Lessons for Jerusalem: First, don’t count on Washington.

Lessons for Jerusalem: First, don’t count on Washington.

The Weekly Standard
September 23, 2013

Americans watch our tragedy-of-errors Syria policy from the safety of houses and apartments in suburbs and cities 5,000 miles from the conflict. Israelis are next door, and two weeks ago​—​when an American strike and possible Syrian counterstrike at Israel seemed imminent​—​they were lining up for gas masks. There are no such lines in Tel Aviv today. But what can Israelis make of the Syria crisis now, after the Obama speech and with action moving to Geneva and to the United Nations? What are the lessons they may learn?


Israel has maintained decent relations with Russia throughout the Putin years, under the Sharon, Olmert, and Netanyahu governments, and the lesson here is that this was a smart move. It turns out that Vladimir Putin and Russia remain important players in the region after all, not just by selling arms to Syria but at the U.N. as well. Issues like Iran and Syria can play out in part in Moscow and in part in Turtle Bay, and being able to communicate directly with Putin and foreign minister Sergey Lavrov​—​in a relationship separate and independent from that of the United States​—​helps protect Israel’s interests. Watching Obama and Kerry fumble and change positions as Putin and Lavrov seize opportunities and play the game like professionals must teach Israelis that keeping a line open to Russia is smart.


No one in Israel has the slightest faith that President Obama means to bomb the Iranian nuclear sites. His rhetoric on preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons has been very tough, including during his visit to Israel in 2013. But the handling of Syria shows his aversion to using force and potentially involving the United States in another Middle East war. Democratic party loyalists who have hitherto advised Israel that Obama might act are, it is said, no longer offering such assurances.

The Israeli conclusion will be that if Iran is to be stopped they must do it themselves. The odds of an Israeli attack over the coming year have risen, and the Israeli question about the United States is whether the administration will reconcile itself to Israeli action or even perhaps come to see it as a useful way to stop Iran without U.S. action.

But Israelis will also be more concerned now about a Russian-led diplomatic offensive, some kind of clever offer that does little to disarm Iran but whose wide international acclaim makes an Israeli strike nearly impossible. The lessons here are to work hard (sometimes along with the French) to toughen the American position in negotiations with Iran, and keep honing their own strike plans. Israelis hope for a diplomatic solution as much as the Obama administration does, but will not kid themselves about the chances of a Western collapse that embraces a bad deal.

United States

The most sobering lesson for Israelis has been the unreliability of their own chief ally and closest friend. They watched the administration pressure Prime Minister David Cameron into a quick and risky parliamentary vote and then change course​—​so that his defeat was entirely unnecessary. They watched us turn President François Hollande from momentary hero into a butt of jokes. They were stunned by the Obama reversals that led him to talk of strikes at Syria, then demand a congressional vote, then postpone it when he saw he would likely lose. And they saw Putin maneuver around these changes to a proposal that could help keep his ally Assad in power and fend off American strikes indefinitely.

As with the pro-American Arab states (such as Jordan, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia), these developments leave Israelis deeply nervous, but they realize American policy is unlikely to change for the next three years. What to do, then? First, keep humoring the Obama administration, seeking to maximize influence in its counsels. That means verbally supporting Obama on Syria even as his policy gyrates, and continuing negotiations with the Palestinians despite near-universal skepticism about the talks among Israelis. With policy changing by the day, who knows? Maybe those White House guys will occasionally listen to advice; worth trying.

But Israelis should have learned that advising and jollying up the administration does not mean intervening in America’s domestic political disputes. According to press reports, the president prevailed on Netanyahu to seek support in Congress for the Syria resolution​—​the resolution the president has now said must be postponed and may never come to a vote. So they wasted some credibility and angered some Republicans; just how grateful is Obama? The lesson there is to stay out of our partisan arguments unless they very directly affect Israel’s security.

Second, pursue your own relationships with Russia, Europe, and the Arab states. Israel always does that, but with American leadership now discounted, those direct relationships are more important. Perhaps Israel and France can toughen the Western negotiating position on Iran, or Israel and Egypt can work together to weaken Hamas in Gaza, or Israel and the Gulf Arab states can talk together about how to handle conflicts with Iran. Right now it is likely that Israeli-Egyptian, Israeli-Jordanian, and perhaps Israeli-Gulf state conversations are especially candid in reviewing shared challenges​—​not the least of which is dependence on a power that appears to be choosing to diminish its influence in the region.


There is another, harsher lesson from the developments in Syria. One-hundred-thousand Arabs, mostly Sunni, have been killed there and millions driven from their homes, in a world where the Arab League has 22 member states, the Islamic Conference has 57, and there are in the world perhaps two billion Muslims. No one saved those Sunni, Arab, Muslim Syrians, and no one is doing much now to prevent additional killing; the reactions of their co-religionists and fellow Arabs have ranged from ineffective to uninterested. Christian communities have for years been threatened and attacked in Iraq, Lebanon, and most recently Syria and Egypt with little reaction from the world’s two billion Christians. Who would intervene to protect the Jews should they ever be in a similar situation?

Israelis know this; their view of their neighborhood was (controversially, to be sure) summed up by Ehud Barak in 2006 when he called Israel “a villa in the jungle.” Israelis don’t believe they survive because they are a democracy or a “startup nation” but because they are strong​—​and willing to use their strength, as they proved yet again in multiple attacks in Syria in the last two years. Their national experience as Israelis parallels their history as Jews: The strong survive, and the weak may well perish. And when the weak are attacked, there are some excellent speeches made but precious little help is forthcoming.

So the fate of Syria’s dead and its millions of refugees is but confirmation that Israel must in the end be able and willing to defend itself, by itself. On September 11, Prime Minister Netanyahu quoted the sage Hillel at an Israeli Navy graduation ceremony: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” He then added that this saying “is more relevant than ever these days in guiding me, in my key actions as prime minister” and said the meaning “is that Israel will always be able to protect itself, and will protect itself, with its own forces, against all threats.”

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

The least competent manager of our diplomatic portfolio in a long time.

Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College and Editor-at-Large of The American Interest magazine

The Dreamer Goes Down For The Count

I had never thought there were many similarities between the pleasure-loving Charles II of England and the more upright Barack Obama until this week. Listening to his speeches on the Middle East at the State Department, US-Israel relations at the AIPAC annual meeting and most recently his address to the British Parliament the comparison becomes irresistible.

“Here lies our sovereign king,” wrote the Earl of Rochester about King Charles: Whose word no man relies on. Who never said a foolish thing Or ever did a wise one.”

This seems to capture President Obama’s Middle East problems in a nutshell. The President’s descriptions of the situation are comprehensive and urbane. He correctly identifies the forces at work. He develops interesting policy ideas and approaches that address important political and moral elements of the complex problems we face. He crafts approaches that might, with good will and deft management, bridge the gaps between the sides. He reads thoughtful speeches full of sensible reflections.

But the last few weeks have cast him as the least competent manager of America’s Middle East diplomatic portfolio in a very long time. He has infuriated and frustrated long term friends, but made no headway in reconciling enemies. He has strained our ties with the established regimes without winning new friends on the Arab Street . He has committed our forces in the strategically irrelevant backwater of Libya not, as he originally told us, for “days, not weeks” but for months not days.

Where he has failed so dramatically is in the arena he himself has so frequently identified as vital: the search for peace between Palestinians and Israelis. His record of grotesque, humiliating and total diplomatic failure in his dealings with Prime Minister Netanyahu has few parallels in American history. Three times he has gone up against Netanyahu; three times he has ingloriously failed. This last defeat — Netanyahu’s deadly, devastating speech to Congress in which he eviscerated President Obama’s foreign policy to prolonged and repeated standing ovations by members of both parties — may have been the single most stunning and effective public rebuke to an American President a foreign leader has ever delivered.

Netanyahu beat Obama like a red-headed stepchild; he played him like a fiddle; he pounded him like a big brass drum. The Prime Minister of Israel danced rings around his arrogant, professorial opponent. It was like watching the Harlem Globetrotters go up against the junior squad from Miss Porter’s School; like watching Harvard play Texas A&M, like watching Bambi meet Godzilla — or Bill Clinton run against Bob Dole.

The Prime Minister mopped the floor with our guy. Obama made his ’67 speech; Bibi ripped him to shreds. Obama goes to AIPAC, nervous, off-balance, backing and filling. Then Bibi drops the C-Bomb, demonstrating to the whole world that the Prime Minister of Israel has substantially more support in both the House and the Senate than the President of the United States .

President Obama’s new Middle East policy, intended to liquidate the wreckage resulting from his old policy and get the President somehow on to firmer ground, lies in ruins even before it could be launched. He had dropped the George Mitchell approach, refused to lay out his own set of parameters for settling the conflict, and accepted some important Israeli red lines — but for some reason he chose not to follow through with the logic of these decisions and offer Netanyahu a reset button.

As so often in the past, but catastrophically this time, he found the “sour spot”: the position that angers everyone and pleases none. He moved close enough to the Israelis to infuriate the Palestinians while keeping the Israelis at too great a distance to earn their trust. One can argue (correctly in my view) that US policy must at some level distance itself from the agendas of both parties to help bring peace.

But that has to be done carefully, and to make it work one first needs to win their trust. Obama lost the trust of the Israelis early in the administration and never earned it back; he lost the Palestinians when he was unable to deliver Israeli concessions he led them to expect.

The President is now wandering across Europe seeking to mend fences with allies ( Britain, France, Poland ) he had earlier neglected and/or offended; at home, his authority and credibility have been holed below the waterline.

Everyone who followed the events of the last week knows that the President has lost control of the American-Israeli relationship and that he has no near-term prospects of rescuing the peace process. The Israelis, the Palestinians and the US Congress have all rejected his leadership.

Peace processes are generally good things even if they seldom bring peace; one hopes the President can find a way to re-launch American diplomacy on this issue but for now he seems to have reached a dead end — and to have allowd himself to be fatally tagged as too pro-Israel to win the affection of the Europeans and Arabs, and too pro-Palestinian to be trusted either by Israel or by many of the Americans who support it.

Internationally, this matters a great deal; domestically it matters even more. The President has significantly less capacity to act than he did a week ago. The Bin Laden dividend, already cruelly diminished by what The Daily Caller said was the administration’s “victory lap in a clown car” is now history. The GOP, in trouble recently as voters recoil from what many see as Republican extremism on issues like Medicare and public unions, will be able to use the national security card in new and potent ways.

As the stunning and overwhelming response to Prime Minister Netanyahu in Congress showed, Israel matters in American politics like almost no other country on earth. Well beyond the American Jewish and the Protestant fundamentalist communities, the people and the story of Israel stir some of the deepest and most mysterious reaches of the American soul. The idea of Jewish and Israeli exceptionalism is profoundly tied to the idea of American exceptionalism. The belief that God favors and protects Israel is connected to the idea that God favors and protects America .

It means more. The existence of Israel means that the God of the Bible is still watching out for the well-being of the human race. For many American Christians who are nothing like fundamentalists, the restoration of the Jews to the Holy Land and their creation of a successful, democratic state after two thousand years of oppression and exile is a clear sign that the religion of the Bible can be trusted.

Being pro-Israel matters in American mass politics because the public mind believes at a deep level that to be pro-Israel is to be pro-America and pro-faith. Substantial numbers of voters believe that politicians who don’t ‘get’ Israel also don’t ‘get’ America and don’t ‘get’ God. Obama’s political isolation on this issue, and the haste with which liberal Democrats like Nancy Pelosi left the embattled President to take the heat alone, testify to the pervasive sense in American politics that Israel is an American value. Said the Minority Leader to the Prime Minister: “I think it’s clear that both sides of the Capitol believe you advance the cause of peace.”

President Obama probably understands this intellectually; he understands many things intellectually. But what he can’t seem to do is to incorporate that knowledge into a politically sustainable line of policy. The deep American sense of connection to and, yes, love of Israel limits the flexibility of any administration. Again, the President seems to know that with his head. But he clearly had no idea what he was up against when Bibi Netanyahu came to town.

As a result, he’s taking another ride in the clown car, and this time it isn’t a victory lap. I hope I’m wrong, but I think the next intifada got a lot closer this week. (Hashem forbid!)

Joseph’s Tomb – Let’s put an end to this disgrace

Relinquishing Joseph’s Tomb was supposed to be temporary

By Michael Freund
The Jerusalem Post, April 28, 2011

Earlier this week, an incident occurred that should have provoked outrage across the civilized world. In an act of wanton slaughter, Palestinian policemen opened fire at a convoy of Jewish worshipers near Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus on Sunday. The men had just recited morning prayers at the Jewish holy site in honor of Pessah, and were heading home to prepare for the end of the festival. But they never made it.

At a checkpoint near the tomb, our ostensible peace partners killed Ben-Yosef Livnat, 25, and wounded four other Israelis, one of them critically. Livnat, a nephew of Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat, left a wife and four young children. Even as the Israeli vehicles sought to escape, the Palestinian policemen reportedly continued to fire on them.

Although the IDF initially refrained from labeling the episode an “attack,” it’s clear that that is precisely what it was. And by Sunday evening, both Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were calling the shooting an act of “murder.”

Palestinian officials were quick to point out that the Israeli worshipers had failed to coordinate their visit in advance – as though that somehow justified shooting at them. But as Barak rightly noted: “No problem of coordination can justify an incident like this and the shooting of innocent people.”

Even though the identity of the perpetrators is known, none have been detained as of this writing. And given the Palestinian Authority’s track record in punishing those who attack Israelis, there is no reason to suspect that the policemen in question will be made to pay for their crime.

Needless to say, barely a peep was heard from the international community over this brazen assault on the fundamental right of Jews to worship freely. Just imagine what the reaction would have been had Palestinian worshipers leaving a mosque been attacked by Israeli policemen.. We all know how that would have gone down. But the hypocrisy on display should hardly come as a surprise. After all, the Palestinians have been targeting Joseph’s Tomb for years with impunity.

Who can forget October 7, 2000, when Palestinian policemen and Fatah terrorists launched a coordinated assault on the Israeli soldiers guarding the site? After then-prime minister Barak ordered the army to withdraw, a Palestinian mob went on a rampage. Brandishing sledge-hammers and other tools of tolerance, they demolished the tomb – one of the most sacred sites of the Jewish people. In subsequent years, after the structure was repaired, Palestinian vandals repeatedly ransacked and desecrated it.

The Palestinian conduct vis-à-vis the tomb is a clear violation of signed commitments. The Oslo II Accords, signed on September 28, 1995, spelled out specific arrangements concerning Joseph’s Tomb in Article V(2b) of Annex I, which were designed “to ensure free, unimpeded and secure access” to the site.

So much for relying on the Palestinians to keep their word.

The murder of Ben-Yosef Livnat cannot be allowed to pass without a forceful Israeli response. It is simply intolerable that an Israeli can be gunned down in cold blood by a Palestinian policeman.To begin with, Israel should arrest the gunmen who carried out this attack and bring them to trial before an Israeli court. There cannot and must not be immunity for those who murder Israeli citizens.

Moreover, it is time to correct the error made nearly 11 years ago, when Israel forsook this holy place. After the IDF withdrew, the Israeli public was assured that the step was not permanent, but merely a tactical move dictated by the situation on the ground. Just hours after the retreat, the website of Yediot Aharonot reported: “Israel pulls out of Joseph’s Tomb – ‘Temporarily.'” But here we are, more than a decade later, and the tomb still remains “temporarily” abandoned by the Jewish state, in what has become a mark of shame for our nation.

Israel should annex the site, forever restoring it to our exclusive control. And measures should be taken to ensure that Jews can visit safely whenever they wish. As of now, Israelis are allowed to visit once or twice a month, under cover of darkness, like thieves in the night. No nation with even a modicum of dignity would allow such a situation to persist at the tomb of one of its founding fathers.

So let’s put an end to this disgrace. Doing so will send a strong message to our foes, underlining once and for all that the Jewish people will neither cower nor flee. It is time to raise the Israeli flag over Joseph’s Tomb and reclaim this site, and with it, our self-respect as well.