapnel to the specific type of Israeli shells fired, concluded that four of the six fragments could not possibly have come from those shells; a fifth “may have come” from an IDF shell, and apparently, no conclusions were possible about the sixth.
All of the above indicates that Hamas or a smaller Palestinian organization was using the house as a weapons cache. According to the IDF, there is no other way to account for the presence of non-IDF explosives in the shrapnel.
This in no way implies culpability on Abuelaish’s part; Palestinian terrorists routinely store weaponry in civilian houses without the owners’ consent or even knowledge. But it does raise the possibility that the Israeli shells, which were intended to take out the observation post without significant damage to the house, would not have caused such extensive casualties had the house not contained a concealed weapons cache–something the soldiers couldn’t have known–which exploded when the shells hit. And if so, then Israel clearly isn’t responsible for the deaths: It used a reasonable amount of force to respond to a legitimate military threat and could not have foreseen the deadly consequences.
One of the most common accusations leveled at Israel by its critics is that because it possesses precision weaponry capable of feats like destroying a single room without damaging the rest of the building, any civilian casualties it causes must be the result of criminal negligence at best and deliberate murderousness at worst. That conclusion is obviously possible only if you ignore various salient facts, such as that mistakes are inevitable in wartime when soldiers must often make split-second decisions based on imperfect information.
But one of those salient facts is Hamas’s habit of storing arms and ammunition in civilian houses–without, obviously, informing Israel of the caches’ locations. This means that no matter how carefully Israeli troops choose their munitions, they have no way to protect against the possibility that an arms cache they didn’t know about will set off secondary explosions, resulting in far more extensive damage than they intended.
This fact is essential to understanding why the blame for most civilian casualties actually rests not with Israel, which does try hard to use proportionate military force, but with Hamas, which deliberately endangers its own civilian population by hiding weapons in their houses. Yet since it is frequently not well understood overseas, Israel has every interest in publicizing high-profile examples as heavily as possible.
Instead, it sat on its information about the Abuelaish case for eight years. The lab report was kept so secret that even Abuelaish’s lawyers didn’t know of its existence until last week, although the suit was filed back in 2010. And then, having finally been forced to disclose the report to defend against the lawsuit, the government nevertheless made no attempt to publicize it; it came to light only because a reporter took the trouble to read the defense brief and realized that the information was newsworthy.
Obviously, information like this won’t change a single Israel hater’s mind. But there are many people of goodwill, especially overseas Jews, who sincerely want to believe that the IDF strives to avoid civilian casualties, but can’t understand why, if so, they nevertheless keep occurring.
Israel has many valid answers to that question, including the fact that its civilian-to-military casualty ratio is actually lower than that of other Western armies. But these answers are useless if it doesn’t take the trouble to publicize them. Sitting on exculpatory information about a high-profile case for eight years is hardly the way to assuage its supporters’ concerns.
Originally published in Commentary on March 15, 2017
One demand that President Donald Trump repeatedly raised before taking office is for U.S. allies to contribute more to the costs of their defense. Given that Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. military aid, it would seem an obvious target for this demand. Indeed, asked by a reporter last March whether Israel should pay for American protection, Trump replied affirmatively. Thus, it’s worth recalling why Israel is America’s largest recipient of military aid, and why it’s cheap at the price.
Unlike all the other allies Trump complains about, Israel isn’t under America’s military protection and doesn’t want to be. It never has and never will ask American troops to defend it. The annual aid is intended to ensure that this situation continues, by helping Israel purchase the weaponry it needs to defend itself by itself.
Israel is perhaps unique among American allies in that it genuinely doesn’t want America to protect it militarily. The belief that it must defend itself by itself is deeply ingrained in Israel and enjoys virtually wall-to-wall consensus, and this would remain true even if America gave it no military aid at all.
Moreover, while the price tag may sound astronomical–aid to Israel currently totals $3.1 billion a year, and is slated to rise to $3.8 billion in 2019–it’s cheap compared to the cost of U.S. troop deployments to protect other American allies. For instance, maintaining U.S. bases in Japan costs America about $5.5 billion a year, and that’s in a country where troops haven’t had to fire a shot in decades. The costs rise sharply when America actually has to send soldiers into action.
The 1991 Gulf War, for instance, was fought to liberate one ally, Kuwait, from Iraqi invasion and protect another, Saudi Arabia, from falling to Iraq as well. Even with allies picking up most of the estimated $61 billion tab, it cost the U.S. about $9 billion, and that’s just the money spent on the war itself. It doesn’t include the incalculable human cost of the 383 U.S. soldiers who were killed and the 467 who were wounded or the costs of treating the latter. Yet the Gulf War was a short, low-casualty war; most U.S. wars have been far more expensive and had much higher casualty tolls.
Nor can Israel be accused of failing to contribute financially to its own defense. It’s pathetic that 23 of NATO’s 28 members spend less than 2 percent of GDP on defense when that’s the alliance’s own agreed-upon floor, and most member states could easily afford it. But Israel can hardly be faulted on that score: Its defense spending constitutes 5.2 percent of GDP, well above America’s 3.5 percent, and is the largest single item in Israel’s budget by a large margin. By comparison, America’s defense spending comes in well below its spending on both healthcare and social security.
Needless to say, the U.S. also gets many tangible benefits from the Israeli defense capabilities that its aid helps finance. One is intelligence. Just last July, Haaretz reported that in the battle against ISIS, “According to Western intelligence sources, Israel has supplied more intelligence to its allies than any other intelligence organization.” Another is combat testing of weapons systems and ensuring beneficial modifications. For instance, America’s F-16 fighters contain over 600 modifications introduced by Israel. As Haaretz reported in 2010, “between 10 percent and 15 percent of every new F-16 made in America … consists of Israeli systems.”
In addition, America derives strategic benefit from having an ally willing to police its own neighborhood to some degree rather than relying on the U.S. to do so. For instance, as I’ve noted before, Israel’s destruction of a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007 prevented ISIS from getting its hands on the raw material for a nuclear bomb. The reactor was located in one of the swathes of Syria ISIS captured. Similarly, America was able to defend its allies in the Gulf War only because Israel had destroyed Iraq’s nuclear program a decade earlier. After the war, then-Defense Minister Dick Cheney publicly thanked Israel for doing so, though the U.S. had condemned the operation at the time. Had America had an Asian ally willing to take similar action in, say, North Korea, the U.S. wouldn’t now be worrying about Pyongyang’s nukes.
Nevertheless, Israel would doubtless continue providing these services even if the U.S. slashed its military aid, and obtaining them is not the aid’s main purpose. Rather, that purpose is to ensure that American soldiers, who are expected to put their lives on the line to defend most other U.S. allies (at least as long as America continues to see defending its allies as an American interest), will never need to do so for Israel.
Consequently, the aid is a win-win situation. Israel gets help in buying the arms it needs to defend itself. And America gets an ally that doesn’t need or want its military protection. That’s infinitely preferable to having to put its soldiers in harm’s way. And it also turns out to be a lot cheaper.
Originally published in Commentary on January 25, 2017
If you want to understand why no rational person should take the United Nations seriously, consider the following three facts: Last week, the World Health Organization, a UN agency, named Israel the first country in the world to be awarded its highest ranking for medical emergency response teams deployed overseas. In other words, the organization deemed the Israel Defense Forces its first responder of choice for any disaster worldwide. Two weeks ago, the daily Israel Hayom reported that the UN’s peacekeeping service asked Israel to train its peacekeepers in emergency field medicine; the seminar is expected to take place in the coming weeks. And every year, this same UN labels Israel the world’s worst violator of health rights, the only country deserving of a country-specific condemnation.
So if you take all three of those decisions seriously, you’re forced to conclude that the UN thinks the world’s worst violator of health rights is the ideal choice to be first on the scene in any medical disaster worldwide and also to train the UN’s own peacekeepers. The UN, by an overwhelming majority, regularly passes resolutions that even its own professional staff knows to be nonsense. Its latest condemnation of Israel for ostensibly violating health rights, for instance, passed in May by a vote of 107-8 with eight abstentions.
And lest anyone thinks there might be some way to square this circle, no, the contradiction can’t be resolved by assuming that Israel’s disaster relief efforts are somehow divorced from its regular medical practices. Over the past few years, for instance, thousands of Syrians wounded in that country’s civil war have willingly come to the Golan Heights and handed themselves over to an enemy army (Israel and Syria are still officially at war) in order to obtain medical care from Israel that they can’t obtain elsewhere. That’s the same Golan Heights where, according to the resolution, Israel is regularly violating Syrians’ health rights.
Similarly, West Bank Palestinians have higher life expectancy and lower infant mortality than Mideast neighbors like Egypt and Jordan or even OECD member Turkey, due in part to their access to Israeli hospitals. That’s the same West Bank where, according to the resolution, Israel is regularly violating Palestinians’ health rights.
One might argue, looking at the decisions cited in the first paragraph, that the UN’s periodic passage of delusional anti-Israel resolutions doesn’t really matter. After all, its annual condemnations of Israel’s medical practices didn’t stop either WHO or the peacekeeping service from recognizing that Israel actually shines in this field and seeking to benefit from its expertise.
The problem is that those decisions are a rare exception to the norm. Far more often, the UN’s non-reality-based resolutions actually serve as the basis of international policy.
Consider, for instance, the UN’s 2012 vote to recognize “Palestine” as a nonmember observer state, even though it didn’t meet the basic requirements of statehood set out in the 1933 Montevideo Convention. That convention requires states to have an actual government. “Palestine” has two, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, with the result that its ostensible president can’t even enter the latter territory and his writ doesn’t run there.
While it’s still unclear how this acceptance will affect the ICC, its effect on UNESCO has been devastating. Not only did it result in the loss of U.S. funding–a full 22 percent of the agency’s budget–but the Palestinians’ nonstop submission of resolutions denying historical fact in Jerusalem has become so embarrassing that even UNESCO’s director publicly repudiated the latest one.
Back in 2002, responding to worldwide criticism of the IDF’s efforts to stop a murderous wave of Palestinian suicide bombings, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan famously asked, “Can Israel be right and the whole world wrong?” It turns out even the UN recognizes that the answer to this question is “yes.” After all, two UN agencies just conferred accolades on Israel’s medical conduct despite the UN’s own 107-8 vote lambasting that same conduct.
But that’s precisely why Israel has refused ever since its establishment to take UN resolutions seriously: No sane country would agree to determine its policies based on the demands of an organization so often disconnected from reality. Indeed, the only sensible conclusion that can be drawn from the UN’s schizophrenia toward Israel is that the organization is in desperate need of comprehensive reform to cure its own illness.
Originally published in Commentary on November 15, 2016
Back in July, trying to make sense of developments like the Brexit vote and the rise of Donald Trump, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen argued that we live in an age when people are indifferent to truth–when facts are “little annoyances easily upended.” That, however, is a self-serving excuse. The real problem is that people no longer trust the media and other gatekeeping institutions to tell them the truth, and therefore feel the “facts” provided by these institutions are unreliable things on which to base decisions. And that distrust is merited, as two recent examples show.
The first is the obituary for Shimon Peres that ran in the print edition of the International New York Times. It described the collapse of the Oslo peace process as follows:
Mr. Peres, Mr. Rabin and Arafat were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994.
But the era of good feelings did not last. It was shattered in 2000 after a visit by the opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the sacred plaza in Jerusalem known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. The next day, the Israeli police fired on stone-throwing protesters, inaugurating a new round of violence that became known as the second intifada.
Needless to say, this picture of events is totally false. The “era of good feelings” didn’t sail serenely on until Sharon “shattered” it by visiting the Temple Mount. It was actually shattered almost immediately after the Oslo Accords were signed by a wave of Palestinian terror that claimed more Israeli victims in two and a half years than all the terror attacks of the preceding decade.
Yet two things make this warped presentation of reality particularly remarkable. First, in an obituary for Shimon Peres, you’d think it would be hard to ignore facts that played a seminal role in his political career. The multiple suicide bombings of early 1996, which the obituary omits, were the direct cause of his narrow loss to Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1996 election, a loss that permanently ended his prime ministerial ambitions.
Second, this wasn’t an innocent mistake stemming from ignorance. The obituary’s online version actually does include a paragraph about the bombings and the election, right after the paragraph about the Nobel Prize. It also correctly says that the violence “accelerated” after Sharon’s visit to the Mount, rather than depicting this visit as shattering a nonexistent calm.
In other words, some editor in the Times’ European offices deliberately distorted the obituary writer’s facts to present a false picture of how the Oslo Accords collapsed. He or she cut any mention of the 1996 bombings; substituted the false sentence about “the era of good feelings,” which doesn’t appear in the online version; and then replaced the “acceleration” of the conflict with the false assertion that Sharon’s visit “shattered” the peace.
Nor is the reason for this distortion any mystery. The standard narrative in most of Europe, and also at the Times, is that Oslo’s collapse was Israel’s fault, while the Palestinians were largely blameless. Informing readers that massive suicide bombings began immediately when Oslo’s architects—Rabin and Peres—were still in office contradicts that narrative. So faced with a conflict between the facts and his or her preferred narrative, an editor at one of the world’s most prestigious newspapers chose to rewrite the facts. And then Cohen wonders why so many people are indifferent to the “facts” as promulgated by his profession.
The second example was last week’s astonishing report by the Council of Europe’s human rights agency, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, which effectively urged the British media stop informing readers that terrorist attacks committed by Islamic extremists are in fact committed by Islamic extremists. Granted, it didn’t say so explicitly. If you read the recommendations devoid of context, they merely urge “more rigorous training for journalists to ensure better compliance with ethical standards” and that “the authorities find a way to establish an independent press regulator.” But it’s quite clear what ECRI intends by these seemingly innocuous recommendations because they are immediately preceded by the following paragraph:
ECRI urges the media to take stock of the importance of responsible reporting, not only to avoid perpetuating prejudice and biased information, but also to avoid harm to targeted persons or vulnerable groups. ECRI considers that, in light of the fact that Muslims are increasingly under the spotlight as a result of recent ISIS-related terrorist acts around the world, fuelling prejudice against Muslims shows a reckless disregard, not only for the dignity of the great majority of Muslims in the United Kingdom, but also for their safety. In this context, it draws attention to a recent study by Teeside University suggesting that where the media stress the Muslim background of perpetrators of terrorist acts, and devote significant coverage to it, the violent backlash against Muslims is likely to be greater than in cases where the perpetrators’ motivation is downplayed or rejected in favour of alternative explanations.
So unless you assume the recommendations have no connection to the paragraph immediately preceding them, it’s hard to avoid concluding that ECRI, in fact, wants the press to hide the Muslim identity of Islamic terrorists and attribute their motive to something other than Islamist ideology. In other words, it wants the press to lie to the public about who the terrorists are and why they’re committing attacks. And then Cohen wonders why so many people are indifferent to the “facts” as promulgated by the European Union.
I don’t like our brave new fact-free world any better than Cohen does. But it’s the inevitable result of one very ugly fact: Institutions people used to trust, like the media and the EU, have forfeited that trust by repeatedly lying to the public in order to promote their own agendas. And the only way to start repairing the damage is for these institutions to acknowledge their own role in destroying the credibility of “facts” and then finally start telling the truth as it is, rather than as they would like it to be.
Originally published in Commentary on October 10, 2016
In my last post, I explained some of the reasons why Israel’s diplomatic future looks promising despite the ongoing freeze in the peace process. But two other factors are also likely to have a positive impact down the road. The first is that the Arabic/Islamic world, which for years was at the forefront of pushing the notion that the Palestinian issue is the world’s number-one problem, is starting to get fed up with the Palestinians’ utter self-absorption at a time when so many Arabs and Muslims are suffering far worse. The second is a small but growing cadre of Israeli Arabs who are proud citizens of Israel and willing to defend its cause overseas.
For an example of the first development, consider the blistering interview with a Palestinian spokesman conducted last month by Orient News TV, a Dubai-based Syrian opposition station. Interviewer Dima Wannous relentlessly pressed her guest, Muhammad Masharqa, on why the Palestinian issue should be “the world’s number one cause.” Following are some of the points she raised with him, as translated by MEMRI:
In 1948, the years of the Nakba, the Palestinian people were driven out of their homes and their land. Approximately 750,000 people were displaced … 750,000 Palestinians were displaced, only 150,000 of whom were expelled from Palestine. The others remained in their historical homeland, although in different places. If you take the total figure of 750,000, this is equal to the number of people who fled Syria and Iraq in the past three months. I repeat the question in another way, because you did not answer me the first time. Why is the Palestinian cause the world’s number one cause…
How come yours is the world’s number one cause? With all the great crimes perpetrated by the Israeli enemy – how many people were killed in the Palestinian ‘Land Day?’ You know better than me. Six people were killed…
Saddam Hussein was idolized by the masses for firing 36 or 39 Scud missiles at Tel Aviv, while he was perpetrating crimes on a daily basis against his own people. The Palestinian greatly appreciated Saddam Hussein for this deed. If we want to talk about the Palestinians’ approach to the liberation of the peoples, is it conceivable for them to support a murderer, an arch-killer, a dictator … just because he fired missiles at Tel Aviv? What about the [Iraqi] people?
Nor was Wannous the least impressed by Masharqa’s attempts to justify Palestinian centrality on the grounds that Israel was a “colonialist” country. “In other words, you’ve benefitted from the enemy being Jewish and Israeli,” she retorted.
Granted, her attitude is far from being the majority position in the Arab world. But it’s no longer unique, either. Just two months ago, I wrote about a former senior Egyptian official who was similarly disgusted by all the attention lavished on fake Palestinian refugees when real Syrian refugees are in dire need of assistance.
The Palestinian cause didn’t become a Western obsession by mere chance; it became a Western obsession in large part because the Arab/Islamic world spent decades relentlessly telling Westerners that this was the Middle East’s biggest problem. By now, this view has become entrenched dogma in the West, and it clearly won’t lose that position overnight. But as Arab/Islamic countries start downgrading the importance of the Palestinian issue, this will eventually have an impact on the West as well.
Reinforcing this development is the increasing emergence of homegrown Arab advocates for Israel. Earlier this month, the Jerusalem Post profiled one such activist–Mohammed Ka’abiya, an air force veteran and university student who has been advocating for Israel on overseas campuses as a StandWithUs Fellow.
It’s relatively easy for anti-Israel activists to persuade ignorant young Westerners that Israel is an “apartheid state” when the main opposition to this canard comes from Jews, who can be smeared as “interested parties.” It’s much harder when a Muslim Bedouin comes up afterward and says, “My name is Mohammad, and I served in the Israel Air Force, and I’m preparing Bedouin guides to serve. I’m here to protect Israel from the BDS lies. You must know that Israeli Arabs have the freedom to live, work, worship and travel.”
Like Wannous, Ka’abiya is still very much in the minority, but again, neither is he unique. His best-known colleagues include diplomat George Deek, who argues that Israeli Arabs can and should “live as a contributing minority” in Israel just like “the Jews in Europe, who kept their religion and identity for centuries but still managed to influence,” and Father Gabriel Naddaf, who has been successfully encouraging his fellow Christian Arabs to serve in the Israeli army and has defended Israel at the UN.
In arguing that the Israeli-Palestinian status quo is unsustainable, both the Israeli left and its American Jewish counterpart rely heavily on fears that the ongoing conflict is eroding Western support for Israel, and that therefore, time is on the Palestinians’ side. But given the West’s growing and unhappy acquaintance with radical Islam, Israel’s improving status in other parts of the world (as detailed in my previous post), and the nascent change in Arab attitudes toward the Palestinian issue, it’s looking far more likely that time is on Israel’s side.
In the long run, these developments could also help solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by convincing Palestinians that Israel isn’t likely to disappear, so negotiating a reasonable peace deal is their best option. But whether or not that ever happens, there’s no reason for Israel to feel pressured to make hasty concessions for fear of diplomatic isolation. As recent developments make clear, Israel can afford to wait.
Originally published in Commentary on August 26, 2016
In a world where entire countries are collapsing, it’s not surprising that the collapse of a decades-old diplomatic axiom has been largely ignored. This axiom holds that Israel’s international relations are dependent on the fate of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Relations will improve if the government makes progress toward peace and worsen if the peace process stalemates. Yet Israel today, under a government widely (though wrongly) deemed its “most right-wing ever” and equally widely (though equally wrongly) blamed for the nonexistent peace process, has been expanding and deepening its diplomatic relationships at a dizzying pace, as the past week once again shows.
On Monday, on the way home from a visit to Guinea–a Muslim-majority country with which Israel resumed relations this summer after a 49-year hiatus–Foreign Ministry Director General Dore Gold stopped off in another African country with which Israel still has no formal ties. According to Haaretz, no Israeli diplomat has ever before been invited to this country. That same day, Kazakhstan’s defense minister came to Israel to meet with his Israeli counterpart prior to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned visit to this Muslim-majority country later this year. According to the Jerusalem Post, that will make Netanyahu the first sitting Israeli premier ever to visit Central Asia. And while Nigerian opposition has apparently stalled a bid by several African countries to invite Netanyahu to this year’s summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the president of Togo has announced that he will host a meeting between Netanyahu and ECOWAS leaders next spring, in yet another first. Nor are such developments unusual these days; just last month, I wrote a post listing several other such firsts.
Granted, the main impetus for this change has nothing to with Israel; rather, it’s the global upsurge in Islamist terror, which has spurred more and more countries to seek to benefit from Israel’s unhappily vast experience in combating such terror. Nevertheless, it’s no accident that these blossoming diplomatic ties are happening specifically under a “right-wing” government.
Netanyahu and his cabinet have been able to exploit this opening to the fullest precisely because they never bought the diplomatic axiom so beloved of the Israeli left. Had the government actually believed diplomatic success depended on progress in the peace process, it wouldn’t have invested much effort on trying to expand Israel’s ties with the traditionally pro-Palestinian non-Western world at a time when the peace process was stalemated because it would consider such efforts doomed to failure. And in fact, before Netanyahu took office in 2009, Israeli diplomacy did focus almost exclusively on the West.
But Netanyahu and certain other key cabinet ministers (most notably former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman) have toiled for years to improve ties with non-Western countries. Thus when changing geopolitical circumstances provided an opportunity, they were fully prepared to seize it, with a skill that won admiration even from diehard critics like Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit.
Yet despite the growing evidence to the contrary, many Israeli pundits still insist that further progress is impossible without movement on the peace process, seemingly oblivious to the possibility that circumstances can change. And it isn’t just leftists; even intelligent center-rightists like Yaakov Amidror have joined the recent chorus proclaiming, to take one example, that formal ties with Saudi Arabia are impossible without an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. In the short term, of course, they’re undoubtedly right. But to declare it impossible in the longer run, given how fast things have been changing recently, is sheer folly.
For instance, had anyone predicted, as recently as six weeks ago, that a Saudi delegation headed by a former senior government official would openly visit Israel–a move experts widely agree would be impossible without Riyadh’s approval–they would have been dismissed as crazy. And yet, it happened. Had anyone predicted a few years ago that under-the-table Saudi-Israeli defense cooperation would become an open secret, they would also have been dubbed crazy. But that, too, happened.
Or to take another example, had anyone said, as recently as last week, that an Egyptian foreign minister would tell Egyptian high-school students that Israel couldn’t be accused of state terrorism and had legitimate concerns about self-defense, they would have been dubbed crazy. And yet, that also happened, according to Arab media reports, which were lent credence when Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry issued a “denial” that didn’t actually deny either of those statements (he merely denied that dead Palestinian children were mentioned in either the student’s question or his response).
Indeed, it’s far more likely that such “firsts” will continue, because not only has rising Islamic terror made Israel a more desirable ally, but attitudes toward the Palestinian issue are also slowly changing, even in the Arab world. As I’ve noted before, the collapse of several Arab countries (Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen) has prompted a growing realization that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is far from the Middle East’s worst problem. And as that realization sinks in, the argument for continuing to eschew potentially beneficial relationships with Israel becomes less convincing.
Still, one might ask, what about the West, where the Palestinian issue actually seems to be growing in importance? It’s true that, being more insulated from the impact of the Middle East’s collapse, many Westerners have been slower to abandon the theory of Israeli-Palestinian centrality. But the West’s insulation is fraying, as the flood of refugees and rising terror show. And though in the short term, as I’ve explained before, that may make Europeans even more anti-Israel, over the long term, reality tends to become hard to ignore.
When you add in the fact that Israel already has strong bases of support in the West – even in hostile Europe, as activist Ariel Bolstein discovered on a recent tour of British pubs – there’s no reason to think Israel’s relations with the West will remain hostage to the Palestinian issue forever. The real mistake would be for Israel to throw up its hands and insist no improvement is possible rather than preparing to take advantage of new opportunities if they arise. And that, based on its record, doesn’t seem like a mistake this government will make.
Originally published in Commentary on August 25, 2016
In my last post, I discussed how Palestinian culture encourages suicidal youngsters to kill by offering a simple bargain: Murder a Jew, and you instantly become a hero. While the West has long turned a blind eye to this behavior, its refusal to look reality in the face is now coming back to haunt it. For today, the Islamic State is making the very same tempting offer to distraught Muslims in Western countries–murder a Westerner, and you can instantly become a hero instead of a failure.
It’s no accident that several recent terror attacks in Western countries have been carried out by people who apparently had histories of mental illness, including Nice, Orlando, and several attacks in Germany. Nor is it any accident that the Islamic State is cultivating such people. As with many other terrorist techniques pioneered by the Palestinians, ISIS has copied this one precisely because it proved successful–and not just as a means of recruiting assailants.
This tactic also serves two other important purposes. First, it encourages an already strong Western tendency to ignore the terrorists’ true aims. I discussed this with regard to the Palestinians in my previous post; a classic example concerning the Islamic State was Kenan Malik’s op-ed in the New York Times on Tuesday. “In the past, groups employing terrorism, such as the Irish Republican Army or the Palestine Liberation Organization, were driven by specific political aims: a united Ireland or an independent Palestine,” Malik wrote. “Jihadists are different. They have little or no explicit political aim but are driven by a visceral hatred of the West.”
In reality, Islamic State is quite open about its aims: It wants to destroy the West and establish a global Islamic caliphate. Indeed, being open about its goals is part of how it attracts new recruits, just as Palestinian organizations attract support by boasting of their efforts to destroy the Jewish state. But at the same time, both the Palestinians and ISIS would prefer that the West not take their goals too seriously since, if it did, it might stop supporting the Palestinians or actually get serious about destroying ISIS.
The use of emotionally distressed recruits is an ideal way for terrorists to foster confusion about their aims because it makes it even easier for well-meaning Westerners to reassure themselves that Islamist death cults, which exploit such distress to turn people into killers, aren’t actually the problem. The real issue, they tell themselves, is mental health or social alienation.
Second, this tactic helps divide the West and turn it against itself, because it reinforces another existing tendency of many well-meaning Westerners–blaming the victim for having driven the attacker to such a dreadful deed. Westerners have been blaming Palestinian terror on Israel for years, and now, many are blaming themselves for ISIS.
A classic example of this tendency emerged the day after deadly attacks killed 129 people at the Bataclan concert hall and other venues around Paris last November. Anshel Pfeffer of Haaretz visited the 11th arrondissement, one of the neighborhoods where attacks took place and discovered that people “aren’t angry, at least not at the perpetrators.”
The terrorists are “stupid, but they aren’t evil,” a woman who works at one of the district’s theaters told him. “They are victims of a system that excluded them from society, that’s why they felt this doesn’t belong to them and they could attack. There are those who live here in alienation, and we are all to blame for this alienation.”
Some of the others blamed French or American foreign policy. But “no one wanted to talk about Islamists or the Islamic State, even after it took responsibility for the attacks,” Pfeffer wrote. “It was hard to find anyone at this gathering who would say a bad word about the attackers.”
Using assailants with a history of mental or emotional problems is an ideal way for terrorists to reinforce this tendency as well, because it enables people to focus on the assailant’s distress, and society’s failure to deal with it, rather than on the evil intent of those who incited him to kill by telling him he would thereby become a hero instead of a loser.
Yet both gambits are working for ISIS now precisely because Westerners were conditioned for decades to believe them by the way their own journalists, academics, and political leaders insistently treated Palestinian terror as Israel’s fault.
Some Westerners, like the young Parisians interviewed by Pfeffer, have so internalized this attitude that they simply transfer it to their own countries; asserting that their society, too, must be to blame for the attacks against it. Others, like Malik, perform a kind of inversion: Indoctrinated to believe that terror is the victim’s fault, yet unable to believe their own societies evil enough to merit such attacks, they resolve the dilemma by asserting that unlike Palestinian violence–which Malik deems “rational” and “governed by certain norms”– jihadist violence must be senseless than rather than purposeful. “It is the arbitrariness of jihadist violence and its disregard for moral bounds that make it terrifying,” he proclaimed (he evidently thinks murdering random civilians in Israel is well within moral bounds).
But whichever approach they choose, the one thing people like Malik and those young Parisians aren’t doing is putting the blame where it belongs: on the terrorist leaders who groom perpetrators to commit mass murder by indoctrinating them to believe that the road to glory runs through killing others.
Terror can never be defeated until Westerners recognizes the crucial role played by this glorification of murder. And that won’t happen as long as the West keeps giving it a pass among the Palestinians, for they are the ones who pioneered this culture of death and inspired all the subsequent copycats.
Originally published in Commentary on August 15, 2016
Wednesday’s announcement that Guinea is resuming ties with Israel almost half a century after severing them is a nontrivial piece of good news. Granted, Guinea is a poor and relatively unimportant African country. But it’s 85 percent Muslim, and few Muslim-majority countries have yet been willing to forge open relations with Israel; consequently, its decision could encourage others to follow suit. Guinea was also the first country in Africa to sever relations with Israel following the 1967 Six-Day War. For both those reasons, its renewal of ties underscores the degree to which a new Israeli strategy aimed at improving relations with the non-Western world has begun bearing fruit.
The Guinea announcement comes on the heels of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s successful trip to Africa earlier this month. Highlights of that trip included announcements by both Kenya and Ethiopia–two of Israel’s closest African allies–that they would push for Israel to receive observer status at the African Union, as well as Tanzania’s announcement that it planned to open an embassy in Israel, 21 years after renewing relations.
Israeli media outlets have also reported that officials from three other Muslim-majority African countries that don’t have relations with Israel–Mali, Chad, and Somalia–recently paid secret visits, indicating that the prospect of other Muslim countries following Guinea’s lead is far from inconceivable. Indeed, just last week, Foreign Ministry Director General Dore Gold visited Chad for a meeting with its president. This prospect is made more plausible by the warming of Israel’s relations with key Arab states. As several African leaders noted during Netanyahu’s trip, there’s little point in African countries continuing to give Israel the cold shoulder when some of the very Arab countries that originally pushed them to do so now have either overt or covert relations with it.
There are two reasons why Israel ascribes such importance to its warming ties with Africa, and both have more to do with the long term than the short term. The first is the need to diversify its trading partners. Currently, about a third of Israel’s exports go to Europe. But the combination of Europe’s slowing economy and its growing hostility to Israel make this heavy reliance on Europe a potential threat to Israel’s economic future. Africa is the world’s poorest continent, but it’s experiencing rapid economic growth, and many of Israel’s fields of expertise fit well with Africa’s needs, including agricultural technology, water conservation, and counterterrorism. Thus by expanding and improving its diplomatic relations with African countries, Israel hopes to eventually expand its trade relations as well.
The second, as Netanyahu said during his Africa trip, is the hope of ending the automatic majority against Israel in international forums. As he readily acknowledged, this could well take decades; long-entrenched voting patterns don’t change overnight. Nevertheless, change is far from impossible: See, for instance, the 2014 Security Council vote on setting a deadline for Palestinian statehood, which was defeated because the Palestinians failed to muster the requisite nine votes. Two of the five crucial abstentions came from Africa (Rwanda and Nigeria).
Even if African countries can’t yet be flipped into the minuscule camp of pro-Israel voters, just moving them from the anti-Israel bloc to the abstention column could ease Israel’s dependence on America’s Security Council veto. Since Security Council resolutions need a minimum of nine “yes” votes to pass, an abstention has the same effect as a “no” for countries without veto power. It should also be noted that reliably abstaining would suffice to make African countries better voting allies than about half the European Union and of equal value to most of the rest: EU countries almost never vote with Israel, and some regularly vote against it.
Israel’s burgeoning relations with Africa obviously stem partly from something beyond its control: the rise of Islamist terror. As several African leaders openly acknowledged during Netanyahu’s trip, counterterrorism assistance is currently the thing they most want from Israel. And if reports of the visits by officials from Mali, Chad, and Somalia are true, it’s a safe bet they were also seeking counterterrorism help; all three have serious problems with Islamist terror.
The improvement also stems partly from Israel’s longstanding policy of proffering aid even to countries it has no relations with, which sometimes bears belated fruit. For instance, Israeli officials said one factor in Guinea’s decision to renew relations was the medical aid Israel gave it during the Ebola crisis two years ago. A salient example from Asia, another continent with which Israel’s ties have recently blossomed, is Singapore. Singapore asked Israel to train its army in the mid-1960s, before the two countries even established relations, and then concealed that fact for decades. But last month, as Elliott Abrams noted, Singapore joined forces with India and Rwanda–the third country in the club of Israel’s closest African allies–to help Israel gain the Non-Aligned votes it needed to win the chairmanship of a key UN committee.
The third reason for Israel’s declining isolation, however, is a deliberate decision by successive Netanyahu governments that the country could not afford, either economically or diplomatically, to keep focusing almost exclusively on the West while largely ignoring the rest of the world. Avigdor Lieberman, now the defense minister, made a major push to improve Israel’s ties with Africa and Asia during his term as foreign minister, and since his departure, the ministry has continued this drive under the de facto leadership of Gold (Netanyahu is the nominal foreign minister).
This constituted a major shift in Israel’s strategy, and it stemmed from a simple realization: Relations with Europe are inevitably being frayed by the fact that what the EU seems to want most from Israel is something beyond Israel’s power to provide. Namely, a peace deal with people who have consistently refused every Israeli offer and are currently refusing even to negotiate with it. Europe’s attitude could change someday, but Israel can’t count on that. Hence it must develop alternative sources of trade and diplomatic support as an insurance policy.
The restoration of relations with Guinea is yet another sign that this strategy is starting to pay off. And that’s very good news for Israel.
Following last week’s terror attack in Nice, a Belgian Jewish organization issued a highly unusual statement charging that, had European media not spent months “ignoring” Palestinian terror against Israel out of “political correctness,” the idea of a truck being used as a weapon wouldn’t have come as such a shock. But it now turns out that European officials did something much worse than merely ignoring Palestinian attacks: They issued a 39-page report, signed by almost every EU country, blaming these attacks on “the occupation” rather than the terrorists. The obvious corollary was that European countries had no reason to fear similar attacks and, therefore, they didn’t bother taking precautions that could have greatly reduced the casualties.
The most shocking part of the Nice attack was how high those casualties were: The truck driver managed to kill 84 people before he was stopped. By comparison, as the New York Times reported on Monday, Israel has suffered at least 32 car-ramming attacks since last October, yet all these attacks combined have killed exactly two people (shootings and stabbings are much deadlier). Granted, most involved private cars, but even attacks using buses or heavy construction vehicles never approached the scale of Nice’s casualties. The deadliest ramming attack in Israel’s history, in 2001, killed eight.
Firstly, this is because Israel deploys massive security for mass gatherings like Nice’s Bastille Day celebrations, forcing Palestinian assailants to make do with less densely-populated targets, like bus stops or light rail stops, which greatly lowers the death toll. As an Israeli police spokesman told the New York Times, an Israeli event comparable to the one in Nice would entail “a 360-degree enclosure of the area, with layers of security around the perimeter,” including major roads “blocked off with rows of buses, and smaller side streets with patrol cars,” plus a massive police presence reinforced by counterterrorism units “strategically placed to provide a rapid response, if needed.”
Secondly, Israeli security personnel have no qualms about using deadly force against terrorists in mid-rampage if less lethal means would take longer to succeed because they understand that the best way to save innocent lives is to stop the attack as quickly as possible. This lesson was driven home by a 2008 attack in which a Palestinian plowed a heavy construction vehicle into a crowded Jerusalem street. A policewoman tried to stop him without killing him; she wounded him and then climbed into the cab to handcuff him. But while she was trying to cuff him, he managed to restart the vehicle and kill another person before he was shot dead.
Now consider the abovementioned EU document, first reported in the EUobserver last Friday, and its implications for both those counterterrorism techniques. The document is an internal assessment of the wave of Palestinian terror that began last October, written by EU diplomats in the region and endorsed in December 2015 by all EU countries with “embassies in Jerusalem and Ramallah,” the EUobserver said.
And what did it conclude? That the attacks were due to “the Israeli occupation… and a long-standing policy of political, economic and social marginalisation of Palestinians in Jerusalem,” to “deep frustration amongst Palestinians over the effects of the occupation, and a lack of hope that a negotiated solution can bring it to an end.” This, the report asserted, was “the heart of the matter”; factors like rampant Palestinian incitement and widespread Islamist sentiment, if they were mentioned at all, were evidently dismissed as unimportant.
The report’s first implication is obvious: If Palestinian attacks stem primarily from “the occupation,” there’s no reason to think anything similar could happen in Europe, which isn’t occupying anyone (at least in its own view; Islamists might not agree). Consequently, there’s also no need to learn from Israel’s methods of dealing with such attacks.
In contrast, had EU diplomats understood the major role played by Palestinian incitement—for instance, the endless Internet memes urging Palestinians to stab, run over and otherwise kill Jews, complete with detailed instructions on how to do so—they might have realized that similar propaganda put out by Islamic State, urging people to use similar techniques against Westerners, could have a similar effect. Had they understood the role played by Islamist sentiments—fully 89 percent of Palestinians supported a Sharia-based state in a Pew poll last year, one of the highest rates in the world—they might have realized that similar sentiments among some European Muslims posed a similar threat. And had they realized all this, the crowds in Nice might not have been left virtually unprotected.
No less telling, however, was the report’s explanation for Israel’s relatively low death toll. Rather than crediting the Israeli police for managing to stop most of the attacks quickly, before they had claimed many victims, it accused them of “excessive use of force… possibly amounting in certain cases to unlawful killings.”
If the EU’s consensus position is that shooting terrorists in mid-rampage constitutes “excessive use of force,” European policemen may understandably hesitate to do the same. In Nice, for instance, the rampage continued for two kilometers while policemen reportedly “ran 200 meters behind the truck trying to stop it”; the police caught up only when a civilian jumped into the truck’s cab and wrestled the driver, slowing him down. Yet even then, an eyewitness said, “They kept yelling at him and when he did not step out – they saw him from the window taking his gun out.” Only then did they open fire.
Not everyone shares the EU’s blind spot about Palestinian terror. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Africa earlier this month, the leaders he met with said openly that one of the main things they want from Israel is counterterrorism assistance. They understand quite well that anti-Israel terror isn’t some unique breed that other countries can safely ignore; terror is terror, and any tactic tried by Palestinians is liable to be quickly imitated by Islamist terrorists elsewhere—from airplane hijackings to suicide bombings and, now, car-rammings.
But European officials, entrenched in their smug belief that anti-Israel terror has nothing to do with the terror they face, are incapable of acknowledging that Israel’s experience might be relevant. And therefore, people died who might still be alive had the lessons of Palestinian terror against Israel been learned.
Originally published in Commentary on July 20, 2016
Israel-hatred isn’t the only reason for the Mideast’s current meltdown, but it has undoubtedly played a significant role. As an example, consider how Lebanon was rebuilt after Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel–and then consider how that reconstruction ended up enabling the bloodbath in Syria today.
The Second Lebanon War began ten years ago this week, when Hezbollah killed three Israeli soldiers and abducted two in a cross-border raid, despite Israel’s withdrawal from every inch of Lebanon six years earlier. Yet Hezbollah paid no public price for starting a war that devastated southern Lebanon; instead, it became the darling of the Arab world for emerging undefeated (if also un-victorious) from a month-long fight against the hated Zionist enemy and achieving the then-unprecedented feat of launching some 4,000 rockets at Israel’s civilian population.
This halo effect was able to survive past the first flush of victory mainly because the devastation was quickly repaired, thereby mitigating the suffering of Hezbollah’s Shi’ite base. But Hezbollah couldn’t have done this alone; it didn’t have the money. And though its Iranian patron made cash payments to families left homeless, Tehran’s money went primarily toward rebuilding Hezbollah’s arsenal.
So who actually cleaned up the mess left by Hezbollah’s war? “With all due respect to Tehran, most of the rebuilding efforts were shouldered by wealthy Arab states such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, which donated hundreds of millions of dollars,” reporter Jack Khoury wrote in Haaretz this week. “Qatar alone donated more than $300 million and took charge of rebuilding houses in the 30 hardest-hit communities.” And those houses weren’t just rebuilt; they were made even bigger and better than before.
The Sunni Arab states didn’t shell out lavish reconstruction aid because of any fondness for Shi’ite Hezbollah or its Shi’ite Iranian patron. In fact, the Saudis openly condemned Hezbollah for starting the war. Nor were they motivated mainly by compassion, as evidenced by the cold shoulder they have given victims of the far greater devastation wrought by Syria’s civil war (the Gulf States are notorious for refusing to accept Syrian refugees).
Rather, given the Arab world’s loathing for Israel, these countries felt they simply couldn’t afford to appear unsupportive of “Israel’s victims”–especially since Hezbollah, despite starting an unnecessary war that wreaked havoc on its own population, had become an Arab hero for doing so. Consequently, they joined forces to rebuild Lebanon.
Had this not happened, the Lebanese might have turned against Hezbollah for causing them lasting damage, leaving it irreparably weakened. Instead, it became even stronger: Not only was it a hero, but it had the financial clout to get the country rebuilt. Within two years, it had become Lebanon’s de facto ruler, a position it retains to this day.
Now fast forward five years to the outbreak of Syria’s civil war in 2011. The war has so far killed over 400,000 people and displaced more than half the country’s population. This includes 4.8 million who fled to Syria’s neighbors, thereby destabilizing countries like Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon.
The war also enabled Islamic State to create its first territorial base in Syria, from which it later took over chunks of Iraq. These successes then enabled it to acquire affiliates in other Arab countries (i.e. Egypt and Libya) and to perpetrate or inspire deadly terror attacks around the world. In short, the civil war hasn’t just wrecked Syria; between the refugees and Islamic State, it has also destabilized much of the Arab world.
But a major reason why this war has dragged on for so long is Hezbollah. A few years ago, the rebels seemed close to victory. The Assad regime was steadily losing territory due to its shortage of reliable ground troops (most rank-and-file Syrian soldiers are Sunnis, like the rebels, so Assad’s Alawite sect doesn’t trust them). But then, Hezbollah poured thousands of troops into Syria, enabling the regime to win crucial battles and regain some of its territory. Consequently, there’s still no end in sight. And since the Arab states are backing the rebels while Iran backs the regime, Hezbollah’s intervention also denied these states a much-needed victory over their main rival, Iran.
The Arab world’s anti-Israel pathology prompted the Sunni states to rescue Hezbollah from the consequences of its own folly 10 years ago, and ensured Hezbollah would be capable of throwing the Assad regime a lifeline. A swift Assad defeat might have reduced the Syrian conflict’s destabilizing effects on other Arab countries while also dealing a setback to Iran’s growing influence in the region. Yet all these countries prioritized proving their anti-Israel bona fides over weakening Iran’s strongest military ally. And now, they are paying the price.
The Arab states may have learned their lesson: They aren’t rushing to rescue another Iranian-backed militia, Hamas, from the consequences of its own folly. Granted, they pledged billions of dollars to repair the devastation wreaked on Gaza by Hamas’s 2014 war with Israel. But as the Elder of Ziyon blog reported this week, very little has actually been paid.
Altogether, Muslim countries have paid only 16.5 percent of what they promised, compared to 71 percent for non-Muslim countries. And for the Gulf States, the figures are even lower: 15 percent for Qatar, 10 percent for Saudi Arabia, and zero percent for Kuwait. This is presumably not unrelated to last weekend’s assertion by former Saudi intelligence chief Turki al-Faisal that Iran is “spreading chaos” and destabilizing the region through its support of numerous militias, including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad: If Riyadh views Hamas as an agent of Iranian destabilization, it has good reason not to throw it a financial lifeline.
The realization that their hatred of Israel has ended up hurting Arab states more than it has their intended victim is undoubtedly one of the drivers behind these countries’ budding rapprochement with Israel, as reflected most recently in Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry’s visit to Jerusalem this week. Unfortunately, that epiphany has come too late for battered, bleeding Syria, and for all the other countries now suffering the fallout from its ongoing civil war.
Originally published in Commentary on July 15, 2016