Analysis from Israel

Foreign Affairs and Defense

When Israel barred two U.S. congresswomen from entering the country earlier this month, I initially thought it a stupid decision. But after hearing the reactions from both American politicians and American Jews, I’ve started to think it may have been necessary.

This isn’t to deny the substantial damage it has caused. Pro-Israel Democrats felt betrayed, and even some pro-Israel Republicans were outraged. Most of the organized Jewish community was horrified. And the BDS movement received media exposure it could never have gained on its own.

But nobody would have felt outraged or betrayed had Israel barred, say, white-supremacist politicians. Thus the underlying message of these reactions was that unlike white supremacism, advocating Israel’s destruction is a legitimate opinion, entitled to the same respectful treatment as the view that Israel should continue to exist. Yet no country can or should treat its own erasure as a legitimate option.

To understand why this was the issue at stake, a brief review of the facts is needed. When Israel originally agreed to allow a visit by Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), it knew they enthusiastically supported BDS, a movement unambiguously committed to eliminating the Jewish state. It also knew they would use the visit to tar Israel in every possible way.

However, it assumed that they would at least pay lip service to Israel’s existence by following the standard protocol for official visitors—meeting Israeli officials and visiting some Israeli sites. On that assumption, and since the law banning entry to prominent BDS supporters permits exceptions for the sake of Israel’s foreign relations, Israel decided to admit them “out of respect for the U.S. Congress,” as Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer said at the time.

A few days before the visit, however, the proposed itinerary arrived and proved that assumption wrong. Far from paying lip service to Israel’s existence, the trip literally erased the country from the map.

It was billed as a trip to “Palestine,” not, say, “Israel and Palestine.” It didn’t include visits to a single spot in pre-1967 Israel, aside from the unavoidable landing (for those too lazy to take the longer route through Amman) at Ben-Gurion International Airport. And even that was billed simply as “arrive in Tel Aviv,” with no hint that Tel Aviv belonged to a country other than “Palestine.”

Nor did the trip include meetings with any Israeli officials; Omar’s subsequent claim that she, unlike Tlaib, did plan to hold such meetings is patently false. According to her own story, she planned to spend Friday, Aug. 16 and Saturday, Aug. 17 in Israel before joining Tlaib’s trip on Aug. 18. But official meetings are always arranged in advance. And as of Aug. 15, when Israel nixed the visit, she hadn’t yet approached a single Israeli government or defense official (though she did contact one Arab Knesset member). Did she really think she could just show up at the last minute, on the two days when Israelis aren’t in their offices (Israel’s work week is Sunday through Thursday), and magically arrange meetings?

Finally, the trip was organized by Miftah, a Palestinian organization that supports terror and regularly spouts anti-Semitic blood libels, including accusing Jews of poisoning wells, drinking Christian blood and organ theft.

In short, this was a trip that literally negated Israel’s existence. Yet all the outraged reactions either ignored this fact or, worse, treated it as unexceptionable. The pro-Israel lobby AIPAC exemplified the former approach, tweeting, “Every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand”—just as if Tlaib and Omar hadn’t deliberately shunned experiencing Israel. Leading pro-Israel Democrats epitomized the latter approach.

“The decision of the Israeli government to deny entry to Israel by two Members of Congress is outrageous, regardless of their itinerary or their views,” declared House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who had just returned from leading 41 Democrats on his own congressional trip to Israel. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) opined, “No democratic society should fear an open debate.” Congressmen Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said the “close relationship enjoyed by the United States and Israel should extend to all its government representatives, regardless of their views on specific issues or policies.” Former Vice President Joe Biden said, “No democracy should deny entry to visitors based on the content of their ideas—even ideas they strongly object to.”

In other words, even some of the most pro-Israel voices in Congress insisted that wiping Israel off the map is a legitimate opinion, one Israel must accept just as it accepts disagreements over government policy. It shouldn’t “fear an open debate” on whether or not it should continue to exist. It shouldn’t “deny entry to visitors based on the content of their ideas,” even if the idea in question is its own destruction.

This is simply ludicrous. For Israel to deny entry to advocates of its own dissolution should be as uncontroversial as denying entry to neo-Nazis. And it’s deeply worrying that even Israel’s genuine friends in America evidently think otherwise.

Yet Israel can’t expect its overseas friends to treat this view as illegitimate if it doesn’t do the same itself. And allowing entry to people like Tlaib and Omar would do the exact opposite: It would send the message that their desire to destroy the Jewish state isn’t beyond the pale, but merely a legitimate political disagreement.

Perhaps U.S. President Donald Trump’s crude intervention made this the wrong moment to take a stand. Because Israel’s decision came just hours after he tweeted that admitting Tlaib and Omar would show “great weakness,” it was widely perceived as a capitulation to Trump rather than an independent decision on a crucial issue of principle.

But on the flip side, this was by far the most blatant, controversial and high-profile case Israel is ever likely to encounter. Thus barring Tlaib and Omar sets a clear precedent, whereas failing to do so would have completely erased a crucial red line.

And because the world will never be more pro-Israel than Jerusalem is, holding that line is essential. If Israel wants the world to treat its eradication as an illegitimate aim, it must first do so itself.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on August 28, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org

The first anniversary of the U.S. embassy’s move to Jerusalem sparked multiple articles in the Israeli press declaring it a failure for both U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. From the left-wing Haaretz to the centrist Times of Israel, headlines trumpeted the fact that only one minor country, Guatemala, has followed America’s lead. And even that might prove fleeting, as several candidates in next month’s Guatemalan election have pledged to return the embassy to Tel Aviv.

All this is true, but it also misses the point. And it thereby obscures the real and lasting gains of the embassy move.

To understand why, it’s worth recalling America’s own history on this issue. In 1995, Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which ordered the embassy relocated from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It was approved by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both the House (374-37) and the Senate (93-5). And in every subsequent election, every presidential candidate, whether Republican or Democratic, pledged to honor this directive.

Yet despite this consensus, it still took more than 20 years for the move to happen. Successive presidents, both Republican and Democratic, proved reluctant to defy international opposition. Consequently, they exercised a provision of the law allowing the move to be postponed due to national security considerations. These presidential waivers were renewed every six months for more than two decades.

In contrast, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was never been mooted as a possibility by any other country in the world. Outside America, not a single mainstream party, whether liberal or conservative, ever considered an embassy move, much less actively supported the idea.

Expecting other countries to go from having never even thought about moving their embassies to actually doing so in the space of just 12 months was always fatuous. Indeed, I warned a year ago that “Jerusalem isn’t going to be flooded with new embassies anytime soon.” If it took America more than two decades to move its embassy despite a bipartisan consensus that was codified in legislation, it will clearly take time for countries that have only just started considering the issue to reach the point of being ready to actually make the move.

What Trump’s decision did accomplish, however, was to break the global taboo on thinking and talking about this idea. Never again will recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital be an inconceivable option. Indeed, in many countries, it has already become a hotly debated one. And the more the idea is discussed, the more realistic the possibility becomes.

A few countries have already gone beyond talk and taken preliminary steps down the path to full recognition. For instance, Australia didn’t move its embassy, but it did recognize western Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last year. That disappointed many Israelis, who view the entire city as Israel’s capital. But it’s a major advance from where Israel was pre-Trump, when not a single country in the world recognized any part of Jerusalem as its capital.

Similarly, Hungary opened a trade office with diplomatic status in Jerusalem this year. As the Times of Israel noted in its otherwise dismissive anniversary article, this is the first time in almost four decades that a European country has had a diplomatic mission in Jerusalem, thereby defying Security Council Resolution 478 from 1980, which urged countries “that have established diplomatic missions at Jerusalem to withdraw such missions.” Hungary thereby broke an important barrier.

In several other countries, action is actively being debated. In the Czech Republic, for instance, the president vocally supports moving the embassy while the prime minister opposes it. In Romania, the prime minister supports it but the president opposes it. Canada’s opposition Conservative Party has promised to move the embassy if elected, while the ruling Liberal Party opposes doing so. Brazil’s new president campaigned on moving the embassy, but then backtracked post-election, just as U.S. presidents did for 20 years. And the list could go on.

Finally, even in countries where no action of any sort is yet under discussion, it has at least become acceptable for politicians to say openly that Jerusalem is and should be Israel’s capital. Italian Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, for instance, said in December that Jerusalem should be recognized as Israel’s capital. A year earlier, Belgian Secretary of State Philippe de Backer (whose position is equivalent to a deputy cabinet minister) told a local Jewish paper, “There is no doubt that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital.”

Trump’s decision also accomplished something else important: It permanently slayed the myth that recognizing Jerusalem would spark massive violence in the Arab world. The U.S. embassy move sparked no violence anywhere except among Palestinians, and even that was short-lived. Consequently, no country contemplating such a move in the future will be deterred by fear of a bloody reaction.

One might still wonder why Netanyahu essentially set himself up for failure by repeatedly asserting over the last year that many other countries would move their embassies in America’s wake. He surely knew how unlikely this was; he’s nothing if not a realist. So why didn’t he focus on the modest but genuine gains the move did produce rather than inflating unreasonable expectations?

The answer is that he had no choice but to set the bar unrealistically high because that was the only way to maximize the real benefits of Trump’s decision. No country will ever be more pro-Israel than Israel itself. Thus had Israel implied that it didn’t expect other countries to move their embassies, no country would even have considered doing so. And that would have strangled the important public debates the decision sparked.

By any realistic standard, the embassy move has been a resounding success. In the space of just one year, countries around the world have gone from a situation in which recognizing Jerusalem was unthinkable to one in which it is being discussed, debated and even acted upon. And as long as this trend continues, it’s only a matter of time until actual embassy moves follow.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on May 22, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org

International law used to distinguish between offensive and defensive wars. But modern interpretations have eliminated this distinction, and thereby ended up rewarding aggression.

When U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, foreign-policy experts keened in chorus that he was destroying a fundamental principle of the world order: that territory can’t be acquired through force. Let’s hope they’re right—because that principle, far from deterring aggression, actually rewards it.

The problem is that, as currently interpreted, the principle doesn’t distinguish between offensive and defensive wars. Thus for an aggressor, starting a war becomes almost cost-free (assuming he doesn’t care about getting his own people killed). If he wins, he achieves whatever goal he sought to achieve. And if he loses, the international community will pressure his victim to return any captured lands, thereby ensuring that he pays no territorial price.

This warped interpretation is the diametric opposite of the principle’s original purpose, which was to deter aggression. But it’s also of fairly recently vintage. After World War II, the Allies had no qualms about forcing Germany, the aggressor, to cede territory to its victims. And Western nations still recognized the distinction between offensive and defensive war as recently as 1967.

The proof is Security Council Resolution 242, which is famously interpreted today as requiring Israel to cede all territory captured in the Six-Day War of 1967. But in reality, it was explicitly worded to let Israel keep some of that territory, by demanding a withdrawal only from “territories occupied in the recent conflict,” rather than “the territories” or “all the territories.”

As America’s then U.N. ambassador, Arthur Goldberg, later said, the omitted words “were not accidental … the resolution speaks of withdrawal … without defining the extent of withdrawal.” Lord Caradon, the British U.N. ambassador who drafted the resolution, was even more explicit. “It would have been wrong to demand that Israel return to its positions of June 4, 1967,” he said.

What’s noteworthy, however, is that the clause allowing Israel to retain some captured territory was preceded by a preamble clause, “Emphasizing the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” In other words, nobody back then saw any contradiction between emphasizing the inadmissibility of acquiring territory through war and authorizing the victim to keep some of the aggressor’s territory because the ban on gaining territory through war was understood as applying to offensive wars, not defensive ones.

And the Six-Day War—in which Israel acquired the Golan Heights from Syria, the Sinai from Egypt and the West Bank, Gaza and eastern Jerusalem from their illegal Jordanian occupier—was a classic defensive war. It began when Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping (a recognized act of war), kicked U.N. peacekeepers out of Sinai, massed troops on Israel’s border and publicly threatened to annihilate it.

Moreover, even after Israel opened the war’s hot phase by attacking and destroying Egypt’s air force, it had no interest in opening additional fronts with Syria or Jordan (famously begging the latter to stay out of the war). Nevertheless, both countries promptly launched their own attacks. In Syria’s case, these included shelling civilian communities from the Golan and conducting airstrikes on them.

In other words, Syria could have sat the war out. Instead, it chose to join the anti-Israel aggression, and in the ensuing fighting, it lost the Golan.

Damascus then spent the next 52 years rejecting repeated offers to trade the Golan for peace while also launching one hot war (in 1973) and providing material support for decades of attacks on Israel from neighboring Lebanon (first by the PLO and later by Hezbollah). In contrast, Egypt made peace with Israel in 1979 (thereby recovering every inch of Sinai), while Jordan signed a formal peace treaty in 1994 after having maintained a de facto peace for the preceding 27 years.

Yet despite Syria’s half-century record of aggression and peace rejectionism, the international community never stopped insisting that Israel must return the Golan to Syria. Damascus believed that it would never have to pay any price for its bad behavior—until Trump came along.

Theories about international law presumably didn’t play a major role in Trump’s decision. Yet by insisting that aggression and peace rejectionism shouldn’t be cost-free, he is being more faithful to this law’s original goal of deterring aggression than its professed devotees, who insist that aggressors should never suffer territorial consequences.

That’s why all the foreign-policy experts claiming that Trump has just legitimized acts of aggression like Russia’s seizure of Crimea are wrong. This claim is possible only under the warped interpretation of international law that makes no distinction between offensive and defensive wars. If all territorial acquisitions through force are equally inadmissible, then legitimizing one would legitimize them all. But under the far more plausible interpretation that prevailed as recently as 50 years ago, the Golan and Crimea are completely different cases because the former was acquired in a defensive war and the latter in an offensive one.

Incidentally, the claim that the decision undermines prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace is also wrong; as Dr. Martin Kramer of Shalem College pointed out, the opposite is true. Until now, the Palestinians have always found peace rejectionism a profitable business; every time they rejected an Israeli peace offer, the international community rewarded them by demanding additional Israeli concessions. But now, Trump has shown that rejectionism carries a price.

By so doing, a president who scoffs at international law may ironically be saving it. International law was never meant to be a suicide pact, but in its modern interpretation, it has increasingly become one. Under this interpretation, terrorists who operate from amid civilian populations enjoy immunity from military action; countries must accept unlimited numbers of migrants fleeing danger; and aggressors can start wars with impunity. Since all this is detrimental to the well-being of ordinary law-abiding countries, if it continues, more and more countries will simply ditch international law in favor of self-preservation.

By recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, Trump is restoring the distinction that used to exist between offensive and defensive wars, and thereby restoring international law to sanity. Anyone who actually cares about international law ought to thank him.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on March 27, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org

 

An expert report submitted to the U.N. Security Council this month concluded that Iran is illegally funding Yemen’s Houthi rebels by giving them oil, which they can sell for cash. From last year’s version of the same report, we learned that Iran is arming the Houthis with missiles and drones, in violation of a U.N. arms embargo. Thus whatever the Houthis were when the war started, they are now effectively an Iranian subsidiary, dependent on Tehran for both cash and arms.

That is just one of many reasons to be appalled by the Senate’s renewed effort to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led fight against the Houthis. Not only is this strategically idiotic, but it contradicts the Senate’s own stated goal of protecting human rights. And the legislation reintroduced this week sends a terrible message, even if a presidential veto will presumably keep it from becoming law.

On the strategic side, let’s start with the fact that an organization whose official slogan is “God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse the Jews, Victory to Islam” isn’t one Americans should want ruling anything, much less a country whose location enables it to dominate a strategic waterway vital to the global oil industry. And without the Saudi-led coalition, the Houthis would long since have taken over Yemen. In other countries, like Syria and Lebanon, Iranian military and financial aid has repeatedly enabled its proxies to overwhelm the opposition; that this hasn’t yet happened in Yemen is only because there, unlike in Syria and Lebanon, the Saudi coalition has provided its local allies with substantial assistance, including airstrikes.

Second, empowering allies is always better than empowering enemies. Granted, Saudi Arabia is a highly imperfect ally, but it is at least nominally in America’s camp. Iran, in contrast, has been America’s avowed enemy since 1979, and its proxies have been responsible for hundreds, if not thousands, of American deaths in Lebanon and Iraq. Thus for the Senate to weaken Riyadh and strengthen Tehran, which targeting the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen does, would be foolish at any time.

But it’s especially foolish at a time when America ostensibly seeks to exert maximum pressure on Iran to curb its multifarious bad behavior—its nuclear program, about which it has repeatedly lied; its ballistic-missile program, which defies a U.N. Security Council resolution; its regional aggression, which has already enabled it to dominate Lebanon, Syria and Iraq; and its terrorism, including recent attacks in the heart of Europe.

Maximum pressure requires both financial and military components, as the case of the Soviet Union shows. It was America’s massive military buildup under Ronald Reagan, combined with its proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, which made Moscow’s military adventurism too expensive for its ailing economy to support.

Iran, like the Soviet Union, has a weak economy, which has been further undermined by America’s reinstatement of stringent sanctions. Yet the economic pressure will be multiplied if Iran has to keep pouring resources into its numerous proxy wars rather than being able to win them cheaply.

Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria obviously further this effort, since Iran must keep replacing what Israel destroys. But the Saudi coalition in Yemen is similarly forcing Iran is keep expending resources on a war it thought would be easily won. Thus if Washington is serious about countering Tehran and doesn’t want to risk American troops in the process, supporting regional allies who are bleeding Iran is the only alternative.

Still, how can America possibly support a coalition that’s committing gross human-rights violations in Yemen? The answer is easy: Horrible as Riyadh’s behavior is, the Houthis are worse. Thus by ending support for the Saudi coalition, American would empower an even greater evil.

A perfect example is the issue of child soldiers. The New York Times ran a front-page story last month accusing the Saudis of using Sudanese child soldiers in Yemen. Though it didn’t provide many hard numbers, it implied that there could well be several thousand such soldiers. This is incontrovertibly bad.

But what the Times carefully concealed from its readers is that the Saudis’ use of child soldiers pales before that of the Houthis. According to an Associated Press report earlier that month, the Houthis openly admit to employing a whopping 18,000 child soldiers.

Moreover, while the Saudis are taking boys aged 14 to 17, the Houthis are using children as young as 10. And while the Saudis are recruiting their impoverished volunteers by offering pay sufficient to make their families permanently self-supporting (assuming the returning veterans invest it, as most do, in profit-making ventures like cattle or shops), the Houthis use other tactics: They kidnap children outright, coerce them to enlist in exchange for a relative’s freedom from jail, or force poor parents to choose between “volunteering” their child and making an unaffordable cash contribution to the war effort. Parents who resist are shot.

In short, bad as the Saudis’ human-rights violations are, the Houthis’ violations are far worse. And by ending support for the Saudi coalition, the Senate would consign Yemen to the barbarous rule of those very same Houthis.

Given that both strategic and moral considerations mandate backing the Saudi coalition, why is the Senate set on doing the opposite? Perhaps it’s due to sheer ignorance: Iran’s useful idiots in the media, like The New York Times, do their best to amplify every Saudi atrocity while downplaying Houthi atrocities. Or perhaps it’s the clean hands syndrome: Senators don’t care what horrors befall the Middle East as long as their hands are clean. But neither is acceptable behavior for national policy-makers, whose job is to gather accurate information and then, if there are no good options, choose the lesser evil.

In Yemen, the lesser evil is clearly backing the Saudi coalition. This would not only further America’s strategic goals at minimal cost (the U.S. contribution consists of intelligence sharing, midair refueling and arms sales), but would be preferable to a Houthi victory from a human-rights standpoint. That the Senate has opted instead to further Iran’s regional domination project is a disgrace.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on January 30, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published in Commentary on December 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published in Commentary on July 20, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Israel’s do-over election performed a vital service for democracy

Like many Israelis, I was horrified when April’s election led to another in September; it seemed a colossal waste of time and money. But the do-ever election proved critical to maintaining Israel’s democratic legitimacy among half the public—the half that would otherwise have thought that April’s election was stolen from them.

In April, rightist parties that explicitly promised to support Benjamin Netanyahu for prime minister won 65 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. In other words, a clear majority of voters seemingly cast their ballots for a rightist, Netanyahu-led government. But after the election, Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman refused to join such a government.

Thus even if an alternative government could have been formed—whether a unity government or one led by Netanyahu’s rival, Benny Gantz—it would have undermined rightists’ faith in the democratic process. Any such government would have looked like a product not of the majority’s will, but of the whims of a single individual who “stole” right-wing votes and gave them to the left.

The do-over election showed this wasn’t the case. Lieberman’s party not only maintained its strength, but increased it, thereby proving him right that his voters cared more about curbing ultra-Orthodox power than about keeping Netanyahu in office. Moreover, the pro-Netanyahu bloc shrank even further—from 60 seats (excluding Lieberman) in April to 55 in September—due entirely to Netanyahu’s own appalling behavior in the intervening months, which prompted a nontrivial number of center-right voters to either switch sides or stay home and a massive increase in Arab turnout.

That doesn’t mean Gantz won; the bloc he heads can’t form a government on its own. But neither can Netanyahu’s bloc. Any possible solution—a unity government, a Netanyahu government with leftist partners or a Gantz government with rightist partners—will require compromise between the blocs. And nobody will be able to claim the election was stolen when that happens.

This matters greatly because the democratic process has been subverted far too often over the past 25 years, usually in the left’s favor, with enthusiastic applause from the left’s self-proclaimed democrats.

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