How Israel went from atheist Zionism to Jewish state

Shlomo Sand writes: Zionism as a national movement that rebelled against historical Judaism was mainly atheistic. Most of its leaders and activists ceased believing in redemption through the coming of the Messiah, the long-standing essence of Jewish belief, and took their fate into their own hands. The power of the human subject replaced the power of the omnipotent God.

The rabbis knew that, and were terrified – and, therefore, almost all of them became avowed anti-Zionists. From Hasidic rebbes Sholom Dovber Schneersohn, the Admor of Lubavitch (Chabad) and Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (the Admor of Gur) to leading U.S. Reform Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, founder of the Reform Central Conference, mitnagdim and Hasidim, Orthodox, Reform and Conservative, all saw the rise of Zionism as the end of Judaism. Due to the sweeping opposition of the rabbis of Germany, Theodor Herzl was forced to transfer the First Zionist Congress from Munich to the Swiss city of Basel.

But beginning with the first stages in the consolidation and settlement of the Zionist movement, it was forced to meticulously sort and thoroughly nationalize some of the religious beliefs in order to turn them into nation-building myths.

For the atheistic Zionists, God was dead and therefore the Holy Land became the homeland; all the traditional holidays became national holidays; and Jerusalem stopped being a heavenly city and became the very earthly capital of an eternal people. But it wasn’t these decisions, or many others, that prevented secular nationalism from serving as the foundation for the establishment of the State of Israel.

The main reason for Zionism’s inability to establish a secular entity with a constitution – in which religion is separated from the state – lay elsewhere. The problematic nature of defining the “Jew” according to secular criteria – cultural, linguistic, political or “biological” (despite all efforts, it’s still impossible to determine who is a Jew by means of DNA) – was what eliminated the option of a secularized identity.

For example, in 1918, Ben-Gurion – the future founder of the state – was convinced, as were many others, that most of the population of the Land of Israel had not been exiled, but converted to Islam with the Arab conquest, and therefore was clearly Jewish in origin.

In 1948, he had already given up on this confused and dangerous idea, and instead asserted that the Jewish people had been exiled by force and had wandered in isolation for 2,000 years. Shortly before that, he presented the weak and depleted religious Zionist stream with a valuable gift: In the famous “status quo” letter, all the laws pertaining to marital status, adoption and burial were given over to the Chief Rabbinate. The fear of assimilation was the nightmare shared by Judaism and Zionism, and it won out in the end.

Within a short time, the principle of the religious definition was accepted in identity politics: A “Jew” is someone who was born to a Jewish mother or converted, and is not a member of another religion. In other words, if you don’t meet those conditions, you cannot be a part of the revival of the “Jewish people,” even if you adopt Israeli culture, speak fluent Hebrew and celebrate on Israeli Independence Day. It’s a very logical historical process: Since there is no secular Jewish culture, it’s impossible to join by secular means something that doesn’t exist.

And then came 1967. The State of Israel expanded significantly, but at the same time a large non-Jewish population was also brought together under the country’s muscular Jewish wing. The Jewish constraints also had to be tightened in the face of the confusing misunderstandings that were liable to be created as a result of the territorial-demographic booby trap.

From now on, more than ever, the emphasis had to be on the heading “Jewish” – in other words, the state belonging to those who were born to a Jewish mother or converted according to Jewish law and, God forbid, not the country of all its citizens. [Continue reading…]

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The Jerusalem announcement won’t really hurt U.S. alliances with Arab rulers

Shadi Hamid writes: Most Arab countries won’t care much about Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which might seem counterintuitive. The official announcement, though, comes at an important and peculiar time, when Arab regimes—particularly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt—find themselves more aligned than ever with Israel on regional priorities. They all share, along with the Trump administration, a near obsession with Iran as the source of the region’s evils; a dislike, and even hatred, of the Muslim Brotherhood; and an opposition to the intent and legacy of the Arab Spring.

The Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has developed a close relationship with Trump senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner (who recently outlined the administration’s Middle East vision at my institution, Brookings). If Saudi officials, including the crown prince himself, were particularly concerned with Jerusalem’s status, they would presumably have used their privileged status as a top Trump ally and lobbied the administration to hold off on such a needlessly toxic move. As my colleague Shibley Telhami argues, there was little compelling reason, in either foreign policy or domestic political terms, for Trump to do this. This is a gratuitous announcement, if there ever was one, and it’s unlikely Trump would have followed through if the Saudis had drawn something resembling a red line, so to speak.

It appears that the Saudi regime may have done the opposite. As The New York Times reported:

According to Palestinian, Arab and European officials who have heard Mr. Abbas’s version of the conversation, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman presented a plan that would be more tilted toward the Israelis than any ever embraced by the American government.

Falling short of even what previous Israeli leaders Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert had considered, the Saudi proposal, by the Times’s account, would have asked Palestinians to accept limited sovereignty in the West Bank and forfeit claims on Jerusalem. Whether or not the Saudi crown prince presented this “plan” out of sincerity or as a gambit to lower the bar and pressure Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to make concessions is almost beside the point. That these ideas were even so much as floated suggests a Saudi regime increasingly close to both Israel as well as the Trump administration. (The Saudi government denied any changes in its position on Jerusalem in an official statement.)

These are odd positions for the Saudi leadership to be in. As the birthplace of Islam and custodian of the faith’s two holiest sites, Saudi Arabia has long presented itself as a protector and representative of Muslims worldwide. Yet it now finds itself in close embrace with the most anti-Muslim administration in U.S. history and stands as one of the few countries genuinely enthusiastic about Trump’s foreign-policy agenda. [Continue reading…]

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Senior Palestinian figure Dahlan urges exit from peace talks over Trump’s Jerusalem move

Reuters reports: Influential exiled Palestinian politician Mohammed Dahlan said on Wednesday Palestinians should reject any future peace talks and halt security coordination with Israel over U.S. plans to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

Dahlan was speaking via his Twitter account shortly before Trump confirmed in a speech that Washington was breaking with longstanding U.S. policy by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moving the U.S. Embassy to the city from Tel Aviv.

Palestinian leaders have denounced the planned move and said it could have dangerous consequences, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said immediately after Trump’s speech that the president’s announcement was a “historic landmark” and urged other countries to follow suit.

“I call for withdrawal from the absurd and endless negotiations with Israel after the principle of inviolability of the status of Jerusalem has been breached,” said Dahlan, an elected member of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party central committee.

“I call for ending all forms of coordination, especially security coordination, with Israel and USA,” he added from the United Arab Emirates, where he had lived since a quarrel with Abbas drove him out of the Palestinian territories in 2011. [Continue reading…]

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Trump tells Palestinians, Jordanians and Egyptians he intends to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem

The Washington Post reports: The Palestinian, Jordanian and Egyptian governments said that President Trump called them Tuesday to inform them he intends to relocate the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, a step that could upend the White House’s peace efforts and spark regional unrest.

“Mr. Trump told our president he was going to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” said Nabil Shaath, an adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who said Abbas had personally briefed him on the call. Trump did not give a time frame, Shaath said.

Trump also told Abbas that, in exchange, the United States would make future moves that he thought would please the Palestinian people, although he did not offer details, according to Shaath. “Our president said, ‘You don’t have anything that would make up for this on Jerusalem.’ He said, ‘Definitely, we will not accept it.’ ”

Abbas warned Trump that he was “playing into the hands of extremism,” but Trump “just went on saying he had to do it,” Shaath said. [Continue reading…]

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Talk of a peace plan that snubs Palestinians roils Middle East

The New York Times reports: In a mysterious trip last month, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, traveled to Saudi Arabia’s capital for consultations with the hard-charging crown prince about President Trump’s plans for Middle East peace. What was said when the doors were closed, however, has since roiled the region.

According to Palestinian, Arab and European officials who have heard Mr. Abbas’s version of the conversation, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman presented a plan that would be more tilted toward the Israelis than any ever embraced by the American government, one that presumably no Palestinian leader could ever accept.

The Palestinians would get a state of their own but only noncontiguous parts of the West Bank and only limited sovereignty over their own territory. The vast majority of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which most of the world considers illegal, would remain. The Palestinians would not be given East Jerusalem as their capital and there would be no right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

The White House on Sunday denied that was its plan, saying it was still months away from finalizing a blueprint for peace, and the Saudi government denied that it supports those positions.

That left many in Washington and the Middle East wondering whether the Saudi crown prince was quietly doing the bidding of Mr. Trump, trying to curry favor with the Americans, or freelancing in order to put pressure on the Palestinians or to make any eventual offer sound generous by comparison. Or perhaps Mr. Abbas, weakened politically at home, was sending out signals for his own purposes that he was under pressure from Riyadh.

Even if the account proves incomplete, it has gained currency with enough players in the Middle East to deeply alarm Palestinians and raise suspicions about Mr. Trump’s efforts. On top of that, advisers have said the president plans to give a speech on Wednesday in which he would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, even though both sides claim it, a declaration that analysts and regional officials say could undermine America’s role as a theoretically neutral broker. [Continue reading…]

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Kushner is said to have ordered Flynn to contact Russia

Eli Lake writes: Former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s guilty plea Friday for lying to the FBI is alarming news for Donald Trump. But the first person it’s likely to jeopardize will be the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

Two former officials with the Trump transition team who worked closely with Flynn say that during the last days of the Obama administration, the retired general was instructed to contact foreign ambassadors and foreign ministers of countries on the U.N. Security Council, ahead of a vote condemning Israeli settlements. Flynn was told to try to get them to delay that vote until after Barack Obama had left office, or oppose the resolution altogether.

That is relevant now because one of Flynn’s lies to the FBI was when he said that he never asked Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak, to delay the vote for the U.N. Security Council resolution. The indictment released today from the office of special prosecutor Robert Mueller describes this lie: “On or about December 22, 2016, Flynn did not ask the Russian Ambassador to delay the vote on or defeat a pending United Nations Security Council resolution.”

At the time, the U.N. Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements was a big deal. Even though the Obama administration had less than a month left in office, the president instructed his ambassador to the United Nations to abstain from a resolution, breaking a precedent that went back to 1980 when it came to one-sided anti-Israel resolutions at the U.N.

This was the context of Kushner’s instruction to Flynn last December. One transition official at the time said Kushner called Flynn to tell him he needed to get every foreign minister or ambassador from a country on the U.N. Security Council to delay or vote against the resolution. Much of this appeared to be coordinated also with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose envoys shared their own intelligence about the Obama administration’s lobbying efforts to get member states to support the resolution with the Trump transition team. [Continue reading…]

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Hezbollah, on the rise in Lebanon, fends off Saudi Arabia

The Washington Post reports: Even as Arab countries step up pressure on Hezbollah for its ties to Iran, the Lebanese Shiite militant group has cemented its status as a regional power, projecting military strength beyond Lebanon’s borders and weathering political crises at home.

The group’s rise comes as Iran and Saudi Arabia vie for hegemony in the region, intensifying conflicts from Syria to Yemen. Saudi Arabia sees Hezbollah as Iran’s most potent proxy, and in recent weeks has spearheaded an effort to isolate the movement.

But Hezbollah’s dominant position was made apparent this month in the ongoing saga of Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri.

According to U.S. and Lebanese officials, Saudi Arabia forced Hariri’s resignation, shattering Lebanon’s coalition government, which included Hezbollah ministers. Saudi Arabia hoped the move would undermine Iran by paving the way for more aggressive action against the Shiite militants, the officials say.

Instead, it rallied Lebanon in support of its prime minister and cast Hezbollah as the stabilizing force. On Wednesday, Hariri announced he was suspending his resignation as he held talks with Lebanese President Michel Aoun.

Now Hezbollah is set to potentially benefit from the turmoil, using its political and military prowess — and vast social networks in Lebanon — to entrench itself further. From its strongholds in southern Lebanon, where it made its name fighting Israeli troops, to the battlefields of Syria, Hezbollah is ascendant, with few able to challenge it. [Continue reading…]

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Israel and U.S. race to prevent publication of UN settlement ‘blacklist’

The Associated Press reports: Weeks ahead of the expected completion of a U.N. database of companies that operate in Israel’s West Bank settlements, Israel and the Trump Administration are working feverishly to prevent its publication.

While Israel is usually quick to brush off U.N. criticism, officials say they are taking the so-called “blacklist” seriously, fearing its publication could have devastating consequences by driving companies away, deterring others from coming and prompting investors to dump shares of Israeli firms. Dozens of major Israeli companies, as well as multinationals that do business in Israel, are expected to appear on the list.

“We will do everything we can to ensure that this list does not see the light of day,” Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Danny Danon, told The Associated Press. [Continue reading…]

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What Trump really told Kislyak and Lavrov after Comey was fired

Howard Blum writes: On a dark night at the tail end of last winter, just a month after the inauguration of the new American president, an evening when only a sickle moon hung in the Levantine sky, two Israeli Sikorsky CH-53 helicopters flew low across Jordan and then, staying under the radar, veered north toward the twisting ribbon of shadows that was the Euphrates River. On board, waiting with a professional stillness as they headed into the hostile heart of Syria, were Sayeret Matkal commandos, the Jewish state’s elite counterterrorism force, along with members of the technological unit of the Mossad, its foreign-espionage agency. Their target: an ISIS cell that was racing to get a deadly new weapon thought to have been devised by Ibrahim al-Asiri, the Saudi national who was al-Qaeda’s master bombmaker in Yemen.

It was a covert mission whose details were reconstructed for Vanity Fair by two experts on Israeli intelligence operations. It would lead to the unnerving discovery that ISIS terrorists were working on transforming laptop computers into bombs that could pass undetected through airport security. U.S. Homeland Security officials—quickly followed by British authorities—banned passengers traveling from an accusatory list of Muslim-majority countries from carrying laptops and other portable electronic devices larger than a cell phone on arriving planes. It would not be until four tense months later, as foreign airports began to comply with new, stringent American security directives, that the ban would be lifted on an airport-by-airport basis.

In the secretive corridors of the American espionage community, the Israeli mission was praised by knowledgeable officials as a casebook example of a valued ally’s hard-won field intelligence being put to good, arguably even lifesaving, use.

Yet this triumph would be overshadowed by an astonishing conversation in the Oval Office in May, when an intemperate President Trump revealed details about the classified mission to Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, and Sergey I. Kislyak, then Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. Along with the tempest of far-reaching geopolitical consequences that raged as a result of the president’s disclosure, fresh blood was spilled in his long-running combative relationship with the nation’s clandestine services. Israel—as well as America’s other allies—would rethink its willingness to share raw intelligence, and pretty much the entire Free World was left shaking its collective head in bewilderment as it wondered, not for the first time, what was going on with Trump and Russia. (In fact, Trump’s disturbing choice to hand over highly sensitive intelligence to the Russians is now a focus of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s relationship with Russia, both before and after the election.) In the hand-wringing aftermath, the entire event became, as is so often the case with spy stories, a tale about trust and betrayal. [Continue reading…]

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Mueller probes Jared Kushner’s contacts with foreign leaders

The Wall Street Journal reports: Robert Mueller’s investigators are asking questions about Jared Kushner’s interactions with foreign leaders during the presidential transition, including his involvement in a dispute at the United Nations in December, in a sign of the expansive nature of the special counsel’s probe of Russia’s alleged meddling in the election, according to people familiar with the matter.

The investigators have asked witnesses questions about the involvement of Mr. Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and a senior White House adviser, in a controversy over a U.N. resolution passed Dec. 23, before Mr. Trump took office, that condemned Israel’s construction of settlements in disputed territories, these people said.

Israeli officials had asked the incoming Trump administration to intervene to help block it. Mr. Trump posted a Facebook message the day before the U.N. vote—after he had been elected but before he had assumed office—saying the resolution put the Israelis in a difficult position and should be vetoed.

Mr. Trump also held a phone conversation with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, whose government had written a draft of the resolution. Egypt proceeded to call for the vote to be delayed, but the resolution passed the following day, with then-President Barack Obama’s administration declining to block it.

Israeli officials said at the time that they began reaching out to senior leaders in Mr. Trump’s transition team. Among those involved were Mr. Kushner and political strategist Stephen Bannon, according to people briefed on the exchanges.

The White House referred questions to Mr. Kushner’s attorney, Abbe Lowell, and to a White House lawyer.

The motivation for the Mueller team’s questions about the U.N. is unclear. [Continue reading…]

It seems likely that the focus here is not the legality of these diplomatic exchanges but instead a pattern of deception — Kushner’s apparent habit of withholding information and providing false or deceptive answers while being questioned under oath.

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Israeli military chief wants closer Saudi ties as Iran tensions rise

The Guardian reports: Israel’s military chief has given an “unprecedented” interview to a Saudi newspaper underlining the ways in which the two countries could unite to counter Iran’s influence in the region.

Speaking to the Saudi newspaper Elaph, Gen Gadi Eisenkot described Iran as the “biggest threat to the region” and said Israel would be prepared to share intelligence with “moderate” Arab states like Saudi Arabia in order to “deal with” Tehran.

The interview, however, is particularly striking in its very public and confrontational messaging: an appeal by Israel to Riyadh for a joint action on Tehran, delivered by Israel’s most senior soldier.

It is the latest dramatic twist in weeks of turmoil in the region, which followed an unexpected purge of Saudi princes and officials by crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, who has also increasingly locked Saudi Arabia on a path to confrontation with Iran. [Continue reading…]

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Israel’s leadership talks up another war with Hezbollah in Lebanon

The Guardian reports: Israel’s political and military leadership appears to have concluded that a conflict with Lebanon’s Hezbollah is becoming increasingly likely, despite months of growing warnings that a third Lebanese war would be more dangerous and deadly than the last war in 2006.

The mounting tensions on the northern border with Syria and Lebanon have increased in recent months as Israel has recognised its assumption that Hezbollah – a key ally fighting with the Assad regime – would be chewed up in a protracted Syrian conflict is badly mistaken as the war has turned rapidly in Bashar al-Assad’s favour.

Instead the Iranian-backed group appears to be emerging from the Syrian war as a battle-hardened and largely conventional military force whose missiles have been heavily resupplied by Tehran despite dozens of Israeli airstrikes on convoys and depots.

Amid threats by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, that Israel would intervene rather than allow Iran or Iranian-backed groups to establish themselves on Israel’s border, the sense of growing risk of conflict has been given added impetus in the recent convergence of Israeli, Saudi Arabian and US rhetoric against Iran. [Continue reading…]

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Will Israel go to war with Hezbollah and fight a Saudi war to the last Israeli?

The New York Times reports: There are no signs of war preparations in Israel. The country is not mobilizing troops on its northern border or calling up reservists, and Mr. Netanyahu has given no indication that he sees a conflict as imminent.

Moreover, Israel’s war planners predict that the next war with Hezbollah may be catastrophic, particularly if it lasts more than a few days. Hezbollah now has more than 120,000 rockets and missiles, Israel estimates, enough to overwhelm Israeli missile defenses.

Many of them are long-range and accurate enough to bring down Tel Aviv high-rises, sink offshore gas platforms, knock out Ben-Gurion Airport or level landmark buildings across Israel.

Nor is Hezbollah necessarily hankering for battle with Israel, according to analysts who study the militant group closely. It is still fighting in Syria, where it has been backing the government of President Bashar al-Assad, and it is being drained by medical costs for wounded fighters and survivor benefits for the families of those killed, said Giora Eiland, a retired Israeli major general and former head of the country’s National Security Council.

“Hezbollah as an organization is in a very deep economic crisis today,” Mr. Eiland said. “But at the same time, the weaker they are, the more dependent they are on Iranian assistance — so they might have to comply with Iran’s instructions.”

But there have long been fears that now that the Syrian war — in which Hezbollah played a decisive role, gaining new influence, power and weapons — is almost over, Hezbollah’s enemies might seek to cut it down to size.

Mr. Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, implied Friday that its fight in Syria was nearly finished. If Saudi Arabia’s goal was to force Hezbollah to leave Syria, he said: “No problem. Our goal there has been achieved. It’s almost over anyway.” [Continue reading…]

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Saudi Arabia orders its citizens out of Lebanon, raising fears of war

The New York Times reports: Saudi Arabia ordered its citizens to leave Lebanon on Thursday, escalating a bewildering crisis between the two Arab nations and raising fears that it could lead to an economic crisis or even war.

The order came after Saudi Arabia had stepped up its condemnations of Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shiite militia that is the most powerful political and military force in Lebanon, and asserted that Lebanon had effectively declared war on Saudi Arabia.

The developments plunged Lebanon into a state of national anxiety, with politicians, journalists and even parents picking up their children at school consumed with the question of what could come next.

While analysts said a war was unlikely — because Saudi Arabia was not capable of waging one and Israel did not want one now — they worried that with so many active conflicts in the region, any Saudi actions that raised the temperature increased the risk of an accidental conflagration.

“There are so many fuses, so little communication, so many risks of something exploding, that there’s little chance of something not going wrong,” said Robert Malley, the former director of Middle East policy in the Obama White House and now vice president for policy at the International Crisis Group. “Everything needs to go right to maintain calm.”

The backdrop to the crisis was a series of steps by Saudi Arabia in recent days to confront its ascendant regional rival, Iran, and the surprise arrests of about 200 Saudis, including 11 princes, in what the government describes as an anti-corruption campaign but which critics see as a consolidation of power by the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

Lebanon had already been drawn into the crisis in two ways: After a rocket was fired from Yemen at the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on Saturday, Saudi officials accused Hezbollah and Iran of aiding in the attack. And they declared that the attack amounted to a declaration of war by Lebanon, a leap given that the weak Lebanese state does not control Hezbollah.

At the same time, the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, unexpectedly flew to Riyadh and declared his resignation there on Saturday. Suspicions were growing among officials and diplomats in Beirut on Thursday that he had not only been pressured to do so by Saudi Arabia but was being held there against his will.

Despite the worries, analysts, officials and diplomats said that although they were not privy to the thinking of the Saudi crown prince, it was far-fetched that Saudi Arabia would launch a military action against Lebanon, since it is already overstretched in a war it started two years ago against Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen.

And Saudi Arabia has expressed displeasure with Lebanon this way before: This was at least the fourth time in five years that it asked its citizens to leave Lebanon. [Continue reading…]

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Lebanon’s plunge into political crisis raises specter of war with Israel

The Washington Post reports: Even for a country often used as a battleground by regional powers and their proxies, the sudden resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri has opened a new period of political uncertainty and fear in Lebanon.

The tiny nation has often been caught between the political agendas of more-powerful countries. But it now appears more vulnerable to conflict as Israel and Saudi Arabia try to isolate their shared enemy, the Iran-backed movement Hezbollah.

Hariri, a Sunni politician backed by the Saudis, cited Iranian meddling in Lebanese politics as the reason for his decision to step down.

But the fact that he made his announcement in a televised speech from Saudi Arabia left little doubt that his regional patron must have played a role in a move that caught even his aides off guard. [Continue reading…]

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The 100-year-old letter that still divides the Middle East

Ishaan Tharoor writes: In a year brimming with profoundly symbolic centennials, Thursday marks perhaps the most politically fraught one. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will appear in London alongside his British counterpart, Theresa May, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, a 67-word missive from Britain’s then-foreign secretary expressing his government’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

The Nov. 2, 1917, public letter was written by Lord Arthur Balfour to Baron Walter Rothschild, the head of the British wing of the influential European Jewish banking family. Balfour articulated the British desire for the establishment of “a national home for the Jewish people” and promised that his government would “facilitate the achievement of this object.” It would take three further decades — and a great deal more politicking and bloodshed — before Israel declared independence in 1948.

But the Balfour Declaration is held up as a seminal event, the first formal utterance of the modern Israeli state’s right to exist (though some historians quibble that a “national home” is not the same thing as a state). For that reason, it is also bitterly regarded by many Palestinians as the first instrument of their dispossession. In 1917, Jews made up less than 10 percent of Palestine’s population — a century later, they are now the majority, while millions of Palestinians live in exile or in refugee camps. Protests are planned in the Palestinian territories to mark the centennial. [Continue reading…]

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Tony Blair: ‘We were wrong to boycott Hamas after its election win’

The Observer reports: Tony Blair has said for the first time that he and other world leaders were wrong to yield to Israeli pressure to impose an immediate boycott of Hamas after the Islamic faction won Palestinian elections in 2006.

As prime minister at the time, Blair offered strong support for the decision – driven by the George W Bush White House – to halt aid to, and cut off relations with, the newly elected Hamas-led Palestinian Authority unless it agreed to recognise Israel, renounce violence and abide by previous agreements between its Fatah predecessors and Israel. The ultimatum was rejected by Hamas. The elections were judged free and fair by international monitors.

Blair, who became envoy of the Middle East quartet – composed of the US, EU, UN and Russia – after leaving Downing Street, now says the international community should have tried to “pull Hamas into a dialogue”. The boycott and Israel’s economic blockade of Gaza, which began the following year, are still in force today. A UN report two years ago said the combined effects of the blockade and the three military offensives conducted in Gaza by Israel since 2009 could make the territory “uninhabitable” by 2020. Humanitarian conditions have worsened markedly since the report was written.

Interviewed for a new book Gaza: Preparing for Dawn, out later this month, Blair said: “In retrospect I think we should have, right at the very beginning, tried to pull [Hamas] into a dialogue and shifted their positions. I think that’s where I would be in retrospect.

“But obviously it was very difficult, the Israelis were very opposed to it. But you know we could have probably worked out a way whereby we did – which in fact we ended up doing anyway, informally.”

Blair did not elaborate on subsequent “informal” dealings with Hamas but he appears to be referring to clandestine contacts between MI6 and Hamas representatives during and possibly after the kidnap of BBC journalist Alan Johnston by an extreme fundamentalist group in 2007. The kidnappers eventually released Johnston after heavy pressure from the Hamas de facto government. [Continue reading…]

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Israeli defense experts warn against dropping Iran nuke deal

The Associated Press reports: If President Donald Trump moves to scuttle the landmark 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, Israel’s nationalist government can be expected to be the loudest — and perhaps only — major player to applaud.

But the true picture is more complicated than what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might portray: There is a strong sense among his own security establishment that there are few good alternatives, that the deal has benefited Israel, and that U.S. credibility could be squandered in the turbulent Middle East in ways that could harm Israel itself.

That is not to say that Israel’s respected security chiefs are all pleased with every aspect of the Iran deal. But after Netanyahu declared at the United Nations last month that it was time to “fix it or nix it,” the prevailing attitude among security experts seems to be that fixing it is the best way to go.

“It seems to me that the less risky approach is to build on the existing agreement, among other reasons because it does set concrete limitations on the Iranians,” said Uzi Arad, a former national security adviser to Netanyahu. “It imposes ceilings and benchmarks and verification systems that you do not want to lose. Why lose it?” [Continue reading…]

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