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A Defense of Barack Obama

President-elect Barack Obama is getting grief from all corners for refusing to say anything substantial about the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. It’s a legitimate complaint up to a point. Obama deliberately campaigned as a Rorschach candidate upon whom would-be supporters could project their own views. The downside to Obama’s strategy is that potential opponents can also project their criticisms onto him and he’ll be left with too few friends instead of too many. In this case, both supporters and enemies of Israel who assume Obama agrees with them can criticize him for not speaking up.

In less than two weeks, when Obama is officially inaugurated as President of the United States, this will change. A president has to take a position and live with the consequences. Executive leaders must stand alone with their decisions and cannot vote “present.”

That said, I’d like to weigh in here as supportive of Obama’s decision to keep quiet.

I don’t know what Obama really thinks about Israel’s war in Gaza, but I can guess. He has a track record of relevant statements, and “his most recent was this one”:http://jeffreygoldberg.theatlantic.com/archives/2008/12/the_gaza_war.php: “If someone was sending rockets on my house where my daughters were sleeping at night, I would do everything to stop it, and I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.” It’s possible, though, that he only said that to reduce skepticism among Israelis. Perhaps Obama is quietly joining France’s Nicolas Sarkozy in “his condemnation of Israel”:http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jan/05/sarkozy-gaza-israel-ceasefire instead of quietly joining Germany’s Angela Merkel in “her support”:http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3646569,00.html.

Whatever he thinks, his silence ought to be welcomed among supporters of Israel for at least one of two reasons.

If Obama opposes Israel’s use of force to defend itself from missile attack, he deserves credit for keeping his opinion to himself while he is not actually president. As he has stated on several occasions: the United States only has one president at a time. “We can’t have two administrations running foreign policy at the same time,” “he says”:http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5iH2sWK6L75ntNmA5ZTOc_UTpCh_gD95ID4FO0. “We simply can’t do it.” He could try to undermine the current President Bush, but he’s right that it wouldn’t be proper.

On the other hand, perhaps he silently supports Israel’s short operation in Gaza against a terrorist army with whom he himself repeatedly said he would refuse to negotiate. If he said so out loud, though, his global “hope and change” honeymoon would be over before it even began. It’s not in his interest to hobble himself from the start, nor is it in America’s interest or Israel’s.

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/49551.

A Prayer for the Children of Gaza

I am neither religious nor Jewish, but I can’t help but be touched by “this Jewish prayer for the children of Gaza”:http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1052871.html published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz while Israelis are in the midst of a shooting war with a violent fascist regime. If Hamas ever publishes prayers like this one for the children of Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be over.

Lord who is the creator of all children, hear our prayer this accursed day. God whom we call Blessed, turn your face to these, the children of Gaza, that they may know your blessings, and your shelter, that they may know light and warmth, where there is now only blackness and smoke, and a cold which cuts and clenches the skin.

Almighty who makes exceptions, which we call miracles, make an exception of the children of Gaza. Shield them from us and from their own. Spare them. Heal them. Let them stand in safety. Deliver them from hunger and horror and fury and grief. Deliver them from us, and from their own.

Thanks to “the indispensible Jeffrey Goldberg”:http://jeffreygoldberg.theatlantic.com/ for pointing me to this.

Peace at the Smallest of Prices

Daniel Finkelstein in the Times of London on “the hideous truth”:http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/daniel_finkelstein/article5461544.ece few are willing to face:

The poverty and the death and the despair among the Palestinians in Gaza moves me to tears. How can it not? Who can see pictures of children in a war zone or a slum street and not be angry and bewildered and driven to protest? And what is so appalling is that it is so unnecessary. For there can be peace and prosperity at the smallest of prices. The Palestinians need only say that they will allow Israel to exist in peace. They need only say this tiny thing, and mean it, and there is pretty much nothing they cannot have.

Yet they will not say it. And they will not mean it. For they do not want the Jews. Again and again – again and again – the Palestinians have been offered a nation state in a divided Palestine. And again and again they have turned the offer down, for it has always been more important to drive out the Jews than to have a Palestinian state. It is difficult sometimes to avoid the feeling that Hamas and Hezbollah don’t want to kill Jews because they hate Israel. They hate Israel because they want to kill Jews.

Stop Juan Cole

“Juan Cole”:http://www.juancole.com/ is “decrying all the neocons”:http://sandbox.blog-city.com/abc_anything_but_cole.htm he’s forced to compete with in the 2008 Weblog Awards for Best Middle East or Africa Blog. He thinks Helena Cobban — a deranged Hezbollah supporter — should have been nominated instead of someone like me. He’s worked his leftist readers into a tizzy, and they’re putting him over the top. I don’t really care if I win this award; I won it last year. But Juan Cole certainly doesn’t deserve it.

You know “what kind of abject nonsense he’s peddling now”:http://sandbox.blog-city.com/cole_spills_wine_at_cana.htm? He’s arguing that Israel’s 1996 attack in Qana, Lebanon, inspired Mohammad Atta, who led the Al Qaeda cell on September 11, to write his “martyrdom will.” But Atta’s will, as Martin Kramer points out, was written before the attack in Qana. And it wasn’t a martyrdom will. It was a standard will. But Cole won’t let facts get in the way of blaming Israelis for just about anything, including violence committed by Al Qaeda.

Don’t let Cole win. “Go over there and vote for me”:http://2008.weblogawards.org/polls/best-middle-east-or-africa-blog/. Alternately, “My Marrakesh”:http://moroccanmaryam.typepad.com/ is a beautiful blog written by a woman who isn’t a neoconservative. Go vote for her. Or if you want to vote for a professor, vote for “Martin Kramer”:http://www.martinkramer.org/. He actually knows what he’s talking about. Or there’s always Aussie Dave at “Israellycool”:http://www.israellycool.com/. I’ve met him, he’s a good guy, and he doesn’t sit around in his office and hatch “asinine conspiracy theories”:http://sandbox.blog-city.com/israel_lebanon_war_juan_cole.htm like Cole does.

UPDATE: This post was slightly edited for precision. I had originally stated that Cole blamed Israel’s war in Lebanon on Atta’s 9/11 attack, but I struck that sentence because, more precisely, he blamed it on the 1996 Israeli attack on Qana in Lebanon. Cole edits his posts without notifying his readers, and he shouldn’t. So I won’t.

Rockets Out of Lebanon

Three rockets “just struck Israel from Lebanon”:http://edition.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/meast/01/08/israel.rockets/ and wounded two people. CNN suggests they were fired by Palestinians, not by Hezbollah, and I’m guessing they’re right.

UPDATE: “See Tony Badran”:http://beirut2bayside.blogspot.com/2009/01/assad-jalili-pflp-gc-and-rockets-from.html for an in-depth analysis of what just happened.

UPDATE: See also “Marty Peretz in the New Republic.”:http://blogs.tnr.com/tnr/blogs/the_spine/archive/2009/01/08/the-sounds-of-arab-silence.aspx

Citizen Journalism

Joe the Plumber is going to Israel as a war correspondent. “Seriously”:http://pajamasmedia.com/rogerlsimon/2009/01/07/joe-the-plumber-mr-smith-goes-to-jerusalem-for-pajamas-tv/.

I need to interview him when he gets back. Watch me. I’ll do it. And I won’t do it like “this”:http://newsbusters.org/blogs/michael-m-bates/2009/01/07/cnns-kyra-phillips-unloads-joe-plumber.

Harry Reid Steps Up

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid went on Meet the Press Sunday and strongly supported Israel’s right to defend itself from the terrorist army in Gaza. “For eight years they’ve been firing rockets into Israel,” he said of Hamas, and went on to describe the dynamic as follows:

They’ve become more intense the last few months. Israelis have been killed, maimed and injured. Sometimes more than 200 a day coming into Israel. If this were going on in the United States from Vancouver, Canada, into Seattle, would we react? Course we do. We would have to…Israel, for—since 1967, controlled Gaza. They gave it to the Palestinians as a gesture of peace. And all they got are a bunch of rockets in return.

He is right, of course, that if the Canadian government were launching missiles at Seattle the U.S. would react, and with force. And we all know the U.S. would not wait eight years.

Reid’s comments are an important reminder of something most of us already know. The United States is more supportive of Israel’s existence and right to defend itself than any other country on earth. The conservative and supposedly pro-Israel President of France Nicolas Sarkozy condemned Israel’s response on the very first day, while the hyperpartisan left-wing American senator stridently defended Israel after more than a week of fierce fighting. Hatred of Israel consumes the mainstream political Right as well as the Left in Europe, while hatred of Israel in the United States is relegated only to part of the intellectual class and to the left-wing and right-wing lunatic fringes.

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/49162.

Journalistic Malpractice

“My friend and colleague Noah Pollak”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/pollak/49311 on the journalistic malpractice of some of our other colleagues:

Allow me to propose a metric for evaluating whether a journalist is behaving responsibly or not: If he reports that Israel bombed a UN school and killed 30 civilians, he is irresponsible. If he reports that Hamas used a UN school as a weapons cache and base of operations for launching mortars at the IDF, and the IDF’s return fire killed the Hamas cell along, tragically, with a yet-unspecified number of civilians, then he is behaving responsibly. If he wishes to be particularly scrupulous, he might additionally note that “Hamas had rigged the school with explosives”:http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1231167272256&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull which detonated after the IDF took out the mortar team, killing a large additional number of civilians. And he might add that you can go to the IDF’s Youtube channel to “view footage”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zmXXUOs27lI from 2007 of Hamas using the very same school as a mortar-launching base.

A responsible journalist might also add that what Hamas did is a war crime under international law, and that Hamas is responsible for every civilian killed at that school. Rigging a school with explosives and using it as a base in a war zone is a crime precisely because it endangers the lives of civilians, and in this case of children.

Vote for Me in the 2008 Weblog Awards

I have been nominated for a 2008 Weblog Award in the Best Middle East or Africa Blog category. “Please go over there and vote for me”:http://2008.weblogawards.org/polls/best-middle-east-or-africa-blog/. I’m behind in the polls right now because, unlike the other nominees, I haven’t sent my readers over there yet.

And please stay tuned for more coverage from the Middle East. Many long dispatches are forthcoming, as are more shorter analysis pieces.

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No Way Out?

The Middle East can look somewhat normal on the surface to first-time visitors, but it’s mind-bogglingly dysfunctional, and it is obviously so to anyone who has spent even a couple of months in the region. (It is also obvious to some people who know almost nothing at all about that part of the world.) Sometimes, especially when I’m in Iraq, I think the problems there are simply bottomless and that a solution does not exist. President Bush couldn’t fix it. President Obama will not fix it either. If you don’t believe me — wait.

It’s hard for many naturally optimistic Americans to believe this, but sometimes I fear it is true. Time and experience has done that to me. The Middle East just grinds people down. Beirut, Jerusalem, Baghdad — these are not places you want to spend too much time if you have faith in the human race and linear progress.

I hope I am wrong, but I won’t be proven wrong in the short term.

Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlanic is feeling this “much more intensely than I am right now”:http://jeffreygoldberg.theatlantic.com/archives/2009/01/why_im_not_blogging_more_about.php.

I have friends in Gaza about whom I worry a great deal; I’ve seen many people killed in Gaza; I’ve served in the Israeli Army in Gaza; I’ve been kidnapped in Gaza; I’ve reported for years from Gaza; I hope my former army doesn’t kill the wrong people in Gaza; I hope Israeli soldiers all leave Gaza alive; I know they’ll be back in Gaza; I think this operation will work; and I have no actual hope that it will work for very long, because nothing works for very long in the Middle East. Gaza is where dreams of reconciliation go to die. Gaza is where the dream of Palestinian statehood goes to die; Gaza is where the Zionist dream might yet die. Or, more to the point, might be murdered. I’m not a J Street moral-equivalence sort of guy. Yes, Israel makes constant mistakes, which I note rather frequently, but this conflict reminds me once again that Israel is up against an implacable force, namely, an interpretation of Islam that disallows the idea of Jewish national equality.

My paralysis isn’t an analytical paralysis. It’s the paralysis that comes from thinking that maybe there’s no way out. Not out of Gaza, out of the whole thing.

On the Air with Lars

I’m going to be on the air “with Lars Larson at 3:20pm Pacific time today”:http://www.larslarson.com/ if you want to listen.

UPDATE: You can listen to an archived version of the program after 7:30pm Pacific time “here”:http://www.larslarson.com/show?action=viewRadioShow&showID=732.

The Israeli Way of War

Two years ago “I interviewed Yaacov Lozowick”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2006/09/getting-lebanon-wrong.php, then-chief archivist at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and he characterized Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon as stupid and indefensible. I agreed with him at the time, and I still do, as least about that war being stupid. (I do not believe Israel has no right to hit back at Hezbollah.)

Despite Lozowick’s criticism of the 2006 war, he is hardly a pacifist or an Israel-hater. He’s the author, after all, of Right to Exist: A Moral Defense of Israel’s Wars.

If you’re following the current war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, you might want to “bookmark his site”:http://yaacovlozowick.blogspot.com/2009/01/waging-war-israeli-way.html where you can read short sharp analysis like the following:

In the week of air-attacks, the IDF proved it had excellent intelligence, and in many cases targets hit from the air kept on exploding for a number of minutes after they were hit, as the ordinance stored there exploded. More significant, the IDF has figured out how to separate the civilians from the weapons: call the neighbors and give them ten minutes warning. The numbers prove how efficient this has been: prior to the ground invasion, more than 600 targets had been destroyed, fewer than 500 Palestinians killed, and fewer than 100 of those were civilians even by Palestinian and UN reckoning. Of course, there remain the pictures of civilians surrounded by devastation, but they’re alive, and it wasn’t Israel that stacked bombs in their cellars. [Emphasis added.]

Think about those numbers. Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on the face of the earth. If Israeli Air Force pilots were trying to kill civilians — if they were the war criminals they’re accused of being all over the world — they’d kill a lot more than 0.8 people per air strike.

Gaza and the Law of Armed Conflict

While much of the world engages in hand-wringing, placard-waving, teeth-gnashing, and rocket-launching over Israel’s “disproportionate” response to Hamas attacks from Gaza, it’s worth looking at what the doctrines of “proportionality” actually say.

Making the rounds is a two-year old quote from “Lionel Beehner’s paper”:http://www.cfr.org/publication/11115/israel_and_the_doctrine_of_proportionality.html#2 for the Council on Foreign Relations in which he summarizes the principle of proportionality as laid out by the 1907 Hague Conventions. “According to the doctrine, a state is legally allowed to unilaterally defend itself and right a wrong provided the response is proportional to the injury suffered. The response must also be immediate and necessary, refrain from targeting civilians, and require only enough force to reinstate the status quo ante.”

The precise wording of the doctrine can be found in Article 51, not Article 49 as Beehner writes, of the “Draft Articles of the Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts”:http://www.ilsa.org/jessup/jessup06/basicmats2/DASR.pdf. “Countermeasures must be commensurate with the injury suffered, taking into account the gravity of the internationally wrongful act and the rights in question.”

This is vague and open to interpretation, as Beehner admits. And it’s further complicated by the fact that the doctrine was laid out at a time when war was fought between sovereign states with standing armies rather than asymmetrically between a sovereign state and a terrorist gang.

Proportion, as defined by Beehner and the Hague Conventions, is impossible between Israel and Hamas. The Israel Defense Forces are more professional, competent and technologically advanced than Hamas and will inflict greater damage as a matter of course. And Hamas’s war aim is entirely out of proportion to Israel’s. Israel wants to halt the incoming rocket fire, while “Hamas seeks the destruction or evacuation of Israel”:http://jeffreygoldberg.theatlantic.com/archives/2009/01/nizar_rayyan_of_hamas_on_gods.php.

Beehner’s proportionality doctrine is therefore unhelpful. Each side’s ends and means are disproportionate to the other. And nowhere in that doctrine are casualty figures or the intent of the warring parties factored in.

In any case, no war has ever been fought tit for tat, and the Hague Conventions doesn’t say any war should be. The American response to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor went well beyond sinking an equal number of ships in a Japanese harbor, for instance. And European Jews certainly were not entitled to execute six million German civilians after the Holocaust.

The proportionality doctrine spelled out here is really only useful up to a point. “It’s always a subjective test,” Beehner correctly quotes Vanderbilt University Professor Michael Newton as saying. “But if someone punches you in the nose, you don’t burn their house down.” That much most of us can agree on. Israel should not — and will not — implement a Dresden-style fire-bombing of Gaza City in response to Qassam and Grad rocket attacks.

So aside from the obvious, we’re wading into murky territory that could be debated forever. Another doctrine of proportionality, though, clearly applies to this war, and it’s found in the “Law of Armed Conflict”:http://usmilitary.about.com/cs/wars/a/loac.htm.

The Law of Armed Conflict “arises from a desire among civilized nations to prevent unnecessary suffering and destruction while not impeding the effective waging of war. A part of public international law, LOAC regulates the conduct of armed hostilities. It also aims to protect civilians, prisoners of war, the wounded, sick, and shipwrecked.”

Proportionality, in short and “according to the law”:http://usmilitary.about.com/cs/wars/a/loac_2.htm, “prohibits the use of any kind or degree of force that exceeds that needed to accomplish the military objective.”

In other words, if a surgical strike is all that is needed to take out a Grad rocket launcher, carpet bombing the entire city or even the neighborhood isn’t allowed.

Hamas is still firing rockets; therefore, the IDF is not using more force than necessary to disrupt the firing of rockets. Israel, arguably, is using less force than necessary. And the IDF, unlike Hamas, does what it can to minimize injury to civilians. “Militants often operate against Israel from civilian areas,” “the Associated Press reported last week”:http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20081227/ap_on_re_mi_ea/ml_israel_palestinians. “Late Saturday, thousands of Gazans received Arabic-language cell-phone messages from the Israeli military, urging them to leave homes where militants might have stashed weapons.” Israeli commanders are even warning individual Hamas leaders that their homes are on the target list so they can vacate the premises in advance.

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/48801.

What Would a Proportionate Response Look Like?

“If someone was sending rockets on my house where my daughters were sleeping at night, I would do everything to stop it, and I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.” — President-elect Barack Obama

Now that Hamas’s long war against Israel is matched with a short war in Gaza, protests are erupting everywhere from the blogosphere and Arab capitals to the United Nations, and they began on the very first day. Salon.com “blogger “Glenn Greenwald”:http://www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/2008/12/28/peretz/index.html calls the Israeli retaliation to more than a year of rocket attacks a “massively disproportionate response.” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights “Navi Pillay”:http://www.monstersandcritics.com/news/middleeast/news/article_1450541.php/LEADALL_Violence_death_toll_escalate_in_Israel-Gaza_conflict_ “strongly condemned Israel’s disproportionate use of force.” The Israeli counterattack is, indeed, disproportionate, but it could hardly be otherwise. “At last count,” “J.G. Thayer wrote”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/thayer/48162, “one Israeli and two Palestinians (sisters, ages 13 and 5) died from rocket attacks. So a proportionate response, one presumes, would have required Israel to kill a single Palestinian and two of its own citizens.”

There were, I suppose, other “proportionate” responses available aside from killing one Palestinian and two Israelis. The Israel Defense Forces might have launched thousands of air strikes against targets in Gaza to match the thousands of Qassam rockets fired at the cities of Sderot and Ashkelon. It’s unlikely, however, that this is what Israel’s critics have in mind.

So what do they have in mind? What would a legitimate and “proportionate” response actually look like? Surely they don’t believe Israel should scrap its sophisticated weapons systems, build Qassam rockets, and launch those at Gaza instead.

The “disproportionate response” crowd doesn’t seem to mind that Israel struck back at Hamas per se. They aren’t saying Israel should only be allowed to negotiate with its enemies or that any use of force whatsoever is wrong. They’re clearly saying Israel should use less force, inflict less damage, or both.

One problem here is that it’s not at all clear how they think Israelis should go about doing it. The weapons used by each side can’t be the same. No one has ever said Israel ought to put its superior weapons systems in cold storage until Hamas can develop or purchase something similar. Presumably Israel is allowed to use its superior technology as long as the casualty count on each side is proportionate.

But how would that work in practice? A single Israeli air strike is going to kill at least as many people as Hamas can kill in twelve months. Does that mean Israel should be given a “license” of one air strike per year to use in the war? If IDF commanders want to take out a target where they expect five Hamas leaders or fighters to be killed, do they have to wait until five Israelis are killed first? If the Israelis endure rocket fire until one civilian is killed, do they get a “kill one Palestinian terrorist” coupon?

“Read the rest in Commentary Magazine”:http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/totten/48542.

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