Archive for April, 2008

Perspectives on Israel/Syria Progress

April 30, 2008

[Israeli soldiers overlooking the Golan Heights]

There’s been a spike in chatter about renewed Golan Heights negotiations on a level not heard since last summer, following Syrian expatriate affairs minister Buthaina Shaaban’s announcement on Al Jazeera television over a week ago that, “Olmert is ready for peace with Syria on the grounds of international conditions; on the grounds of the return of the Golan Heights in full to Syria.”

The usual debate spawned by renewed talks over the Golan Heights, a part of Syrian territory captured by Israel in the 1967 War, was sharpened today after Dr. Samir Taqi, an aide to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (who is also the high-level emissary handling Syrian government contacts) stated on Al-Manar television (Hizbullah’s media arm) that “It would be naive to think Syria will neglect or abandon its strategic alliances that do not stem from the Arab-Israeli conflict.” His statment only confirms what renowned Syria expert Patrick Seale already said last year about the limits of Syria’s likely concessions in any peace agreement with Israel — drawing the line at cutting historical regional alliances with Iran, Lebanon and the various Palestinian groups. This is what Seale had to say last June as Golan Heights talks were then beginning to heat up:

“Olmert has hinted that he is ready for a deal with Syria if it severs its links with Iran and Hizbullah and ends its support for Hamas and other Palestinian militants. These are wholly unrealistic preconditions — rather like asking Israel to sever its ties with the United States. Syria’s ties with Iran and with the Shi‘ite community of South Lebanon are decades old and will not be loosened until there are clear signs that Israel is ready for a withdrawal from occupied Syrian and Palestinian territory and a comprehensive peace.

So the question is this: If it’s unrealistic to expect that Syria will cut ties with its regional allies, and indeed Syria is not prepared to make these concessions to Israel, then why should Israel give up the Golan Heights? For what? It would be very easy for Syria to renege on any promises made to Israel, but for Israel there is no going back once it pulls out of the Golan, destroys its settlements there and makes way rapid Syrian settlement of the land. All the risk is lopsidedly with Israel, at least over the immediate issue.

There would be other risks for Syria however, such as further isolating itself in the Arab world and vis a vis its Iranian ally. In a Ynet op-ed (Israel’s largest circulation newspaper) Guy Bechor of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliyah argues quite persuasively that such a move is indeed against Israel’s interest, and even against Syria’s interest.

Rather than a step towards lifting Israel’s regional pariah status, a peace treaty would only serve to bring Syria down with it, making it a pariah by association. This is what happened when Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel. To this day there’s a major thoroughfare in Tehran named after Khalid Islambouli, the man who assassinated former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat after he formally recognized Israel in the peace agreement. This may be a sign of what Syria can expect from Iran should it make peace with the enemy.

On the other hand Dr. Moshe Ma’oz, who is regarded as Israel’s foremost expert on Syria, also a personal friend of mine, believes it would be worthwhile for Israel to give up the Golan Heights. He argues that Bashar al-Assad is serious about peace with Israel, but doubts that Ehud Olmert is as serious on the Israeli side, predicting Olmert’s reluctance will last for at least the remainder of Bush’s presidential term in the United States.

Ma’oz holds no illusions that Syria will immediately cut ties with any of Israel’s regional enemies but believes, as he has stated in other forums, that Syria may reduce these ties following a peace agreement. Ma’oz’s view here is similar to Seale’s understanding that these ties can eventually be “loosened.” The hope is that any such reduction in relations will come in the realm of military assistance to Hamas, Hezbollah etc. Perhaps over-optimistically, perhaps not, Ma’oz believes that peace is the best security, even better than any security advantage offered by the strategic Golan Heights. Watch his interview with IBA television here

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The fallout from Pollard 2.0

April 22, 2008

[A bad day if you’re Ben-Ami Kadish]

This is bad news for Israel, U.S. Jews and, of course, the United States. Israel was extremely foolish for spying on its most important ally, the United States, in the 1980s, and presumably learned its lesson. But the announcement today that Ben-Ami Kadish, a former U.S. Army mechanical engineered was also spying on the United States on Israel’s behalf from 1979 — 1985 proves it wasn’t just Jonathan Pollard, and his case will no longer be seen as exceptional. Danny Yatom, a legislator and a former head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, predicts that trust will be the major casualty of Kadish’s arrest. On Israeli Army Radio he stated, “I think what primarily bothers the Americans is the feeling that Israel didn’t tell them the whole truth two decades ago, in 1985, when the Pollard affair exploded.”

Worse, Kadish allegedly did it neither for money nor diamonds, nor even because he was asked to. He took it upon himself to slip classified documents to an Israeli consulate worker because he thought he was helping Israel. Israel may try to emphasize this point, but accepting his information makes them no less guilty in American eyes. The U.S. has already demanded official Israeli acknowledgment that Kadish was their agent. This will be harmful to the image of U.S. Jews — the vast majority of which love their country — leading to questions over their loyalty because of a few bad apples.

U.S. Jews working in government positions and the intelligence community are likely to come under increased scrutiny and will find it more difficult to obtain security clearances, despite the common notion (frequently leveled by enemies of both countries) that “Israel is America’s 51st State,” or that the two countries are attached at the hip, and so forth. But heightened suspicions are likely to stay mostly confined to the government and intelligence spheres. It may ricochet into the political arena in other, more subtle ways, although it probably won’t alter the status quo of friendly Israel-U.S. relations. No doubt it will strengthen the arguments of those like Harvard political scientists Mearsheimer and Walt, who issued a scathing critique of the Israel lobby, arguing mainly that U.S. support for Israel has been detrimental to U.S. interests. This will come as good news for the anti-Israel/pro-Palestinian community who want to convince Americans how wrong they were all these years to support Israel.

(Jerusalem Post) — “An 85-year-old former US Army mechanical engineer was arrested Tuesday on charges he slipped classified documents about nuclear weapons to an employee of the Israeli Consulate who also received information from convicted Pentagon spy Jonathan Pollard, US authorities announced. Ben-Ami Kadish was charged in US District Court in Manhattan with four counts of conspiracy, including allegations that he disclosed US national defense documents to Israel and acted as an agent of the Israeli government… A criminal complaint said Kadish confessed to FBI agents on Sunday that he had given the Israeli between 50 and 100 classified documents and accepted no cash in return, only small gifts and occasional dinners for him and his family. Kadish admitted to the charges in court, saying that he wanted to help Israel…” Click for full article

‘Israel seeks to reinvent itself as finance hub’

April 22, 2008

(Former Israeli Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, liberalizer of the Israeli economy)

(Financial Times) — “Sitting in his office overlooking the Mediterranean, Tal Keinan, who three years ago founded Tel Aviv-based hedge fund KCPS, paints a bright future for Israel’s finance industry. “We feel like we are at the cusp of a revolution,” says Mr Keinan, whose firm has grown rapidly and now employs 32 fund managers occupying the entire 30th floor of a landmark skyscraper not far from the city’s beaches. His excitement is shared by bankers, traders and other fund managers in Tel Aviv, and the optimistic feeling has reached the government in Jerusalem. With the country’s capital market already largely liberalised thanks to a batch of reforms dating back to 2003, the government has now set its sights on a far more ambitious goal: it wants to repeat Israel’s success in building a thriving high-technology sector and establish the country as an international financial centre…” Click for full article

‘The Audacity of Hebrew’

April 12, 2008

(Senator Barack Obama on tour in the Israeli-Chistian Arab village of Fassouta)

(LA Times) — “Regular assessments in the Israeli press of each candidate’s support for Israel consistently show Obama trailing John McCain and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who are regarded as basically tied. Perhaps mindful of that dynamic, Obama’s camp has begun a push for Jewish and pro-Israeli votes, including the unveiling of a campaign blog in Hebrew.”

Olympic Headache

April 10, 2008

Dude, Israel should never host the Olympics. That would be a terrible idea.

“The criticism adds to the PR nightmare suffered by the Chinese over the torch procession, which has been repeatedly disrupted by pro-Tibet protestors. Yesterday, the authorities were forced to deliberately extinguish the flame for the first time ever as it passed through Paris…” Click for full article

‘Israel, U.S. plan to release details on Syria attack’

April 6, 2008

So we finally get to know who was right and who was wrong after all the speculation surrounding just what Israel attacked in Syria last September, and why. Assuming they tell us the truth, that is. It’s interesting that the announcement comes just as tensions are heating up on the northern border. The timing may be deliberate, as a reminder and a warning to Syria and Lebanon (particularly Hizbullah, whose response to Imad Mughniyah’s assassination we still await) that Israel can strike anywhere in their respective countries, anytime.

(Haaretz –) “Israel and the United States are coordinating the release of details on the air force strike in Syria last September, which foreign reports claim targeted a nuclear installation Syria was constructing with North Korean assistance. American officials may reveal details of the strike later this month during congressional hearings. Even though the defense establishment in Israel is opposed to any publication of details of the attack, the Prime Minister’s Bureau and U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration are of the opinion that it is now possible to reveal details because there is little chance of a conflagration as a result of a Syrian decision to avenge the attack…”

Watchdog slams Ma’an News Agency’s Western funders

April 6, 2008

(Jpost) — “The Netherlands and Denmark provide funding to a Palestinian news agency that glorifies terrorists, uses biased language and promotes hatred for Israel, Itamar Marcus and Barbara Crook of Palestinian Media Watch allege in a report obtained exclusively by The Jerusalem Post ahead of its official release on Friday…” Click for full article

and click here for Ma’an’s response

My experience with Ma’an News Agency has been a mixed bag. On the one hand they’re quite useful for their coverage of stories sometimes missed in the mainstream Israel news outlets such as Jpost, Haaretz, Ynet and etc. On the other hand their journalism is shrouded in the language of Palestinian violent resistance and anti-Zionism etc. Thus, I (and likely many other Western readers) usually read Ma’an for its news content using the auto-language filter that goes as follows: ‘Martyr’ = terrorist, ‘Activist’ = terrorist or violent member of Islamic Jihad, Hamas’ militant wing among others, ‘Occupied Palestine’ (in the pre-1967 borders) = Israel, and so on and so forth.

Although more the exception than the rule, sometimes Ma’an will produce content totally unworthy of serious journalism — one from last summer sticks out in my mind. As it was reported in other outlets nearly universally, on August 10, 2007 a young Palestinian man took a pistol from an Israeli security guard near the Jaffe gate in the old city of Jerusalem and attempted to flee. The Palestinian was killed in the ensuing gunfight, and 10 other bystanders were wounded. But this is how it was reported in Ma’an:

Palestinian shot dead by Israeli guard in Old City of Jerusalem

“Jerusalem – Ma’an, Date: 10 / 08 / 2007 Time: 16:29 – Israeli sources have confirmed that an Israeli guard shot dead a Palestinian in the Old City of Jerusalem just before Friday prayers.

According to Israeli sources the Palestinian had taken a gun from an Israeli guard and shot and wounded him. Another Israeli guard then gave chase and shots were exchanged, killing the man and wounding eleven others.”

From the headline and opening lead you’d think an Israeli guard decided out of the blue to shoot a young, innocent Palestinian just before his Friday prayer. And only in the second paragraph we learn that additional detail — that this came after he stole a gun off of an Israel security guard, shot him, attempted to flee and was killed in the ensuing gun battle. Details, details. I’m assuming most people do not rely on Ma’an as their principle source of Israel or Middle news regardless, and those who take such language at face value are the already convinced. Nonetheless Ma’an’s Dutch and Danish donors should use their power of the purse to induce a change in behavior so they don’t end up funding a mouthpiece for Palestinian propaganda.