Posts Tagged ‘Israel’

In response to a friend’s recent question pertaining to current events in Iraq and Syria: What are your feelings on the situation [ISIS’ recent land-grab and subsequent US-led coalition strikes]? And why aren’t more Middle East countries involved in the coalition? I wish Iran would step up and show they are not as crazy as they use to be… and “for once” Israel has a legitimate reason to conduct air strikes, why don’t they take advantage of it?”

isis-ten-arab-nations-join-us-led-coalition-against-islamic-stateRegarding the question of why more Middle Eastern countries aren’t involved in the coalition, I would say it’s because the Middle East isn’t a unified, solitary actor/participant in regional or international affairs any longer. Countries throughout the region all have different goals and desired outcomes not only for Iraq/Syria, but for the new balance of power in the region at-large. Gone are the days were the Arab League, and even the GCC, spoke for everyone represented in their respective regional groups. Qatar/Kuwait are believed to be supporting non-ISIS Islamists – both political and militant varities – in places like Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and Iraq with money, supplies, and even weapons. All the while, the UAE/Saudi Arabia are opposing, by means of arming and financing the competitors of, the very forces that Doha and Kuwait City are supporting. We saw this struggle occur very overtly in the recent Tunisian parliamentary elections (where the UAE-support secularist Nidaa Tounes party outgained the Qatar-backed Islamist Ennahda party), and we are seeing this on the battlefields of Syria each day. While I think there’s pretty unanimous animosity towards ISIS at the state-level, there are plenty of individual donors in all the above-mentioned countries who are supportive of the group. These donors all likely have some amount of political or economic leverage and leeway within their homelands. Granted, experts agree that private donations make up a tiny percentage of the money ISIS is sustaining itself on (oil sales and extortion being the chief methods and whole other cans of worms); it goes to show the level of disagreement alive in the Middle East at the state and individual-level right now-even on the most pressing issues. I also think Arab regimes have a legitimate concern that if they directly participate in the killing, whether collateral or deliberate, of other Arab tribesmen and militias sympathetic to ISIS, then uproar at home may result.

iran-historic-nuclear-deal.siAdding to the internal differences of opinion within Arab countries, Iran is an equally-looming issue for our Middle Eastern partners with respect to their cooperation with U.S.-led coalition efforts. As long as the U.S. refuses to deliberately target Assad’s forces, a puppet of Iran, Middle Eastern countries do not see the U.S. as supportive of one of their chief foreign policy interests (degrading Iran’s regional influence), and therefore they are hesitant to play bigger roles in the coalition. This is now coupled with/exacerbated by the U.S. and Iran coming closer and closer to a nuclear deal. I think Iran isn’t stepping up to do more unilaterally in Iraq because they know such action will fan the flames among their Arab neighbors/Israel more than they can tolerate politically at the moment. There are most definitely Iranian advisers (intel, military, political) at work in both Syria and Iraq, but unfortunately Iran is held to a different standard when it comes to a physical military presence in the region. They have many decades of suspicion and distrust to dispel among their Arab neighbors, and I don’t think seeing Saudi and Iranian jets flying side by side would end well.

syriaarabisiscoalitionRegarding Israel, we’ve actually seen Netanyahu paint Hamas in a similar light as ISIS recently. By drawing similarities between the two, he is retroactively legitimizing the bombardment of Gaza a few months back. Regardless of that political maneuver, I do not think ISIS poses a credible and existential threat to Israel- hence Jerusalem’s lack of involvement. It’s one thing for ISIS to challenge the territorial integrity of places like Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey where sympathetic radical Sunnis and widespread government resentment exist (albeit as a vast minority in terms of the former). However, history has shown us time and time again that in moments of crisis the Israeli population rallies behind their government’s choice to confront existential threats with massive shows of force. There also does not exist mobilized radical Sunni organization operating inside Israel* willing to cooperate with ISIS (*not to be confused with inside the West Bank or Gaza). I believe Israel would handily suppress, and repel, any maneuver ISIS attempts against their country. Geographically/tactically, ISIS would have to make HUGE gains in Jordan, Lebanon, and/or Western Syria before posing any kind of potential threat to Israel’s borders. Long before ISIS gets within 100 miles of an Israeli border, we’ll be seeing Israeli jets pounding their positions in Jordan, Lebanon, or Syria. I think Israel is also in a similar boat as Iran politically-speaking. Many of the Arab coalition members are participating in a limited fashion in an attempt to save face among their populations at home who want to see the Muslim communities in Iraq and Syria defended by Muslims. Mix in pictures of IDF forces collaborating with Emirati pilots, and you may see public support for the coalition effort wane. The West knows this, and therefore has probably told the Israelis to sit on the sidelines despite their probable desire to participate.

More on Israeli participation in the coalition effort here

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On The Ground:

stock-photo-16681817-jerusalem-and-tel-aviv-road-signsAs expected, Jerusalem is vastly different from Tel Aviv. Weather: sure, architecture: definitely; however the cultural variations are most stark. Certainly the intersection of Arab/Palestinian communities with Jewish ones is among the most distinct and economically disparate faults of the Israeli government, but when chatting with a lot of locals in Jerusalem I’ve found that the commingling of various Jewish sects often creates more friction that an outsider might expect. I envisioned most Israeli Jews living in relatively peaceful coexistence under the banner of a  Jewish State, happy to be among a social majority. Though there aren’t protests in the streets, per se, there is evidently a lively and heated debate between more secular Jews and their ultra-Orthodox counterparts over issues of economic integration and “sharing the burden“. As a function of neglecting a formal education in English, math, the sciences, and computer skills, these ultra-Orthodox communities are vastly under-qualified to enter the modern workforce and are additionally exempt from serving in the military (as all other Israeli youth are mandated). The ultra-Orthodox are growing at a much faster rate than secular Israelis due to an exponentially higher birth rate, and are demographically gobbling up neighborhoods in order to sustain their expanding communities’ needs. These communities then implement conservative norms such as forbidding the operation of vehicles on the sabbath, enforcing strict codes of social conduct, and many others. One interesting quote I heard from some locals was that “we get along better with the Arabs than we do with the Orthodox,” and I was very surprised to hear such a claim. As someone who expected Jerusalem to be a city personified by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I found it interesting that Jerusalem suffers from internal dissension as much (if not more) than it does from various foreign pressures from its neighbors and the international community.

Touristy Stuff:

No trip to Israel would be complete without the standard trips to the Old City, Dead Sea, and various other notable locales. I had the privileged opportunity to be shown a slew of holy and historic cites by a fantastic tour guide named Natalie (who’s contact information I would be happy to pass on). Evidently, Israel takes its tourism very seriously and implements a very rigorous certification requirement  entailing 2+ years of training for all official tour guides. The quality of the tours we received really reflected this commitment to excellence, and Natalie demonstrated a keen expertise in all aspects of Jerusalem’s history. We toured the Western Wall, al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Dome of the Rock (where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Issac/Ishmael – depending on your faith), among other noteworthy sites. Even as a very secular person, I couldn’t help but be moved by some kind of magical mysticism surrounding a city as vested in religious and anthropological history as Jerusalem. We visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the location of Jesus’ crucifixion and eventual ascension into heaven, and needless to say it was a very powerful place to behold. They have places where you can reach your arm in and literally touch the rock that Jesus’ cross was fastened to, and I was sure to rub all sorts of Holy juju onto myself wherever I could. A large amount of the biblical history of Jerusalem was beyond what I could recall from my brief stints in childhood Catechism class, but it was certainly fascinating to learn bits about the original City of David, the various demolitions of Jerusalem by various marauding powers, and the evolution of Jerusalem’s society as a result of generations of conflict.

More Interesting Visits:

Some high points of my trip to Jerusalem, and Israel in general, include visits we made to the Golan Heights and to Rosh Hanikra (a city on the northwestern border with Lebanon). Being able to see Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon from various perched vantage points, I photoreinforced my understanding that Israel simply cannot afford to be wavering, timid, or overly defensive in its national security strategy. The Golan Heights is an occupied territory in northeastern Israel that was claimed from Syria as a result of the 1967 Six Day War. Though there has been relative peace between the two nations over the past few decades, a bloody civil war continues to wage inside Syria and now along its border with Israel. Regional instability emanating from the revolutionary tides inside Syria, Jordan, or Egypt have the ability to destabilize Israel if for no other reason than sheer proximity. Former treaties, agreements, and détente, with the Mubarak and Assad regimes to Israel’s south and north are now at risk, and this concerns Israel tremendously when analyzing the prospects for peace in a post-Arab Spring Middle East. At multiple points when driving north or south along the Israeli coastline, the border with the West Bank is no more than 9-10 miles to your east. I had a chance to study Afghanistan and Pakistan security challenges this past semester, and the concept of Afghanistan as a source of “strategic depth” for Pakistan continually came to mind when surveying how territorially narrow the Israeli homeland actually is. There is no place for Israel to fall back to, and major population hubs are a matter of miles (if not meters) away from contested/hostile territories. This sobering fact forms the backbone of Israel’s obsession with security, and it is no longer surprising to see the preemptive measures Israel’s military is willing to take to protect the country. I have yet to come to a conclusion on how I feel about this strategy as I find myself perpetually grappling with the legal and realist arguments for courses of action or inaction.

Onward:

The delicate balance of multiculturalism, vigilant national security, and religious sanctity makes Israel the most unique country I have visited thus far in my journeys. Israel occupies a unique place in the world politically-speaking by being the only true democracy amidst a sea of dictatorships, monarchies, and fledgling democracies who’s fates are not yet known. In terms of government organization, provision of civil services, and generally liberal attitudes and lifestyles, there is little to suggest that Israel is not a “western” country. However, as you barter the prices of melons and candies in the shuk, suffer the fate of a thousand car horns in the crowded streets near the Old City, and realize just how little personal space you have in lines for restaurants and ATMs, Israel appears very Middle Eastern in nature. In a way, Israel was the perfect springboard into my next stop: Cairo, Egypt. Israel possessed just enough Middle Eastern charm, coupled with various western creature comforts, to make the culture shock less severe than it could have been. Politically, I’m glad I was able to observe the domestic dynamics and international concerns facing Israel before living in an Arab country. Israel and Egypt possess a highly interesting history characterized by very high highs and very low lows that have cumulatively shaped the current relationship in profound ways. Much has yet to be seen about the fate of Egypt-Israel relations under President Morsi, and I am excited to see (from the sidelines, of course) how that relationship unfolds. Surely I will encounter plenty of critics of Israel during my stay in Egypt, but I will encounter them knowing that the Arab-Israeli conflict does not alone define Israel or the region. Israel grapples with environmental concerns, internal political debates, territorial disputes, and even rifts among its native Jewish communities- all in addition to a stagnant peace process and constant potential for military conflict. I look forward to experiencing Cairo for all that it is and is not, and sharing my journeys with all of you in the weeks to come.

I arrived to IsraTelAviv_aerial(194)el after a surprisingly painless flight across the pond through Los Angeles, CA and Newark, NJ. The first leg of my flight (5.5 hours) went by very smoothly as I read a few pages of my book, took a nap, rinsed and repeated. My connecting flight in Newark was more noteworthy, however. There was a secondary screening area just outside my gate in terminal which is apparently standard operating procedure for flights headed to Israel. It was among my fellow passengers that I had my first taste of what the demography of Israel would look like: Hasidic Jews, Christian pilgrimage groups, Arabs, birthrighters, and then me. I was able to log a few hours of sleep during my 10 hour flight to Tel Aviv as I watched Will Ferrell’s “The Campaign” and Tom Hanks’ “Cloud Atlas” (which, I should add, I would prefer to watch again when not under the effect of two Unisom sleep aids).

My arrival into Ben Gurion Int’l Airport was fairly smooth. I chatted with a young New Yorker (adorned in a kippah and tallit) when in line for customs, picked up my baggage without a hitch, and met my driver for the quick ride to the hotel. My driver was a nice guy who spoke English fairly well and did not wait one minute before beginning to talk to me about the Arab-Israeli conflict (interesting given that we were in Tel Aviv, but more about that later). He pointed out the mountains that I flew over before landing, which, thanks to the IDF, “prevented my plane from being shot out of the sky by Arabs;” the mounting crisis in Syria, Obama’s recent visits, and several other topics. I spent the first night wandering around the local neighborhood and I was struck by how similar the Tel Aviv beachfront area is to the beach communities in Southern California. People rode bikes, walked dogs, licked popsicles, etc. and appeared as if completely unaware that a political/religious/cultural conflict was being waged just a few dozen kilometers to the east. After a few more blocks of roaming, I grabbed a quick shawarma sandwich and was on my way back to the hotel to catch up on some sleep.

The next day my group toured the old port city of Jaffa, and learnold-jaffaed about how Jaffa gave rise to one of the first major metropolitan and predominantly Jewish neighborhoods in the land. Jaffa is a gorgeous and picturesque old city that reminded me a lot of Toledo, Spain; a towering fortress of a city, built from rock, with lush gardens and tall steeples everywhere you look. Walking back to downtown Tel Aviv from the Old City of Jaffa I had my first introduction to the vast discrepancy of wealth and general living conditions of Arab (and also in Tel Aviv’s case, Eritrean) minorities living in Israel. Tel Aviv is an incredibly expensive city to live in, and even young/educated Israeli youth have difficulty finding good jobs and affordable housing. The neighborhoods outside Jaffa were littered with abandoned buildings, bad odors, panhandlers, and generally unpleasant vistas when compared to the exotic beach area a few kilometers north. My group and I proceeded to visit the Israeli Independence Hall, which is surprisingly lackluster in its outside appearance (as most everyone who has been there would agree). Inside, I was captivated by the story of Tel Aviv’s creation. 66 Jewish families, fed up with marginalization and lack of economic prospects in Jaffa, relocated to the sand dunes of the Israeli desert and decided to break new ground for their small society. That small enclave grew to become the second largest city in Israel, and certainly one of the most culturally vibrant. Inside Independence Hall, we also received a short (yet VERY religious, probably because of the birthright group we shared the hall with) presentation on the state of Israel’s proclamation of Independence on May 14, 1948.

We spent our final day in Tel Aviv at our own leisure. I chose to spend the day on the beach soaking up some sun, swimming a bit, and playing volleyball of course. I was very fortunate to meet up with a close friend from back in the U.S. and pick her brain about what it’s like living in Tel Aviv from an American expatriate’s point of view. Even she admitted to discovering a different Israel on the ground than the one she had grown up learning about back in the States, in both good ways and bad. After a great night of drinks, pasta, froyo, and shared stories, we parted ways and I went to bed content with all that I had learned and experienced when in Tel Aviv.

Takeaways: Tel Aviv is a beautiful, laid back, and charming city that you would swear was located somewhere in Orange County, CA if it weren’t for the Hebrew signs on every corner. As my group was told beforehand, which I later confirmed, Israelis living in Tel Aviv lead vastly different lifestyles than their counterparts in Jerusalem. Women walk around in bikinis, there are posters for gay night clubs, people drink beer on the beach as they work on their tans, and so on. Tel Avivians do not preoccupy themselves with the political turmoil that plagues Jerusalem and Israel at-large simply because they do not have to. There are few, if any, Palestinians living in Tel Aviv, and the West Bank is a foreign land too far off to the east to give any serious thought to (unless you work for one of many NGOs or embassies). Tel Aviv natives are more posh, certainly more secular, and tend to desire more metropolitan lifestyles versus more religious ones. This is not to say that Tel Aviv is immune to the realities of being inside Israel and the Middle East. In November of 2012, residents of Tel Aviv were subject to rocket attacks launched from the Gaza Strip as a result of the IDF-led Operation Pillar of Defense. Without hesitation residents huddled in their bomb shelters, as they had been trained to do, and when the ‘all clear’ sound was given they simply returned to their cafes and paddleball games to resume their normal lives. I would be remiss if I said that Tel Aviv was immune or oblivious to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but it seems that they are certainly apathetic to it. Tel Avivians tend to be more preoccupied with finding a job, finding a house, and finding a beer, than they are with finding a bible, and it was very interesting to have this city be my first exposure to Israel. Jerusalem will be a lot different, I am sure, and I look forward to juxtaposing the two cities in my next post.

golden domeHello and welcome back to my resurrected blog: al-Ra˚yee: My Take on Issues in Int’l Relations! Let me apologize to what few readers I have left for the stagnation (to put it lightly) over the last few months. School, work, and other real life commitments (which I’ll get to in a minute) monopolized my time, and I sincerely regret not being able to post about the slew of juicy issues over the past several months. I had high hopes to post some of my graduate work, however the style of my writing assignments was vastly inconsistent with style of the previous posts on this site. Perhaps I will post some of my work down the road when I have a chance to creatively overhaul them, we’ll see.

This blog will be dramatically changing its focus over the next several months. I will be traveling throughout the Middle East (Israel and Egypt, to be specific) for the remainder of 2013, and feel it necessary to maintain a blog of my adventures, impressions, and thoughts. Though the blog will assume a new role in primarily chronicling my time spent in the region, it will not fail to deliver the same critical remarks about current and local events as it always has. I hope that by living in the region, I will gain a more informed perspective on issues of critical importance to Israel, Egypt, and the United States. No longer will I be the unfiltered American that you all have come to know, love, and despise, blogging from the cozy confines of his metropolitan apartment in Washington, DC. I hope to safely immerse myself in current events inside the region (the good, the bad, and the ugly) and provide critical analysis that you may not read see on CNN back home. As a disclaimer, I am no journalist — simply a student passionate about international relations — so please forgive me for my often biased, incomplete, and impulsive commentary.

I hope to contribute to this blog at least once a week (when possible), and wholeheartedly welcome any and all comments/questions about the topics of my various posts, about Egypt, Israel, Cairo, or the United States in general, or about anything you see fitting to direct my way. I hope you find my adventures provocative, insightful, and refreshing, and look forward to sharing my journeys with all of you.

Next stop: Tel Aviv, Israel — just a man, his beard*, and a laptop…

(* – for the first time in my life I am growing out my beard past the length of stubble that my various jobs somehow found tolerable. It has been about a month since shaving, and I already feel like a completely hairy new man. There’s just something about man and his infatuation with facial hair, and I’m sure you’ll see me commenting about it frequently from here on out. No shave-2013: engaged!)

Coming off a widely publicized trip to Israel this past weekend, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has employed an interesting new strategy for rejuvenating his otherwise stagnant campaign over the last few months. After fending off a proverbial onslaught of economic-minded propaganda, not to mention a heinous attack on his singing ability (was that commercial endorsed by Simon Cowell or what?), it appears that Romney has taken to the streets of Jerusalem in an attempt to draw some new attention to his bid for the White House. On Sunday, Romney pledged that “America [will] stand with you,” and that his presumptive administration “will not look away, and nor will my country ever look away from our passion and commitment to Israel.” Romney’s solidified pledge to the conflict-ridden nation is interesting for two reasons: 1) is this move purely political in nature- essentially an outstretched hand to American Jewish voters; and 2) is this is a solidification of his campaign’s foreign policy platform, an area that the presidential hopeful wishes to differentiate himself from his competition?

Let’s look at Romney’s visit to Israel from a campaign perspective first. Historically speaking, the Jewish community in the U.S. does not vote Republican, period. In fact, since 1972, the bloc has never dipped below 64% voter support in favor of the Democratic candidate (including ~75% voter support for Obama in his 2008 election), making them a predicable and dependable constituency from year to year. Knowing this, is the Israel issue really the quickest (if not the only) way to the Jewish community’s heart? Is Romney taking an innovative step to reversing this trend? Considering that only 31% of American Jews expressed “emotional attachment to Israel” in 2005, even a drastic increase in pro-Israel sentiment among Jewish voters would result in a 50% importance factor at best (in my opinion). These statistics are aside from the flagrant disagreements his party traditionally has with progressive voters regarding hot button social issues (which we could write a whole other article on).  Doesn’t seem like the most influential tool to win the hearts and minds votes of your competition, eh Mitt?

Despite how ineffectual I think Romney’s visit will be in mobilizing Jewish votes on the basis of Israel , I think his trip accomplished a lot in terms of solidifying his campaign’s foreign policy platform. For starters, it’s becoming more and more evident that the new front of American foreign policy in the Middle East is shifting west, away from Kabul and  towards Jerusalem. With new sound bites coming out of Tehran/Jerusalem each week, it will behoove Romney to essentially “look the part” in making very presidential speeches on very presidential issues. Secondly, Romney is removing himself, and his party, from a tarnished foreign policy reputation associated primarily with Iraq and Afghanistan. The Obama administration has had relative success on those fronts (killing OBL and completing troop withdrawals from Iraq), and it’s best for Republicans to accept the political blemish associated with former president Bush and move forward. Perhaps most importantly, Romney is asserting himself as the best possible partner for Israeli PM Netanyahu going in to the future. The Obama administration has had a strained relationship with the staunch Prime Minister for the past 4 years, to say the least, and Romney casting himself as the most capable ally with Israel (especially in terms of denying Iran nuclear weapons) may end winning him a few undecided voters who value strengthened US foreign policy in the region and a more hardliner stance when it comes to Iran (Jewish or otherwise).

In the end, I think the Romney campaign has succeeded in using the Israel issue as a distraction, if nothing else, from the Obama administration’s economic spotlight. Whether or not these moves will directly result in increased Jewish votes for Romney we have yet to see. Certainly rebuilding Washington’s relationship with Israel is a great way to garner support from voters who value the U.S.’s relationship with Jerusalem and firm position in the Middle East, but will his party’s voter history and glaring social disparities prove more dissuading than any possible number of photo opp’s and handshakes with Bibi? We’ll see this November…

(source: http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2012/07/29/in-israel-romney-to-issue-unmistakable-warning-to-iran/?hpt=hp_t2)