A Tipping Point in North Africa and the Middle East

by Jerry Gordon & Mike Bates (October 2012)

The eleventh anniversary of 9/11 broke like a thunder clap in North Africa sparking outrage and violence  throughout the Muslim Ummah.  It began with the  premeditated attack on the Benghazi consulate in Libya by a force of Ansar al-Sharia militia led by an ex-GITMO detainee equipped with heavy weapons, rocket propelled grenades and diesel fuel. They seized a safe house and caused the death of US Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens (from smoke inhalation) and dragged his body unceremoniously through the streets to the cries of “Allahu Akbar!” Stephen Smith, spokesperson for the Ambassador was also killed in  the attack. Two former Navy Seals, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, security contractors seeking caches of weapons in Benghazi, fought valiantly against overwhelming odds, but were also killed.

Simultaneously, crowds of Salafists attacked the US Embassy in Cairo. They clambered up the protective wall, tore down the US flag and ran up the black flag of Islam to the cries of “Obama, Obama we are all Osama bin Laden!” The flag had the traditional Qur’anic inscription: “There is no god but Allah and Mohammad is his messenger.”

Prominent among those leading the Cairo Embassy attacks was Mohammed Zawahiri, the younger brother of  Al Qaeda leader, Ayman al Zawahiri. They were egged on by Salafist Imams who had translated and posted on-line a You Tube video clip of a crudely made film, “The Innocence of Muslims.”  

The US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson seized upon this film clip as a cause of the catastrophes in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere in the Muslim Ummah.  A protest of nearly 70,000 Pakistanis occurred at the US Embassy in Islamabad.  US and other foreign Embassies were attacked and more than 40 killed in these enflamed Muslim protests. Washington rushed Marine rapid response teams to threatened embassies.

The French satiric journal Charlie Hebdo  further outraged the Muslim Ummah by publishing cartoons parodying The Innocence of Muslims. By publishing these cartoons, Charlie Hebdo raised the ante about the lack of humor, let alone freedom of speech within the Muslim Ummah. The French Foreign Ministry closed 20 embassies in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons due to threats from angered Muslim fundamentalists. Nevertheless, the French government is defending the right of Charlie Hebdo to publish the cartoons.

The film was made in California by a 55 year old Egyptian Coptic Christian, Nakoula Bassley Nakoula, who was on parole on federal charges of passing bad checks. Following an FBI investigation, Nakoula has  been rearrested on several federal parole violations including using aliases and the internet. Initial reports gave the alias of Sam Bacile an alleged Israel American backed by group of American Jews that proved to be a troublesome libel. 

On the weekend following the debacle in  Benghazi and Cairo, US UN Ambassador Susan B. Rice was on five Sunday talk programs suggesting that the excerpts of the Film poste on YouTube were the cause of the protests and that the attacks in Benghazi and Cairo were spontaneous acts of mob violence and not a terrorist attack. The interim Libyan President Mohammed Magarief disagreed, saying that it was a planned al Qaeda attack by foreigners infiltrating the area. Moreover, CNN came into possession of late Ambassador Stevens’s journal  in which he questioning security arrangements at the Benghazi consulate. Moreover, intelligence assessments made within 24 hours of the Benghazi  killings of Amb. Stevens and the three other Americans confirmed indications of a premeditated  attack on the consulate. The Administration was further caught unawares by the comments of  Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counter Terrorism Center. When asked  at a hearing  by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, Olsen said that the Ambassador and the other Americans had been killed in a terrorist attack. White House press spokesman Jay Carney quickly back peddled, responding with the new line from the Obama White House that it was evident that there was a terrorist attack in Benghazi. President Obama in his speech at the UN General Assembly perpetuated the myth of the film  enflaming the responses against America in the Muslim world when he remarked:

The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam. Yet to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see when the image of Jesus Christ is desecrated, churches are destroyed, or the Holocaust is denied. Let us condemn incitement against Sufi Muslims, and Shiite pilgrims. It is time to heed the words of Gandhi: “Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit.”

President Obama was perturbed also about the delayed reaction of Egyptian President Morsi in coming to the aid of the US Embassy in Cairo. He made an assessment that Egypt under former Muslim Brotherhood leader Morsi was not “neither an ally nor an enemy.” Morsi in a CBS Charlie Rose interview while at the UN General Assembly Session in Manhattan countered: “we are not enemies, of course … for sure, we are friends,” but he stopped short of calling Egypt and the U.S. allies.” Morsi reached out to Tehran on his recent visit during the Non-Aligned Movement meetings there and has become part of the contact group composed of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran regarding the bloody rebellion in Syria against the embattled regime of Bashar Assad. During his first speech at the UN General Assembly, Morsi rejected the American and Western value of free speech instead calling for the UN adoption of blasphemy codes. He sought to return Egypt to its former position as leader of the Arab world by promoting the Palestinian statehood cause and resolution of the Syrian rebellion. Clearly the Arab Spring in Egypt under Morsi has turned increasingly wintry. Note Muslim Brotherhood and extreme Salafist demands that the Constitution adhere to strict Islamic Shariah, thereby depriving women and especially minority Christian Copts of basic civil rights. Egyptian liberal and leftwing parties have threatened to quit the Assembly drafting the new Constitution.  

Morsi also has problems dealing with Salafist Bedouin and other shadowy al Qaeda affiliates in the Sinai. These groups have attacked the Multinational Force and Observers facility and attempted to intrude into Israel on its Southern border in a bloody terrorist raid. 14 Salafists have been condemned to death in a trial for a raid on a police station in El Arish that resulted in the deaths of four Egyptian security personnel and one civilian. Morsi’s seizure of control of the Egyptian military and positioning of troops and tanks in the Sinai have made relations with Israel uneasy. The are rising concern about whether the 1979 Camp David Accords are in jeopardy.

The Palestinians, according to Jon Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, are having their own version of protests that are inwardly focused.  In an article “A Palestinian Spring” published in Foreign Policy, Schanzer noted:

In recent days, from Bethlehem to Hebron to Ramallah, the Palestinians have taken to the streets. Only this time, they're not protesting against the Israeli occupation — they're denouncing their own leaders.

Schanzer attributed this internal protest to several factors; a rough economy, political frustration, anger at corruption among leaders of the Palestinian Authority. Then there is the division between PA President Abbas and PM Salam Fayyad whom many Palestinians accuse of being a lap dog for the Americans and Israel. No problem in Gaza despite a self-immolation there, Hamas keeps things pretty well buttoned up.  Despite anger at Abbas, he is poised to submit a resolution for non-member status at current session of the UN General Assembly. The PA is probably assured of passage as it has support from over 133 members of the Non-aligned Movement bloc. The vote may coincide with the 65th anniversary of the November 1947 vote that declared a partition of mandatory Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. The later was rejected by the Arabs who instead sought and failed to achieve the destruction of the embryonic State of Israel. Non-member status, if achieved, will complicate economic and diplomatic relations with both Israel and the US. At the UN General Assembly session in late September, Abbas ranted about Israel engaging in ‘ethnic cleansing’ a reference to building in East Jerusalem and expanding settlements in Judea.

Syria’s bloody rebellion largely led by the Sunni opposition Free Syrian Army are backed by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia against the military forces of Bashar Assad. Recently the commander of the Free Syria Army, Col. Riad al-Assad, announced the deployment of their headquarters from its safe haven inside Turkey to “liberated areas” in adjacent northwestern Syria. A Syrian Muslim leader, Secretary General Mohammed Riad al-Shaqfa, announced opposition to the de facto Kurdish autonomy region in the country’s northeast.  

Clearly the objective of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership in the bloody Syrian rebellion is to maintain and assert control over a unified Syrian state governed under Shariah Islamic law with the likely conduct of a brutal sectarian war aimed at 'ethnic cleansing' of minority groups opposing this objective; i.e., the Kurds, Alawites, Druze and Christians. With direct Iranian intervention via insertion of Quds forces in Syria and supply of war material  for the Assad regime via a ‘humanitarian’ air bridge passing over neighboring Iraq versus the Sunni supremacist coalition of Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia supplying the Free Syrian Army, the bloody rebellion will continue. Iraq–based al Qaeda cadres have also entered Syria from the adjacent Anbar province. The disarray in Iraq leading to the resurgence of al Qaeda there has been attributed to the failure to negotiate a token  US force as part of the Status of Forces Agreement with the al Maliki government in Baghdad. See a new book by  Michael R. Gordon and Gen. Bernard Trainor, The End Game : The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama. No effective UN intervention is likely given the stalemate at the Security Council with the opposition of both Russia and China to US and other Western resolutions. In the meantime the Kurds in Syria will continue to perfect de facto self government while Turkey is preoccupied in combating heightened levels of asymmetrical warfare from emboldened PKK insurgents in its adjacent southeastern provinces. Add to the imbroglio over Syria recent reports about movement of its formidable chemical and biological warfare caches that concern both the US and more seriously Israel. The latter may be poised to act before those caches end up in terrorist groups like al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas and rebel forces inside Syria.

Overarching these dangerous developments is the threat of Iran’s achievement of its first nuclear bombs. That concern was graphically on display at the UN General Assembly when Iran’s President Ahmadinejad castigated Israel for its illegitimate heritage claims. This was rejected by Israel PM Netanyahu in his address at the General Assembly. Netanyahu noted in his speech a rebuke of Ahmadinejad who spoke on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur:

On the day when we pray to be inscribed in the book of life a platform was given to a dictatorial regime that strives, at every opportunity, to sentence us to death.

Netanyahu used the graphic device of a cartoon of a bomb with a fuse to address his country’s concern about drawing a red line to stop Iran from achieving a nuclear weapon with which to annihilate the Jewish State. Netanyahu noted how close that achievement is, relying on published IAEA reports which claim that Iran will have enough enriched uranium to produce one or more nuclear bombs by next summer. He said:

The red line must be drawn on Iran's nuclear enrichment program. I believe that faced with a clear red line, Iran will back down.

Red lines don't lead to war, red lines prevent war. Nothing could imperil the world more than a nuclear-armed Iran. 

Against this background “Your Turn” hosts Mike Bates, of radio station 1330AMWEBY of Pensacola, Florida, Senior Editor Jerry Gordon of the New English Review, Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, Vice President of Research of the Washington, DC- based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and Shoshana Bryen, Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Center in Washington held a radio round table discussion.

Bates:  Good afternoon and welcome to Your Turn. This is Mike Bates and this is a special edition of Your Turn. We do these Middle East Roundtable discussions from time to time and today is one of the days we are doing it. Jerry Gordon, Senior Editor of the New English Review and it’s blog, “The Iconoclast” is with us in the studio. Jerry, welcome.

Gordon:  Good to be here Mike.

Bates:  Joining us by telephone is Jonathan Schanzer, V.P. of Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington D.C. Jonathan, welcome.

Schanzer:  Thank you very much.

Bates:  And Shoshana Bryen who has more than 30 years of experience as an analyst of U.S. Defense Policy and Middle East Affairs. She is the Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Center in Washington. Shoshana, welcome to Your Turn.

Bryen:  Thank you.

Bates:  Let me begin Jonathan with a question directed at you. What exactly happened on September 11th 2012 in Libya?

Schanzer:  In short, it was a coordinated assault on several American diplomatic missions on a very important date in history. It was a coordinated assault planned by Salafis in Libya as well as in Egypt. In Egypt, what you had was a mob scene, basically, in which the brother of the leader of Al Qaeda was present. This is not to say that it was planned by Al Qaeda but certainly there were Salafi elements there and they raised the black flag of Al Qaeda over the US Egyptian Embassy. This was obviously a grave insult to the United States. The pretext of it was that they were insulted by a movie that was criticizing  the prophet Mohammed. The irony was is that the movie was first of all, not even a complete movie but video clips of it. And more importantly it was made by an Egyptian Copt who is living in the United States. The U.S. had really nothing to do with this movie, but of course we've been hearing since then that the movie was responsible for these attacks. To borrow the slogan from the NRA, movies don't kill people, people kill people. And that was what happened in Egypt. In Libya, things were much more grave. You had a coordinated mob scene there which served as cover for an attack by violent terrorists that ended up taking the life of an American diplomat. It was a horrible day in the Middle East for the United States. I think it underscores the fact that this is very much not an “Arab Spring,” but rather a very troubling period for the United States. Even in countries like Libya where we have gone to great lengths to secure their independence we are now seeing that they are turning against us. Now granted, these are minorities. This is not representing the entire population and we've seen since then people come out in Benghazi demonstrating against those who carried out the acts of violence against our consulate there. Nevertheless these are extremely troubling developments and I think shows a real weakness in American foreign policy in the region.

Bates:  Jonathan, you said this was an act by the Salafi forces. Is there a difference between the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood or is that really two sides of the same coin?

Schanzer:  They share quite a bit in terms of their ideology, however, Salafis are more acetic. They are closer to Al Qaeda than to the Brotherhood but they are the bridge between these two movements. I would not be surprised to find out that there were members of the Brotherhood that were also there at these protests and these coordinated attacks. But I think one has to differentiate between these movements.

Gordon:  Shoshana, one of the interesting aspects of what happened in Libya was the leadership of a former GITMO detainee who had in fact been a fighter in Libya. There were allegations that one of the motivations for this attack at the Benghazi Consulate was the drone attack in Pakistan that killed an Al Qaeda leader by the name of al-Libi. What I want to address is the fact that this was a GITMO detainee who was released to Gaddafi and who Gaddafi subsequently released in 2010. He used a local group Ansar al-Sharia for this attack on the legation. Now we find that the Obama Administration has put a list out of the 55 detainees mostly from Yemen who are about to be released. What does this say about our policy?

Bryen:  What it says is that we are still looking to make friends with the wrong people. The Administration has also entertained conversations about the release of Omar Abdel Rahman, the Blind Sheik, convicted of the first World Trade Center bombing, from prison in North Carolina. The Administration is looking for ways to make people – particularly Muslims – like us better. The problem is they don't like us for reasons that are real to them, and nothing the President does to try to “buy” them is going to work. This is an especially scary thing because people who remain at GITMO now are people that we understand to be incorrigible. People who were scooped up by accident, people who were peripherally related to al Qaeda, those people are long gone from GITMO, so the Administration is now looking at releasing people who are real terrorists.

Bates:  I had heard previously when Obama was running for office that most of the detainees at GITMO were innocents removed unlawfully from the battlefield and yet those who have been released, a sizeable percentage of them have gone right back into the war against the West so which is it? Are these innocent bystanders that were illegally detained by U.S. forces or are these true terrorists that need to be tried in military tribunals and receive justice ?

Bryen:  I would say there are some of both although I reject the words “illegally detained.” They were detained according to the laws of war, which is why the United States didn't just let all of them go despite President Obama's assertion during his candidacy. He said he was going to close GITMO, but what he discovered was that people are not illegally detained there. Yes, there were some people who were scooped up. There were some people who probably didn't belong there, but what you have beyond those few people who were inadvertently detained, are real terrorists. Real ideological enemies of the United States, people with real military and terrorism training. If you let them go, they go back to what they know and what they know is anti-American terrorism.

Bates:  How much of this is generated from informed opinions of the West versus just being ginned up by the Islamic leaders who are telling their followers to do things and they do it because they are told to by the leaders of the mosques as opposed to having genuine belief that what they are doing is right?

Bryen:  Some of this and some of that. Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader and the President of Egypt, is a fairly sophisticated guy. He has traveled in the world. He knows what he thinks. He comes at his anti-Americanism honestly. He is a believer in the Muslim Brotherhood because he studied it and he chose it. On the other hand, there are a lot of people who get swept up into demonstrations and inflamed at the mosques. There is a difference between leadership groups who have chosen a radical path and people who can be encouraged into a demonstration or even encouraged into terrorism as suicide bombers by other people. And, by the way, a not insignificant number of people are forced into demonstrations and even terrorism by radical leaders. The IDF has done studies of Palestinians forced into carrying bombs, etc. for Hamas and Fatah leadership and the circumstances that made them vulnerable. Where you find organized activities or Muslim Brotherhood leadership or Salafist leadership, you find people who have studied the issues from their point of view; what they believe, they believe deeply and they believe from their own reality base. At the leadership level, these are not people who just got swept up by an Imam.

Bates:  Shoshana, do you think that Egypt is considered an ally or considered an enemy, an obvious question generated from President Obama's gaffe that “I don't think we would consider them an ally but we don't consider them an enemy.” What do we consider Egypt?

Bryen:  It was actually one of the smartest things he said. He at least acknowledged that they are not an ally. They no longer function as an ally which means they no longer have the world view that we do, they are no longer necessarily inclined to point their noses in the same direction as the United States. So no, they are not an ally. Are they an enemy? Probably, in some ways – with a caveat. I'm not advocating that we go to war with them. It is more the way that the old Soviet Union was an enemy of the United States.  Its fundamental goals, it's fundamental practices were at odds with the goals and practices of the United States. So although we didn't go to war with the Russians and we didn't want to, we understood that they were not our friends. We tried to keep them from advancing on the ideological as well as the military front. We restricted certain kinds of trade with them and sometimes – particularly as regarded military-related trade – forced countries to choose between us. I think Egypt is somewhere on a continuum between the old Soviet Union and an enemy. We don’t need to go to war with Egypt, but we do need to understand that the Muslim Brotherhood Government is fundamentally at odds with things that Americans hold very very dear.

Bates:  Jonathan, Shoshana believes that Egypt is not quite an ally and is somewhat of an enemy in much the same way the Soviet Union was not necessarily worth going to war over but definitely keeping a wary eye on them. Let me ask you a question about a statement that President Obama made Sunday night on 60 Minutes. He was referring to Israel and he said and I again quote, “they are one of our closes allies in the region.” Well, “one of” implies there are equal allies in the region. Who else was Obama talking about?

Schanzer:  That is a great question and I'd like to just address the previous question as well. I would probably say that Egypt is going in the direction of something like Pakistan. In other words, we rely very heavily on Pakistan for a lot of different things in the region such as supply routes as well as intelligence sharing and other things. But at the same time we know that they whip up anti-American sentiment. We know that they have been responsible for some of the radicalism in the region and I would say that Egypt appears to be heading in that direction right now and that we need to be very careful. I agree with Shoshana here, I think the President was very sharp in saying that they are not an ally and that they are not an enemy. I think they have yet to prove themselves. I would say that they have shifted away from that unquestioned ally status and are now in a very dangerous murky ground where they could become something akin to Pakistan. Now as for your second question Mike: I think what the President has been doing is first of all downplaying the alliance that we share here in the United States with Israel. There is no secret that there has been a great deal of tension between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This has been playing out very openly. This is very disconcerting in that we've never really seen world leaders from these two countries exchange barbs the way that these two have in recent weeks and months. It obviously also confirms some of the worst fears of Israel supporters here in the United States that rather than being the closest ally, now Israel has become one of several. But I do question who would constitute an unwavering ally in the Middle East right now for the United States. Perhaps the President was talking about Saudi Arabia, but with many of these other countries, it is not as if we can rely on them for much these days. You know, even Turkey, for example, there has been a bit of tension. They are working very closely with us on Syria but they are also rehabilitating and refurbishing Hamas. I can’t imagine that's playing out well in the State Department or in the White House. It is very hard to imagine who exactly President Obama had in mind but certainly it seems to be downgrading Israel from the closest to one among many and so it will be interesting to see how the President clarifies that remark.

Gordon:  Jon, the Sinai Peninsula is heating up. We have seen several terrorist attacks at posts such as the Monitoring Force of Observers and on Israeli forces in the Southern Border. Meanwhile the Egyptians have positioned a couple of battalions and some tanks in the Sinai Peninsula but doesn't seem to have intervened. Last time we spoke about this you talked about the emergence of a shadowy, probably embryonic version of Al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula. What is going on there?

Schanzer:  We had a recent event where an obscure group that was based in the Northern Sinai took responsibility for a cross border attack in Israel that claimed the life of one Israeli soldier. The group is called Ansar Bayt al-Maqdes which means “supporters of Jerusalem” or “supporters of the Holy Place.” It is unclear whether this is the group that I had heard that might emerge. In other words, we are not sure whether this is an A Qaeda spin-off or an Al Qaeda affiliate. But what is clear is that we have had a number of attacks in the Sinai, some impacting Israel, some simply impacting the Egyptian military or the multi-national forces. The  bottom line is the Sinai is getting out of control. We were warned about it early on in the Egyptian Revolution. We were warned that this would become a sort of no man’s land and a lawless place. It has certainly become that and if there is one thing that could really inflame tensions between the Egyptians in Egypt, I don't think it's renegotiating the Camp David Accords. I think it is how they coordinate their security in this expanse of desert in this peninsula if it's not handled properly. This is where I think tensions could really rise.

Bates:  Well the demilitarization of the Sinai was required under the Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel. Are we seeing remilitarization or are these splinter militia groups that are not under the control of the Egyptian government?

Schanzer:  We are seeing both. There are Islamist splinter groups emerging from among the Sinai Bedouin as well as some foreign fighters that have infiltrated the Sinai. Then on top of that, you've got the Egyptians deploying their military forces into the Sinai – ostensibly to fight “terrorists.” That is not necessarily a bad thing as long as it's done in coordination with the Israelis and that communication is rock solid. Whatever steps are taken by Egypt, whatever moves they make, it's going to be incredibly important that the Israelis and the Egyptians stay on the same page. There needs to be a red phone where Morsi is able – or Morsi's Generals are able – to get in touch with the IDF and to let them know what they are doing to make sure that it doesn't set off the Israelis. What we have seen in recent months is that the Israelis have been calling up their reserves and deploying additional manpower on all of their borders for fear of spillover from the Arab upheaval. It wouldn’t help anyone for Israel and Egypt to find themselves shooting at each other.

Gordon:  Shoshana, there have been casualties in the Sinai but there also have been discussions in both Cairo and in Jerusalem about modification of the 1979 Camp David Accords. What is the reaction of Israeli Foreign Minister Lieberman and in turn what is Egypt likely to do in terms of offering up “amendments or changes” to those Accords.

Bryen:  It's not clear to me that Egypt is going to offer amendments. The Egyptians are counting, I think, on a fait accompli. They have positioned  tanks in Sinai and tanks are what Foreign Minister Lieberman is most concerned about.  Lieberman has said there will be no modification of the Accords that permits Egyptian Army to have tanks in the Sinai – but the tanks are there. The problem isn’t whether Egypt violated the peace treaty by putting the tanks in Sinai – they clearly did. The question is whether you can find some mechanism to get them out again. I suspect the Egyptians will find they don't need a formal modification of the treaty. They can say, “This is an emergency measure. We are going to protect the Sinai and we'll talk about it later.” The Israelis will have trouble objecting because there really is a security problem in Sinai. Then, one day the “emergency” will be over but the tanks will still be there. I see no indication that the Egyptians are serious about “discussing” and “negotiating” anything. They have simply taken steps that will be almost impossible to reverse. No matter what the Israeli Foreign Ministry says the upper hand stays with Egypt.

Bates:  Wow, not certainly a good situation at all. How does that affect the militarization or simply worded would it be arming the terrorists in Gaza? How is that being affected by this?

Bryen:  Actually, the Egyptians have been pretty good about not permitting military equipment to go into the Gaza Strip insofar as they have been able to stop it. The Egyptians are in the middle of a negotiation with the Bedouin terrorists in the Sinai and the Bedouins have very good relations with Hamas. Egypt’s goal is to prevent attacks on Egyptian soldiers and on Egypt. My guess is that they could make a deal that says, “Look, as long as you stay away from Egyptian military facilities, as long as you don't strike Egyptian forces, we'll turn a blind eye to what you do elsewhere.” That would give the Bedouins carte blanche. They have to be careful at the moment because at the moment they do not have that deal. Once they have it you can expect that the Egyptian Army will do very little to stop arms flowing into the Gaza Strip.

Gordon:  Jon, turning to the Palestinians you recently wrote about the Palestine Spring. What are the dynamics both in the West Bank and Gaza?

Schanzer:  Jerry, it's been pretty wild watching the Palestinian Spring. Basically what we saw was a series of rather spontaneous protests breaking out in the West Bank, protesting some dire economic problems there. You have had a price hike in gasoline as well as a number of staples. And on top of that there is just general frustration with this Palestinian government. The Palestinian Authority has failed to achieve peace with Israel and has failed to meet their objectives. You have to remember that the Palestinian Authority was an interim government created to shepherd the Palestinians to statehood. They have certainly failed to do that. Now, one could say that that is just as much the Israelis’ fault as the Palestinians. However, the Palestinian people are keenly aware of the fact that their lives remain in limbo while prices go up and while international donations to this interim government are going down. Donations are dropping precipitously so the Palestinians on the West Bank are extremely unhappy. In Gaza, things are a little bit more placid. There have been some minor protests, in fact news of one person trying to self-immolate.  

Bates:  Jonathan, I apologize for having to stop you short earlier but we had to break for the news. Now that we are back if you can continue what you were saying about the protests in Gaza and some self-immolation.

Schanzer:  As I was saying, there was one individual who did self-immolate in Gaza which gave rise to questions as to whether you might see a sort of mirror image of what would happen in the West Bank, where protests would possibly spread to Gaza. The bottom line is that the Gaza government does not take international donor funds and they are not terribly concerned about how they are viewed by the West. I think they have basically instituted a republic of fear and I don't think you are going to see many people out in the streets protesting Hamas rule. The protests have been isolated primarily in the West Bank. We are expecting there to be a transport strike later this week. The unrest continues, and there are calls for Salam Fayyad, the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, to step down. This is probably the greatest internal challenge that we have seen posed to the Palestinian leadership. There have been rumors that the Fatah faction has actually been egging on these protests and that they are trying to get Salam Fayyad to step down because he is an outsider, a reformer and generally pro-West – even to a certain extent amenable to Israel – but these are all rumors for now. We are waiting to see what happens. This is the result of an angry Palestinian population that is sick of the status quo both with Israel and with its own government which they see as ossified and corrupt.

Gordon:  Shoshana, the Palestinians are at the United Nations and they are seeking from the General Assembly a resolution concerning non-member observer status. What is that all about?

Bryen:  I think the Palestinians have come to decide that it's not a good idea to look for Statehood at the United Nations. Statehood is an absolute end to the Oslo Accords and that has implications for the Palestinians – some of which are positive but many which are negative. Specifically, Israel would no longer have obligations under the Accords including turning over tax money, including not creating unilateral borders or building new settlements, including preventing the Palestinians from exporting through Haifa, and all kinds of other things. So they've looked for a way to split the difference. They would like to have a more official status. That would be something that resembles Statehood without kicking in the negative implications from the Israeli side.

Gordon:  Jon, what is your reaction to a secretly recorded message of Governor Romney during a fundraiser in May saying that negotiations with the Palestinians will never result in peace?

Schanzer:  I think that Governor Romney was probably saying what President Obama already is thinking right now, and what President Bush thought for most of his time in office: that this is a colossal waste of time when you have Palestinian leadership that is not terribly serious about advancing negotiations. Quite frankly, I think that this Israeli Government isn't particularly excited about it either for that matter. Prime Minister Netanyahu is not exactly a huge advocate of the Oslo process. With that said, I think tha,t generally speaking, we've seen right wing leaders in Israeli society are probably better equipped to move forward with the cause of peace. If the opportunity arose you would probably see Netanyahu jump at the chance. But bottom line is that I think Romney was saying what is on everybody’s mind. The Palestinians, of course, took this as an opportunity to manufacture some outrage and partisans of the Palestinian cause have been howling over his statement. I don't see it as a game changer. I think it might present some problems for Romney if and when he becomes President. There would have to be quite a bit of trust building with the Palestinian leadership. However, we are still several months away from even having to look at this as a possibility. One thing that I wanted to mention Jerry to add to what Shoshana had mentioned about the unilateral Statehood initiative and is that the Palestinians tried last year and failed. They were shut down and one of the reasons why they can't get full membership status at the U.N. is because the U.S. has vowed to veto that measure. So the Palestinians have little choice but to go to the General Assembly where they have, at least reportedly, amassed something like 133 countries that are willing to support this measure. They need a simple two-thirds majority vote at the General Assembly which they will probably get 133 out of 193, when you subtract the abstentions, they have it very easily in hand. What the Palestinians plan to do is to potentially “internationalize a conflict” to go after the Israelis in the International Criminal Court, the International Court of Justice – going after Israeli Military leaders for war crimes, suing for land that they claim to be their own. In other words, we would likely see, if this goes forward, a new campaign against Israel, a lawfare campaign if you will. Now it is unclear whether this is going to happen all at once. There have been rumors that the Palestinians are going to do something where they would announce that they intend to do this on November 29th actually, a historic date. In 1947, this was the day that the international community recognized that Mandatory Palestine would be split into Jewish and Arab States. The Palestinians are potentially looking at this date to hold the actual vote. However, all of this is very unclear. The Palestinian leadership has been very much disorganized in terms of just trying to explain to the public what it is that they are trying to do.

Bates:  Jonathan, procedurally at the United Nations, if the General Assembly does give a two-thirds approval for that is there still a veto process where the Security Council, obviously referencing the United States, could veto the actions of the General Assembly?

Schanzer:  Not for the non-member observer status. In other words, once the General Assembly gives that two-thirds vote it is done and the Palestinians have their Vatican equivalent at the United Nations. That is not something that would go away. So what the Palestinians are doing it's actually a very smart move. They are playing the numbers and they are playing to their strength. They know that the United Nations is an organization that leans very heavily in their favor. All of the anti-Israel condemnations that come out of the United Nations, this is something that the Palestinians have fostered and engineered over recent decades. So they are playing to their strength. They have the numbers, and they know that this takes the power away from the United States, making the United States now one country among 193.

Bates:  Shoshana, Jerry mentioned earlier about the secretly recorded video of Mitt Romney speaking at the fundraiser when he mentioned that the Palestinians are not interested in peace. I thought he articulately brought up some issues with the security of Israel should Palestine have some authority. Autonomy to arm militarily however they wish. The ability to cut off Israel very quickly from its airport which I think Mitt Romney said it was seven miles to the sea. I think it is actually closer to nine. The situation is still close enough. I thought he did a fine job and I think he was telling the truth. As the saying goes in a time of universal deceit telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act. Why was Mitt Romney so resoundingly criticized for what is quite obviously a true statement?

Bryen:  It was true. He was articulate. He was terrific actually. The reason he has been vilified is because people don't like to hear someone say that someone else doesn't want peace. “Peace” is what we are all supposed to be looking for. I think Gov. Romney very correctly understood that it is not “peace” that is driving the Palestinians in this process. They are not looking for “peace” and by the way, neither is Israel. Israel is looking for the legitimacy and permanence to which it is entitled as a U.N. member state. The Palestinians are looking to get the Jews off their land. They believe the 1948 creation of Israel took something that was theirs and gave it to someone else. If you start from that position, “what is mine was taken; what is mine was given to someone else,” “peace” is the furthest thing from your mind – so the Palestinians are not looking for peace. “Peace” being some ephemeral, I don't know what to which they are asked to pay lip service. In fact, they are looking for what they consider to be “justice,” which for them would be to remove Israel. Israel is looking for the “secure and recognized boundaries free from threats and acts of force” that it was promised by U.N. Resolution 242, and recognition of its permanence – which is what is promised to U.N. member states under the U.N. Charter, and which is why the Palestinians are working so hard to delegitimize Israel.  If Israel is not a legitimate country, it has no claim to the protections of the U.N.  Charter. So you have a disconnect between what the Palestinians want and what the world thinks or says they want. And it is into that dilemma that Governor Romney stepped.

Gordon:  Turning to Syria we now see something that looks like the emergence of the Spanish Civil War during the 21st Century. By that I mean, you've got two groups. You've got Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia allegedly supplying weapons and material to a largely Sunni rebel force, the Free Syrian Army which has now carved out some sort of a liberated area enclave in Northern Syria. You have also got the Kurds who have been given de facto autonomy in their region. Recently you had a statement from a Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader saying that Kurdish de facto autonomy is illegitimate in this regard. You also have Al Qaeda in Iraq, filtering into Syria. On top of that, you have an air bridge from Iran into Syria resupplying weapons under the  aegis of humanitarian aid. You have Iran’s Quds Force in Syria. Jonathan, how bad is this for Israel next door?

Schanzer:  It is bad for everyone Jerry. You know, we here in the United States, our government has determined for a long time that we don't want to get involved because we are afraid that Al Qaeda and other Jihadi groups would get into the mix. Well guess what? They are into the mix, and things are getting worse and worse every day. The more we have other actors stepping in like Qatar and  Saudi Arabia, I think the greater the chances are that we have additional radicalization  in Syria. By and large what I would say is that in the past we have had various Jihadi groups and Jihadi activists cut their teeth in places like Afghanistan and Chechnya and in more recently in Iraq and in Libya. They are now gravitating to Syria to get a chance to practice their skills and to continue their ways of Jihad. This is something that is a very dangerous development. And then we see Iran doubling down, providing weapons, providing cash, doing everything that they can in order to make sure that their proxy Syria remains in place. Because if Syria goes,  it is like sweeping a leg out from under Iran. This is a crucial piece of the puzzle for the Iranians and their attempts to dominate the region. So this is a battle to the finish right now, and I expect things to get far bloodier. Right now, as I understand it, the death toll is close to 30,000, which is remarkable. What is even more remarkable to me is that the world seems to be yawning over this. It's not even something that is front page headlines anymore. It is not leading the news broadcasts any longer. It is just a blood bath. Nobody seems to care. The Israelis, as you mentioned, though are extremely nervous because they  are looking at the potential for Syria's chemical weapons to be moved. The potential spillover on Israel’ s borders is high too. So the Israelis are rightfully very nervous about what will come after Assad. It is not to say that they like Assad. But I think in their designs to undermine Iran they are probably happy to see him go. Still, I think the Israelis would've been much happier to see an international coalition led by the United States go in and potentially neutralize the situation – not necessarily even with boots on the ground but with safe havens and no-fly zones.

Bates:  Looming on the horizon is the Iranian Nuclear Program. Most observers believe it is a nuclear weapons program despite the proteststations from the Iranians saying it is for peaceful purposes. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu complained recently that Israel is being asked for a red light when what we really need are red lines against the Iranian program. A line which the Iranians will not be allowed to cross. What you do  both think of that? Shoshana, let me first ask you. What do you think of the whole red lines, red lights situation?

Bryen:  Forget red lights for the moment. But red lines are something you ask for when policy has failed. The United States has had a variety of red lines for Iran having to do with centrifuges, having to do with enrichment, having to do with a lot of things. The Iranians have crossed each red line with impunity. I think what the Israelis are really saying is that the  policy has failed – help us figure out what the end of this process is going to look like. I happen to be an opponent of red lines because they permit everything up to the line. President Obama gave a red line to Bashar Assad in Syria. He said the use of chemical weapons would be red line for the United States. So what Assad understood was anything up to that line is OK. Now you have increased use of gangs and massacres and artillery and helicopters in Syria because they believe that unless they touch the U.S. red line they are safe from our retaliation. So rather than a red line, I would have preferred to see the United States and Israel – and the Europeans, although they are less important in this conversation – finding a position together; finding one in consultation. For the United States to put out a unilateral red line does not help because everybody believes it will be crossed and nobody believes the President will do anything about it. It is an admission of failure.

Bates:  Well, and a red line is meaningless if crossing it goes unpunished. 

Bryen:  Well, it has so far.

Bates:  Right. Jonathan, what do you think?

Schanzer:  Well I agree with Shoshana. I think she's right. I would just add this: that I think that we have a situation where the President needs to just simply state what he plans to do. What he should do is demonstrate leadership. He needs to say to the American public and the world that if and when Iran doesn't have a satisfactory response I am going to do X, Y and Z. So in other words, it's his own plan, rather than, “here is what Iran can or can't do.” I think that is an incredibly important thing for him to do. I think it's about leadership. I think he has failed to demonstrate that, and I think there have been grave ramifications. What you have right now is a very ugly debate – I've talked about it on this show before -where you've got people saying that Obama is throwing Israel under bus. You've got other people saying that people who are advocating for red lines are Israeli advocates and they are dragging America into war. This is not the kind of atmosphere that you want to have when, in fact, it's Iran that is the problem. I think the President really needs to step in and be a referee and to demonstrate some leadership. He's not done so yet and I find that very disappointing.

Bates:  Jerry, I know there is an effort underway, some planning going on for a Never Again Day this coming Thursday, September 27th. What is that all about?

Gordon:  That is about holding local protests at President Obama Campaign Offices specifically on the Iranian Nuclear Program threat to the U.S. and also to Israel. I think a lot of Americans probably don't realize that Iran has been testing a technology that might involve a possible EMP or Electronic Magnetic Pulse attack against the U.S. that would really set us back. In the case of Israel, they also have the ability to deploy dirty bombs and other devices, essentially they could be equally as devastating. Leveraging off of what both Jonathan and Shoshana have talked about you want this protest on Thursday, the 27th at noon time for only about an hour to essentially send a message to the President that he really needs to address the take out of the Iranian Nuclear Program given these threats.

Bates:  And these Never Again Day protests are scheduled to occur across the country.

Gordon:  Yes they are.

Bates:  The Pensacola event, 12 noon at the Obama Campaign Headquarters which is on Pace Boulevard, a little bit South of Fairfield Drive. Right?

Gordon:  That's correct.

Bates:  And anybody is welcomed to attend. 

Gordon:  Anybody is welcomed to attend and not block the driveways.

Bates:  Peaceful protests of course.

Gordon:  Yes.

Bates:  Jonathan, let me ask you another question on this. President Obama has been saying all along that he will not allow the Iranians to obtain a nuclear weapon but he has not been specific about how he intends to prevent that. Do you think that it is good to remain silent or do you think he should be a little bit more articulate about just how far the United States is willing to go because the Israelis have made it quite clear. They will not allow the Iranians to obtain a nuclear weapon. What do you think?

Schanzer:  I think that is part of the problem Mike. Speaking, by the way, to a diplomat who is friends with the President and is a long time ally of the President, the explanation was that the President doesn't want to be pinned down. The President wants to keep his options open. He wants to not be held accountable by his enemies. If he says that he is going to do one thing and then perhaps he does something else, then it is going  look like he's flip flopping. I think that part of the reason why Iran continues to test the limits is because the President has not said what he's going to do if and when certain things happen. In other words, he has  left it all up in the air. He's been quiet about it. Now, granted, we don't know what's happening behind the scenes. There could be messages that are going back and forth. There could be threats taking place outside of public view. Nevertheless, I think that the confusion and anger resulting from this debate is counter-productive and eroding alliances.

Bates:  Thank you Jonathan and Shoshana for joining this Middle East Round Table discussion with Jerry and me.

Also see Jerry Gordon's collection of interviews, The West Speaks.

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