What will “the Donald” really do on Foreign Policy?

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Donald Trump speaking at an immigration policy speech in Phoenix, Arizona in August. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

If one wants to understand how President-elect Trump would conduct his foreign policy, they should read this article.

“That is why watching President-elect Trump’s choices for his foreign policy team is so important. If he chooses primarily alumni of the Bush administration, we can be fairly certain that there will be few, if any, beneficial changes in Washington’s security strategy. Indeed, it could conceivably be even more interventionist than that pursued by the Clinton, Bush or Obama administrations. The main difference might be that it would be conducted unilaterally rather than multilaterally, especially if someone like John Bolton gets a key position.

If on the other hand, Trump begins to pick advisers who have little or no previous government service, it would be an encouraging step. Watch for appointments from realist enclaves like Defense Priorities, the Independent Institute and others. Also watch for the appointment of individual unorthodox or “rogue” scholars from such places as Notre Dame University, George Mason University, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, and (ironically) the Bush School at Texas A&M University. Such moves would indicate that Trump was choosing new blood and really intending to make a meaningful change in the direction of U.S. foreign policy.”

That might explain why Trump made his recent comment about “the ultimate deal” for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but, again, it is still too early. No one in their right-mind should have voted for this novice candidate but, unfortunately, he was. That is how the flawed American system works. While the former category was yours truly’s biggest fear during the campaign, let us hope he picks advisors from the latter.

Regardless of which advisors he picks, the United States is a country hurting at home and it is spending too much abroad. If Trump appointees come from the alumni of the Bush administration, it will only reinforce the disconnect between the political elite and the population (and the GOP will most probably lose its “supermajority”). If he picks advisors with no government experience (Defense Priorities, the Independent Institute, etc), a Trump presidency will expedite Obama’s policy of removing the United States from the international scene. Either way, the United States is in bad shape and it needs to fix its problems at home. If Trump does not address the economy, he will begin to lose that majority just like Obama did in his eight years in office and those same “angry voters” will continue to vote for whomever will listen to them and it will not go in Trump’s favour.

Whichever way Trump decides to go, it is seriously time to reconsider an alliance with the United States. While the previous blogpost showed that there is another country besides the United States that is willing to broker a two-state solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians, it can also be interpreted for the other countries around the world. There are other emerging countries like Russia and China that should seriously be considered as partners, not enemies on the international stage. It is time to let a new world order, one that addresses the challenges of 21st century, emerge with new partnerships because the old (post-World War II) structure we’re in is leading us in a direction that is confrontational and dangerous. If we don’t heed a new way, we will head in a path that will be, as “the Donald” loved to say on the campaign trail, a total disaster.

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The Case for the “Israeli Left” to Pivot Towards Russia

With the 2016 United States Presidential election now behind us, let’s look forward.  What candidate Trump can teach us is that America is continuing its policy of removing itself from its international obligations and playing a significant role in the Middle East.  This was a foreign policy that began under President Obama and will most likely continue under the next president.  Outgoing President Obama’s views both at home and abroad were a breath of fresh air from America’s 43rd President, George W. Bush.  However, many pundits in the media dubbed Obama’s policies as “false hope” and awfully “naïve.”  That might have been the perception but it may be misguided to criticize him for beginning the United States on this path.

What President Obama was trying to do was focus his presidency on the domestic problems that was plaguing his country and be less committal abroad.  Throughout his presidency, he correctly assessed that America has urgent items to address at home—namely race relations, gun violence, income inequality, a shrinking middle-class, and countless other domestic issues—and too much is financially invested abroad.  While he made some progress, his attempts fell way short on the domestic file, which harmed his ability to be truly effective on the international stage. While Obama’s successor campaigned on the same sentiment, it is highly unlikely he will be able to follow through on those protectionist campaign promises.

Despite what Prime Minister Netanyahu and his allies on the right of the Israeli political spectrum say, this should not take away from what President Obama did to maintain strong ties between Israel and the United States.  Amongst other noble achievements for Israel, his greatest achievement was the “Iran deal,” which addresses the reduction of Iran’s nuclear capability for at least a decade or longer.  However, his most important and significant political move came in 2013 when he spoke to Israeli students.  While he would’ve certainly liked to see a two-state solution occur during his presidency, the speech was the “real Obama.”  He clearly stated that Israel shouldn’t rely on foreign powers to create the two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians.  Only the Israeli and Palestinian populations alone could push its respective politicians to solve the two-state conundrum.  Along with his other foreign policy decisions in the region, he was clearly trying to reduce America’s leadership role in the Middle East.  At times, it might’ve had its errors and hiccups but the message was clear.  He wanted America to focus on its domestic woes.

Now, with the recent election of America’s 45th President, it is clear that America has no interest to get itself involved in this region with recent disasters in the Middle East and North Africa—namely Iraq, Libya, Egypt, and most recently the Syrian civil war.  Equally, it is a country that has over expanded itself on the international stage in other parts of the world and has consecutively voted for Presidents that have campaigned on reducing its power abroad.  What President Trump decides to do remains to be seen but as a candidate, he is determined to focus on America’s domestic economic concerns rather than be tangled abroad.  That is why the Israeli Left should begin to shift itself to others who do have an unequivocal interest in this region, the national security of this country, and the Palestinians.  Yes, that country is Russia.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin with Palestinian Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Moscow before the opening the Cathedral Mosque in Moscow after reconstruction in 2015. Recently, President Putin has offered Moscow as a location to resume peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis. Photo: http://en.kremlin.ru
Up until recently, the Israeli Left has been associating Netanyahu’s approach towards Russia as part of his plan to buy time and that’s an argument that comes with justification.  In the seven and half years as prime minister, he has done just that.  He has teetered between the two camps within the Israeli Right: the Neo-Zionists, a religiously inflected extremist view for the Land of Israel and justifying the settlement project as messianic, and the “procrastinating” camp, which believes that Israel doesn’t have a peace partner and that Arab leaders are hell-bent on destroying it and will act in that way based on their capability.

The recent rapprochement with PM Netanyahu and his rightwing coalition with Russia might suit Netanyahu and the Israeli Right’s rhetoric of managing the crisis and buying time for a two-state solution; however, it is a partnership that the Israeli Left should also strongly consider.  The Israeli Left has correctly argued that a two-state solution along the 1967 borders is the only tenable solution for Israel to remain a Jewish and democratic state.  As the status quo remains, this reality becomes grimmer by the day.  Moreover, the Israeli Left accurately points out that managing the crisis will only lead to undesirable consequences—namely the strong possibility of a civil war.  On these two points alone, a partnership with the Russian Federation can be of great benefit.

It’s no secret that the Israeli Left understands Israel’s national security better than the Israeli Right.  In this day and age, mutual interests drive international politics.  Countries base their interests on their own national security.  Its partnerships with other countries tend to derive from that on the international stage.

Israel bases its national security on two-points.  First, it wants to preserve Israel as the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people.  This was one of the main arguments for disengaging in 2005 from the Gaza Strip.  With the current occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, this point is becoming a threat to the Jewish and democratic principles of the state.  The second point is about the day-to-day maintenance of the personal safety and well being of Israelis.  Here too we are seeing a severe deterioration as we see stabbings, car-rammings, and shootings more frequently to Israelis both within and outside the Green Line.  These alarms seem to be ignored by the current Israeli Prime Minister.  He is willing to address none of these points and rather play politics with it and sway between the political camps on the Israeli Right.  However, Israel’s Left seems to understand its national security better and, while the Americans are leaving this region, Russia has not.  Yes, both Israel’s and Russia’s national security converge.

Russia has a vested interest that this region remains stable for its own domestic purposes.  Primarily, Russia has a large Muslim population that it also fears might get radicalized.  Since the break up of the Soviet Union, Russia deems Islamic radicalization as one of its most serious challenges to ensure its integrity and stability.  In fact, today, Russians view stability as a priority over democracy—largely because of the hardships they had suffered under the Yeltsin years.  A destabilized region will pose grave problems within its borders and, thus, it wants this region to remain stable.  With the Middle East geographically attached to the Caucuses region, this is a grave concern for Russia as the Caucuses has been a recent hotbed for the so-called Islamic State.  Likewise, a peace accord between the Palestinians and the Israelis is equally in Russia’s interest due to the alternative scenario having undesirable destabilizing consequences to the region.  Actually, it is official Russian policy that there be a two-state solution.  Most certainly, it understands the Middle East better than most countries because it has historically been in the region for centuries.

If the latter issue still isn’t convincing, under its current President, Russia has shown signs of being a willing friend of Israel and a partner to bring a two-state solution.  When the late Ariel Sharon was Prime Minister, Russian President Vladimir Putin urged Mr. Sharon to hand over territory in the West Bank to the Palestinians.  In 2005, Mr. Putin visited Israel for the first time.  This was the first time that a Russian (or Soviet) head of state visited the Jewish state.  Seven years later, he returned to inaugurate a monument of the Soviet Army victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.  In his speech, President Putin suggested that the Holocaust was “the darkest, most shameful chapter in human history” and praised the Soviet Army for smashing “the head of the Nazi monster and [allow] all nations to survive.”  Most recently, President Putin has offered Moscow as a location for negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  If it weren’t for Israeli researchers Gideon Remez and Isabella Ginor’s sabotage attempt, suspicion wouldn’t have been instilled with the Israeli population.  To those like Remez, Ginor, and others, that have suggested that Russia shouldn’t be trusted, are simply impeding a two-state reality to exist and one should question their judgment if they are interested in a Jewish state living side-by-side a Palestinian one.

With Russia’s interest of stability in the region and a supporter of a two-state reality, this should be a wakeup call for the Israeli Left that there is a country that wants this reality to come to fruition.  With the mutual interest of the two countries, it is time to work with the Russians, not be stubborn and confrontational.  The way Israel’s other allies and partners conduct themselves with Russia is not a reason to prevent relations. It is a country who has the same interests as Israel.  Israel’s main interest is a democratic Jewish state living side-by-side with a Palestinian one and so is Russia’s.  Given what is going on in the region with the “Arab Spring,” it is safe to say that Russia will remain a major player and have much influence in this region to ensure that their interests of stability remain preserved.  While America soul-searches on both the domestic and foreign level, the Israeli Left should consider Russia as a partner for brokering a two-state solution.  Certainly, the onus is on the Israelis and Palestinians to ferment a final agreement but, as the evidence has shown, the Russians can certainly help as a partner and be an honest broker.

Is Lebanon ahead of the ‘identity game’?

It seems that Lebanon has (again) ended a political gridlock. This time it was a gridlock to end its two and a half year search for a consensus President. On Oct. 20, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of former assassinated Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and leader of the Tayyar al-Mustaqbal (Future Movement) bloc, officially supported the leader of the Tayyar al-Watani al-Hurr (Free Patriotic Movement) bloc, Michel Aoun, for President. According to its constitution, the Lebanese parliament votes on it, which is set to take place at the end of this month. Due to the government’s consistent stalemates, many might consider that the country is a failed state or any other adjective that would describe the institutions not working for its citizens. While it is true that the state’s institutions have failed to provide for the population, to suggest it’s a failed state, given what is going on in the region, is a claim that might be misguided.

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Michel Aoun speaking during a news conference on Oct. 20. If Aoun is elected as the next President of Lebanon by the Lebanese Parliament on Oct. 31, it will end a 29 month vacuum. Photo: REUTERS

The Levantine state came to fruition following World War I when the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire outside the Arabian Peninsula were divided into areas of future British and French control or influence under the Sykes-Picot Agreement (a secret agreement signed in 1916 between the governments of the United Kingdom, France, and Russia, defining their proposed spheres of influence and control in the Middle East should the Triple Entente succeed in defeating the Ottoman Empire during World War I). France was awarded southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, the Syrian coast, and Lebanon. More specifically, they were awarded the area of the Mutasarrifate, plus some surrounding areas, which were predominantly Shi‘i and Sunni. This small land that now had a mosaic of confessions gave birth to le Grand Liban (Greater Lebanon) under the French Mandate of Syria and Lebanon.

The French Mandate, as it later became to be known, began in September of 1920. France established Greater Lebanon removing several regions belonging to the Principality of Lebanon and gave them to Syria. On September 1, 1926, France formed the Lebanese Republic and subsequently a constitution was adopted on May 25, 1926 – founding the democratic republic with a parliamentary system of government.  In 1932, the French conducted a census – Lebanon’s last – that revealed that the Christians were the majority. What the French understood that the British didn’t was that the Middle East was an assortment of confessions. The French created Lebanon on the antithesis of Arab nationalism and built it on a confederacy of minorities. The Lebanese population was growing tired of the French Mandate and, under political pressure from both inside and outside of Lebanon, Charles de Gaulle recognized the independence of Lebanon. After 23 years under French occupation, on November 22, 1943, Lebanon was officially independent from the French Mandate.

Using some concepts that were already introduced during the Mandate years, Lebanese President Bishara al-Khuri (a Maronite Christian) and Prime Minister Riad al-Solh (a Sunni Muslim) orally agreed to a power sharing agreement known as al-mithaq al-watani (the National Pact). This set the stage for how an independent Lebanon would be governed.  Amongst other understandings, it was agreed that the President of the Republic always be Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister shall always be Sunni, and the Speaker of the Legislative Parliament be Shi‘i.  It also ensured that the Parliament be assembled along a 6:5 ratio in favour of Christians to Muslims.  The power-sharing agreement was based on Lebanon’s 1932 census – widely considered to be flawed and manipulated in the Christians’ favour and one of the main grievances of the other Lebanese sects (namely the Shi‘i, the Sunni, and the Druze). While the agreement has been readjusted over the years, this is probably Lebanon’s supreme Achilles heel because the demography has significantly altered since 1932 and the out-dated census does not reflect today’s demographic reality.

Since its independence from the French Mandate, alternating periods of political stability and turmoil have marked Lebanon’s history.  The years of uncertainty reached its climax in 1958 as well as between 1975 and 1991, the years of Lebanon’s two civil wars in its modern history.  The political instabilities were mainly based on the question of its identity.  In 1958, in the last months of President Camille Shamun’s term, a revolt broke out, instigated by Lebanese Muslims who wanted to make Lebanon a member of the United Arab Republic while Shamun showed favouritism to the West when he showed eagerness to joining the Baghdad Pact. Following Iraq’s July 14 Revolution, Shamun requested assistance from the United States, and 5,000 United States Marines were briefly dispatched to Beirut on July 15. When the crisis ended in September, a new government was formed, led by the popular former general, Fuad Shihab.

The civil war began in 1975 and lasted for approximately fifteen years.  In the late 1960s and early 1970s, tensions increased between the Muslim communities and the Christians.  With Palestinian refugees fleeing to Lebanon – including the Palestinian Liberation Organization – as a result of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and “Black September,” this intensified the tensions between the sects.  Amongst other reasons, Lebanon’s second civil war stemmed from grievances on identity.  The second civil war ended when all sides eventually signed the National Reconciliation Accord – also known as the Ta’if Agreement (because of the signing location in Ta’if, Saudi Arabia).

While Lebanon has been dealing with questions of identity since its inception, the other countries in the region are only now dealing with these same issues, which are being dubbed the “Arab Spring.”  It is certainly true that the populations in the region are firm on their demands for equal representation, which should not be confused with democracy that is often prescribed.  The countries that were created as a result of the Sykes-Picot Agreement are now having the same problems that Lebanon has had for decades.

Surely, the one country that has not had any turmoil as a result of the “Arab Spring” regarding identity is Lebanon. While the rest of the region is having this struggle, Lebanon has thus far managed to survive.  It is true that it gets dragged into conflicts such as the Syrian civil war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and external players like Iran, Syria, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia (just to name a few) interfere on a regular basis.  However, amongst all the countries in the region, Lebanon is the most vulnerable and until now there has not been any violent internal strife.  It certainly is not the country it was at its inception and it certainly has its trials and tribulations to truly be a sovereign state with adequate provisions to provide its citizens.  Nevertheless, Lebanon still manages to survive the tempting “Arab Spring” that is changing countries around it.

Since gaining independence from the French in 1943, the modern history of Lebanon has been one of failure to join the 20th century. Lebanon spent the 20th century arguing about identity and, as a result, failed to join it. The main crises in the country have been about that.  However, having thus skipped the 20th century, is Lebanon now ahead of the ‘identity game’? The rest of the region, which had joined it successfully, is now disassembling that state. There is the price of removing the state, then the price of familiarizing to live without it, then the price of having to live together. While this presidential election demonstrates Lebanon’s many failures, it might have a head start on the other countries in the region.

Behind the Russian-Israeli Detente

Even as officials in Washington gear up for a lucrative New Cold War with Russia, America’s close “ally” Israel is finding common ground with Moscow that complicates U.S. hostility.

TEL AVIV – Israel can be criticized for many things, such as its lackadaisical attempts at negotiating for a two-state solution along the 1967 borders and its questionable policies towards its minorities (Arabs and others). But some in the news media have criticized the Jewish state for its recent rapprochement with Moscow, which is one position that doesn’t deserve criticism.

Given that Moscow has an interest for stability in the Middle East, this diplomatic contact shouldn’t be taken as a “bad idea” by the skeptics simply because the United States has entered a New Cold War with Russia. After all, there are reasons why Russia has an interest in Middle East stability, a goal shared by much of the world.

First, while the Caucasus region is not Russia proper, it is on its border and it’s a “zone of vulnerability.” Given the recent Middle East excursions or desires by the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt and Libya, Russia has gone on high alert given that many Muslim citizens in the Caucasus countries are joining the extremist organizations that are fighting in the Middle East (and Africa).

That is the main reason why Russia came to the aid of Bashar al-Assad’s government last September in the Syrian civil war. It didn’t want to see a chaotic “Libya outcome” (best case scenario) in Syria or see the Islamic State or Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the jihadist group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate) in Damascus.

Second, Russia has a large Muslim population (estimated at 12-15 percent or 16 million to 20 million ethnic Muslims) that it also fears might get radicalized. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia deems Islamic radicalization as one of its most serious challenges to ensure its own national integrity and stability.

A destabilized region will pose grave problems within Russia’s borders. Thus, it has created a strong partnership with Israel to coordinate these stabilizing efforts. However, like all great powers, it understands that a two-state solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians is also of grave importance for stability; with no deal, a potential civil war in Israel could break out, which could lead to unpredictable and detrimental results.

Security Interests

Like all other countries, Israel has its national security concerns, based on two principles: basic security and current security.

Basic security is concerned with the preservation of the very fundamentals of the Zionist enterprise — the preservation of Israel as the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people (that was the argument for disengaging from the Gaza Strip in 2005). Although, the Arab population correctly argues that under this structure, the Jewish state treats them as second-class citizens.

Current security is about the day-to-day maintenance of the personal safety and well-being of Israelis (i.e., preventing terrorist attacks, kidnappings, etc.). Up until recently, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been dealing with neither. He feels that managing the crisis would be the best way forward but, within the last year, it seems that he’s beginning to understand that this approach would compromise Israel’s national security.

It should be noted that, as prime minister, Netanyahu teeters between two camps in his coalition. The first being the “neo-Zionist” camp, a religiously inflected extremist view for the Land of Israel and justifying the settlement project as messianic. This camp is the smaller of the two and consists about one-fifth of the Israeli population.

The second camp is more of a digressive one. It believes that Israel doesn’t have a peace partner and that Arab leaders are determined to destroy Israel and will act in that way based on their capability. To support that argument, this camp usually cites the tragedies of Jewish history as reasons not to negotiate with their Palestinian counterparts.

Which camp Netanyahu is in at the moment is anybody’s guess, but neither is amenable to a realistic peace process. Yet, Netanyahu’s recent actions would suggest that he is cooking something up.

A couple of years ago, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman suggested that the main regional players should concur on any agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It seems that Netanyahu was listening.

With Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s open conflict with Netanyahu, it was the perfect moment. In May, Netanyahu sacked Ya’alon and appointed Lieberman as defense minister in a theatrical manner.

Shortly thereafter, after “secretly” talking to Saudi Arabia, Netanyahu made amends with Turkey by signing a reconciliation deal. Subsequently, the Egyptian foreign minister arrived in Israel to discuss the Turkish deal, but also to discuss the Palestinian question.

Moscow’s Ties to Iran

So, with the main Sunni states (including Jordan) having better relations with Israel, Netanyahu shifted his focus to the Shiite states. However, having no ties with Iran and its Shiite allies, Netanyahu set his sights on Moscow as the intermediary.

Moscow isn’t the perfect country to broker with Iran as those mutual ties are often strained and overlap mostly because Russia and Iran seek to ensure that the Assad regime remains in power in Syria. Yet, Russia is the best option considering that the Americans are far more estranged from Iran and the two countries lack formal diplomatic relations.

The Americans also have all but given up on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the Europeans recently failed to set up talks between the two sides.

So, Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin met for the fourth time in a year, largely over security concerns about the war in Syria. But they likely discussed other matters, such as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In recent weeks, it has become public that Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas will have talks at the Kremlin.

It’s unclear if some “Moscow Accords” could work, though it may be the last, best hope. Much depends on whether Netanyahu genuinely seeks some form of agreement or if this new “regional peace plan” is just another ploy for buying time.

However, with Middle East beset with sectarian conflict and the chaos spilling into Europe, where there has been a rise in anti-Semitism and ultra-nationalism, Netanyahu might recognize the urgency of the moment and the grave threat to Israel’s basic national security if the West turns against the Zionist project.

For a two-state peace process to work, both Israel and a future Palestinian state (Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem) need firm borders to avert a potential civil war, which would be in no one’s interest. Yet, Netanyahu has deceived Israelis and the international community before by dangling hopes for meaningful negotiations and then finding reasons why they could not go forward.

Further complicating the situation is Washington’s New Cold War with Russia, which seeks to portray every action in Moscow as negative. In this case, however, Washington should recognize that Moscow providing a platform for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks is a positive act.

Identities of Conflict: The Jews of Lebanon

Imagine the United States was at war with Israel. As an American Jew, this would no doubt be a paradoxical matter. An improbable scenario, but this is what Lebanese Jews had to contend with when Israel gained independence in 1948. Life for Jews in the capital city of Beirut was tranquil compared to the precarious life of Jews in other Arab countries. There was a sense that there was nothing to fear and, given that the economy was improving, there was more to gain by remaining in Lebanon. They lived with no conflicting feelings between their Jewish identity and their sense of pride in being Lebanese; in fact, Lebanon is the only Middle Eastern country where the Jewish population increased following the creation of Israel. This all changed with the outbreak of Lebanon’s 1958 civil war. Lebanese Jewish emigration began towards the end of the 1958 civil war and reached its peak following the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, which pitted Israel against Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Many Jews in Lebanon felt conflicted, as they had a strong sense of a Lebanese identity and nationalism. In their hearts, they were (and still are) Lebanese – nothing was going to change that. At the same time, they felt attached to the new Jewish state. In fact, some did leave for Israel immediately when independence was achieved while others left much later.

The history of Lebanese Jews dates back to ancient times. For instance, Jewish communities existed as far back as the Biblical times; for example Jewish communities existed in the first century after the Bar Kokhba Revolt, in the seventh century under Caliph Muawiya in Tripoli, in the tenth century in Sidon, and the 11th century in Tyre.  Nonetheless, the modern Jewish community of Beirut evolved in three distinct phases. Until 1908, the Jewish population in Beirut grew by migration from the Syrian interior and from other Ottoman cities like Izmir, Salonica, Istanbul, and Baghdad. Commercial growth in the thriving port-city and relative safety and stability in Beirut all accounted for the Jewish migration. Thus, from a few hundred at the beginning of the 19th century, the Jewish community grew to 2,500 by the end of the century, and to 3,500 by the First World War. While the number of Jews grew considerably, the community remained largely unorganized. During this first phase, the community lacked fundamental institutions, such as communal statutes, elected council, welfare and taxation mechanisms. The 1908 Young Turk Revolution sparked the organizational process. Within six years, the Beirut community created a general assembly, an elected twelve-member council, drafted communal statutes, appointed a chief rabbi, and appointed committees to administer taxation and education. The process created tension and even conflicts within the community, but eventually, the council established its rule and authority in the community. With the establishment of Greater Lebanon in 1920, the Jewish community of Beirut became part of a new political entity. The French mandate rulers adopted local political traditions of power sharing and recognized the autonomy of the various religious communities. Thus, the Jewish community was one of Lebanon’s sixteen communities and enjoyed a large measure of autonomy, more or less along the lines of the Ottoman millet system. During this third phase of its development, the community founded two major institutions: the Magen Abraham Synagogue, and the renewed Talmud Torah Selim Tarrab community school.

The Lebanese Jews were very well-respected merchants who were held in high regard by the different confessions in Lebanon. The Jews of Lebanon were not the classic ahl al-dhimma, or protected minorities of the Muslim community but rather they were one of twenty-three constituent minorities of the Lebanese polity. The constitutionally recognized division of power amongst the leading confessional communities which privileged the Western-oriented Maronite Christians provided for several decades of a non-ideological, non-militantly nationalist, laissez-faire atmosphere in which the apolitical, commercially-oriented Jews could conduct business and lead their easygoing Mediterranean lifestyle in relative tranquility.

Being officially apolitical did not mean that Jews took no interest in Lebanese political life. They simply did not choose to play an actively visible role, which, of course, was the norm for Jews everywhere throughout history in much of Diaspora. The overwhelming majority of Jews supported the Maronite Kata’ib (Phalanges) Party in elections, formed a tacit alliance with it, and looked to its militia to protect them in times of violent unrest on the Muslim Arab street. In keeping with their publicly apolitical profile, few Jews were actually party members. As the smallest of all the minorities in the country and with no militia of its own, the Jews saw continued Christian political predominance as the best insurance that Lebanon would remain an exception within the Arab world and a refuge for non-Muslim minorities. At the same time, however, they cultivated cordial relations with the other groups wherever and whenever possible

The joint Jewish-Lebanese identities do not need to compete. For instance, Gabriel Politis, who currently resides in Montreal, Quebec (Canada), does not see a conflict between the two affiliations. Politis, who is now in his mid-60s, was quite politically active and sees himself as a Lebanese who happens to be of a Jewish background. The youngest of nine children from a very religious family, he feels no connection to Israel. He understands that Israel is a fait accompli and a refuge for Jews around the world, but, for him, the concept of Israel goes against the principles he believes in first and foremost as an atheist.

However, Gabrielle Elia – a daughter of Albert Elia, who was kidnapped by the Syrians for aiding the emigration of Syrian Jews to Lebanon – looks at her sense of Lebanese identity from a cultural perspective that is intertwined with the typically Lebanese element of strong family bonds. She feels that her parents “provided several assets… but, most importantly [they provided two key life tools]: a good education and common sense.” Elia, a teacher in Montreal, further believes that these two life skills that her parents instilled in her were centered around the synagogue in Lebanon. “Jewish life had invariably been directly connected to the synagogue, focus of religious and social meetings…. Unfortunately its (Magen Abraham Synagogue) destruction in 1975 also coincided with the departures of the last Jewish families from Lebanon.”

On the other hand, Edgar Attié, who now resides in Monaco, left Lebanon quite late for Jewish Lebanese standards, in 1976 – a year after the civil war began. Attié’s story shows a different facet of the Lebanese Jewish experience. His father – Dr. Joseph Attié – was a doctor, the President of the Lebanese Jewish community (le conseil communal), and one of three (alongside Gabrielle Elia’s father) who assisted Jews of Syria in their migration to Lebanon. As a result, Mr. Attié had access to many of the high-profile leaders of the day and, as such, has his own personal views. When asked about which country he sided with while living in Lebanon, he felt, intellectually and emotionally, “220% behind Israel” because it never dawned on him to support Lebanon as a Jew. He equated it to when Israel would invade the Gaza Strip and “you were a Jew living in America or Canada (for argument sake), most Jews would side with Israel.” It never dawned on him to leave in the 1950s and 60s because he was living well and studying. The only time he experienced violence was that of the Syrians, when he returned to Lebanon in 1980 in order to sort out his parents’ property because militias had looted it.

At the outbreak of the 1975 Lebanese civil war, many Lebanese Jews living in Lebanon at the time could identify with at least one of these three stories. However, Dr. Kirsten Schulze sums it best when she talks about the political and cultural identification of the Lebanese Jews, “Zionism as an additional political entity was able to co-exist, because Zionism in the Lebanese context had few practical implications…. Thus, Lebanon’s Jews considered themselves to be Lebanese by nationality and Jewish by religion.” What made the Lebanese Jews unique was their pragmatism towards Zionism while maintaining their affiliation to Lebanon.

Between Hamas and a hard place: Israel’s deadly dilemma

TEL AVIV — As we here mourn the mounting death toll — and sprint for cover when the sirens sound — we’re all engaging in that old Israeli pastime: second-guessing the politicians and generals.

Everyone’s an armchair Benjamin Netanyahu or Benny Gantz these days. What to do in Gaza or the West Bank? How long can this go on? Could it have been avoided? How many soldiers does this country have to lose in order for this war to end? What should be done after the fighting stops? Everyone has a different answer, and every answer has a little truth in it.

Meanwhile, we’re looking down the barrel of an open-ended ground operation in Gaza that could last weeks more and claim hundreds more lives. An American cease-fire proposal was before the Israeli cabinet Friday afternoon. With the civilian death toll rising, some Israeli cabinet members are arguing that the only way to stop Hamas is to reoccupy Gaza — a step that would be very costly to Israel’s international standing and, more importantly, to its military. Those arguing for occupation now are essentially saying that then-prime minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to withdraw from Gaza in 2005 ended in failure, because all Israel got was more Hamas rockets falling from the sky.

But Israel’s decision to withdraw from Gaza was not intended primarily to stop the rockets. Sharon didn’t believe for a moment that Israel’s withdrawal would tame Hamas and convince Israel’s mortal enemies to make nice. He was driven by entirely different considerations.

Since its foundation, Israel has based its defense calculations on two concepts: basic security and current security. Basic security is concerned with the preservation of the very fundamentals of the Zionist enterprise — the preservation of Israel as the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people. Current security is about the day-to-day maintenance of the personal safety and well-being of Israelis.

For over 40 years, Israel has had the good fortune of not having to engage in all-out war with any of its neighbouring states. It even has peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. For decades, however, Israelis have been exposed to a wide range of terrorist assaults: aircraft hijackings, kidnappings, murderous suicide bombings, massive rocket attacks. Israelis are, understandably, obsessed with current security — so much so that, in recent public discourse, issues of basic security are being almost completely overshadowed.

At times, Israel’s current security needs conflict with the country’s requirements for its long-term basic security. Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was justifiably seen as an asset in maintaining Israel’s current security. However, this very same occupation eroded Israel’s basic security by undermining its Jewish and democratic character as well as its international legitimacy, and thus had an undeniably negative effect on Israel’s long-term survival.

This is exactly what Sharon wanted to avoid when he became prime minister. His decision to disengage from Gaza was driven not by rockets but by long-term basic security considerations. Sharon’s goal was to preserve Israel’s Jewish character by ridding itself of any remnants of Jewish settlement and the concomitant direct control over more than a million and a half (now closer to two million) Palestinians in Gaza.

There can be no doubt that Israel is considerably better off in terms of its basic security with almost two million fewer Palestinians under its control. Indeed, hardly anyone in Israel — even the most militant critics of disengagement — seriously believes that Gaza should be reoccupied. Gaza is not the real issue and never was. Israel’s real dilemma is about the future nature of the entire Zionist enterprise.

Israel must make an unhappy choice between being the democratic nation-state home of the Jewish people alongside a presumably unfriendly, or even belligerent, Palestinian state — or creating an oppressive one-state reality in which Israel gradually loses its democratic and Jewish character as well as its international legitimacy. The options facing Israel have been thrown into sharp relief by the events of recent weeks.

Israel’s two options for conflict management couldn’t be more different. One is the West Bank model of occupation and settlement, which entails constant repression, violence and counter-violence — at times assuming the character of civil war — crossing over the 1967 Green Line and presenting an ominous foretaste of a future one-state reality. The other is the Gaza model, where Israel seeks to employ deterrence as an alternative to occupation.

Obviously, the Gaza model is not flawless; nothing impermanent can be. Deterrence doesn’t last.

However, the Gaza model only poses problems of current security to Israel, for which there are various highly effective defensive and offensive solutions. The West Bank model, on the other hand, constitutes a basic security problem. It offers no reasonable or realistic solutions and poses a mortal threat to Israel’s long-term survival — something not all the rockets fired from Gaza could do.

As the war thunders on with no end in sight, Prime Minister Netanyahu must choose between these two models. Sharon did so 10 years ago. He made the right choice.

The seven lost years of peace in the Middle East

TEL AVIV — As the war rages on and the civilian casualties mount, those of us living here are often haunted by thoughts of opportunities missed. Before the abductions that touched off this latest conflict between Israel and Hamas, Israel had enjoyed seven long years of largely uninterrupted peace. And Israel squandered it.

It’s been seven years since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip following a brutal civil war with its arch-rival, Fatah. Since then, a combination of poor governance, an Israeli sea blockade and the new Egyptian regime’s unwillingness to open the border with Gaza has forced the self-proclaimed party of Palestinian resistance into a corner. They have few allies and are financially weak — but now they feel that time is on their side. That feeling is the source of the true existential threat to both the peace process and Israel’s survival as a Jewish democratic state.

Former Israel prime minister Ariel Sharon always had a simple rule about war: Never retreat under fire. During the second intifada, Sharon insisted that Israel wouldn’t enter a peace process until Palestinian terror stopped and Israel had seven days of quiet. Sharon’s principle was sound: Any retreat under violent duress was bound to lead to more violence immediately afterward. If the two-state solution is to work — and not degenerate into another bloody frenzy — you need a ‘time-out’, something to separate active war-making and withdrawal.

This is Israel’s current dilemma: It can’t end the occupation or reduce the pace of military operations while Hamas continues firing rockets into its territory. The road to peace starts with the cessation of violence. But peace is more than the absence of war — and the absence of war can’t guarantee peace unless the parties make a concerted effort to build a lasting peace.

Sharon demanded seven days of quiet — Israel got seven years of (relative) quiet. The suicide bombers’ offensive terminated in 2005, but from 2007 onward Mahmoud Abbas, Salam Fayyad, the IDF, the Israeli security service, the Palestinian security forces and the separation fence managed to keep the West Bank stable. The number of Israeli casualties from terror attacks, and the number of Palestinian casualties from Israeli fire, declined in the last half-decade to levels Israel hadn’t seen in previous decades. The second intifada ended and the street pressure from the first intifada did not resume.

Until the abduction of the three Israeli youths in Alon Shvut on June 12, no strategic attack had been launched. The bloody attacks on Israeli cities — and even the attacks on the settlements and settlers — had significantly diminished. Israel had enjoyed economic prosperity and a cultural boom since 2007, made possible by quiet borders.

But what did Israel do with those seven quiet years? What peace process did it initiate when it was given a rare, precious break? In Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni’s defense, they both tried to do as much as they could in the first 18 months of the undeclared truce. Since taking office, however, Benjamin Netanyahu has done nothing. He’s made some speeches, issued some moderate declarations and suspended one settlement construction project. But he has made no moves toward exploiting the quiet to pursue a two-state deal.

Netanyahu mishandled the peace. Israel let the seven good years slip through the cracks.

Will Israel be granted an eighth year? Probably not. The current war of attrition has claimed too many lives to end quickly. International calls for a ceasefire are being ignored. When there’s no peace process, escalation follows. Israel has a chance to build seven years of peace into something lasting by negotiating in good faith with Abbas and his unity government. Instead, it took peace for granted. Now, Israelis and Palestinians are paying the price — in blood.

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