Two speeches dominated the news in Israel during the month of June; one by American President Barack Obama and the other by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Both leaders focused on the future of the volatile Middle East. Obama called again for Israel to immediately halt all settlement expansion and pledged to work for the establishment of a Palestinian state on Israel’s doorsteps. Netanyahu surprised some of his political allies by accepting the concept of a two state solution, but added conditions that Palestinian leaders quickly rejected.
Israeli officials welcomed the outcome of Lebanon’s parliamentary elections, held in early June. They were particularly elated that the radical Shiite Hizbullah movement did not succeed in its attempts to win ascendancy over pro-western political parties. However an Israeli military leader warned that the group’s militia wing is still preparing to attack Israel in order to avenge the assassination of its top commander last year in Syria.
As in the rest of the world, Israeli government and military leaders were riveted by the violent protests in Iran that followed what most consider a rigged national election. The vote brought a second term in office to the rogue state’s malevolent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Although it is still considered a remote prospect, the widespread street demonstrations were welcomed as a confirmation that the country’s repressive theocratic dictatorship—which constantly forecasts Israel’s total destruction—is not acceptable to many Iranian citizens. However Israeli officials were concerned when Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khameini, accused “Zionist forces” of stirring up the unrest rocking his country.
America’s first ever president with Islamic African ancestry came to the vast continent on June 4 to deliver a major foreign policy address centered on the turbulent Middle East. However his initial regional stop the day before was in Saudi Arabia, the seat of Islam, which some Israeli commentators thought was intended to bolster his popularity in the Muslim world. The US President did not visit Israel.
Obama’s long awaited speech, delivered in Cairo Egypt, enhanced his standing among regional Muslims, with the US leader quoting from what he reverently termed “the holy Koran” no less than seven times. His accurate use of several Arabic terms related to his father’s religion also brought him instant applause from the mainly Egyptian audience.
Some Israeli experts on Islam noted that Muslims generally feel humiliated by the history of prolonged foreign domination of their lands, mainly by European Christian colonists. Therefore, to have a sitting American president give a seeming stamp of endorsement to their sacred scriptures by quoting or referring to some of them was a source of great pride, which Obama—who spent time as a boy with his Muslim father in the world’s largest Islamic nation, Indonesia—apparently anticipated.
The US president spoke in nearly messianic terms of his desire to help heal the historic tensions between the largely Christian West and Islam, and his wish to bring lasting peace to the Middle East. Without using the word terrorism even once, he derided the “violent extremism” displayed by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaida movement. He also called for enhanced human rights for Muslim women, and urged Islamic states to modernize their financial systems in order to better participate in the global economy.
In his remarks about Israel, Obama urged Islamic nations to recognize the small country as a legitimate and permanent state in the mainly Muslim Middle East. He added that Muslims around the world need to acknowledge that the Holocaust occurred and that the Jewish people had suffered during centuries of exile from their ancestral homeland. But he quickly added that the Palestinians have also “suffered in pursuit of a homeland,” adding that “occupation” forced them to “endure daily humiliations.”
President Obama had some scolding words for the Palestinians as well. He said “resistance through violence and killing is wrong, and it does not succeed.”
Some Israeli commentators were not happy that the internationally popular American leader termed terrorist violence as “resistance,” therefore giving it some legitimacy while at the same time decrying it. They noted that the Palestinians only became an “occupied” people prone to “resist” such an apparently evil condition as a result of two wars forced upon Israel by the Palestinians and their regional Arab cousins. Had the local Arab leadership and neighboring countries like Egypt, Jordan and Syria accepted the 1947 United Nations partition plan, as Israeli leaders did at the time (and then later attempted with Soviet support to wipe out the small Jewish state in 1967, and again in 1973), there would have been no warfare refugees, and definitely no “occupation.”
Israeli officials were somewhat alarmed when President Obama endorsed Iran’s “right to pursue peaceful nuclear power.” But they were mollified when he followed that statement by noting that Iran’s UN-censored program was propelling “a hugely dangerous arms race” in the region.
Halt Settlement Construction
While welcoming most of the American President’s remarks, Israeli government officials were less than enthused by his insistence that a Palestinian state must arise next door to Israel’s main urban centers in the next few years. Some worried that his pledge to “personally pursue” this goal makes objection to such a state on any basis a seeming personal slap in Obama’s face—not something Israeli leaders are eager to do, given that the US is clearly Israel’s most important ally. His repeated use of the word “Palestine,” as if such a named state had historically existed, was also unsettling to some officials.
President Obama’s statements about the over 150 contested Jewish communities scattered around Jerusalem and in other parts of Judea and Samaria, Judaism’s biblical heartland, were even less welcomed by Israeli officials and Jewish residents of the contested areas. The US leader stated that “the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.” He maintained that “this construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace,” adding forcefully “it is time for these settlements to stop.”
Various Israeli politicians, even some from opposition parties, said the American leader’s remarks demonstrated that he is fixated on the settlement issue even though it is hardly the main component in the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict. They also noted that while the Israeli government formally accepted the Bush administration’s “Road Map” peace proposal in 2004, its leader, Ariel Sharon, also unequivocally stated that it would not be unilaterally implemented by Israel.
In other words, until the Palestinians fully comply with their Road Map obligation to halt all violence against Israeli civilians and soldiers and formally recognize Israel’s right to exist in the region, a full scale settlement building freeze will not be ordered by the government. Given that hundreds of Palestinian rockets have landed on Israeli cities and towns since 2004, that soldiers have been kidnapped and killed, and that dozens of terror attacks have occurred, it is fairly clear that the Palestinians are violating “previous agreements” in a manner that is far more egregious than natural growth expansion in some contested settlements.
Many politicians and pundits also noted that no completely new settlements have been authorized by any Israeli government since the Road Map peace plan was unveiled, although internal growth in or right next to existing communities has been allowed. The construction has mainly occurred in suburban communities near Jerusalem like Ma’ale Adumim and Efrat, designed to accommodate growing families and new residents moving from more expensive homes in Israel’s increasingly congested capital city.
If the issue of Jewish settlements was really the main bone of contention in the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict, then why did the Palestinians react to Israel’s 2005 painful demolition of twenty one communities in the Gaza Strip and four in northern Samaria with intensified violence, asked several commentators. Others said that President Obama missed an opportunity to say to the Palestinians, as George W. Bush had done, that some border adjustments will need to be made, especially around Jerusalem, if some 300,000 Israelis living on disputed land that the Palestinians claim as their own are not to be uprooted from their homes. “You cannot resolve one refugee problem by effectively creating another one,” said one Likud party legislator.
Prime Minister Netanyahu decided to respond to the increasing pressure from Washington by delivering his own Middle East policy speech. Speaking before an audience at Tel Aviv’s conservative Bar Ilan university on June 14, the speech’s main headline was his conditional acceptance of Obama’s “two state solution” proposal, in other word the establishment of a Palestinian state. But the Premier again repeated Israel’s long held consensus that no Palestinian refugees or their offspring will be allowed to return to ancestral homes inside of Israel as part of any final peace deal, but should instead be directed to live in the nearby Palestinian state.
The conditions that the veteran Likud party leader placed on such a state were immediately termed deal killers by Palestinian Authority leaders. Netanyahu declared that any Palestinian state must be fully demilitarized, and this status must be accompanied by “international ironclad security guarantees” that such a state will remain unarmed. He added that Israel would maintain the right to conduct periodic flyovers to check security conditions on the ground.
“If we receive this guarantee regarding demilitarization and Israel’s security needs, and if the Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people, then we will be ready in a future peace accord to reach a solution where a demilitarized Palestinian state exists alongside the Jewish state.”
PA leader Mahmoud Abbas said earlier in the month he would never agree to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, given that the country already has a substantial Arab population that lives side by side with majority Jews. And certainly the radical Hamas movement will never do so.
On the emotive issue of Jerusalem’s future, PM Netanyahu repeated the traditional Likud party position that Judaism’s holiest city on earth will never again be divided, nor become the capital of a Palestinian state. “Jerusalem “must remain the united capital of Israel,” he declared, a statement that also brought a quick rebuke from Palestinian leaders.
On the thorny settlement issue, the Israeli Prime Minister reiterated earlier statements that he would not cave in to President Obama’s demand that he halt construction in the contested Jewish communities. He added that until a final peace settlement is reached with the Palestinians, settlement residents “must be allowed to live normal lives” which he noted included having children, moving into bigger homes or adding onto existing ones, having relatives move closer to them, etc.
Responding to standard local and international media portrayals of the settlers as violent right wing extremists and bigots, Netanyahu insisted that most are peace loving and law abiding Israelis who “are not the enemies of the nation or the enemies of peace, but an integral part of our people, a principled, pioneering and Zionist public.”
Like Obama’s Cairo address, the PM’s policy speech also dealt with the broader Islamic world. He insisted that it was not just Israel, but the entire world, including regional Arab states, which would be severely threatened if Muslim terror groups or radical nations like Iran acquired nuclear weapons.
One surprise during the month was the visit of Jimmy Carter to the Gush Etzion settlement block south of Jerusalem. The visit itself was unanticipated, given the former US president’s amply demonstrated hostility toward Jewish settlers. Even more astounding was the fact that he actually admitted out loud that the Palestinians will need to accept the reality that some large Jewish communities near Jerusalem will not be uprooted as part of any final peace accord. “This is part of the close settlements to the 1967 line that I think will be here forever,” he said while visiting the home of the Gush Etzion regional council head in the Neve Daniel settlement near Efrat. Although Carter has no contemporary governmental or diplomatic role, the statement was deemed very important by various settler leaders.
While Carter was still in the Jerusalem area, Israel’s Shin Bet security agency learned of a plot to assassinate him during a scheduled June 15 visit to the Gaza Strip. The information was quickly passed on to Palestinian Authority officials who contacted their Hamas counterparts that control the small coastal Palestinian zone. Palestinian sources said terrorists connected to Al Qaida had laid explosives along the road to be used by Carter’s entourage which were uncovered and destroyed before the former American leader arrived in the Gaza Strip.
However a Hamas official denied that any explosives had been uncovered. Analysts said the Iranian-backed extremist group was apparently embarrassed that Israeli security forces had discovered the potentially disastrous plot that was hatched right under their noses. During his visit, Carter gladdened his radical Muslim hosts when he said the Palestinians in Gaza were being “treated like animals” by Israel. He also called upon America’s current leaders to recognize Hamas as a legitimate political organization.
Carter’s call was later seemingly endorsed by the European Union. In a statement issued in the name of the EU’s 27 nations, the usual call for Hamas to renounce terrorism, formally recognize Israel’s right to exist, and fully accept previous peace accords made between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, was left out. Instead, EU leaders called for “inter-Palestinian reconciliation behind President Mahmoud Abbas,” in other words, bringing Hamas out of the political wilderness were it landed after its violent 2007 coup against PA forces in the Gaza Strip.
Proving once again that the small coastal zone remains a terrorist stronghold, ten Palestinian gunmen said to be backed by Al Qaida, some hiding inside trucks and others riding explosive laden horses, attempted to infiltrate into Israel from the Gaza Strip in early June. As they neared the Karni border crossing, the terrorists began shooing at Israeli soldiers stationed there. Troops returned fire, killing four of the gunmen. Army leaders later said they believed the men were planning to kidnap some of the soldiers.
Elections and Violence
Israeli officials were relieved when the pro-western Lebanese political alliance known as the “March 14 Forces” retained a majority of parliamentary seats in national elections held on June 7. The anti-Syrian alliance, mostly comprised of Maronite Catholic and Sunni Muslim parties, captured over 70 seats to just 11 for Hizbullah’s political wing. Parties allied with the radical Shiite movement won some 30 seats, which analysts said would help Hizbullah maintain its previous ability to block government attempts to disarm its militia. Opinion surveys in the run up to the parliamentary elections had suggested that Hizbullah might capture up to 20 seats.
Israeli leaders and the general public watched with keen interest as Hizbullah’s masters in Iran declared a lopsided victory for notorious President Ahmadinejad, who regularly vows that Israel will soon be wiped off of the regional map. Many said the growing public protests which followed the June 12 vote was a hopeful sign that the theocratic regime might one day be overthrown. However experts warned that the regime’s nuclear program—which the UN’s Atomic Energy Agency outgoing head admitted in June is designed to ultimately produce nuclear weapons—is a source of great national pride for most Iranians, even if some of Ahmadinejad’s boisterous statements and actions are not so popular.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak pointed out on Army Radio that opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi played a pivotal role in starting Iran’s nuclear program. He also cautioned the Israeli public not to expect any real changes in the repressive country, noting that “this is an Ayatollah regime.” He added that “We should not be confused about Mousavi; these people are all fundamentalist Muslims.” But he did say that “the Ayatollah dictatorship” was weakened by its use of force to quell street demonstrations: “The more force is used against the dissidents, the more the regime loses its legitimacy.”
Barak stated indirectly that Israel’s military forces must remain on alert in case the turmoil in Iran produces an opportunity to attack its nuclear production sites or sparks any action from its regional allies, especially Hizbullah and/or Syria. "Iran is in the midst of a very dangerous process. Short-term plans must be made. We don't have too much time. We have decided to leave all courses of action open and we expect others to do the same," he said. Analysts said the Labor party leader was apparently referring to the United States when he spoke of “others” remaining vigilant or taking necessary action.
Israel’s Mossad security force chief, Meir Dagan, echoed Barak when he told Knesset members that "What ultimately determines Iran’s policies is the spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and that has not changed. This is an argument within the Iranian elite.” He added that it might be to Israel’s advantage in opposing Iran’s nuclear program if the more militant Ahmadinejad remains in power. Dagan also stated that the theocratic regime could possess operational nuclear bombs in around five year’s time. Other Israeli and foreign nuclear weapons experts have said the Shiite nation might acquire such weapons from North Korea or other countries at any time, or may have already done so.
In these dramatic days, it is good to meditate on some of the many promises that the God of Abraham has made to the people of Israel, such as this one found in the book of Ezekiel:
“I will put my spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord” (Ezek: 37-14).