Is There an Obama Effect?

Gershom Gorenberg

Is this all coincidence? Or is part of what’s been happening in the Middle East for the past two weeks a result of the U.S. president declaring that the conflict of civilizations is over? My new article in The American Prospect examines the evidence.

Barack Obama spoke in Cairo two weeks ago. The Middle East has been roiling since. The street scenes in Iran have pushed the surprise pro-Western victory in Lebanon’s elections out of the headlines, along with Benjamin Netanyahu’s pained, precondition-crippled acceptance of a two-state solution and the enraged Palestinian response. Two top Israeli intelligence figures scaling down the Iranian nuclear threat from looming Holocaust to mid-range risk — a major story for a calm week — has gone almost unnoticed.

So did Obama set this off, or was he like the king in The Little Prince who ordered the sun to rise at the precise moment when it would have done so anyway? With that come two more questions: Will the crisis in Iran shake up the region even more? And what should Obama do in response?

Read moreIs There an Obama Effect?

Principle vs. Love and Devotion in Israel’s Prisoner Exchange

Haim Watzman

In principle, I oppose uneven prisoner exchanges, but that’s not why I wasn’t able to watch the television coverage of Wednesday’s exchange of Lebanese terrorists for dead Israeli soldiers. My wife had the television on but I couldn’t handle it. I didn’t have a way of dealing with my conflicting emotions and fears; my anger and frustration; my agony.

Neither did I have stomach for writing about it that day here, or for participating in the debate over the deal (see, for example, themiddle, Esther, and grandmufti over at Jewlicious, and so many others in the Israeli and Zionist papers and blogs).

When Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were dragged off by Hezbollah guerrillas two summers ago—at that time we had to presume they were still alive when taken prisoner—these two reservists could have been me or any of my friends. During my years of reserve duty, I conducted innumerable border patrols of this sort. I know how easy it is to fall into false security, to assume, on the last day before you head home, that all is quiet and nothing can happen. I identified completely with the anger and frustration of their fellow-reservists, who wanted to fight to get their friends back.

Read morePrinciple vs. Love and Devotion in Israel’s Prisoner Exchange

Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir” (2) — War Ethics in a War Zone (3)

Waltz With Bashir
Haim Watzman

Waltz With Bashir directly addresses the philosophical question we’ve been discussing here. Ari Folman, the film’s director, served as an Israeli soldier on the perimeter of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut at the time of the massacre committed there by Lebanese Phalangist militiamen in mid-September 1982. Folman clearly feels guilt, and feels that he abetted an act that was comparable to the Nazis’ massacres of Jews in Europe—his parents are Holocaust survivors. To what extent is he, an individual soldier, morally culpable. Should he have acted otherwise than he did?

There can be little doubt that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, Chief of Staff Rafael (Raful) Eitan, and the top army command knew very well what would happen if the Phalangists were given a free hand in the refugee camps. The Phalangist forces had a long history of murder, mutilation, and destruction, committed not just against Palestinians and Muslims but also against rival Christian forces in Lebanon.

Read moreAri Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir” (2) — War Ethics in a War Zone (3)

Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir” (1) – A National Nightmare on Film

Haim Watzman

Just after seeing Waltz With Bashir at the Semadar Cinema in the German Colony, Ilana and I ran into our 17-year old son, Niot, with two friends. They had been at the pool, at their twice-weekly get-in-shape-for-the-army swim class. “You’ve got to see this film,” I told them. “Every kid who is dying to be a soldier should see it. So should every Israeli who loves his country.”

In Waltz With Bashir, director Ari Folman conducts a personal journey to recover his lost time and lost memories of the first Lebanon War. He knows that in September 1982 he was an Israeli soldier in Beirut. He was there when Lebanese Christian Phalangist militiamen, outfitted in IDF uniforms, massacred Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila, two refugee camps that had become neighborhoods in the Lebanese capital. But, except for an odd vision of himself and two friends swimming naked in the sea at the time of the massacre, he can remember no details—what he was doing at the time, how he felt, who was really there with him.

Read moreAri Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir” (1) – A National Nightmare on Film

Beirut Nostalgia

Haim Watzman

Beirut is an evocative city even when you’ve only seen it in its worse moments. In yesterday’s New York Times, Roger Cohen waxes nostalgic about Beirut of a quarter-century ago, and in today’s Ha’aretz, Yehuda Ben-Meir praises Israel’s restraint in not invading the city back in the first Lebanon War. I was probably in Beirut at the same time Cohen was, so I’d like to join the party.

I was two days into Hell Week, the first chapter of my infantry NCO course, when helicopters appeared out of nowhere. We had barely slept for two nights, had eaten little, and were caked with the mud stirred up by a persistent late-winter downpour. Within a few minutes we threw our gear together and lugged it into the choppers that flew us to Tyre.

Israel had been in Lebanon for six and half months then and the quick victory and new Middle East that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon had promised had not materialized. The IDF had begun a long and intractable occupation of all of southern Lebanon–including the southern neighborhoods of Beirut. Ben-Meir, who as a parliamentarian for the National Religious Party, was a member of the governing coalition at the time, is not accurate in his description of events. Israeli forces entered the Lebanese capital at the beginning of the war. The restraint he speaks of was not pressing further into the northern and western sectors of the city, where Cohen was, where Arafat and the PLO leadership had been until they were, as Ben-Meir describes, forced to leave.

Read moreBeirut Nostalgia

The Bush Doctrine: No Peace. (And What’s the McCain Doctrine?)

As Laura Rozen points out , George W. Bush wasn’t just attacking Barack Obama in his Knesset speech dismissing negotiations with “terrorists and radicals” as appeasement. He was also attacking his host, Ehud Olmert, whose government was already engaged in indirect peace contacts with Syria via Turkey – the negotiations made public yesterday.

The contacts through Turkey reportedly began in February 2007. If so, the Olmert government may have been persuaded to act (or embarrassed into acting) by the reports published the previous month about Foreign Minister director-general Alon Liel’s back-channel negotations with Syria. The “non-paper ” – or unsigned framework agreement reached by Liel and unofficial Syrian negotiator Ibrahim (Abe) Suleiman is important reading, because it gives a sense of how an Israel-Syria deal is likely to look. One creative feature: in order to keep the Golan demilitarized and to prevent competition over Jordan River water, the Golan would be turned into a giant park after Israeli withdrawal – with free access for Israelis.

Liel has stressed – in a press briefing in January 2007, and since – that a critical part of any deal is a switch in Syrian orientation from pro-Iran to pro-West. That would necessarily mean dropping support for Hamas and Hezbollah. Syria’s secular regime wants the reorientation in order to maintain its independence, Alon reports. For Israel, such a deal would mean much more than removing the direct military threat from Syria. With Hamas and Hezbollah weakened, Iran’s power in our area would be sigificantly reduced.

But the deal requires a third party: Washington.

Read moreThe Bush Doctrine: No Peace. (And What’s the McCain Doctrine?)

Update: Bush and Lebanon; Obama, Israel and Islam

  • As I mentioned earlier , the Bush administration’s obstruction of peace talks between Israel and Syria has helped Hezbollah and Iran push for control of Lebanon. My new piece on the subject is now up at the American Prospect :

    The time, according to Hilal Khashan, was ten minutes past the ceasefire. That was another way of saying ten minutes after another Hezbollah victory, Khashan explained. I phoned Khashan — head of the political science department at Beirut’s American University — several days into Lebanon’s latest armed upheaval. He spoke in a strangely dispassionate tone I’ve heard before in Jerusalem and Ramallah, the voice of a man taking refuge from chaos in careful analysis.

    So far, Khashan said on Sunday night, the crisis that erupted last week has yielded “a major achievement” for Hezbollah. Iran, Hezbollah’s patron, has extended its influence in Lebanon. The obvious loser is the pro-Western government of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. From Beirut, U.S. support appears to be a phantom; Bush unwilling or incapable of supporting its Lebanese allies.

    From the slightly greater distance of Jerusalem, I’d add,

    Read moreUpdate: Bush and Lebanon; Obama, Israel and Islam

Obama. What’s Complicated Here?

Gershom Gorenberg

Dan Kurtzer, the former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and an Orthodox Jew, is in Jerusalem for the 60th anniversary celebrations. This morning my wife heard him being interviewed on Israeli Radio, in Hebrew, about the U.S. election. Kurtzer explained that he’s backing Barack Obama.

This was not exactly a revelation. Kurtzer has explained his reasons for backing Obama at length . Here’s some key snippets:

…we have had eight years of disaster with respect to our foreign policy, and I have to share with you as an analyst, we have had eight years that have [compromised] the security of the state of Israel.
An administration that has ignored the search for peace in the Middle East to a point where you have chaos in the Palestinian Authority, and you have a sham process called the Annapolis process, in which our Secretary of State, whom I admire personally, travels to region and announces when she gets there that she is bringing no new ideas.
You have an administration that hasn’t engaged in the peace process, and so inherited a bad situation in 2001 and is leaving it in a worse situation in 2008. And you have an administration that has gotten us engaged in a war in Iraq that has not only cost American lives… but it’s now being called the $3 trillion war…And I would share with you that the cost to the security of Israel is incalculable.

Read moreObama. What’s Complicated Here?