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July 17, 2009

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In-Depth Issues:

Gates: Iran Nuclear Arms Worst Threat to Security (AFP)
    Iran's nuclear ambitions are the greatest current threat to global security, according to U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
    "Iran is the one that concerns me the most because there don't seem to be good options (or a scenario) where one can have any optimism that good options will be found," Gates told the Economic Club of Chicago.
    The threat rests not only in Iran's apparent determination to seek a nuclear weapon, but in the "inability of the international community to affect their determination to do that."

Report: Cure for Radiation Sickness Found - Ronen Bergman (Ynet News)
    Medication that can protect humans against nuclear radiation has been developed by Professor Andrei Gudkov - Chief Scientific Officer at Cleveland BioLabs, in cooperation with a researcher and investors from Israel.
    The discovery could affect the degree of protection against a nuclear attack by Iran or against "dirty bomb" attacks by terror groups.

Islamic Emirate Nightmare - Arnaud de Borchgrave (UPI)
    At the request of President Obama, Bruce Riedel, a former CIA expert on South Asia, chaired an interagency policy review on Afghanistan and nuclear Pakistan.
    His latest assessment says, "A jihadist victory in Pakistan, meaning the takeover of the nation by a militant Sunni movement led by the Taliban...would create the greatest threat the United States has yet to face in its war on terror...(and) is now a real possibility in the foreseeable future."
    It would bolster al-Qaeda's capabilities ten-fold, Riedel concludes. It would also give terrorists a nuclear capability.
    Pakistan's "creation of and collusion with extremist groups has left Islamabad vulnerable to an Islamist coup," Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, concludes.
    See also Armageddon in Islamabad - Bruce Riedel (National Interest)

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When Will the U.S. Officially Recognize Jerusalem as Part of Israel? - Michael Doyle (McClatchy)
    In October 2002, Menachem Zivotofsky was born in Jerusalem to U.S. citizens. In December 2002, Menachem's mother applied for a U.S. passport and a Consular Report of Birth for her son at the U.S. Embassy, requesting that both documents record her son's place of birth as "Jerusalem, Israel."
    Congress in the 2002 foreign aid authorization bill included language stating that "for purposes of the registration of birth...or issuance of a passport of a United States citizen born in the city of Jerusalem, the Secretary [of State] shall, upon the request of the citizen or the citizen's legal guardian, record the place of birth as Israel."
    But President Bush signed a statement declaring the language non-binding. So the family sued.
    Last Friday the Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia determined that the president has "exclusive and unreviewable constitutional power to keep the United States out of the debate over the status of Jerusalem."

Arab Journalist Views Prospects for Peace - Robert Fulford (National Post-Canada)
    Khaled Abu Toameh, who used to work for the PLO newspaper Al-Fajr, was in Toronto last week. For the last eight years he's been the Jerusalem Post's specialist in Arab affairs.
    "I am an Arab Muslim and the only place I can write honestly is in a Jewish newspaper," he says.
    "The real obstacle to peace is not a Jew building a settlement but the failure of the Palestinians to have a government. Is there a partner on the Palestinian side for peace talks? No."
    He thinks Israel should simply wait until the Palestinians stop killing each other and create a credible political entity that can make a deal.

Shards of Stories at Israeli Spy Memorial - Matti Friedman (AP/Washington Post)
    The Israel Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center offers a unique, if fragmentary, glimpse into the exploits of the Mossad agents and intelligence operatives who have waged this country's shadow wars.
    Here, on a memorial wall, you can encounter names like Shalom Dani, a Holocaust survivor who became the Mossad's master forger, taking part in the Mossad's effort to spirit thousands of Moroccan Jews to Israel.
    He was also dispatched to Argentina in 1960 where he counterfeited the documents that allowed a team of agents to smuggle Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Nazi genocide, to his trial in Israel.
    The center grants a prize, the "Hero of Silence," to civilians, Israelis and foreigners, who have assisted Israel's intelligence services.
    Eight people have received the prize so far; the identities of seven are secret.
    The eighth is Shulamit Kishak-Cohen, a colorful Beirut matron who ran a smuggling ring bringing Jews to Israel in the 1950s.

Iraqi-Jewish Musicians' Work Enjoying Posthumous Revival - Rachel Shabi (New Statesman-UK)
    During a business trip to London in the early 1990s, Shlomo al-Kuwaiti from Israel was sitting in a hotel lobby when he noticed an important-looking gentleman wearing a galabeya, surrounded by an entourage of bodyguards, and heard that the man was a senior minister from Kuwait.
    The Israeli introduced himself to the Arab minister, who asked him directly: "Are you the son of Salah al-Kuwaiti?" When Shlomo said yes, the minister grabbed him in a firm embrace.
    This exchange took place because of the legendary Iraqi-Jewish musicians Salah and Daoud al-Kuwaiti, whose music is now enjoying a posthumous revival.
    The brothers were born in Kuwait, moved to Iraq in the late 1920s, and swiftly gained fame for their groundbreaking music.
    Salah composed thousands of songs that took Arab classical arrangements to a new level, earning the brothers accolades across the Arab world.
    The brothers migrated to Israel in 1951.

Israel's Economy Looks Resilient (Economist-UK)
    Israel's economy has grown by an average annual rate of 5% in the past five years. Its GDP per head is ahead of Portugal, a shade behind Greece and five times bigger than its neighbor Egypt.
    Still, Israel is suffering with the rest of the world. Exports have shrunk by more than a quarter since September. Foreign investment has dived. High-tech is marking time. Nearly 8% of the workforce is jobless, up from 6% nine months ago.
    "But the government has not had to step in and save any bank or insurance company or indeed any major company," says Israel's Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz.

Israeli, African Doctors Combat HIV (UPI)
    Israeli and Senegalese doctors will perform male circumcisions in southern and eastern Africa to try to reduce HIV transmission, Operation Abraham, the organization in charge of the medical teams, said.
    Scientific studies from three trials conducted in Uganda, Kenya and South Africa in 2007 showed male circumcision was effective in dramatically reducing transmission of the virus that causes AIDS.

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News Resources - North America, Europe, and Asia:

  • Israel: Lebanon Blast Shows Flagrant Violations of UN Resolutions by Iran, Syria, and Hizbullah - Matti Friedman
    Israel accused Iran and Syria on Thursday of sending weapons to Lebanon's Hizbullah in violation of UN resolutions, after one of the militant group's weapons depots blew up near the Israeli border. The conditions of the 2006 cease-fire that ended the Israel-Hizbullah war prohibit weapons smuggling to Hizbullah and forbid the group from engaging in military activities in south Lebanon. A senior Israeli officer said the warehouse that blew up on Tuesday contained active, short-range rockets smuggled from Syria. Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said the incident was evidence of "Iranian and Syrian efforts to continue to transfer weapons to Hizbullah in direct and flagrant violation" of the 2006 cease-fire. (AP/Washington Post)
        See also Hizbullah Weapons in Southern Lebanon (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
  • Signs of Hope Emerge for Palestinians in West Bank - Ethan Bronner
    "You don't appreciate the value of law and order until you lose it," said Nablus store owner Rashid al-Sakhel as he surveyed the bustling streets. "For the past eight years, a 10-year-old boy could order a strike and we would all close. Now nobody can threaten us." For the first time since the second Palestinian uprising broke out in late 2000, a sense of personal security and economic potential is spreading across the West Bank as the PA's security forces enter their second year of consolidating order. The International Monetary Fund forecasts a 7% growth rate for 2009. Two weeks ago, the Israeli military shut its nine-year-old checkpoint at the entrance to the city, part of a series of reductions in security measures.
        The aim of American and European policy is to stitch Palestinian politics back together by strengthening the PA under Mahmoud Abbas, which favors a two-state solution with Israel, while weakening the Islamists of Hamas, who rule in Gaza. The Israeli government of Prime Minister Netanyahu says it shares the goal of helping Mr. Abbas, which is why it is seeking to improve West Bank economic conditions as a platform for moving to a political discussion.
        Asked to explain why the West Bank's fortunes were shifting, a top Israeli general began his narrative with a chart showing 410 Israelis killed by Palestinians in 2002, and 4 in 2008. "We destroyed the terrorist groups through three things - intelligence, the barrier, and freedom of action by our men," he said. "We sent our troops into every marketplace and every house, staying tightly focused on getting the bad guys."  (New York Times)
  • Israel Tells U.S. Envoy Terms for Syria Talks - Dan Williams
    Israel discussed renewed peace negotiations with Syria on Wednesday with Fred Hoff, a top adviser to U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell. The Israelis repeated their long-standing offer to hold direct talks with Syria if it distances itself from Iran and armed Islamist groups arrayed against Israel in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. "These things have to end if, indeed, Syria is seeking peace," Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said. Syria insists that any new negotiations include assurances that it will recover the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in 1967. (Reuters)
  • News Resources - Israel and the Mideast:

  • IDF Soldiers Record Testimonies of Palestinian Terrorists' Use of Gazans as Human Shields - Cnaan Liphshiz
    A group of Israeli reservists who served in Gaza has prepared signed, on-camera testimonies about Palestinian terrorists' use of Gazans as human shields to counter the anonymous accusations of alleged human rights abuses by Israeli soldiers in Gaza. Pinchas Sanderson, 29, recounted: "We came upon an ambulance from a local children's hospital. It was suspicious because there was a very old lady in the ambulance of a children's hospital. Inside we found three RPG rocket launchers."  (Ha'aretz)
        See also Hear the Real Voices of Israeli Soldiers (SoldiersSpeakOut-StandWithUs)
        See also Europeans Funding Group that Accused IDF Soldiers - Yaakov Katz and Herb Keinon
    The group Breaking the Silence, which on Wednesday released a report claiming that the IDF used Gazans as human shields, received NIS 226,589 from the British Embassy, €19,999 from the Dutch Embassy, and €43,514 from the European Union in 2008. (Jerusalem Post)
  • Rocket from Gaza Strikes Israel - Yanir Yagana
    After a month-long lull, terrorists in Gaza fired a Kassam rocket into Israel on Thursday which landed near Sdot Negev. (Ha'aretz)
  • Obama Has Spoken About Us, But Not to Us - Yoel Marcus
    President Obama aspires to accelerate the peace process and is behaving as though everything starts and ends with the question of whether Israel will or will not freeze construction in the settlements. Sixteen years have passed since the Oslo Accords, and we have gotten nowhere, except for the fact that the Palestinians turned us into moving targets during the intifadas and suicide attacks. Since there is still no serious partner on the Palestinian side, it is hard to get excited by the optimism of Obama, who expects a quick peace treaty not only with the Palestinians but with Syria as well.
        Obama assumed he did a great thing when he spoke in Cairo about the suffering of the Jewish people in the Holocaust. What is infuriating is the implied distortion: that we deserve a state because of the Holocaust. His disregard of our historical connection to the Land of Israel, and obscuring the fact that the Palestinians are unable to overcome their passions and to be worthy partners to a peace agreement, is extremely annoying.
        We expect that, as a leader who aspires to solve the problems of the world through rapprochement, Obama will come to Israel and declare here courageously, before the entire world, that our connection to this land began long before the Israeli-Arab conflict and the Holocaust; and that 4,000 years ago Jews already stood on the ground where he is standing. (Ha'aretz)
  • Global Commentary and Think-Tank Analysis (Best of U.S., UK, and Israel):

    Peace Process

  • How to Achieve a Lasting Peace - Stop Focusing on the Settlements - Ehud Olmert
    By vast majorities, Congress endorsed President Bush's 2004 letter elaborating Israel's right to defend itself, by itself, against any threat and recognizing new realities on the ground in which the Jewish population centers in the West Bank would be an inseparable part of the state of Israel in any future permanent-status agreement. In November 2007, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the Bush administration convened in Annapolis with the unified goal of solving all outstanding issues. Annapolis provided the framework for direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians toward bringing an end to the conflict and to all claims. Yet today, the issue of settlement construction commands the agenda between the United States and Israel. This is a mistake that serves neither the process with the Palestinians nor relations between Israel and the Arab world.
        Although America has not supported settlement construction, it has, on some occasions, recognized the realities that have developed over 40 years. Sharon reached understandings with the U.S. administration regarding the growth and building of settlements, as part of the Roadmap. These understandings provided a working platform and, in my opinion, a proper balance to allow essential elements of stability and normality for Israelis living in settlements until their future would be determined in a permanent-status agreement. I adopted these understandings and followed them in close coordination with the Bush administration. Let me be clear: Without those understandings, the Annapolis process would not have taken on any form. Therefore, the focus on settlement construction now is not useful.
        The focus on settlement construction, while ignoring the previous understandings, unjustly skews the focus from a true political process and from dealing with the real strategic issues confronting the region. Settlement construction should be taken off the public agenda and moved to a discrete dialogue, as in the past. The writer was prime minister of Israel from 2006 to 2009. (Washington Post)
  • Obama Should Dial Down the Pressure - Frida Ghitis
    Palestinians, watching Obama face down Israel on the settlements issue, have become emboldened, refusing to sit down and talk, instead raising new conditions and bragging about how protracted negotiations have worn Israel down. Israelis, meanwhile, are growing increasingly worried that Obama does not understand their concerns. A huge majority in Israel now believe the American president favors Palestinians. The push from Washington for a new direction in the Mideast has transformed the situation so dramatically that it risks overshooting its mark and making prospects for reconciliation more remote. Palestinians seem determined to let Obama wring concessions from Israel without making any of their own. Arabs still refuse to make concrete moves indicating a willingness to accept Israel's existence in the region.
        If Obama wants to make peace more likely between Israelis and Palestinians, he needs to dial down the one-sided pressure. He should show he expects all sides to compromise, and he needs to convince everyone - Arabs and Israelis - that he understands the threats Israel faces and is committed to seeing that a peace deal does not bring more threats to Israel's survival. (Miami Herald)
  • Arabs Need to Talk to the Israelis - Shaikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa
    Peace is a process, contingent on a good idea but also requiring a great deal of campaigning. This is where we as Arabs have not done enough to communicate directly with the people of Israel. An Israeli might be forgiven for thinking that every Muslim voice is raised in hatred, because that is usually the only one he hears. Essentially, we have not done a good enough job demonstrating to Israelis how our initiative can form part of a peace between equals in a troubled land holy to three great faiths. Others have been less reticent, recognizing that our success would threaten their vested interest in keeping Palestinians and Israelis at each other's throats. They want victims to stay victims so they can be manipulated as proxies in a wider game for power. The rest of us - the overwhelming majority - have the opposite interest.
        Speaking out matters, but it is not enough. Our governments and all stakeholders also must be ready to carry out practical measures to help ease the day-to-day hardship of Palestinian lives. The two communities in the Holy Land are not fated to be enemies. What can unite them tomorrow is potentially bigger than what divides them today. We should move toward real peace now by consulting and educating our people and by reaching out to the Israeli public. Some Arabs, simplistically equating communication with normalization, may think we are moving too fast toward normalization. But we all know that dialogue must be enhanced for genuine progress. We all, together, need to take the first crucial step to lay the groundwork to effectively achieve peace. The writer is crown prince of Bahrain. (Washington Post)
  • Obstacles to Peace - Col. (res.) Moshe Elad
    The real obstacle to peace is the intense hatred growing within Palestinian society, the kind of hatred that prevents any possibility that a responsible leadership will emerge. The West frequently mentions its endorsement of a Palestinian state, but who exactly will be leading it? The politically impotent Mahmoud Abbas who is an exile in his own country, or Islamic fundamentalist Khaled Mashaal? The real obstacle to peace is the absence of a serious Palestinian leadership and an authorized partner whose word will be kept and whose signature on agreements will be fully honored. Ever since 1948, the only Palestinian leader who managed to win the majority's support, Yasser Arafat, reverted to terrorism and the armed struggle at the moment of truth.
        Another obstacle is the bottomless barrel of aid funds to the Palestinians, whose billions in contributions only amounted to boosting terror groups in our region. In any other place in the world, the funds donated to the Palestinian Authority would have been sufficient to establish industrial infrastructure, provide employment, housing, and a car to each worker. However, in the "territories" these funds have been swallowed up by terror arms and private pockets. Yet the West believes that it promotes peace in our region.
        The obstacle to peace also has to do with the West's double-standards: the calm with which it accepts Gilad Shalit's abduction; the exaggerated pampering of the corrupt Fatah; the understanding shown to the demands made by Hamas terrorists, while only being strict and unbiased when facing our besieged democracy. (Ynet News)


  • Supreme Leader Khamenei Diminished in Iranians' Eyes - Borzou Daragahi
    For two decades, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was considered to be above petty political squabbles. But Khamenei has gotten his hands dirty. His decision to so stridently support Ahmadinejad after a disputed election has dramatically changed his image among his people. "Public respect for him has been significantly damaged," said one analyst. "Opposing him is no longer the same as opposing God." Ahmadinejad "commits crimes, and the leader supports him" was a popular slogan during the riots of June 20.
        "For nearly two decades Khamenei has wielded power without accountability," said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Those days are over. Formerly sacred red lines have been crossed. For the first time, people have begun openly questioning whether Emperor Khamenei has any clothes on."  (Los Angeles Times)
  • Targeting Human Rights Abuse in Iran - Emanuele Ottolenghi
    The U.S. and Europe should focus on the Iranian regime's latest human rights abuses, signaling to Iranian dissidents that they are not alone. Governments must demonstrate to Iran's repressive leaders that although dialogue may continue, "business as usual" will not. Iran, where national honor and pride are highly valued, will not be indifferent to regular displays of public contempt for its leaders.
        Cities can pay tribute to prominent Iranian dissidents by renaming sections of streets in front of Iranian embassies after them. Western governments should severely limit the scope of visits by Iranian dignitaries and deny visas to accompanying business delegations. Governments should close offices used by the Iranian regime to promote its agenda; particular scrutiny should be given to Press TV, the Iranian government's London-based English-language satellite channel. The writer is director of the Brussels-based Transatlantic Institute. (Washington Institute for Near East Policy)
  • Britain Replacing U.S. as Iran's "Great Satan" - Tara Bahrampour
    For the past three decades, the U.S. has been Iran's "Great Satan." Schoolchildren learned to chant "Down With U.S.A." Conservative clerics sermonized against America. Anti-American murals depicting images such as a skull-faced Statue of Liberty dotted Tehran. But since Iran's disputed presidential election last month, another Satan has gained ground: Great Britain. Iran's government has expelled two British diplomats, kicked out the longtime British Broadcasting Corp. bureau chief, and arrested British Embassy staff members, accusing them of fomenting the unrest. Last week, an adviser to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called Britain "worse than America" for its alleged interference in Iran's post-election affairs.
        Iranians consider the British "the masters of political intrigue, and players such as the U.S. are considered to be novices," said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of Middle Eastern studies at Syracuse University. Ali Ansari, a professor of Iranian history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, noted that "Ahmadinejad's government has always been very Anglophobic in its approach....They're really obsessed with Britain in a way that even previous Iranian governments, even in the Islamic republic, haven't been." "There were a couple of members of Parliament that got up and said [President Bush's 2002] 'axis of evil' speech was written by the British....They said the Americans weren't capable of this, they weren't intelligent enough to think of this."  (Washington Post)

    Other Issues

  • Will Hariri's Coalition Stand Its Ground While Forming a Government in Lebanon? - Zvi Mazel
    More than a month after the elections in Lebanon, the process of forming a new government has reached an impasse. The coalition led by Hariri now musters 71 representatives in parliament while the opposition has 57. In order to tackle the country's severe economic problems, Hariri has declared that he wanted "a national unity government" that includes opposition parties, but the Hizbullah-led opposition is demanding a third of the cabinet ministers and a veto on all important government decisions - something Hizbullah had obtained in the previous government. Hizbullah wants to remain free to act as it sees fit concerning the flow of arms smuggled to it from Syria, and to be able to control any decision regarding Israel.
        Saudi Arabia and Egypt have been trying to persuade Syria to pressure Hizbullah to accept a compromise, which is a new phenomenon. The U.S. and France are also doing all they can to bring Syria to pressure Hizbullah into a more conciliatory position. So far Syria, basking in all that international attention, has given no indication that it is ready to act. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has stated that in the event that Hizbullah were included in the next Lebanese government, Lebanon would be held responsible if Hizbullah were to attack Israel. The writer, a former ambassador to Egypt, is a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and editor of (Jerusalem Post)
  • The End of Proportionality - Jonathan F. Keiler
    Accusations of "disproportion," like those against the IDF, will almost certainly be applied to American forces when domestic and international opposition to U.S. actions can find no other complaint. In NATO's 1999 Kosovo campaign, there were few if any claims of disproportionate use of force, despite the Serbian military's limited power and the infliction of hundreds of civilian casualties. Though American military action in Afghanistan or Iraq has not yet received comparable condemnation, it is only a matter of time before this occurs
        The principle of proportionality is so vague and difficult to apply with any consistency, and so widely misunderstood, that the U.S. military should discard it. Instead, American authorities should simply take the position that U.S. doctrine proscribes use of force that is indiscriminate, wasteful, excessive, or not necessary to achieving military objectives. America's armed forces should openly acknowledge that they do not abide by the principle of proportionality because it is so problematic. The writer is a former U.S. Army Judge Advocate General Corps officer. (U.S. Army War College Journal)
  • What Happened to the Suicide Bombers of Jerusalem? - Christopher Hitchens
    Whatever happened to the suicide bombers of Jerusalem? It was widely said by people as eminent as Tony Blair's wife that the real cause of such a lurid and awful tactic was despair: the reaction of a people who had no other avenue of expression for their misery and frustration. Well, surely nobody will be so callous as to say that there is less despair among Palestinians today.
        Of the various explanations, one would be the success of the wall or "fence" that Israel has built. Another possible reason for the slump in suicide is that those who were orchestrating it came to find that the tactic was becoming subject to diminishing returns. Nasty, vicious, fanatical old men were making the decisions and deciding the days and the hours of death. And the hysterical ululating street celebrations when such a mission was successful did not signify despair at all but a creepy form of religious exaltation in which relatives were encouraged to make a feast out of the death of their own children as well as those of other people. (Slate)

    Weekend Features

  • "Mainstream" U.S. Islamist Convention Features Hate Speech, Defense of Hizbullah - Steven Emerson
    The national convention of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) this month attracted thousands of people and featured anti-Semitic, homophobic rhetoric and defense of the terrorist group Hizbullah. While many panels featured criticism of U.S. policy, one stood out for its hate-filled rhetoric. During a "meet the authors" session, Imam Warith Deen Umar, former head of the New York state prison chaplain program, portrayed the Holocaust as punishment of Jews for being "serially disobedient to Allah." Umar previously hailed the 9/11 hijackers as martyrs who were secretly admired by Muslims, and he has called for violent jihad. He is the author of Judaiology, a book describing "the inordinacy of Jewish power."
        During his ISNA appearance, Umar said: "The first man that Obama picked when we were so happy that he was the President, he picked an Israeli - Rahm Emanuel - his number one man. His number two man - [David] Axelrod - another Israeli person. Why do this small number of people have control of the world?" (Investigative Project on Terrorism)
  • Unique Camp for Terror Victims' Relatives - Ilana Curiel
    "It is very difficult for a family that has lost someone to have fun," explains Rabbi Seth Mandell, the president of the Koby Mandell Foundation, about the camp currently in session for dozens of children from families affected by terrorism. Camp Koby and Yosef was established by Seth and Sherri Mandell, whose son Koby and his friend Yosef Ishran were murdered by terrorists in May 2001 while hiking near Tekoa. Some 500 children from across the country are attending the camp this summer. Their families are not asked to pay for the camp, which is funded entirely by donations. "Some children experience a real breakthrough during the camp session," said Seth. "After therapy with the counselors, they sometimes say something they have never told anyone."
        A camper named Yochai, whose father was murdered in a shooting attack, says the camp "gives strength." "It helps, and it's fun. If you need something, you talk. There are good people here. If I'm having a hard time, the counselors always help. They are good friends. Everyone comes from the same background, and we are the same kind of people," says Yochai. (Ynet News)
  • Observations:

    Obama's Opening Gambit - Michael Doran (Middle East Strategy at Harvard)

    • American presidents have been trying to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict since the days of Truman. Sooner or later, every one of them has learned a harsh lesson about the limits of American influence. There is no reason to believe that President Obama's experience will be any different. In fact, his opening gambit in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking suggests that his own lesson may already be upon him.
    • The President has called for a halt to Israeli settlements, and his advisors have repeatedly explained that this policy includes an end to so-called "natural growth," meaning construction and population expansion within the boundaries of existing settlements. Obama's ban on natural growth nullified an understanding that President Bush had reached with then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The Israelis agreed not to appropriate any new Palestinian territory; in return, the Bush administration gave the nod to natural growth within existing settlement blocs.
    • Out of a mix of motives, Obama reversed this policy and chose to take an early, categorical, and public stance in order to launch a shot across the bow of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In the 1990s, Netanyahu's recalcitrance had been a thorn in the side of the Clinton administration. The former Clintonites advising Obama no doubt relished the idea of immediately knocking Netanyahu back on his heels so as to begin negotiations from a position of strength.
    • Shortly after Obama's address from Cairo, Netanyahu delivered a speech of his own, presenting himself to the Israeli public as the representative of a mainstream consensus on national security. Approximately two-thirds of all Israelis support the position that their prime minister staked out. On the specific issue of settlements, Netanyahu reaffirmed the basic lines of the Bush-Sharon agreement: natural growth, yes; settlement expansion, no. "We have no intention to build new settlements or set aside land for new settlements," he said. "But there is a need to have people live normal lives and let mothers and fathers raise their children like everyone in the world." He now turned to his critics in Washington with a warning of his own: "Do you really want to fight with three-quarters of the Israeli public over the building of kindergartens?"
    • Israeli pundits have noted the conspicuous absence of a pro-Obama coalition on the Israeli political scene - this, despite the fact that the Israeli Left detests the settlements as much as or more than Obama himself. Many Israelis simply do not understand how the country's security dilemmas fit into Obama's larger scheme. With respect to the issue of gravest concern, Iran's nuclear ambitions, Obama's strategy remains worryingly opaque.
    • With respect to the Palestinian question, many Israelis are skeptical about the power of any American president to overcome the Hamas-Fatah split, and to create conditions on the Palestinian side that will achieve a two-state solution capable of guaranteeing Israeli security. Many Israelis fear that the administration aims to buy goodwill from the Muslim world by distancing itself from Israel, and they wonder whether settlements are not simply the first of many concessions that will be demanded.
    • Many Western diplomats tell themselves that peace is nearly at hand, but the parties on the ground - Arab and Jewish alike - are highly skeptical. And for good reason. The power of Hamas, Hizbullah, and Syria, supported by Iran, looms in the background. It is highly unlikely that, in the next four years, a major breakthrough will take place. The central strategic challenge for the U.S. in the Middle East is diminishing the power of the Iranian-led alliance. The peace process is not as effective a tool for addressing this challenge as the administration believes, because the disarray of Fatah and the power of Hamas will not allow significant, forward movement. Everyone in the region knows this.

      The writer has served as Senior Adviser to the Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in the State Department, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Support to Public Diplomacy, and as Senior Director of the Near East and North Africa at the National Security Council.

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