Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.
Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.
In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.
Mourners at the funeral of an Israeli soldier (Reuters)
It is too early to say anything definitive about the Hamas decision to apparently break the ceasefire and attack an Israeli position, except that if it is true, as reports indicate, that Hamas militants came through a tunnel and carried underground and back into Gaza a live Israeli captive, then this moment could represent not another terrible, dispiriting incident in a terrible, dispiriting mini-war, but a fairly decisive turning point in which all swords are unsheathed.
This is assuming—as seems probable, but not 100 percent certain—that this raid is even what the Hamas leadership wanted (for what it's worth, its leaders, at the moment, seem to be owning this raid, suggesting that they are indeed doubling down in their war on Israel). If the events of earlier today happened as initial reports depict, then Israel will consider this incident an engraved invitation from Hamas to launch something close to a full-scale invasion of Gaza. Here are the factors that could lead Israel to decide to go all-in:
a) The compact between the Israeli army and Israeli parents is simple: You give us your sons, and we will do whatever we can to keep them alive. This includes conducting operations that get other soldiers killed. There will be near-unanimity in Israel that this soldier should be rescued, regardless of price to Israel, or certainly to the Palestinians in Gaza.
b) There is near-unanimity in Israel already that Hamas represents an unbearable threat. Add in the perfidy of a raid conducted after a ceasefire went into effect and near-unanimity becomes total unanimity. The most interesting article I've read in the past 24 hours is an interview with the Israeli novelist Amos Oz, the father of his country's peace-and-compromise movement, who opened the interview with Deutsche Welle in this manner:
Amoz Oz: I would like to begin the interview in a very unusual way: by presenting one or two questions to your readers and listeners. May I do that?
Deutsche Welle:Go ahead!
Question 1: What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery?
Question 2: What would you do if your neighbor across the street digs a tunnel from his nursery to your nursery in order to blow up your home or in order to kidnap your family?
With these two questions I pass the interview to you.
The point is, if Amos Oz, a severe critic of his country's policies toward the Palestinians, sounds no different on the subject of the Hamas threat than the right-most ministers in Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing cabinet, then there will be a national consensus that it is not enough to manage the Hamas rocket-and-tunnel threat, but that it must be eliminated if at all possible. This doesn't mean that the Israeli government wants to see the Hamas government in Gaza replaced. What it could mean is that the Israeli public demands that its leaders ensure them that the tunnel threat, in particular, is neutralized in a decisive way.
c) For Israelis who are immune, unlike Amos Oz, to the criticism of outsiders, the world's inability, or unwillingness, to understand the Hamas threat in the way that Oz (and most everyone else in Israel) understands it suggests that there is nothing Israel can do, short of national suicide, to stop the condemnation of their country. Which, of course, frees Israel, in their minds, to take whatever action it deems necessary to take. In other words, don't be overly surprised by news later today of a massive Israeli army reserve call-up.
An Israeli officer in a Hamas tunnel (Jack Guez/Reuters)
Things change, of course—the only constant in the Middle East is sudden and dramatic change—but as I write it seems as if Israel is losing the war in Gaza, even as it wins the battle against Hamas’s rocket arsenal, and even as it destroys the tunnels meant to convey terrorists underground to Israel (and to carry Israeli hostages back to Gaza).
This is not the first time Israel has found itself losing on the battlefield of perception. Why is it happening again? Here are six possible reasons:
1. In a fight between a state actor and a non-state actor, the non-state actor can win merely by surviving. The party with tanks and planes is expected to win; the non-state group merely has to stay alive in order to declare victory. In a completely decontextualized, emotion-driven environment, Hamas can portray itself as the besieged upstart, even when it is the party that rejects ceasefires, and in particular because it is skilled at preventing journalists from documenting the activities of its armed wing. (I am differentiating here between Hamas's leadership and Gaza's civilians, who are genuinely besieged, from all directions.)
2. Hamas’s strategy is to bait Israel into killing Palestinian civilians, and Israel usually takes the bait. This time, because of the cautious nature of its prime minister, Israel waited longer than usual before succumbing to the temptation of bait-taking, but it took it all the same. (As I’ve written, the seemingly miraculous Iron Dome anti-rocket system could have provided Israel with the space to be more patient than it was.) Hamas’s principal goal is killing Jews, and it is very good at this (for those who have forgotten about Hamas's achievements in this area, here is a reminder, and also here and here), but it knows that it advances its own (perverse) narrative even more when it induces Israel to kill Palestinian civilians. This tactic would not work if the world understood this, and rejected it. But in the main, it doesn’t. Why people don’t see the cynicism at the heart of terrorist groups like Hamas is a bit of a mystery. Here is The Washington Post on the subject:
The depravity of Hamas’s strategy seems lost on much of the outside world, which — following the terrorists’ script — blames Israel for the civilian casualties it inflicts while attempting to destroy the tunnels. While children die in strikes against the military infrastructure that Hamas’s leaders deliberately placed in and among homes, those leaders remain safe in their own tunnels. There they continue to reject cease-fire proposals, instead outlining a long list of unacceptable demands.
3. People talk a lot about the Jewish lobby. But the worldwide Muslim lobby is bigger, comprising, among other components, 54 Muslim-majority states in the United Nations. Many Muslims naturally sympathize with the Palestinian cause. They make their voices heard, and they help shape a global anti-Israel narrative, in particular by focusing relentlessly on Gaza to the exclusion of conflicts in which Muslims are being killed in even greater numbers, but by Muslims (I wrote about this phenomenon here).
4. If you've spent any time these past few weeks on Twitter, or in Paris, you know that anti-Semitism is another source of Israel’s international isolation. One of the notable features of this war, brought to light by the ubiquity and accessibility of social media, is the open, unabashed expression of vitriolic Jew-hatred. Anti-Semitism has been with us for more than 2,000 years; it is an ineradicable and shape-shifting virus. The reaction to the Gaza war—from the Turkish prime minister, who compared Israel's behavior unfavorably to that of Hitler's, to the Lebanese journalist who demanded the nuclear eradication of Israel, to, of course, the anti-Jewish riots in France—is a reminder that much of the world is not opposed to Israel because of its settlement policy, but because it is a Jewish country.
5. Israel’s political leadership has done little in recent years to make their cause seem appealing. It is impossible to convince a Judeophobe that Israel can do anything good or useful, short of collective suicide. But there are millions of people of good will across the world who look at the decision-making of Israel’s government and ask themselves if this is a country doing all it can do to bring about peace and tranquility in its region. Hamas is a theocratic fascist cult committed to the obliteration of Israel. But it doesn’t represent all Palestinians. Polls suggest that it may very well not represent all of the Palestinians in Gaza. There is a spectrum of Palestinian opinion, just as there is a spectrum of Jewish opinion.
I don’t know if the majority of Palestinians would ultimately agree to a two-state solution. But I do know that Israel, while combating the extremists, could do a great deal more to buttress the moderates. This would mean, in practical terms, working as hard as possible to build wealth and hope on the West Bank. A moderate-minded Palestinian who watches Israel expand its settlements on lands that most of the world believes should fall within the borders of a future Palestinian state might legitimately come to doubt Israel’s intentions. Reversing the settlement project, and moving the West Bank toward eventual independence, would not only give Palestinians hope, but it would convince Israel’s sometimes-ambivalent friends that it truly seeks peace, and that it treats extremists differently than it treats moderates. And yes, I know that in the chaos of the Middle East, which is currently a vast swamp of extremism, the thought of a West Bank susceptible to the predations of Islamist extremists is a frightening one. But independence—in particular security independence—can be negotiated in stages. The Palestinians must go free, because there is no other way. A few months ago, President Obama told me how he views Israel's future absent some sort of arrangement with moderate Palestinians:
[M]y assessment, which is shared by a number of Israeli observers ... is there comes a point where you can’t manage this anymore, and then you start having to make very difficult choices. Do you resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank? Is that the character of Israel as a state for a long period of time? Do you perpetuate, over the course of a decade or two decades, more and more restrictive policies in terms of Palestinian movement? Do you place restrictions on Arab-Israelis in ways that run counter to Israel’s traditions?
Obama raised a series of prescient questions. Of course, the Israeli government's primary job at the moment is to keep its citizens from being killed or kidnapped by Hamas. But it should work to find an enduring solution to the problem posed by Muslim extremism. Part of that fix is military, but another part isn't.
6. Speaking of the Obama administration, the cause of a two-state solution would be helped, and Israel's standing would be raised, if the secretary of state, John Kerry, realized that such a solution will be impossible to achieve so long as an aggressive and armed Hamas remains in place in Gaza. Kerry's recent efforts to negotiate a ceasefire have come to nothing in part because his proposals treat Hamas as a legitimate organization with legitimate security needs, as opposed to a group listed by Kerry's State Department as a terror organization devoted to the physical elimination of one of America's closest allies. Here is David Horovitz's understanding of Kerry's proposals:
It seemed inconceivable that the secretary’s initiative would specify the need to address Hamas’s demands for a lifting of the siege of Gaza, as though Hamas were a legitimate injured party acting in the interests of the people of Gaza — rather than the terror group that violently seized control of the Strip in 2007, diverted Gaza’s resources to its war effort against Israel, and could be relied upon to exploit any lifting of the “siege” in order to import yet more devastating weaponry with which to kill Israelis.
I'm not sure why Kerry's proposals for a ceasefire seem to indulge the organization that initiated this current war. Perhaps because Kerry may be listening more to Qatar, which is Hamas's primary funder, than he is listening to the Jordanians, Emiratis, Saudis, and Egyptians, all of whom oppose Hamas to an equivalent or greater degree than does their ostensible Israeli adversary. In any case, more on this later, as more details emerge about Kerry's efforts. For purposes of this discussion, I'll just say that Israel won't have a chance of winning the current struggle against Hamas's tunnel-diggers and rocket squads if its principal ally doesn't appear to fully and publicly understand Hamas's nihilistic war aims, even as it works to shape more constructive Israeli policies in other, related areas.
The responses to what I write about the Hamas war fall into several categories. My least favorite sort of response is the kind that invokes Hitler in some way. Here is an e-mail that is representative: “I hope Hitler kills you and your family.” (Yes, it was written in the present tense.) Then there are the messages from those who seek the elimination of Israel. These run along the lines of, “Jeffrey wants blood, give him more Palestinian blood!” (I’m not sure if this tweet was riffing off the blood libel or not.) Like many people, I am legitimately shocked (not “shocked, shocked” but actually shocked) by the level of grotesque anti-Jewish invective seemingly (though not actually) prompted by the war, particularly in Europe. I’ve been getting mail like this for a long time, so it is the intensity and volume, rather than the content, that is so surprising.
One of my other least-favorite types of responses comes from the opposite end of the spectrum, from people who ask me why the media is so biased against Israel, and then cite the work of this reporter or that reporter—in this war, usually someone currently stationed in Gaza—who appears, to my interlocutor, to have an anti-Israel agenda. It’s a question I’ve seen for years, and it is usually asked by people who believe that Israel only has public relations problems, as opposed to actual problems, in addition to public relations problems.
I can’t speak with great knowledge about the reporters from European and other overseas outlets (I do have an understanding of the sympathies of many British reporters), but I tend to think that journalists from American outlets are doing a fine job in dangerous conditions of covering a horrible war. It is true that Hamas makes it difficult to report on matters it would rather not see come to light (this is why you see so few photos, if any, of armed Hamas fighters). It is also true that reporters in the field could do a more thorough job of asking Hamas leaders harder questions (such as, Why are you rejecting ceasefire offers; why did you place your command bunkers under hospitals; and so on), but working conditions are very difficult, and they are trying the best they can. (I’ve covered various of these mini-Middle East wars in the past, and, believe me, working conditions makes it difficult enough just to write down what you’re seeing six inches in front of your face.) In any case, these questions are sometimes best raised by analyzers and editorialists.
There is another question about media coverage that has been bothering me, however, one of proportionality. I was struck, over the weekend, by the lack of coverage of the Syrian civil war, in which the death count recently passed 170,000. By Sunday night, it had become clear that the weekend in toll in Syria would stand at roughly 700 dead—a larger number, obviously, than the weekend toll in Gaza (and more than the total number of deaths in this latest iteration of the Gaza war to date.) I tweeted the following in response to this news out of Syria: “I sincerely hope the @nytimes covers the slaughter in Syria – 700 dead in 48 hours – in tomorrow’s paper. Very important story as well.”
This was my sincere hope, and it was to my sincere surprise that Monday’s newspaper contained no information whatsoever about the weekend slaughter in Syria. The front page was devoted mainly to Gaza and Ukraine. But there was nothing inside either, and nothing on the website. As far as I can tell, the Times, as of this writing, has not addressed this most recent round of Syria carnage in an even semi-comprehensive way. It goes without saying that continuing violence in Libya, Egypt, Nigeria, Yemen, and so on, has not received much attention from the Times in recent days. (I’m singling out the Times because it is America’s best, most thorough and most important newspaper. I suppose you could accuse me of having a double standard. So be it.)
There are a couple of very good reasons why coverage of Israel and its troubles is so broad, and even obsessive. The first is a simple, technical one: Journalists can best cover what they can see. Hamas, despite its various restrictions, makes it easy for journalists to observe scenes of destruction in Gaza. It is much harder to operate in Syria (or rural Nigeria), and it is safer to operate in Gaza than it is in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. (For those of you who are wondering: In my time in Gaza, Hamas officials often gave me more access, and more respect, than officials of the more moderate Fatah, which at one point had me kidnapped and interrogated.)
The second reason is audience interest. Stories about Israel, and about Jews, almost automatically rise to the top of the Times’ “most-emailed” list. Stories about Miramshah or Fallujah, not nearly as much. I’m guessing this is true for other American outlets as well. And then there is a sound political reason why this conflict becomes the focus of so much coverage. Israel is a close ally of the U.S., and a recipient of American military and non-military help. This may make you very happy, or very unhappy, but the fact of it is incontrovertible. Therefore, the U.S. has a direct relationship with one of the players in this conflict (both, actually, because the Palestinian Authority is the recipient of a great deal of American aid as well). There is also the issue of double standards, which I wrote about here at length, but in short, Israel is a Western-style democratic state and so reporters are more apt to be interested in its behavior, and judgmental about its behavior, than in the behavior of despotic regimes.
But the Arab Spring (or Awakening, or whatever word you choose) has given lie to the idea—shorthanded as “linkage”—that the key to American success in the broader Middle East is dependent on finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This idea, that all roads run through Jerusalem, has traditionally motivated a great deal of journalistic and foreign policy expert interest in this conflict. Finding a solution to this conflict is very important to the future of Israelis and Palestinians, of course, but not nearly so much to Americans. A peaceful resolution to this conflict would do little to bring about good governance in Arab states, or an end to Islamist extremism in the greater Middle East. Which brings me back to Syria. The war in Syria (and Iraq, since it is more or less a single war now) is of greater national security importance to the United States than the war in Gaza, and it should be covered in a way that reflects this reality.
In Damascus, Bashar al-Assad, the closest Arab ally of America’s main Middle East adversary, Iran, wages a brutal war against his country’s Sunni Muslim majority, a war that has prompted, in turn, the explosive growth of Al Qaeda-style Sunni extremist groups that now control broad swaths of both countries. These groups pose a direct national security threat to the United States, as the Obama administration has acknowledged. The Syria conflict is also one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes of the post-World War II era. So from a moral perspective, and from a national security perspective, what happens in Syria should be of first-order interest to the U.S. media. But it is clearly not.
Why is this so? I can spend all day speculating, but one explanation for this lack of coverage is a relative lack of interest in the Syria/Iraq theater by Arabs and Muslims, or at least relative lack of interest in comparison to the obvious interest in the Gaza crisis. The American media takes at least some of its cues on Syria from the intensity of coverage in the Arab world. The Washington bureau chief of Al-Hayat, Joyce Karam, was one of the few people to notice the weekend death toll in Syria. She tweeted, in reference to anti-Israel protests in Pakistan, “Syria is essentially Gaza x320 death toll, x30 number of refugees, but no protest in Pakistan…”
I asked her why she thought this is so. Her answer: “Only reason I can think of is Muslim killing Muslim or Arab killing Arab seems more acceptable than Israel killing Arabs.”
Judging by the number and scale of anti-Assad protests (or anti-ISIS protests) in the Muslim world, she is obviously on to something. The Muslim world does seem more interested in Arabs who are killed by Jews than in Arabs killed by Arabs, and I’m guessing that this influences the scope and scale of the Gaza coverage as well. Why this is so—why the horrific levels of violence across the Arab world don’t seem to prompt such intense feelings, either in the Muslim or non-Muslim worlds, is a subject for another time. What is true for now is that Syria should be covered with the same focus and intensity that is applied to the war in Gaza.
A scene from a Hamas rally in March (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)
1. We can thank former President Bill Clinton for perfect clarity in his comments about the chaos and horror of Gaza. In an interview on Indian television, Clinton—who told us in his memoir that Palestinian self-destructiveness (in the form of Yasir Arafat’s various delusions and prevarications) undid his effort to bring about a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict—blames the Muslim Brotherhood’s Gaza affiliate, Hamas, for adopting a policy of deliberate self-murder in order to present Israel with a set of impossible dilemmas. “Hamas was perfectly well aware of what would happen if they started raining rockets in Israel,” Clinton said. “They fired a thousand of them. And they have a strategy designed to force Israel to kill their own civilians so that the rest of the world will condemn them.”
2. We can thank Hamas for bringing its own form of clarity to this situation. This is the manner in which Hamas works: It builds reinforced bunkers for its leaders (under hospitals and other must-avoid targets) but purposefully neglects to build bomb shelters for the civilians in its putative care. From their bunkers, the leaders order rocket teams to target Israeli civilians. Hamas, which was responsible for the deaths of several hundred Israeli civilians during the second Palestinian uprising alone, has lately been less effective at killing Israelis, but nevertheless, the rockets keep launching. When you repeatedly fire rockets at civilian targets in a neighboring country, that country usually responds militarily. Civilians get killed during the Israeli response in part because Hamas rocket teams operate from sites that are among Gaza's most densely populated, and in part because Hamas stores its weapons in schools and mosques.
The goal of Hamas—the actual, overarching goal—is to terrorize the Jews of Israel, through mass murder, into abandoning their country. If generations of Palestinians have to be sacrificed to that goal, well, Hamas believes such sacrifices are theologically justified.
3. Bill Clinton is far from the only Western leader to understand Hamas' strategy. President Obama himself has spoken strongly about Israel's right to self-defense. Here is what he said Wednesday: "As I’ve said repeatedly, Israel has a right to defend itself from rocket attacks that terrorize the Israeli people. There is no country on Earth that can be expected to live under a daily barrage of rockets."
Not everyone understands this principle. I am not talking about anti-Jewish propagandists such as Turkey's Tayyip Recep Erdogan, a serial human rights violator who cynically accuses Israel of committing "genocide." I think he understands the principle discussed by Obama and rejects it because Obama is applying it to a Jewish country. I'm talking now about the myopia of otherwise well-meaning people. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the institution that cares for Palestinians but whose actual raison d'être is the perpetuation of the stateless status of the descendants of refugees from 1948, recently tweeted this thought to its followers: “Palestinian children in #Gaza are experiencing severe trauma for the 3rd time in 5 years. The effects are lasting.” Entirely, miserably, true. An alternative to this current horrible reality presented itself in 2005, when the Israeli government—after years of foolish and destructive colonization—expelled thousands of Jewish settlers from Gaza and then withdrew its army. The Palestinian leadership could have taken the opportunity created by the Israeli withdrawal to build the nucleus of a state. Instead, Gaza was converted into a rocket-manufacturing and -launching facility. But here’s a bit of good news: The people of Gaza, who suffer from Hamas rule, appear to be tired of it. In a recent Pew poll, 63 percent of Gazans surveyed disapproved of Hamas. Perhaps this is because the people have come to realize that Hamas has brought them nothing but grief, sloganeering, and military defeat.
4. Hamas is not only isolated inside Gaza. This latest round of the Hamas-Israel fight is notable for two reasons: The first is the seeming success of the Israeli-developed, American-funded Iron Dome anti-rocket system, which has helped thwart Hamas' plan to terrorize and murder civilians in Israel. The second reason is that Hamas has been shown to be almost entirely friendless in the region. The Egyptian government blames Hamas for this conflict, as do commentators across the Gulf. Relations between Hamas and its traditional backers, the Iranians and the Syrians, have deteriorated markedly. Hamas is in a weaker position than it has been in years, which gives Israel an opportunity, if it chooses to take it.
5. A ground operation by Israel to destroy the tunnels that are used to convey terrorists under Gaza’s border and into Israel seems like a prudent move (more prudent than aerial bombardment, which, because of its imprecision, helps Hamas achieve its goal of creating Palestinian martyrs). Operating against extremists committed to killing Jewish civilians seems like a necessary part of any Israeli national security strategy. But what happens after the inevitable ceasefire matters as well, and we lack signs that the Netanyahu government is thinking strategically. Setting back the cause of extremists is half the battle; buttressing moderates is the other half. Netanyahu and his ministers are notably inexpert at helping the more moderate Palestinian factions strengthen their hold on the West Bank, and they specialize in putting their collective thumb in the eye of Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority. A clever post-conflict Israeli strategy would be to help the Palestinian Authority extend its mandate more deeply into Gaza (I’ll have more about the troubled P.A.-Hamas unity government later), because there is no permanent military solution to Israel’s rocket problem, only a political one.
Some commentators, like the excellent Shlomo Avineri, believe that even Palestinian moderates such as Abbas are incapable of making final-status compromises, because they are "genuinely uninterested in a solution of two states for two peoples because they’re unwilling to grant legitimacy to the Jewish right of self-determination." I don't disagree that many, many Palestinians fall into this category. But I'm not giving up yet. Where Avineri is right is in his argument that Israel must take the interim steps, regardless of Palestinian participation, to protect its democratic character. Israeli moderates must "demand a complete halt to construction in the settlements, the evacuation of illegal outposts, a reexamination—once the current tension has ebbed—of the Israel Defense Forces’ deployment in the West Bank, and the removal of what remains of the Gaza blockade (possibly in coordination with Egypt after the current fighting ends)."
I'm not hopeful at all that the Netanyahu government will listen to such advice. Because myopia has shown itself to be the enemy of compromise and progress in Israel, and not just in Gaza.
David Horovitz, the editor of the indispensable Times of Israel, noticed something on Friday that other observers did not. At a press conference, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been on record for several years now supporting the idea of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, essentially said, "Never mind." Here's Horovitz:
[Netanyahu] spoke only in Hebrew, and we are in the middle of a mini-war, so his non-directly war-related remarks didn’t get widely reported. But those remarks should not be overlooked even in the midst of a bitter conflict with Gaza’s Islamist rulers; especially in the midst of a bitter conflict with Gaza’s Islamist rulers. The prime minister spoke his mind as rarely, if ever, before. He set out his worldview with the confidence of a leader who sees vindication in the chaos all around. He answered those fundamental questions.
It is not that Netanyahu renounced his rhetorical support for a two-state solution. He simply described such a state as an impossibility.
[W]hile [Netanyahu] initially stuck to responses tied to the war against Hamas, its goals, and the terms under which it might be halted, he then moved—unasked—into territory he does not usually chart in public, and certainly not with such candor.
For some, his overall outlook will seem bleak and depressing; for others, savvy and pragmatic. One thing’s for sure: Nobody will ever be able to claim in the future that he didn’t tell us what he really thinks.
He made explicitly clear that he could never, ever, countenance a fully sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank. He indicated that he sees Israel standing almost alone on the frontlines against vicious Islamic radicalism, while the rest of the as-yet free world does its best not to notice the march of extremism. And he more than intimated that he considers the current American, John Kerry-led diplomatic team to be, let’s be polite, naive.
It is correct to note that the Middle East is a cauldron of Islamist extremism; it is correct to note that the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas is weak and faltering; it is also correct to note that on two previous occasions, Israel evacuated Arab territory—southern Lebanon in 2000, Gaza in 2005—only to see those territories soon enough come under control of extremists with rockets. So Netanyahu isn't crazy to note the dangers to Israel of an independent Palestinian entity on the West Bank. But he knows perfectly well that permanent occupation (and please don't doubt that an arrangement in which a Palestinian "state" isn't fully sovereign means, in fact, permanent occupation) is no solution for Israel, either.
Netanyahu is not crazy, and he's also not delusional, in the manner of certain political figures to his right, who believe that Israel can keep control of the Arabs of the West Bank forever without profound moral and political consequences. He knows, as he suggested to me in an interview this spring, that the status quo is not sustainable:
The first point of [Israeli national] consensus is that we don’t want a binational state. Another point of consensus is that we don’t want an Iranian proxy in territories we vacate. We want a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the nation-state of the Jews.
If Netanyahu has convinced himself that a Palestinian state is an impossibility, then he has no choice but to accept the idea that the status quo eventually brings him to binationalism, either in its Jim Crow form—Palestinians absorbed into Israel, except without full voting rights—or its end-of-Israel-as-a-Jewish-state form, in which the two warring populations, Jewish and Arab, are combined into a single political entity, with chaos to predictably ensue. (Recent events in the Middle East suggest that it is not a place ripe for experiments in coexistence.)
Netanyahu's admission that he doesn't see a path to a truly independent Palestinian state serves no purpose except to convince that diminishing number of Palestinians who believe that the two-state solution is the best solution that they have no partner for compromise. As such, Netanyahu's comments are the rhetorical equivalent of settlement expansion in the West Bank. When West Bank Palestinians see new roads being built to connect settlements to Israel proper; when they see existing settlements growing, and hear of tenders for yet more dramatic growth, they ask themselves—as any observant person would—if the Israeli government is serious about allowing a viable Palestinian state to be born on land the Palestinians consider to be theirs.
Yes, yes, I know—there's no particular reason to believe that a Palestinian state will be a success, or that it wouldn't fall prey to the same strains of extremism that are spreading through the rest of the Arab Middle East. But I remain convinced that creative minds, and large-hearted people, can eventually devise a way to bring about a semi-amicable divorce between Israelis and Palestinians in a way that protects the security and dignity of both peoples. The fact that divorce is the only option that doesn't end in total disaster should also encourage the prime minister to think harder about the choices facing his country.
The Iron Dome intercepts a rocket from Gaza in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod (Baz Ratner/Reuters)
Mahmoud Abbas, the sometimes moderate, often ineffectual leader of the Palestinian Authority, just asked his rivals in Hamas a question that other bewildered people are also asking: “What are you trying to achieve by sending rockets?”
The Gaza-based Hamas has recently fired more than 500 rockets at Israeli towns and cities. This has terrorized the citizenry, though caused few casualties, in large part because Israel is protected by the Iron Dome anti-rocket system.
In reaction to these indiscriminately fired missiles, Israel has bombarded targets across Gaza. Compared with violent death rates in other parts of the Middle East, the number of dead in Gaza is small. (More than 170,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war to date.) But it is large enough to suggest an answer to Abbas’s question: Hamas is trying to get Israel to kill as many Palestinians as possible.
Dead Palestinians represent a crucial propaganda victory for the nihilists of Hamas. It is perverse, but true. It is also the best possible explanation for Hamas’s behavior, because Hamas has no other plausible strategic goal here.
The men who run Hamas, engineers and doctors and lawyers by training, are smart enough to understand that though they wish to bring about the annihilation of the Jewish state and to replace it with a Muslim Brotherhood state (Hamas is the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood), they are in no position to do so. Hamas is a militarily weak group, mostly friendless, that is firing rockets at the civilians of a powerful neighboring state.
The Israeli military has the operational capability to level the entire Gaza Strip in a day, if it so chooses. It is constrained by international pressure, by its own morality, and by the understanding that the deaths of innocent Palestinians are not in its best political interest. The men who run Hamas—the ones hiding in bunkers deep underground, the ones who send other people’s children to their deaths as suicide bombers—also understand that their current campaign will not bring the end of Israel’s legitimacy as a state.
I’ve been struck, over the last few days, by the world’s indifference to Gaza’s fate. Perhaps this conflict has been demoted to the status of a Middle East sideshow by the cataclysms in Iraq and Syria. Perhaps even the most accommodationist European governments know that Israel is within its rights to hunt down the people trying to kill its citizens. Regardless of the cause, Israel seems under less pressure than usual to curb its campaign.
There is no doubt that Hamas could protect Palestinian lives by ceasing its current campaign to end Israeli lives. The decision is Hamas’s. As the secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, said earlier this week, "We face the risk of an all-out escalation in Israel and Gaza, with the threat of a ground offensive still palpable—and preventable only if Hamas stops rocket firing."
I understand that this latest round in the never-ending Israel-Gaza war was, in many ways, a mistake. Israel was uninterested in an all-out confrontation with Hamas at the moment, and Hamas, which is trying to manage a threat to its control of Gaza from—believe it or not—groups even more radical and nihilistic than it is, is particularly ill-prepared to confront Israel.
The politics of the moment are fascinating and dreadful, but what really interests me currently is a counterfactual: What if, nine years ago, when Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers from Gaza, the Palestinians had made a different choice? What if they had chosen to build the nucleus of a state, rather than a series of subterranean rocket factories?
This thought is prompted by something a pair of Iraqi Kurdish leaders once told me. Iraqi Kurdistan is today on the cusp of independence. Like the Palestinians, the Kurds deserve a state. Unlike most of the Palestinian leadership, the Kurds have played a long and clever game to bring them to freedom.
This is what Barham Salih, the former prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, told me years ago: “Compare us to other liberation movements around the world. We are very mature. We don’t engage in terror. We don’t condone extremist nationalist notions that can only burden our people. Please compare what we have achieved in the Kurdistan national-authority areas to the Palestinian national authority. … We have spent the last 10 years building a secular, democratic society, a civil society.” What, he asked, have the Palestinians built?
So too, Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, once told me this: “We had the opportunity to use terrorism against Baghdad. We chose not to.”
In 2005, the Palestinians of Gaza, free from their Israeli occupiers, could have taken a lesson from the Kurds—and from David Ben-Gurion, the principal Israeli state-builder—and created the necessary infrastructure for eventual freedom. Gaza is centrally located between two large economies, those of Israel and Egypt. Europe is just across the Mediterranean. Gaza could have easily attracted untold billions in economic aid.
The Israelis did not impose a blockade on Gaza right away. That came later, when it became clear that Palestinian groups were considering using their newly liberated territory as a launching pad for attacks. In the days after withdrawal, the Israelis encouraged Gaza’s development. A group of American Jewish donors paid $14 million for 3,000 greenhouses left behind by expelled Jewish settlers and donated them to the Palestinian Authority. The greenhouses were soon looted and destroyed, serving, until today, as a perfect metaphor for Gaza’s wasted opportunity.
If Gaza had, despite all the difficulties, despite all the handicaps imposed on it by Israel and Egypt, taken practical steps toward creating the nucleus of a state, I believe Israel would have soon moved to evacuate large sections of the West Bank as well. But what Hamas wants most is not a state in a part of Palestine. What it wants is the elimination of Israel. It will not achieve the latter, and it is actively thwarting the former.
Tariq Khdeir with his mother in Jerusalem, on July 6 (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)
The torture and murder by fire in Jerusalem of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, allegedly by a gang of Israeli hooligans, initially prompted in me a desire to say, "But," but then this short piece, by Rabbi David Wolpe, of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, came over the wire:
Please, please don’t say ‘but.’ The words after ‘but’ invalidate everything that comes before—“He’s a nice person, but he does steal from the company.” You see? “But” is a meaning duster, sweeping all that precedes it.
So everyone who has written condemning the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, and then goes on to say “but of course” Palestinian society does not condemn their own murders, or Israel is raising up in anguish, or anything else, is missing the point. The point is to be ashamed and to grieve, not to use this murder to prove we are nonetheless better, or they are nonetheless guiltier.
When we beat our chests on Yom Kippur, we do not say before God, “But the man in the seat next to me is far worse.” That is not contrition; it is self-justification disguised as repentance. At a time of national self soul-searching it is too facile and false to use a Jewish crime as a stick to beat our enemies. Jews did this. Blind hatred did this. We should look inside, and be ashamed.
And so, no "but." Except for this semi-unrelated one:
But I think that while the murder of 16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir is a terrible crime, the non-fatal beating of his cousin, the Palestinian-American teenager Tariq Khdeir, by Israel's Border Police, is, in one way, more consequential. Obviously, murder is the ultimate crime, but this murder was committed, we believe, by thugs operating independent of state authority. The beating of Tariq Khdeir was conducted by agents of the state. We judge countries not on the behavior of their criminal elements, but on 1) how they police their criminal elements; and 2) how they police their police. Those of you who have seen images of the beating of Tariq Khdeir know that this assault represents a state failure.
Unfortunately, this is not a one-off failure. On too many occasions, Israeli police officers and soldiers have meted out excessive punishment to Palestinians in custody. I've witnessed some of these incidents myself, both as a reporter and as a soldier. More than two decades ago, I served in the Israeli military police at the Ketziot prison camp, by Israel's border with Egypt. This was during the first Palestinian uprising (which is remembered now, of course, as the "good" uprising, of stone-throwing and Molotov cocktails, rather than suicide bombers) and the prison held roughly 6,000 Palestinians, many of them street fighters, but many from the leadership of the uprising as well. It was at the prison that I witnessed—and broke up—one of the more vicious beatings I have ever seen. I wrote about this incident, and others, in my book about my time in Ketziot, Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. Rather than summarize my account of this beating, I'm going to post the account straight from the book. It starts when I come across a friend of mine, a fellow soldier, named Yoram, trying to beat senseless a Palestinian man called Abu Firas:
Abu Firas was a disagreeable and smug man, but his sourness was not a mortal sin. Yoram, whom I knew to be gentle but at that moment had blood in his face, was beating Abu Firas on the head with the handset of an army radio. The handset weighed five or six pounds, and it was sharp-edged. Abu Firas was hurt. Most men taking a beating like this would scream blue murder, but Abu Firas didn’t. I was impressed. Yoram didn’t stop when I came upon him. I took hold of his arm, knocking the radio to the ground.
Yoram was a religious Jew, and his kippah, knit and multicolored in the style of the modern Orthodox, stayed pinned to his head through his exertions. It was quite a sight—a yeshiva Jew, a God-fearer, delivering a bloody beating.
You don’t understand,’ Yoram said, gasping for breath. “You don’t understand.”
Abu Firas was on his knees, grabbing at his head. His hair shone with blood. He was barely coherent. He pleaded for water. Yoram tried to jack Abu Firas up onto his feet, but he couldn’t move. Yoram, still panting, didn’t tell me what it was I didn’t understand.
“What the fuck are you doing?” I asked Yoram.
We stared at each other. Yoram looked as if he were ready to take a swing.
Abu Firas sat on the ground, watching now, his pain salved by the spectacle of two Jews at daggers drawn.
“Don’t be a manyak,’ Yoram said. A manyak is an asshole.
How am I a manyak?
“Get this dog out of here,” he said, pointing to Abu Firas.
Abu Firas, who evidently understood Hebrew, spit out, ‘Cus amak,’ at Hebrew. Yoram lunged for him. Cus amak means ‘your mother’s cunt’ in Arabic.
I held Yoram back. I told Abu Firas to move. Then I went in search of someone to take Abu Firas to the infirmary. I found another military policeman, and handed off the wobbling prisoner, who was by now bleeding on me, “He fell,” I lied.
Yoram was not, in my experience, a sadist. He was an appealing person, usually. His parents were refugees from North Africa, a typical Sephardic family, as he described it. They kept kosher, and went to soccer matches on Shabbat. Yoram was kind, not coarse, and patient. Native-born Israelis are blessed with many qualities, but politesse and patience are not among them. That is why the beating surprised me; Yoram did not have a tripwire Middle Eastern temper.
The beating, I deduced, was prompted by something Abu Firas said. The prison had been especially tense in the first months of 1991. Yoram lived in Tel Aviv, which was, for a time, the target of Iraqi Scud missiles (Saddam Hussein was desperately trying to draw Israel into the Gulf War as a way of splitting the coalition arrayed against him). Abu Firas, in the course of a petty argument about some minor procedural matter, told Yoram that he would ask Allah to help Saddam burn Yoram’s family to death. The Palestinian prisoners did not keep their opinions of Saddam’s efforts to themselves. At night, when the air raid sirens warned of an incoming Scud, the prisoners in their tents would let out a roar of approval. “Ya ya, Saddam,” they would sing, and sometimes ,when their sap was high, “Falastin baladna, wa Yahud kalabna," "Palestine is our land and the Jews are our dogs.” They wouldn’t stop until we threatened to fill their tents with tear gas.
Okay, so Abu Firas is an asshole, I told Yoram. What’s the big deal?
“Don’t you understand, Yoram asked. “You can’t let them talk to you that way."
So what if he curses you? It’s the game. His role is to provoke you, yours is to ignore him. I kept going: Beating a man won't solve anything. It just drives the hatred deeper inside him.
I was embarrassed for Yoram. I thought we were the same, but I realized at that moment that were different, crucially: Unlike Yoram, I never hit a Palestinian who wasn’t already hitting me.
But if I was embarrassed for Yoram. for his brutality, for his darkness of mind, he was embarrassed for me, for my stupidity and my softness. I read his face: it said, manyak American, with your stupid American ideas. I had only been in the prison for a month but I had already made for myself a reputation as a yafei nefesh, literally a “beautiful soul”—a bleeding heart.
They want to kill us all, Yoram said.
Beating them will make it worse, I said.
“You can’t beat them enough,” he said.
I left Yoram to check on Abu Firas. A medic had cut away some of his hair and his skull was yellow with antiseptic. I stood there watching the stitches go in. Abu Firas said nothing. I was expecting him to say thank you. He didn’t. Instead, he dead-eyed me, until I left.
A few days later, I fell into conversation with one of the leaders of the prisoners. I had become quite relaxed with a number of them. This one prisoner—Capucci … was a particular favorite. At the time, he was the shaweesh, the prisoner representative of his sub-block, but he was also said to be high in the ranks of Fatah. We talked through barbed wire. He already knew what had happened. “Are you a Communist?” Capucci asked. He wasn’t smiling. He was seigneurial, and grave. He had a quiet in him that was most unusual. He was only thirty-five, but the other prisoners spoke to him as an imam speaks to God.
Capucci had heard that I had done something humane for a prisoner. Therefore he suspected I was a Communist. ...
I saw a handful of other beatings, and broke them up as well. (I also saw kindness, by the way, but that is not the subject of this post.) I would not cover-up again for a soldier who was committing a crime. I was too angry about this behavior to acquiesce in any form. There were occasions, obviously, in which justifiable force was used—in my own case (referred to elliptically above), I had to defend myself from a Hamasnik who was trying to break my skull with a metal pipe. We flailed at each other and then wrestled on the ground for a bit, until one of my comrades came to the rescue (very deftly, and with a minimum of force, by the way). The prison was a nasty place, and it was not the role of the Palestinians prisoners to make it easy, and it was not the role of the soldiers to run it as a summer camp.
On the other hand, I could not believe, at my tender age, that Jews would resort to the use of punitive violence.
It is often said that Israel is judged by a double-standard. This is not true. Often, Israel is judged by a quadruple standard. There is one standard for developing-world countries; a second for Europe; a third, more stringent standard, for the U.S., and a fourth, impossible, standard for Israel. Often, this quadruple standard bothers me, especially when it is deployed by Judeophobes. But the truth is that I judge Israel by a higher standard than I judge other countries, precisely because it is a Jewish country. Jews gave the world the gift of ethical monotheism, and the idea that all people—not just kings—are created in the image of God. Judaism holds that Muhammad Abu Khdeir, and Tariq Khdeir, are created in the image of God, and therefore, to abuse them, to destroy them, is to desecrate God's name. Each time a Palestinian is abused in custody by Israeli authorities, those who commit the beating are violating the spirit and promise of their country.
Is this a tough standard? Yes. Is it impossible to reach during times of strife, when Israel's enemies are trying to murder as many Jews as possible? Maybe. But moments like these are tests. And they represent tests worth passing.
The view through a broken window in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, near the Lebanese port city of Sidon. (Ali Hashisho/Reuters)
A brief note on a new Elliott Abrams essay in Politico Magazine that appears under the eye-catching headline, “The Man Who Broke the Middle East.” The man in question is not Sykes or Picot or Nasser or Saddam or Khomeini or George W. Bush or Nouri al-Maliki, but Barack Obama. I often agree with Elliott, but I could not let this one go by without a response. Don’t worry. This won’t take long.
Here is Elliott’s thesis:
The Middle East that Obama inherited in 2009 was largely at peace, for the surge in Iraq had beaten down the al Qaeda-linked groups. U.S. relations with traditional allies in the Gulf, Jordan, Israel and Egypt were very good. Iran was contained, its Revolutionary Guard forces at home. Today, terrorism has metastasized in Syria and Iraq, Jordan is at risk, the humanitarian toll is staggering, terrorist groups are growing fast and relations with U.S. allies are strained.
A few points. The first is to note that the Middle East Obama inherited in early 2009 was literally at war—Israel and the Gaza-based Hamas were going at each other hard until nearly the day of Obama's inauguration. Obama managed to extract himself from that one without breaking the Middle East.
In reference to a “contained” Iran, I would only note that Iran in 2009 was moving steadily toward nuclearization, and nothing that the Bush administration, in which Elliott served, had done seemed to be slowing Iran down. Flash forward to today—the Obama administration (with huge help from Congress) implemented a set of sanctions so punishing that it forced Iran into negotiations. (Obama, it should be said, did a very good job bringing allies on board with this program.) Iran's nuclear program is currently frozen. The Bush administration never managed to freeze Iran's nuclear apparatus in place. I'm not optimistic about the prospects for success in these negotiations (neither is Obama), but the president should get credit for leading a campaign that gave a negotiated solution to the nuclear question a fighting chance.
It's also worth noting that when Obama came to power, he discovered that the Bush administration had done no detailed thinking about ways to confront Iran, either militarily or through negotiations. There was rhetoric, but no actual planning. Obama applied himself to this problem in ways that Bush simply did not.
Elliott writes that, in 2009, U.S. relations with Arab allies were good. But these relations, in many cases, were built on lies and morally dubious accommodations. He states that "the most populous Arab country is Egypt, where Obama stuck too long with Hosni Mubarak as the Arab Spring arrived, and then with the Army, and then the Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi, and now is embracing the Army again."
Let's break this down for a minute. It was the policy of several administrations to maintain close relations with Egypt's military rulers. It was Bush administration policy to maintain close relations with Mubarak. Perhaps the 2011 uprising in Egypt could have been avoided had the Bush administration, in honoring its "Freedom Doctrine," engineered Mubarak's smooth departure several years before Cairo exploded. Obama inherited a dysfunctional relationship with Egypt from his predecessor. This is not to excuse the administration's faltering and sometimes contradictory approach to the Egypt problem today, but simply to set it in some context.
On the peace process, Elliott writes,
Obama began with the view that there was no issue in the Middle East more central than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Five years later he has lost the confidence of both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and watched his second secretary of state squander endless efforts in a doomed quest for a comprehensive peace. Obama embittered relations with America’s closest ally in the region and achieved nothing whatsoever in the “peace process.” The end result in the summer of 2014 is to see the Palestinian Authority turn to a deal with Hamas for new elections that—if they are held, which admittedly is unlikely—would usher the terrorist group into a power-sharing deal. This is not progress.
I'm sure Elliott remembers that in 2006, the Bush administration helped bring the terrorist group Hamas to power, by engineering elections that neither the Palestinian Authority nor Israel actually wanted. I'm sure he also remembers that President Bush (along with a series of presidents before him) failed utterly to bring about a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians. It seems a bit unfair to single-out Obama for failing at something presidents of both parties, for 40 years, have also failed to accomplish.
On Syria and Iraq, Elliott is on somewhat firmer ground. I've argued that an earlier intervention in Syria, in the form of support for what was then a more-moderate rebel coalition, might—might—have changed the balance of power.
On a deeper level, the idea of blaming any American president for the terrible state of the Middle East seems somewhat dubious. I argue this question with myself and with my friends all the time, because I do recognize that the U.S. has a singular role to play in the world's most volatile and dysfunctional region, and I agree with Robert Kagan, who argues that superpowers don't have the luxury of taking vacations from responsibility. But on the other hand, conditions in Iraq, while aggravated by certain Obama policies, cannot be pinned on him alone. For that matter, the man who truly broke Iraq was not George W. Bush, but Saddam Hussein, who through murder, rape, pillage, torture, and genocide destroyed millions of Iraqi lives.
What I would like is to read Elliott on this question: To what extent is this really about us at all?
The Atlantic's late-2007 rendering of what the Middle East might eventually look like (The Atlantic)
So as I was saying….
First, a bit of housekeeping. I’m back at The Atlantic full-time. I’m going to be working mainly on stories for the magazine (I’m thinking of writing something on the case for reparations, for instance), but I’ll be back here in the traditional Goldblog space as well (I’m also going to continue contributing columns to Bloomberg View, which, I should point out, is a great source for sophisticated commentary on finance, politics, foreign affairs, and much else). Why am I back? Because I love everything about The Atlantic.
But on to new business—which, in this case, is old business. Almost seven years ago, I wrote a cover story for this magazine about the coming collapse of the post-World War I Middle East map. I conducted the reporting for the story, which we eventually called “After Iraq: What Will the Middle East Look Like,” in the fall of 2007—pre-Obama, pre-Arab Spring, pre-a lot of things—but even back then, it was fairly obvious that the age of Middle East stability (relatively speaking) was coming to an end.
The map you see above, and also embedded below, was the main illustration for the piece, which appeared in the January/February 2008 issue. I introduced the conceit of the story this way:
As America approaches the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, the list of the war’s unintended consequences is without end (as opposed to the list of intended consequences, which is, so far, vanishingly brief). The list includes, notably, the likelihood that the Kurds will achieve their independence and that Iraq will go the way of Gaul and be divided into three parts—but it also includes much more than that. Across the Middle East, and into south-central Asia, the intrinsically artificial qualities of several states have been brought into focus by the omnivorous American response to the attacks of 9/11; it is not just Iraq and Afghanistan that appear to be incoherent amalgamations of disparate tribes and territories. The precariousness of such states as Lebanon and Pakistan, of course, predates the invasion of Iraq. But the wars against al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and especially Saddam Hussein have made the durability of the modern Middle East state system an open question in ways that it wasn’t a mere seven years ago.
It used to be that the most far-reaching and inventive question one could ask about the Middle East was this: How many states, one or two—Israel or a Palestinian state, or both—will one day exist on the slip of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River?
Today, that question seems trivial when compared with this one: How many states will there one day be between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates River? Three? Four? Five? Six? And why stop at the western bank of the Euphrates? Why not go all the way to the Indus River? Between the Mediterranean and the Indus today lie Israel and the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Long-term instability could lead to the breakup of many of these states.
I also made a couple of predictions, informed by various experts:
The most important first-order consequence of the Iraq invasion, envisioned by many of those I spoke to is the possibility of a regional conflict between Sunnis and Shiites for theological and political supremacy in the Middle East. This is a war that could be fought by proxies of Saudi Arabia, the Sunni flag-bearer, against Iran—or perhaps by Iran and Saudi Arabia themselves—on battlefields across Iraq, in Lebanon and Syria, and in Saudi Arabia’s largely Shiite Eastern Province, under which most of the kingdom’s oil lies.
One of the reasons I don’t find myself overly exercised by the apparent collapse of Iraq (and one of the reasons I don’t think it would be wise for the U.S. to rush into Iraq in order to “fix” it) is that I’ve believed for a while that no glue could possibly hold the place together. This is a case in which President Obama’s natural caution, and his understandable desire to steer clear of Middle Eastern slaughterhouses, is a good thing. And I agree with Colin Kahl that Obama did not “lose” Iraq (though I still wish that he had come in early in support of what was then a more moderate Syrian rebellion).
I’m also firmly in the Kurdish nationalist camp (vicariously, of course). The cause of Kurdish independence is a just one, which is another way of saying that the denial of the right of self-determination to the Kurds—the world’s largest stateless people—over the past 100 years has been a terrible injustice. Iraqi Kurdistan, as I note in the piece, was already functionally independent; it is much more so today. It would be a very good thing if a truly independent Kurdistan emerges from the current chaos, liberated once and for all from Iraqi Arab domination.
When we were preparing the map that accompanied the article, we erred on the side of whimsy, and exaggeration. However, in looking it over today, it doesn’t seem entirely fanciful. We predicted the break-up of Sudan into two countries (although we called what is today known as South Sudan “New Sudan”). We created a “Hezbollahstan” in part of Lebanon, and this certainly exists, de facto. North of Hezbollahstan is “The Alawite Republic,” along what is now Syria’s Mediterranean coast. This is a semi-plausible near-term consequence of Syria’s Assad-directed destruction. Syria also loses territory, on our map, to a “Druzistan” that touches the northern border of “Greater Jordan.” Iraq is, of course, divided into three states, and the Kurdish state even takes in parts of Turkish-ruled Kurdish territory. One semi-perspicacious addition to the map—the Bedouin Autonomous Zone—is what could have developed in the Sinai Peninsula before the most recent Egyptian military coup, and the Egyptian military’s re-energized plan to seize Sinai back from jihadist tribesmen.
In the article, I was very critical of the imperial hubris that motivated the Sykes-Picot division of the Middle East by the British and French. But I’ve warmed to the argument that the Sykes-Picot arrangement was, in one sense, inadvertently progressive. The makers of the modern Middle East roped together peoples of different ethnicities and faiths (or streams of the same faith) in what were meant to be modern, multicultural, and multi-confessional states. It is an understatement to say that the Middle East isn’t the sort of place where this kind of experiment has been shown to work. (I’m thinking of you, one-staters, by the way.) I don’t think it is worth American money, or certainly American lives, to keep Iraq a unitary state. It is, of course, important to invest in plans that forestall the creation of permanent jihadist safe havens, and about this the U.S. should be vigilant, more vigilant than it has been. But Westphalian obsessiveness—Iraq must stay together because it must stay together—just doesn’t seem wise.
More on all this later, but I’ll leave you with one quote from the story that struck me on re-reading, in part because it may represent what President Obama secretly feels about the Middle East. At one point, I asked David Fromkin, the author of A Peace to End all Peace, the definitive account of the making of the modern Middle East, whether he would speculate about the region’s future. This is what he said in 2007: “The Middle East has no future.”
Fidel Castro shares at least one belief with the majority of Americans: He is convinced that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was not the work of a lone gunman, but was the culmination of a broad conspiracy. According to a recent Gallup poll, 61 percent of Americans believe Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone in Dallas 50 years ago. But Castro suspects that Oswald might not have been involved in the assassination at all. Here is what he told me–to my great surprise–over lunch one day in Havana: “I have reached the conclusion that Oswald could not have been the one who killed Kennedy.” Castro is of course a confident man, but he said this with a degree of surety that was noteworthy.
I was visiting Havana three years ago at Castro’s invitation. I had just written a cover story for The Atlantic about Israel’s threat to strike militarily at Iran’s nuclear facilities. Castro read the article, and sent me a message through the Cuban Interest Section in Washington: He would like me to come to Cuba as soon as possible in order to discuss my findings with him. I obliged.
Kennedy was only a peripheral subject of our discussions. Castro, I found, was preoccupied with the threat of nuclear war and proliferation, as one would expect him to be: He was one of the three key players in an episode, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, that nearly brought about the destruction of the planet. John F. Kennedy was his adversary; Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier, was his patron. At one point, I mentioned to him the letter he wrote to Khrushchev, at the height of the crisis, in which he asked the Soviets to consider launching a nuclear strike against the U.S. if the Americans attacked Cuba. "That would be the time to think about liquidating such a danger forever through a legal right of self-defense," he wrote. In Havana, I asked him, “At a certain point it seemed logical for you to recommend that the Soviets bomb the U.S. Does what you recommended still seem logical now?" He answered: "After I've seen what I've seen, and knowing what I know now, it wasn't worth it at all.” I expressed relief that Khrushchev ignored his request.
Castro was also deeply concerned about the level of anti-Semitic rhetoric emanating from Tehran, and wanted to communicate his displeasure to then-president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, through an intermediary. (I wrote about Fidel’s views of Iran and Israel here.)
I brought with me on this trip a friend named Julia Sweig, who is a preeminent expert on Cuba at the Council on Foreign Relations. Julia and I wound up spending the better part of a week with Fidel. (You can read about our trip to watch a dolphin show at the Havana aquarium with Fidel and Che Guevara’s daughter here.) By the time of our meetings with Fidel, he was recovering from a serious illness, and he was already semi-retired. His brother, Raul, was running the country, although I was under the clear impression that nothing important happened in Havana without the assent of Raul’s older brother.
One afternoon, after a marathon interview session, we gathered for lunch—Castro, his wife Dalia, his son Antonio, a couple of aides, Julia, a translator, and myself—and an expansive Castro told stories of the early days of the revolution, and entertained a series of random questions from us. I knew, from Julia, who has studied Castro for years, that J.F.K. was seldom too far from his thoughts, but our discussion of U.S. policy actually began with other presidents. Castro spoke about a biography of Lincoln he had just read.
“Is Lincoln the most interesting American to you?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “but much more than Washington.”
“Much more than Kennedy?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, but unconvincingly. “Kennedy made many mistakes. He was young and dramatic.” Fidel reserved his animus mainly for Robert Kennedy, who was attorney general in his brother’s administration and loathed Fidel and his revolution. It was Robert Kennedy, Fidel believes, who was behind U.S. plots to have him assassinated. But he blames J.F.K. for the invasion, by a ragtag Cuban exile army, of the Bay of Pigs. “Kennedy was humiliated by his defeat at the Bay of Pigs, but all that we did was to protect ourselves.”
Then Castro began talking about J.F.K.’s assassination. “It is a very sad story,” he said. “It was a very sad day when it happened.” He said he remembered the moment he heard of the shooting. “I won’t forget it. As soon as we heard, we all rushed to the radio to listen.”
Self-preservation was also on his mind in the days after the assassination. He understood, he said, that he would be blamed for J.F.K.’s death, especially after it was learned that Oswald had vociferously opposed American policy toward Castro’s Cuba. Castro tried hard to communicate to the Americans that he had nothing to do with J.F.K.’s death, and as Philip Shenon reports in his new book, A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination, Fidel even arranged to be interviewed by a Warren Commission staffer on a yacht in the water off Cuba. “Immediately after the assassination, Castro very justifiably worried that he would be blamed, and he was worried that if he were blamed, there would be an American invasion of Cuba,” Shenon told me. But Castro’s denials were credible, Shenon said. Despite the many arguments advanced by conspiracy theorists, he said, “there is no credible evidence that Castro was involved personally in ordering the assassination.”
Whether Fidel’s agents or sympathizers encouraged Oswald, on a visit to Mexico, to assassinate J.F.K., is another question, one that Shenon explores in his book. “My question is whether people thinking that they were acting in Castro’s best interest might have provided the motivation,” he said. The second question: Whether Oswald believed that killing Kennedy was what Fidel Castro wanted him to do. “In September of 1963, Castro gives an interview to the AP in Havana in which he seems to suggest that Kennedy’s life is at risk: ‘I know the Americans are trying to kill me and if this continues there will be retribution,’ was the message," Shenon said. "This report runs in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and Oswald reads the Times-Picayune avidly. Perhaps Oswald said, ‘Ah ha, I’m going to kill Kennedy.’”
This is what might be called the Jodie Foster theory of the Kennedy assassination: Oswald sought to demonstrate his loyalty to the man he admired above all others, Fidel Castro, by killing the president.
Fidel told us at lunch—as he would—that none of his associates or officials had anything to do with the assassination, and that the Cuban embassy in Mexico City, which Oswald had visited, denied him permission to visit Cuba, fearing that he was a provocateur.
I asked Fidel why he thought Oswald could not have acted alone. He proceeded to tell the table a long and discursive story about an experiment he staged, after the assassination, to see if it were possible for a sniper to shoot Kennedy in the manner the assassination was alleged to have happened. “We had trained our people in the mountains during the war”—the Cuban revolution—“on these kind of telescopic sights. So we knew about this kind of shooting. We tried to recreate the circumstances of this shooting, but it wasn’t possible for one man to do. The news I had received is that one man killed Kennedy in his car with a rifle, but I deducted that this story was manufactured to fool people.”
He said his suspicions grew especially pronounced after Oswald was killed. “There was the story of Jack Ruby, who was said to be so moved by the death of Kennedy that he decided to shoot Oswald on his own. That was just unbelievable to us.”
I then asked Castro to tell us what he believes actually happened. I brought up the name of his friend, Oliver Stone, who suggested that it was the CIA and a group of anti-Castro Cubans (I used the term “anti-you Cubans” to describe these forces aligned against Castro) that plotted the assassination.
“Quite possibly,” he said. “This is quite possibly so. There were people in the American government who thought Kennedy was a traitor because he didn’t invade Cuba when he had the chance, when they were asking him. He was never forgiven for that.”
So that’s what you think might have happened?
“No doubt about it,” Fidel answered.
We talked a bit more about Kennedy and his legacy. He told us about his many subsequent contacts with members of Kennedy’s family, including with Maria Shriver. “She’s the one who married Schwarzenegger,” he said. “The world is a very small place.”
We turned to other subjects, but Fidel came back to Kennedy once more, the next day, when he said to me, apropos of nothing, “Kennedy was very young.”
I later asked Julia Sweig what this might have meant. For Castro, she said, Kennedy may forever stand for something out of reach. “He’ll never know what would have happened had J.F.K. lived. He may have reserved for Kennedy in his own mind the possibility of greatness. It’s completely fascinating and frustrating to him.”