by Jerry Gordon and Mike Bates (April 2013)
President Obama and Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu, March 2013
While sports fans in the US were pre-occupied with the NCAA basketball competition commonly referred to as March Madness, a different version was playing out in the Middle East. It was set against the background of the first Presidential visit by Obama on March 20, 2013. He had previously visited there during his first Presidential campaign in 2008. On that visit he went to rocket–weary Sderot in Israel’s south hard by the Gaza border, put an obligatory note in a crevice in the Kotel (Western Wall), promised that he wouldn’t pressure Israel on its national security interests or negotiations with the Arab Palestinians. He tried to clarify his stance on negotiations with the Iranians seeking to stop their inexorable achievement of a nuclear weapons capability. The latter was the principal interest of then Likud opposition leader and now Israel PM Netanyahu. As Senator Obama he also met with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and passed words of encouragement about a possible peace accord and two state solution. The comment from PA chief negotiator Saeb Erekat was:
My impression is that he is focused. He believes it is in the American national interest and that time is of the essence. He said he won’t waste any time, and that he’ll be a constructive partner.
That was nearly five years ago. In the interim, PM Netanyahu issued a warning in a speech at the UN General Assembly in Manhattan on September 26, 2012 about the failure to draw “clear red lines” on Iran’s nuclear enrichment. Further, the Obama Administration had issued warnings to the Netanyahu government about expansion of settlements in disputed territories in Judea and Samaria. Relations between the two national leaders were frosty after appearances in the White House in 2010 during which Netanyahu appeared to lecture Obama about the facts on the ground with the Palestinians and Iranians the Middle East.
President Obama’s June 2009 speech at Cairo University emboldened overthrow of autocratic Arab regimes, promoted the legitimacy of the Palestinian cause. Further, he tied the existence of the modern Jewish state of Israel to the Holocaust and not its international legal rights.
In December 2010 the fall of autocratic regimes began across the Maghreb and Egypt called the Arab Spring. The ousting of long term ally Hosni Mubarak and election in June 2012 of a former Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohamed Morsi, as President in June 2012 raised security concerns for both Israel and the US. That was further compounded by the now two year old rebellion in Syria against the minority Alawite regime of Bashar Assad with casualties now in excess of 70,000 killed and tens of thousands injured. Reports from that internecine conflict have given rise to bloody battles crossing the border with Lebanon. Al Qaeda militias have gained control of the Syrian frontier side of Israel’s border on the Golan. Moreover, there are allegations of non-conventional chemical and biological weapons filtering into the hands of Assad regime ally Hezbollah. Further, as cited by Jonathan Schanzer, Israel’s quiet northern border could mask the “winds of war” given the recent fall of the Lebanese government which may strengthen the position of Hezbollah.
The disarray in the largely Sunni opposition supported by Erdogan’s Turkey, oil rich Qatar and Saudi Wahhabists have led to a de facto stalemate in Syria. That was evident in the Syrian National Coalition leader, Moaz Alkhatib, being seated at the 34th Arab League Summit in Doha, Qatar supplanting the minority Alawite Assad regime representatives. At the same Arab League conference, the Emir of Qatar pledged $1 billion to support the PA’s claim to Jerusalem, to combat “judaizing” of Israel’s eternal capital allegedly protecting its Islamic heritage.
The spread of Hezbollah terrorism to the EU was evident in the July 18, 2012 bombing of a bus full of Israeli tourists that killed six, including the Bulgarian driver. Further evidence of Hezbollah’s terrorist plotting in the EU was found in the trial and the conviction in March 2013 of a Swedish Lebanese operative in a Cypriot Court. He was caught planning potential hits against tourist spots favored by vacationing Israelis. In the wake of these revelations France is finally coming around to the long held position of the U.S, U.K. and The Netherlands, that Hezbollah is a terrorist group backed by Iran’s Quds Force.
Before Obama arrived in mid-March for his brief visit to Jerusalem, Ramallah and Amman, the new ruling coalition in Israel’s Knesset under the leadership of PM Netanyahu was brokered.
Obama faced a different Israeli government on his March 20, 2013 visit to Jerusalem. It is a product of an obsessive democracy with diverse backgrounds and conflicting views on practically everything. The government that has been formed under the leadership of Israeli PM Netanyahu reflects an introspective turn concentrating on domestic economic and social issues rather than on Arab Palestinian peace prospects. It is a coalition of partners who reflect the consensus of the Israeli polity that is sane about the realities of the neighborhood that surrounds them. The emerging consensus arising from this Israel coalition bickering process is that Israel has to deal with cleaning up decades of domestic problems such as monopolies, housing availability and integrating, rather than being beholden to the demands of the extreme Orthodox, the heredim. The steadfast coalition that emerged from the January 22, 2013 Knesset election is composed of former Israeli Channel 2 news anchor Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and young Israeli multi-millionaire high tech entrepreneur Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home). The new government formed by PM Netanyahu has the solid backing from its citizens on one vital issue: Iran must be stopped from perfecting its nuclear existential threat against the Jewish nation.
Perhaps that was a reason why President Obama didn’t speak before the Knesset. Instead he spoke to a selected audience of 2,000 Israel students and leftists that had the atmosphere of an extension of his permanent campaign style on domestic issues in the US. Obama courted his Jerusalem International Convention Center audience in his speech on March 21, 2013 with themes affirming the Jewish nation’s ancient historical connections to the land and the “you are not alone” reference to America as a strong ally supporting Israel’s national security interests. Nevertheless, he chose this occasion to further the Palestinian Arab peace initiative. In his speech, he emphasized that peace with the Arab Palestinians was necessary in view of the demographics in the disputed territories and recognizing the Palestinian right to self-determination. Moreover he told the audience that Israel had valued peace partners in the persons of PA President Abbas and PM Salam Fayyad. In his discussions with PM Netanyahu he suggested that the Palestinians should set no pre-conditions for discussions with the Netanyahu government and should recognize the Jewish nation.
There were demonstrations against Obama in Ramallah suggesting that he betrayed his positions from the 2008 visit. He chose to mollify the aging Fatah PLO leaders with release of another tranche of $500 million in US taxpayer funds to meet payrolls of the corrupt PA. He flew on to Amman to speak briefly with King Abdullah, besieged with rising discord domestically from an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Action Front, and dissident Bedouins. The King has had to contend with the spillover of Syrian refugees roiling the majority Palestinian population deprived of suffrage in the Hashemite Kingdom. As he did in his PA visit, the President released $200 million in aid. Following the recent Qatar Arab League Summit in Doha, King Abdullah went to Ramallah to sign an agreement with PA President Abbas to defend both “Christian and Muslim holy sites” in Jerusalem.
Before the President’s return to Washington he made a brief and controversial stopover in Israel. During that stopover, Prime Minister Netanyahu made a pre-arranged call to Turkey’s PM Erdogan apologizing for the May 2010 IDF Naval commando raid on the Turkish Flotilla vessel Mavi Marmara that resulted in the deaths of 9 Turkish activists aboard the vessel which participated in the Free Gaza Flotilla. The move has not immediately resulted in resumption of bi-lateral relations. Instead it led some Israeli pundits like Martin Sherman to call the PM’s actions in a Jerusalem Post op-ed “senseless and spineless” redolent of the “servile” behavior of Jews in the Galut (Diaspora). Junior coalition partner Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett opined:
It seems that since [Netanyahu’s] apology, Erdogan is doing everything to make Israel regret it. It must be clear to Erdogan that if Israel encounters any future terrorism, our response will be no less severe than against the Mavi Marmara flotilla in May 2010.
Back in Ankara, Erdogan was seeking a cease fire in the 29 year war with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) led by Abdullah Ocalan, who has been imprisoned on an Island in the Sea of Marmara since his capture in Syria in 1999. The PKK has conducted an intensive asymmetrical war against Turkey’s rulers in the largely Kurdish southeastern region. The PKK has operated out of bases in the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government zone also seeking autonomy that might lead to an eventual independent regional Kurdistan. Costs to Turkey of fighting the PKK Kurdish rebellion range as high as $450 million with over 40,000 casualties. Turkey announced a cease fire with Ocalan and return of PKK fighters to their northern Iraq bastion in exchange for possible autonomy in Southeastern Turkey. Lest we hold out too much hope the 2004 cease fire between the PKK and Turkey didn’t hold.
Did Obama’s first Presidential trip to Israel have any impact on Israelis? Following his visit, 11% more Israelis polled thought he was more pro-Israel and less pro-Palestinian than prior to his visit. That led former Israel Ambassador Yoram Ettinger to comment in a USA Today column:
To accomplish his aims in this region, Obama must be prepared to do more than extend a hand of peace and understanding as he did in 2009. He may have to strengthen the U.S.'s posture of deterrence and power projection due to the threat of Iran and the roiling Arab street. Apart from the Palestinian issue, Obama may have to walk the military walk, not just talk the diplomatic and economic talk.
To cap the March Madness there was potential good news for Israel. The first flow of natural gas produced at the Tamar offshore gas platform 24 kilometers from the Israeli port of Ashdod reached a receiving facility in Haifa via a submarine pipeline on March 31, 2013. The four year development project in the Tamar field was privately funded by a $7 billion joint venture of Houston, Texas' Noble Energy and Israeli partners, Delek and Avner Oil. It marked the beginning of Israel’s energy independence which may be a geo-resource and energy market game changer. Israel will have to deal with Russian interests via agreements between the Tamar partners and Gazprom which covets its bear hug of the European natural gas market. However, to balance that there was a strategic agreement between the Leviathan field partnership and a major Australian energy firm Woodside Petroleum, Pty. As motivation for the Leviathan Woodside deal, David Wurmser of Delphi Global Analysis in an inFocus article cited the large and growing Asian natural gas markets. Israeli natural gas would be delivered via a pipeline connecting the Israeli port of Ashkelon with Eilat in the Red Sea, thereby avoiding transit through the insecure Suez Canal. Nonetheless, Israel will have to allocate a portion of royalty income flowing into its Sovereign Wealth Fund to upgrade IDF air, naval and special operations protection of its burgeoning energy developments. The US Geological Service estimates upwards of 120 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and perhaps tens of billions of barrels of oil may lie below the Levant Basin. An energy prize that Turks, Hezbollah, Assad's Syria and Hamas clearly covet.
Against this background “Your Turn” hosts Mike Bates, of radio station 1330AMWEBY in Pensacola, Florida, Senior Editor Jerry Gordon of the New English Review, Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, Vice President of Research for 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.
Mike Bates: Good afternoon and welcome to Your Turn. We are having a special international roundtable discussion about the Middle East and I have with me in the studio Jerry Gordon, a Senior Editor of the New English Review and its blog, “the Iconoclast.” Jerry, welcome to Your Turn.
Jerry Gordon: Glad to be here.
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 to Your Turn.
Jonathan Schanzer: Thanks Mike.
Bates: And Shoshana Bryen, she is the Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Center in Washington. Shoshana, welcome to Your Turn.
Shoshana Bryen: Thank you, Mike.
Bates: Shoshana, President Obama was in Israel. It was his first visit as President. What were his objectives and what did he accomplish?
Bryen: I think the President’s objective was to do everything but solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem. He had objectives with Israel regarding Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Iran. The President was trying to make sure that he and the Israelis would be on the same page for the broader problems that the United States and Israel face in the region. In these regards he was fairly successful.
Bates: Was it as much a PR trip for the Israeli population as it was a policy trip?
Bryen: Yes, the President likes to be liked and so he went to a venue with lots of nice, young Israeli people. He avoided the Knesset; the Knesset being a very unruly body. You never can predict what kind of impact things will have on members of the Knesset. So he went to this venue with 500 nice, young Israeli kids and I think he thought they would push their government. They would respond to his call to their higher natures and perhaps he could get something political from them that he couldn't ask the Israeli government for directly. On those grounds I suspect he will be disappointed. Although the Israeli young people are energetic, enthusiastic and do want change in many ways, most of the change they want is domestic. They are interested in the sharing of national service obligations – having the ultra-Orthodox and Israeli Arab citizens do service of some sort. They are interested in lessening income inequality. They are worried about the cost of living and the high cost of housing. I think if the President was assuming that they would help him on the grounds of the so-called “peace process,” he was doomed to disappointment.
Gordon: Jon, the President went on to have a dialogue with the President of the PA, Mr. Mahmoud Abbas and what happened there? Was something different this time?
Schanzer: First of all it was a very short visit. It was certainly not the sort of lengthy visit that the President had on the Israeli side. I think that the Palestinians felt that they got the short end of the stick. There were a number of protests that took place before the President arrived. This was certainly not the warm welcome that the President might have hoped for but this underlies the tension that has existed between the Palestinian Authority and the United States for quite some time. That tension stems from the maneuver that Mr. Abbas executed at the UN on November 29th of last year when he basically went for a unilateral upgrade. He is now looking for the world to recognize West Bankistan as a Palestinian state and so the tension has already existed. It was very much evident during the President's visit this time.
Gordon: Did he change the conditions Jon, by which the United States had previously suggested peace discussions?
Schanzer: I don't think that he laid down the law on this. I mean, perhaps Jerry, you have your own opinion about what happened, but I didn't see any goal posts put down. I didn't see any real demands being placed on the Palestinians, which, by the way, I think is a big mistake. We know, for example, that the President when he went to Israel, he was asking for a settlement freeze. We already have a de facto one on the ground right now. The question is, what will the President, or what did the President ask of Mahmoud Abbas? I think on that score, there has been precious little. We have seen an intransigent Palestinian Authority. We have seen a Palestinian Authority that has not been eager to get back to the negotiating table. I have noted in a few articles of late, there is actually a succession crisis brewing on the Palestinian side, which, I think the President ultimately decided not to engage. The succession crisis that I have noted includes the following: If Mahmoud Abbas were not be able to fulfill his duties tomorrow from illness or incapacity, Palestinian basic law stipulates that the speaker of the parliament would succeed him for a period of 60 days. As it turns out, the speaker of the parliament right now is a man by the name of Aziz Dweik who is a member of Hamas. This will be a nightmare on several fronts. First of all, it would probably create a complete shutdown in American aid, which has just started to flow again to the Palestinians. That could precipitate a financial crisis. However, the PLO would not be particularly happy with this arrangement, so it would probably precipitate yet another political crisis. A crisis along the lines of what we saw during 2006 when Hamas and Fatah really began in earnest to engage in this interfactional struggle.
Bates: You say not much was asked of the Palestinians. However he announced $500 million in aid to the Palestinians. We gave them quite a gift.
Schanzer: That's right, and this is in line with giving the Palestinians on average about $600,000,000 per year in aid across the board. I am obviously a critic of the way that the Palestinian Authority is run. I am critical of its leadership. But I will say this: that money provided to the Palestinian Authority is surprisingly money well spent. I will explain why. We are certainly not happy with Palestinian policies right now, given what just happened at the U.N. We are not happy with the way that the Palestinians have been avoiding the Israelis at the negotiating table. That is not the fault of the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority is a bureaucratic entity that is designed to help make things run properly. Trash gets collected. Taxes get collected. The roads are paved, etc. That is what the Palestinian Authority does and it is extremely useful to the Israelis. It is extremely useful to the United States, so that the Israelis don't have the burden of doing this. Now, if we were to try and punish the Palestinians for some of the actions that they have engaged in, we would have to address the PLO. The Palestine Liberation Organization sets the foreign policy for the Palestinians, and we have given them a free pass. This is ultimately the policy shift that is needed right now.
Gordon: Shoshana, you wrote a piece in The Algemeiner about the Israel vs. the America test. What was the thrust of that piece concerning the Palestinians?
Bryen: The thrust of the piece is a book by George Gilder called The Israel Test in which Gilder posits that a country’s reaction to Israel is actually a test of that country not of Israel. Israel is, objectively speaking, an extraordinary country: what it grows, what it builds, what it does, how it educates, what it produces, what it achieves – all of this is, objectively speaking, amazing in 65 years. There are some people in the world that will look at all of that and say, “Boy, those are really smart people. Clever people. I want to be with those people. I want to learn from them. I want to share with them. What a great thing the Israelis did making something out of very little.” There is another group of people who look at the same objective circumstances and say, “Yes but, they stole the land, yes but they murdered the people. Yes but they are an apartheid state. Yes but they are bad. They are evil. We need to take from them. We need to destroy what they have achieved.” So it is a test of people’s reaction to Israel. Are you comfortable being with Israel and working with Israel and looking at the miracle that is Israel? Or do you want to tear it down either because you think they did it illegitimately or because you just can't stand to have certain people succeed?
If you apply the test to the Palestinians, they fail. The Palestinians look at everything Israel achieves and basically they could have achieved a lot of those things as well by working with Israel. There is no difference if you look at the physical terrain between land on which Israel has planted more than 250 million trees and grows crops and places that the Palestinians do not grow crops. Water is water; there is a limit to the availability of water in the region. The Israelis recycle a higher percentage of water than any other country. The Palestinians don't, but instead of learning from the Israelis, instead of sharing what the Israelis have to offer, the Palestinian attitude toward Israel is, “Everything they’ve done is illegitimate because they stole it from us to begin with.” It is self-defeating.
President Obama had a little bit of “yes but.” He seems to have gotten over some of it on this last trip. There was a lot more “yes” and a lot less “yes but.” I would like to add to something that Jonathan said about the President being in the Palestinian Authority. I'm not sure he was talking to Abbas, and I'm not sure he was talking to the Palestinian Authority. To some extent I think the President was talking to the Arab world, to the Saudis, to the Gulf States, even to Egypt and saying, “Look, Israel is here. Israel has built. Israel is staying, Israel is Jewish, Israel is, Israel is.” You can't unsay those things. He was telling the Arab and the Muslim world in the larger sense, that it's time that they reconcile themselves with Israel. I don't think he expects the Palestinians to do it but I think he has put himself in a different place vis-a-vis the Palestinians and vis-a-vis the Arab States.
Bates: Shoshana, there is a Cherokee story in the United States about the two wolves. You've got the wolf that is good and wants to coexist and get along and do well. Then there is the wolf that wants hatred and violence. The question is asked, which wolf succeeds and the answer is the one that you feed and I thought of that story as you were talking about the Palestinians. They clearly are feeding the wolf of hatred and not the wolf of peace and coexistence. A classic example of that is when Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip, much of what they created was actually destroyed by the Palestinians for the sole reason that you couldn't have it because it was built by Jews. Is that hatred ever going to stop?
Bryen: That is a great story. Not only do I think the hatred will not stop, here is where I think the President made a mistake with the Israeli young people. You can ask them to look to their better angels. You can ask them to imagine peace, to imagine whatever John Lennon said it was you were supposed to imagine. On the other hand, Israeli young people know perfectly well the Palestinian young people for the last twenty years have been educated in hatred. The incitement to violence, the hatred, the anti-Semitism that pervades the Palestinian Authority educational system produces Palestinian young people who hate. Those young people are faced by Israeli young people who do national service to defend their country. Israeli young people are very much aware that their Palestinian counterparts have been fed, as you said, on hatred and they are much more realistic on that score than the president.
Gordon: Jon, President Obama went to Jordan to meet with King Abdullah for a limited amount of time. The President left a big check for $200 million. What is really at issue in Jordan these days?
Schanzer: To get a sense of what the monarch is dealing with in Jordan, there is actually a terrific profile done by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic where he was able to have King Abdullah on the record in a very candid way talking about all the different challenges that he faces throughout the region. He has basically an Arab Spring type of environment in his midst right now. It is not a full blown revolution in the way that we've seen in Egypt or Tunisia. Rather it is a smoldering one. The king has been trying to figure out a way to implement reform because there are people who are extremely unhappy with the corruption that is alleged to be taking place in the government. It is not a representative government in Jordan, and so he continues to try to tinker and tweak without making wholesale changes. The more that he does this, the more the crisis mounts because the population is still extremely unhappy with him. There is this sense that eventually the King may have to write himself out of the equation and become more of a symbolic figure rather than one who rules all of Jordan. But, the potential for revolution in Jordan is actually only part of the problem. You also have a restive Palestinian population both in the East Bank and the West Bank. Palestinians who are threatening to launch another Intifada against Israel would obviously destabilize Jordan. You also have massive outflow of refugees coming from Syria and some of these are Palestinians as well. The country of Jordan is having an extremely difficult time assimilating all of these refugees coming in from Syria. I have heard that there are Syrian operatives sneaking across the border along with some of the refugees, trying to get a sense of who among them is part of the opposition. There is sort of Spy vs. Spy taking place on the Jordanian side of the border. It's a very complex situation right now for the Jordanians. It was incredibly important for the President Obama to go to Amman and to demonstrate support. I would argue that the visit was about two years too late. Jordan is a linchpin for stability in the Middle East and for some reason; this Administration has largely ignored what could become one of the most consequential issues in President Obama’s second term.
Bates: Jonathan, there is also an awful lot of dissent going on in Turkey. Turkey made the news with Obama's visit to Israel and I was shocked to hear the reason why. If the reports are true, with Barack Obama sitting there Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the Prime Minister of Turkey and apologized to him for the raid on Turkish ship involved in the May 2010 Gaza Flotilla. Did he apologize for that raid? Is that accurate and why would he apologize?
Schanzer: It is accurate and I think it was a mistake. However, it has been a long time coming. There were reports over the previous weeks that Yaakov Amidror, the Israeli National Security Advisor, was in Turkey trying to negotiate this apology. We know that the Israelis want this very badly. I have to say that, despite the fact that the terms were dictated largely by Mr. Obama and Mr. Erdogan, this is something that the Israelis have been pining for. They very much value the relationship that they used to have with Turkey. They think that it is important to have at least one country in the Muslim world where they have full normalized relations. There has been a lot of importance placed on this by Mr. Netanyahu. Part of this apology was also dictated by Avigdor Lieberman. Right now as you probably know, Lieberman is not the Foreign Minister of Israel. He is awaiting the results of a trial and so he is out for the next several months. The Israelis apparently looked at this as the window of opportunity because Lieberman would have absolutely opposed this were he the Foreign Minister. The Israelis looked at this as a limited window where they would be able to get the apology in and could begin to potentially iron out some of the details of normalizing relations. But to be clear, I don't think Israel has anything to apologize for with regard to this Flotilla. It was a botched raid, but the Turks financed the Flotilla knowing it was a provocation. The other thing worth noting here is that I don't think that Israeli-Turkish relations are going to normalize. I think that they may find a way to paper over some of their differences, but at the end of the day Turkey is a sponsor of Hamas. It has been helping Iran circumvent sanctions. It has basically adopted Muslim Brotherhood foreign policy. This is at odds with Israel's foreign policy. It is hard to see where they are going to have many commonalities moving forward, with the exception of perhaps just trying to bring down Bashar al-Assad in Syria. I can't really think of what else they might have in common at this moment.
Bates: Jonathan, the benefits of good relations between Turkey and Israel are indisputable so there is no doubt of that value. However is an apology not genuinely given a real apology? What were they apologizing for?
Schanzer: They were apologizing for the loss of life. There were nine Turks who were killed on this Flotilla. When the Israeli commandos set foot on the boat they were attacked, and the Israeli commandos responded with lethal force. At the end of the day, that is what the Israelis were apologizing for. Word has it right now that the Israelis are going to give one million dollars per person who were killed on the boat. If you look right now around Ankara, there are billboards where Erdogan is basically taking a victory lap, saying that he had brought the Israelis to their knees, and that he was fully responsible for making the Israelis apologize. This obviously doesn't sound like someone who is sincerely accepting Israel's apology in the first place. This is political theater right now. We know the Israelis are reticent to say they were sorry in the first place.
But again, I don't think the Israelis are apologizing for having boarded the ship. I don't think they are apologizing for having thwarted the Flotilla itself. I don't think they are apologizing for much beyond the fact that their commandos took the lives of nine people. Now, of course, the activists were hostile to the commandos and I think that the fact finding missions have revealed very clearly that it was those people who started the conflict and it was not the commandos who did so. Nevertheless, I think the Israelis are eager to put this behind them and it is for that reason that they are apologizing simply for the loss of life and nothing more.
Bates: Shoshana, what's your take on this apology?
Bryen: The whole thing puts me in mind of 2001 and President George W. Bush's apology to China. If you remember early in the first term, a Chinese fighter jet crowded an American EC130 spy plane that was over international water. The jet came too close. The EC130 took evasive action and it actually it hit the Chinese jet and it crashed. The pilot died. The Chinese then demanded an apology because the United States had shot down a Chinese fighter jet, although the fighter jet shouldn’t have been hot dogging over international water to begin with. The Bush Administration ultimately apologized for the death of the pilot. We didn't apologize for our plane being where it was. We didn't apologize for the altercation. We didn't apologize for hitting the plane. In a very limited way we said we were sorry that a Chinese pilot lost his life. It allowed the air to be cleared and I think this is what Jonathan was getting at The Israelis wanted to clear the air with the Turks. They figured out a way to do it. They did not apologize for the Gaza blockade – in fact the opposite, Netanyahu repeated that the blockade was and remains legal. He did not apologize for trying to keep the flotilla ships out. In a very limited way, like President Bush, Netanyahu said he was sorry people were lost their lives.
Bates: Shoshana, the imprisoned Kurdish resistance leader, Abdullah Ocalan of the PKK announced a cease fire with Turkey. What do both parties hope to achieve with that cease fire?
Bryen: Ocalan did not have a whole lot to say about it. The Turks need to have some handle on what could be the beginning of the creation of Kurdistan across three countries. There are Kurds in Turkey, in Syria, and in Iraq, large groups of them. If Syria devolves into enclaves held by different ethnic and confessional groups, you might find an autonomous Kurdish enclave emerging. There is already a very separate Kurdish Northern Iraq; it is part of Iraq, but it's really a very separate entity. The last thing the Turks need is restive Kurds inside of Turkey wanting to attach themselves to Kurds in the other two places. Very little attention has been paid to the fact that Turkey has been engaged in open warfare against its domestic Kurdish population as well. An escalation of that war would present huge problems for the Turks. So they needed Ocalan. He is sitting in a Turkish prison, so he can’t very well object, so he agreed. I suspect it is one of those cease fires that will come and go as events change and people have different requirements.
Schanzer: I would just add this; Shoshana, Turkey appears to be going through some major shifts. It has been trying to become a major Sunni power. A lot of people talk about how the Turks have been moving toward the Arabs and trying to generate popularity on the so-called Arab Street. Another way of looking at this is Turkey trying to become more popular and more accepted across the Sunni world. To a certain extent this olive branch here to the Kurds is another way of doing that. You know most of the Kurds are Sunni and that this could be another way of explaining what is happening here.
Gordon: Shoshana, looking at Israel's Northeastern frontier with Syria, what is Israel doing to secure the Golan given events of the last couple of months?
Bryen: The first thing the Israelis are doing is thanking God that they didn’t give up the Golan Heights when President Clinton pushed them to do that in 2000. The President made a huge push for an Israel-Syria deal that would have inserted an international – or a U.S. – force on the Golan to allow Israel to withdraw with “confidence” in Syrian intentions. It was a terrible idea then and now you can see why. Gen. Benny Gantz, Israel's Chief of Staff, says he doesn't think there will be a major escalation on the Golan Heights. It is a problem; it is an issue. As long as Israel is on top and the Syrian's are on the bottom the Israelis can handle another hostile border. I think you can imagine that the Israelis will take very, very seriously any escalation, particularly any rocket attacks and they will respond, but they are responding from the top of the hill. It's a good position.
Bates: Shoshana, an Israeli General recently suggested creating a buffer zone in a post Assad Syria. Is that not the whole point of the Golan Heights, a buffer zone?
Bryen: I think he was talking about the reestablishment of the UN buffer zone. I think you can assume now Israel will be on the top of the Golan Heights for the foreseeable future. If nothing else, this war proves that Israel needs to be on the top. The UN however, was on the bottom of the Golan Heights, on the Syrian side and that was the UNDOF buffer. That buffer has been breached and I think it will have to be reestablished if possible. If it isn't reestablished I think the Israelis are going to have to reestablish it for deterrence purposes.
Gordon: Jon, the other Northern border is also questionable. We had the recent resignation of the Lebanese Sunni PM. Is that possibly linked to Hezbollah's activities cross-border in Syria and vice versa?
Schanzer: In Lebanon, we see an increasingly muscular Hezbollah, despite the fact that it's been under pressure with regard to Syria. Lebanon is an extremely unstable place, and right now, what we are looking at on a security front is that the Hezbollah organization has been beefing up its rockets. It has over 70,000 of them right now pointing southward. In a recent discussion I had with a very senior Israeli official, he warned that it is no longer South Lebanon that he is concerned with, but rather all of Lebanon. Hezbollah has placed these rockets in densely populated areas, with the full knowledge that what you are going to eventually see is the Israelis attacking these silos and probably inflicting a great deal of collateral damage. This could result in very high civilian casualties. What we have right now is an extremely tense border between Israel and Lebanon. Hezbollah is the crux of this. We have already seen Israel taking out some weaponry that originated in Syria and was destined for Hezbollah. I expect we'll see more of that. On top of that there are regular flights of Israeli war planes over Lebanese territory. Israel has sent drones, and flares into Lebanon and Iron Dome batteries are now based in the North with the assumption that that is probably the next front that would heat up. The argument that I have made over the last several weeks is that Hezbollah and Lebanon are the forgotten front. Hezbollah is the forgotten enemy here with regard to the Israelis. Everybody is looking at chemical weapons out of Syria. Everybody is looking at Hamas rockets. Everybody is looking at instability in Egypt. Meanwhile, quietly, the Lebanese front has become the one that everyone needs to be concerned with. I have seen very little emphasis placed on it by analysts of the region.
Gordon: Shoshana, why is the EU, with exception of the UK and Netherlands, loath to identify Hezbollah as a terrorist organization?
Bryen: The EU is walking a fine line between what they know is true and what they don't want to face. There is no one in Europe who doesn't know that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization. The French have no illusions – Hezbollah blew up 58 French Marines in Beirut in 1983. However, the French don't want to make an announcement on behalf of France that will upset the French Muslim population, which is increasingly radicalized. To announce suddenly that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization would exacerbate the problem not only for the French, but also for the Germans and the Dutch. At the moment it is in their interest to turn a blind eye. But it has nothing to do with what they don't know, only what they don't want to deal with it.
Bates: The elephant in the room is the Iranian Nuclear Weapons Program, obviously that had to come up in conversations between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama. How far apart are the positions of those two and their administrations on the Iranian Nuclear Weapons Program?
Schanzer: The issue here is not whether Iran should or shouldn't go nuclear. I think Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Obama are in full agreement that Iran should not. The question is where that red line is. At what point have the Iranians stepped over the line? We know that the Iranians are marching toward achievement of a nuclear program. And, therefore, the Israelis are eager to do something about it now. The U.S. is saying that we have more time; we have more time to allow diplomacy to work. And that is really where I think the disagreements have been. The concern here is that we just don't have enough eyes on the ground and intelligence about the Iranian nuclear program. We don't know how quickly they will be able to reach the finish line. We have two basic timelines: how fast the Iranians are working to achieve nuclear weapons, and then how long it will take for sanctions to truly bite and potentially lead to regime collapse. If those two timelines are not in sync, if the Iranians are going to cross that nuclear threshold before sanctions have a material impact, we have a problem. This is something that the two leaders undoubtedly talked about. There is a question of how to get those timelines in sync so that they are really on the same page. What was also talked about was question of military intervention and whether the Israelis go it alone or with the United States. Israel would be able to conduct a goodly portion of the operation. However, they would need the help of the U.S. with some advanced weaponry, bunker busters, mini nukes, and other weapons that would penetrate Iran’s nuclear facilities deep underground. The question is: would the United States provide the Israel with what they call their shopping list? I don’t know exactly what is on that shopping list, but we know that the Israelis have certainly brought it up when Ehud Barak came to Washington recently and met with Defense Secretary Hagel. If the U.S. has decided it is not going to get involved, will it provide the Israelis with that shopping list?
Bates: Jonathan, do you believe the American people and the American government have the stomach to actually participate in any kind of direct military action against the Iranian Nuclear Weapons Program?
Schanzer: Mike, when you look at the polls, Americans are clearly concerned with Iran. Nobody likes the Islamic Republic of Iran and, in general, there is a lot of concern about what Iran might do with nuclear weapons. At the same time, ours is a nation that is war weary. We are tired after Iraq, we're tired after Afghanistan, and we are tired after this long war on terror. I think that it would probably not be the most popular thing in the world for the U.S. to engage in a full-scale war. Helping the Israelis is another story. Whether it's done quietly or above board, these are things that would need to be worked out from the prospective of the U.S. government. I think you have, on the one hand, a President who is not eager to engage in war, knowing that it would be unpopular, with the general public. At the same time, this is also a President who has made it very clear that he would like to see non-proliferation be the policy of the day. He does not want to see additional countries go nuclear. I think, at the end of the day, when you look at his legacy, this is not a president who wants to go down in history as the man who allowed Iran to go nuclear. We need to think about these issues as we try to understand the calculus of the U.S. government policies.
Gordon: Jon, there was a recent at the Summit of the Arab League in Doha, Qatar at which number of people spoke. Among them President Morsi of Egypt who seems to be in real trouble back home economically and otherwise. However, what did Qatar do to alert the world of its intentions with regard to Israel?
Schanzer: Qatar announced that it was going to devote one billion dollars to Jerusalem, Al-Quds, as it is known in the Arab world. This is in response to a long running narrative that Israel is “judaizing” Jerusalem and that the city is slowly losing its Arab character. For that reason these emergency funds were allocated on the heels of a speech in which Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, warned that this “judaizing” process was taking place.
Bates: Shoshana let me ask you a final question. We always talk about things that raise great concern in the Middle East but there has got to be some good news. Is there anything good to report out of the Middle East right now?
Bryen: Yes, there is good news. On Sunday March 31, 2013 Israel expected to be pumping natural gas from the new offshore fields for delivery to Israel. This is unmitigated good news as far as Israel domestic consumption. As you know, they were cut off from Egypt natural during the revolution. They have been operating under a severe shortage and natural gas, unlike oil, can't be bought on a spot market. Israel has been running at a deficit and has been short changing itself at home. This is going to make up for the Egyptian shortfall and that is really good news.
The Israelis also have to decide what to do with excess production. Will it go to the East or the West? Initially people thought it would go through Cyprus and Greece and to add to the European supply. Economic upheaval in Cyprus and Greece make that more complicated now than it was. It has also become clear that the Russians are not thrilled to have their monopoly on European gas undermined by Israel. So the Russians have done two things. One is to strongly suggest that Israel send its gas to Asia, but second to try to buy into the Israeli gas field project. A lot of questions remain on the European side. On the other hand a large Australian company has bought into one of the Israeli gas fields and there are plans for looking to Asia. Asia needs much more natural gas in its future. Israel is in a position to help supply it. It does leave the problem of the Suez Canal which is a political one for Israel but it's also a political problem for a lot of other countries who don't see long term stability in Egypt and worry about the Canal as a vehicle. Don’t be surprised to see plans for a cross-Israel pipeline to the Red Sea in the future, making Israel the center of natural gas flow.
Bates: Thank you Jonathan and Shoshana for joining this Middle East Round Table discussion with Jerry and me.
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