Israel hostage to its own right wing

The Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes was recently torched by Jewish extremists. PC: Eddie Grove
The Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes was recently torched by Jewish extremists. PC: Eddie Grove

On Wednesday, the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia hosted a talk entitled The Threat from Within: Israel’s Extremist Dilemma by Barak Mendelsohn, FPRI senior fellow and associate professor of political science at Haverford College.  Mendelsohn is an Israeli expert on radical Islam, who also served in the Israeli Defense Force for five years. Alan Luxenberg  moderated. Audio of the conference can be found here.

Mendelsohn explained that most of his work focuses on jihadism, but his research on how actors interpret religion led him to probe similarities between jihadism and Jewish extremism.  A few years ago, he was an isolated voice but sadly now finds himself vindicated, with the two recent attacks at the Pride Parade in Jerusalem and at Duma in the West Bank.

A beautiful menorah lighting for Hannukah in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv.  Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated here in 1995.  PC: Eddie Grove
A beautiful menorah lighting for Hannukah in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv. Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated here in 1995. PC: Eddie Grove

Religious Jewish terrorism is not new in Israel.  There have been several attacks and attempted attacks since the 1980s.  Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of Arabs at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994 and Rabin’s assassination in 1995 are among them.  Jewish terrorism cannot be separated from the settlement project of Israel’s messianic right-wing. It incubates Jewish extremism.

Every monotheistic religion can clash with the state because of the conflict between divine authority and temporal authority.  But many religious people have found ways to reconcile God and the state.  Religious Zionism saw the emergence of Israel as part of God’s redemptive process.  Religious Zionists tolerated state action that conflicted with their preferences because the will of God was represented in the state’s authority.

Many Religious Zionists looked at the victory of 1967 as God’s plan for Israel.  They were excited to return to lost Jewish lands, especially Judea and Samaria (the West Bank).  The costly 1973 war led to gloom. Religious Jews began to sanctify land over other Jewish values, including the sanctity of life.  If the state went against this value, the state was to be opposed.

The beautiful Hurva Synagogue was raised along with the rest of Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter in 1948 by the Jordanians.  When Israel recaptured the Jewish quarter in 1967, the synagogue was rebuilt.  PC: Eddie Grove
The beautiful Hurva Synagogue was razed along with the rest of Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter in 1948 by the Jordanians. When Israel recaptured the Jewish Quarter in 1967, the synagogue was rebuilt. PC: Eddie Grove
Jews were unable to pray at the Kotel between 1948 and 1967.  During the 1967, the chief chaplain of the IDF sounded a shofar at the Kotel, which was an emotional and joyous moment for many Israelis.  PC: Eddie Grove
Jews were unable to pray at the Kotel between 1948 and 1967. During the 1967 war, the chief chaplain of the IDF sounded a shofar at the Kotel, which was a joyous emotional moment for many Israelis. PC: Eddie Grove

All Israeli governments since have pandered to Jewish extremists, not just Likud governments.  The messianic right built settlements without state authorization.  State institutions provided aid to unauthorized settlements. Many were retroactively recognized, even when built on private Palestinian land.  The IDF role in the West Bank was was to protect settlers from Palestinians, not protecting Palestinians.  When members of the messianic right took illegal actions, few were prosecuted.  The courts handed down mild sentences to those who were. Politicians granted amnesty.

In the 1990s, the view that a two-state solution was necessary became dominant among Israel’s political establishment.  But the state was unable to act according to its strategic interests and dissociate itself from the messianic right. The state found itself tied to interests that clashed with its own.  The messianic movement’s settlements built close to Palestinian cities prevented their expansion and led to increased friction and hostility.  This created a self-fulfilling prophecy that made finding a solution to the conflict more difficult.

An example of friction between settlers and Palestinians in Hebron.

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Iran plans to dominate post-Assad Syria too

Bassam Barabandi, former Syrian diplomat, writes about developments in Zabadani, a key town on the Lebanese border:

What is happening at Zabadani is the beginning of a long process. Emboldened by the nuclear deal, Iran is trying to consolidate its power and position itself as an indispensable broker for peace. Tehran is even beginning to test the waters for a post-Assad Syria.

Assad (and by extension, Iran) has been failing militarily. Given the amount of treasure Iran has invested in Assad, that failure has more of an impact on Iranian leadership at this point than it does on Assad.

The original “train and equip” program started in Zabadani in the 1980s with Iranian training and equipping of Hizbollah. They have been a force and a player politically in Zabadani ever since.

Once the revolution began, Zabadani was hotly contested by rebels and the regime. Rebels took control of it early. For the most part, they have held the town ever since.

In 2012, Davutoğlu, the Turkish Foreign Minister, scoffed at Assad’s threats that he would attack Turkey, when he could not even break through in Zabadani. The next day Zabadani was beleaguered by airstrikes and has been under siege ever since. Humanitarian assistance is badly needed and the Assad regime has refused to allow it through.

Hizbollah attacked Zabadani this year precisely because it has been under siege and seemed an easy target that might help the regime gain some ground in an otherwise bad fighting year. This was not the case. Fighters, mostly allied with Ahrar as-Sham, account for roughly 30% of the population of Zabadani.

Plagued by defeats throughout southern Syria, Hizbollah was also unable to deliver clear, decisive defeats to the rebels at Zabadani. These difficulties have provided lessons to the Iranian leadership, which began to transition to a new strategy. Tehran has recognized that it will not be able to achieve all of its goals through military means only.

Last week Iran began dealing directly and solely with rebels from Ahrar as-Sham, successfully negotiating a cease-fire without the Assad regime. Their objective is to negotiate outcomes that they could not secure through force.

The Assad regime is trusting Iran as its primary interlocutor in these matters. ISIS is knocking at Ahrar as-Sham’s door. Assad is all but telling the rebels that ISIS cannot get through while the regime still stands, positioning himself as an indirect protector of these areas of Syria. This has the potential to open up cross-border humanitarian assistance through UN resolution 2165.

For Iran, there are two possible outcomes:

  1. If the cease-fire with Ahrar as-Sham holds, Assad can be seen as opposing ISIS incursions in Zabadani as well as allowing cross-border humanitarian assistance from Lebanon on the basis of UN resolution 2165;
  2. If the cease-fire fails, the Iranians will be able to blame it on Assad or the rebels, whichever proves to be more advantageous.

Iran’s ultimate aim is to change the demography of Zabadani from Sunni to Shia. Their hope is that through these negotiations they can get the combatants, who they say are foreigners, out of Zabadani, thereby opening up space for new residents to come in.

The Iranians are trying a similar maneuver in Fou’ah, in northern Syria. There they are negotiating a cease-fire, attempting to get foreigners to leave. In Fou’ah there are perhaps 1000 fighters from Hizbollah, Iraq and Afghanistan. But in Zabadani, the fighters are Syrians from Zabadani. The Iranian maneuver there is destined to fail.

The fact that Iran is attempting this negotiation without Assad is a major development and a possible harbinger of Tehran’s new strategy in Syria. It is testing the waters for a post-Assad Syria, in which it envisions itself as the only way to bring peace to the country. Iran would then be in full control. The Iranian leadership feels that in the wake of the nuclear agreement they have more clout and legitimacy to take on a more prolonged, intensive political role in Syria.

Zabadani looks to be the first stages of long process whereby Iran is moving Assad aside and positioning itself as the sole power in Syria, using its Quds forces and Hizbollah as the primary military and training apparatus for Syrian forces.

PS August 15: Bassam Barabandi updates yesterday’s post on Zabadani:

Yesterday Iranian negotiators and representatives from the armed opposition force known as Ahrar Al-Sham agreed on ceasefire in the Zabadani area adjacent to the Lebanese border and four Shia villages located in northern Syria.

What’s unfortunate about the the results of this ceasefire is that the deal will entail the swapping of populations. The Sunni Arabs of Zabadani can leave to Idlib and the Shia Arabs of the four villages can go to the area under the Assad regime’s control.

Ahrar Al-Sham used the authorization from the people of Zabadani to do such a deal under the rubric “humanitarian reasons and to save life.”

It’s more complicated than simply this one issue.

It’s clear that the deal is between Iran and Turkey to share influence over Syrian territory. The regime authorized Iran  to negotiate. Foreign Minister Zarif was in Damascus for this reason.

The people of Zabadani will issue a statement soon rejecting this deal. Should it be implemented, it will be the first time since the beginning of the revolution that a population swap based on sectarian lines is conducted in Syria.

The Iran deal’s regional impact

Screen Shot 2015-08-11 at 3.19.56 PMOn Monday, an all-MEI panel discussed After the Iran Deal: Regional Repercussions and Dynamics. Panelists included Robert S. Ford, senior fellow and former US Ambassador to Syria, Thomas W. Lippman, scholar, Gönül Tol,  director of the Center for Turkish Studies, and Alex Vatanka, senior fellow.  Paul Salem, vice president for policy and research moderated.

Vatanka stated that reformists, moderates, the Iranian public and most of the Iranian media are in favor of the deal.  Some hardliners criticize the deal, but they’ve opened a previously taboo debate about the pros and cons of Iran’s nuclear program.

Khamenei has been vague, but this shouldn’t be taken as opposition; Khamenei rarely unequivocally supports anything. Those close to Khamenei are defending the deal.  The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) hasn’t come out against it but they and their subsidiaries worry that the deal will hurt them financially.  Rouhani needs to reassure them that they won’t lose out as foreign firms enter the market.

An illustration from Iran's national epic, the Shahnameh, on display at MEI. PC: Eddie Grove
An illustration from Iran’s national epic, the Shahnameh, on display at MEI. PC: Eddie Grove

The Rouhani Administration is a Western-educated team with cohesive thinking on the country’s direction.  Like China, they may try to open up economically and deal with political reform later.  Zarif believes that Western companies must invest in Iran to render the deal more stable.  Khamenei appears to accept economic reform but has made the resistance economy part of his legacy. It is unclear what he wants from the deal.  Is he looking to prevent the possibility of war, eliminate sanctions, or make new friends?  If many reformists lose their seats in the next Majlis elections, it means that Khamenei is unwilling to let a reform agenda go  farther.  If the Majlis accepts the deal and Congress rejects it, Iran can  portray themselves as the good guys.

There are contradictions regarding Iran’s regional relations.  The deputy foreign minister recently stated that Iran wanted to talk with the Saudis about Yemen and Bahrain, but then an ayatollah at a Friday sermon put Saudi Arabia, Israel and ISIS in the same category.  If the reformists reconcile too much with the Saudis, the hardliners will brand them as pro-Saudi agents.

Lippman said that despite US declarations of an unshakeable commitment to the Gulf, Gulf Arabs were publicly skeptical until recently.  Now the GCC countries publicly (if not privately) believe the US commitment.  Beginning at Camp David, they decided that the Iran deal was done and that they weren’t going to do “a full Bibi.” They will work with the US and each other to confront regional problems.

Perhaps this is what Lippman meant by doing “a full Bibi.”

The Saudis won’t race to a bomb; they care about self-preservation, which includes full integration into the world economy.  The Saudis can’t afford to become nuclear outlaws.

Tol stated that understanding Turkish fear of the Kurds is key to grasping Turkish politics. It also plays a role in Turkey’s stance vis-a-vis Iran.  Turkey shares the West’s objectives regarding Iran’s nuclear program but has promoted engagement rather than isolation, voting against UN sanctions in 2010.  Iran is a large market for Turkish goods and the two countries have close energy ties. However, Turkey worries that a nuclear Iran could change the regional balance of power.  All political parties in Turkey welcomed the deal and the sanctions relief.

Turkey has three main concerns about Iran:

  1. Iran is a destabilizing force in Iraq and opposes Turkey in Syria.
  2. Closer ties between Washington and Tehran could come at Turkey’s expense, focusing too much attention on the fight against ISIS and undermining Turkey’s anti-Assad efforts;
  3. Iran’s support for the PKK and PYD.
The Fountain of the Four Lions: a 17th Century fountain from Damascus in MEI's Islamic Garden.  PC: Eddie Grove
The Fountain of the Four Lions: a 17th Century fountain from Damascus in MEI’s Islamic Garden. PC: Eddie Grove

Ford asserted that the problems in Iraq and Syria don’t revolve around the US and Iran but around local grievances.  The pressures against the Iraqi state are increasing.  Low oil prices are contributing to the Kurdish drive for independence.  Progress on Sunni-Shia reconciliation is lacking.  Iran is partially responsible because of its ties to militias that are considered terrorist organizations by the US.  Iran is unlikely to give up these allies, whose political leaders are ruthless and capable. It is unclear if the US and Iran can work together in Iraq.  ISIS can recruit as long as the conflict between the Sunnis and the militias continues.  If Iran cedes control of the militias to President Abadi, that could help.

Assad is losing and the opposition is advancing on the Alawite homeland.  There are diplomatic visits between Syria, Russia, and Iran; Syria’s foreign minister recently visited Tehran and likely

A mosque in Oman. Omanis are Ibadi Muslims. As Ibadi Islam is neither Sunni nor Shia, Oman often serves as a mediator between Iran and the Sunni Arab states. PC: Eddie Grove

also Oman, which serves as an intermediary with the Saudis.  There are also reports that Iran is about to put forward a peace plan with a unity government, constitutional amendments to protect minorities, and future internationally supervised elections. Ford thinks this won’t succeed because the Turks haven’t signed on and their closeness with the armed opposition gives them a veto.

The Russians and Iranians are urging the US to stop pushing against Assad and start working with him, but Assad is about to lose his supply lines.  There were recent anti-Assad protests in Alawite-majority Latakia province. Assad doesn’t have the capacity to take on ISIS if it can’t hold the Damascus suburbs.  The Iranians have to recognize that Assad is losing but they will almost certainly use at least a small portion of the money from sanctions relief to shore-up Hezbollah and Assad.  This will cause a short-term increase in violence.

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Jeb, the anti-Trump

Jeb Bush’s foreign policy speech at the Reagan Library yesterday merits careful attention. In a campaign for the Republican nomination dominated so far by Donald Trump’s verbal antics, this speech ranks as the most serious effort yet to challenge Barack Obama’s approach to threats from the Islamic State and Iran.

I won’t quarrel much with the Governor’s analysis of the current situation. Yes, the Islamic State in particular and Islamic extremism in general are more of a threat today than they were in 2009, even if American civilian deaths from terrorist acts since 9/11 have been minimal. Iran is a bad actor likely to cause more problems in the Middle East once sanctions are lifted. The situation in Syria, which Iran has exacerbated with support to Bashar al Assad and Hizbollah, is catastrophic and needs a more effective approach.

But Bush confuses cause and effect in ways that make his policy prescriptions screwy. It is apparent that the mainly military approach both the Bush and Obama administrations have taken to fighting Islamic extremism in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen has made the situation worse, not better. Yet in Iraq Jeb suggests we only need to do more and better  on the military front in order to fix the situation. I don’t see any reason to believe that will work well. Nor is his hand-waving confidence about Iraqis “coming through for their country” convincing.

The Iraq war is the basis for much of what Bush thinks Obama has gotten wrong. In Bush’s narrative, the “surge” was a military success that Obama squandered by withdrawing American troops. Only by showing more military resolve region-wide can the US reverse that mistake.

But that is a false account of what actually happened. Obama withdrew American troops from Iraq on a schedule negotiated and agreed by the George W. Bush Administration. Republicans neglect that fact, because it disrupts their portrayal of the Obama Administration as weak, vacillating and prone to ignore the importance of military power. When challenged, they claim that George W. thought the agreement would be renegotiated. Obama tried that and failed, not because he was weak, vacillating and prone to ignore the importance of military power but because political sentiment in both the US and Iraq leaned heavily against a continuing US military presence.

If anyone is to be blamed for the rise of the Islamic State’s takeover of Sunni portions of Iraq, it is Nouri al Maliki, who was hand-picked as prime minister by the Bush Administration. The Obama Administration compounded that error when it backed Maliki for a second term even though his party had lost its plurality in parliament. Maliki thereafter proved himself an aggressive Shia sectarian who alienated both Sunni and Kurds, thereby weakening the Iraqi state and setting the stage for the ISIS takeover. It is vital always to remember that the problems in Iraq and generally in the region are at their heart political, not military.

But that narrative is too complicated for Jeb Bush. He prefers a simpler one that echoes his older brother’s worldview:

What we are facing in ISIS and its ideology is, to borrow a phrase, the focus of evil in the modern world.

I can think of a lot of other foci of evil in the modern world, and I’d have thought that “axis of evil” was a Manichean phrase no one would want to echo, given its association with the catastrophic mistake of invading Iraq and the less catastrophic but still serious mistake by George W. of failing even to try to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran before it had installed almost 20,000 centrifuges and enriched enough uranium to make a nuclear weapon.

On that subject, Jeb takes up the prevailing Republican unequivocal opposition to the nuclear deal. He offers no idea what his alternative is. He promises to undo the alleged damage Obama has done if elected, but of course withdrawal from the deal at this point would also have consequences he fails to consider: either Iran will race for nuclear weapons or the Europeans, Russians and Chinese will implement the deal and lift sanctions. The US then ends up either 1) having no alternative to war (without any allies except Israel), 2) watching its European allies make common cause with Moscow and Beijing against American efforts to unilaterally enforce sanctions. This is no formula for restoring American leadership, which is what Jeb says he wants to do.

Only on Syria does Bush offer any substantial suggestions worth examination: protected zones in parts of Syria and a no-fly zone over the whole country. Assad, not just ISIS, would be his target. Those are propositions President Obama has resisted because they take the US down the slippery slope towards greater involvement in the chaos that the multi-sided Syrian civil war their has generated. But  his refusal to get involved hasn’t improved the situation or made it easier to solve. We shouldn’t have to wait for a new president to correct course on Syria.

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Something is rotten

I had the satisfaction yesterday of sending around yesterday a paper (now available in the local language) by Srdjan Blagovcanin and Boris Divjak on How Bosnia’s Political Economy Holds It Back and What To Do About It. They have done something I have wanted to see for some time: a chapter and verse description of how politicians are ripping off the country’s citizens. They can’t of course name names, but they cite specific instances and elucidate the mechanisms used. The responsible parties know who they are. So does everyone else in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This paper should be read with the German/British initiative for “reform” in mind. That effort blocked a nascent American initiative to try once again to fix the Dayton constitution, which empowers ethnic nationalists and enables the rip-off. The Germans and British have convinced the European Union to focus initially on labor market reforms, in order to generate growth and presumably in preparation for privatization of state-owned companies. I’m not against it, but there are two obvious problems with that approach:

  1. Serious labor market reform will worsen social conditions, and privatization will eventually lead to redundancies that will worsen them more;
  2. Past privatization efforts have put state assets into the hands of crony capitalists, who manage not only to strip assets but also sell the shells back to the state.

It is only by acute awareness of the political/economic context and close international supervision that such perversities can be avoided. But it is definitely time to move ahead with serious reform efforts. Some political leaders are blatantly ripping off the citizens and enriching themselves. Citizens get little or nothing in the way of state services. I only ask that the Europeans not settle for Potemkin villages. It is time to build a state in Bosnia that serves the real needs of its citizens.

How do we get there from here? Srdjan and Boris suggest starting where the problems are: in the political parties and their leadership. They want internal democracy in the parties, which today are controlled by their leadership, without any serious input from the membership. In Italy this is called “partitocracy.” It isn’t any prettier in the Balkans. They also want to see red tape cut and serious judicial efforts mounted against corruption, including international asset freezes and travel bans for guilty parties, who should be pursued by the judicial system with international assistance. They are attentive also to the need for a broader civil society effort to create a context in which corrupt practices are not tolerated.

None of this in my way of thinking substitutes for constitutional reform, which however has failed at least twice (I am counting the close-call 2006 April package as well as the ill-begotten 2009 Butmir initiative), despite high-level international engagement. The EU is now very much in the lead in Bosnia, with the Dayton-created High Representative taking a backseat. Boris and Srjdan like it that way, as does Brussels. And Brussels is following the British/German lead. So constitional reform, essential though it may be, will have to wait a while.

If the current reform effort does anything useful, it shouldn’t have to wait long. Once the political economy in Bosnia is reconstructed and citizens can begin to expect some services, they won’t long put up with the ethnic nationalists who have stood in the way of progress for 20 years. I won’t hold my breath for that to happen, but we’ll know soon enough.

If the current reform effort fails, the country will return to demands for constitutional changes. I only hope they will be in the direction of strengthening the state government and its ability to negotiate and implement the requirements of EU membership. The route Milorad Dodik prefers–towards partition–is one that would set Bosnia back to wartime issues and block its road to the EU. That’s not the way to go.

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Reconcilation and stability

Dragan Aleksic of Serbia’s Tanjug news service asked some questions. I replied:

Q: We would like to have your comment on Serbian Prime Minister Vucic’s initiative to declare a Remembrance Day for all of the victims in the 1990s war in former Yugoslavia. This initiative has not been well received neither in Kosovo (it was criticized by Prime Minister Thaci) nor in Croatia. The argument is more or less that Serbia is guilty for the war so this initiative is not welcome.What is your view of the initiative to establish a common Day of Remembrance for all of the victims of the 1990s wars in former Yugoslavia?

A: I think it is up to the people of former Yugoslavia, especially the victims, to react to the proposal, not a foreigner like me.

Q: Does the attitude toward Serbia as the culprit justify the rejection of a legitimate initiative aimed at reconciliation?

A: A proposal of this sort works best if it is the result of reconciliation rather than having reconciliation as its objective. Would Serbs have reacted well had the proposal come from Hashim Thaci or Bakir Izetbegovic?

I am reminded of the Recom initiative, which seeks first to establish the facts of what happened in a way that engages everyone concerned. It too has had difficulty being accepted at the governmental level, but it seems to me correct to start with a broad fact-finding strategy, like the one used by the Scholarly Initiative (an effort to get agreement among academics on what happened in the 1990s in the Balkans and why). I recommend all concerned read its Confronting the Yugoslav Controversies, which goes a long way toward developing a common narrative.

Q: Does this mean that Serbia does not have the right to launch positive initiatives?

A: Serbia has every right to launch positive initiatives, but other people have the right to react the way they want. It is not only in the Balkans that prior consultation and mutual understanding is important to the success of an initiative.

Q: How do you see the relations in the region, especially when it comes to stability?

A: None of the states in the region have either the desire or the means to create the kind of instability that dominated the 1990s. All but Serbia are either already NATO members or want to become NATO members. The requirement that they first establish democratic institutions is an important barrier to any further conflict among them.

But there are still unresolved issues, especially about the state structures in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as about mutual recognition and exchange of ambassadors between Serbia and Kosovo. My email tells me Serbs think I am crazy to talk about that: they say it will never happen. I say it has to happen before Serbia can enter the European Union. Belgrade has already accepted the constitutional authority of the Pristina government on the whole territory of Kosovo, as well as the idea that Kosovo will qualify for and enter the EU separately, which implies that Kosovo will be a sovereign state. It is not such a big step to UN membership, which makes bilateral recognition almost irrelevant, and even exchange of ambassadors.

Anyone concerned about stability in the Balkans should be thinking hard about undermining radicalization among the region’s Muslims by quickly resolving these issues in Bosnia and Kosovo. They should also want Greece to lift its veto on Macedonia’s NATO membership and EU prospects.

PS: Let me add something I forgot to say to Tanjug. Reconciliation begins with acknowledgement of harm done, by those whose leadership did it. This starts a mutual process. We aren’t quite there in the Balkans, yet.

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