What Was He Thinking?

By seeking reconciliation with Iran, Washington alienates its allies and contributes to ever greater mayhem in the Middle East.
What Was He Thinking?
President Barack Obama talks with Secretary of State John Kerry in the Oval Office, Nov. 1, 2013. Official White House photo by Pete Souza.
 
Michael Doran
Observation
Aug. 6 2014 12:01AM
About the author

Michael Doran, a senior fellow of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council. He is finishing a book on Eisenhower and the Middle East. He tweets @doranimated.


On Friday July 25, as war raged in Gaza, John Kerry delivered a draft ceasefire agreement to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who then presented it to his security cabinet for consideration. Because the proposal granted Hamas a significant political victory—acquiescing, up front, in a number of the terrorist group’s key demands while failing even to mention Israel’s two primary concerns of infiltration tunnels and rockets—the ministers unanimously rejected it.

When unnamed officials leaked the document to Israel’s habitually left-leaning press, along with an account of the government’s thinking, a firestorm of indignation erupted—not, however, at Netanyahu but at the American Secretary of State. The views of one highly respected journalist were typical. Kerry’s proposal, he wrote, “raises serious doubts over his judgment. . . . It’s as if he isn’t the foreign minister of the world’s most powerful nation but an alien who just disembarked his spaceship in the Middle East.”

The journalist in question, Barak Ravid, is the diplomatic correspondent for Haaretz, the flagship publication of the Israeli Left. Remarkably, Ravid was not alone among his colleagues. Some of the most vituperative attacks on Kerry came from critics of Netanyahu—columnists and others who regard the prime minister’s support for Israeli settlements as the greatest impediment to peace with the Palestinians.

What accounts for this unprecedented show of unanimity? Wartime solidarity, in part—but only in part. No less dismaying to the Israeli Left was the way Kerry’s proposal shunted aside both Egypt and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in a mad rush to embrace Hamas, Turkey, and Qatar as trusted interlocutors. In the eyes of Israeli leftists, the PA and Egypt are essential to a two-state solution of the conflict with the Palestinians, and any proposal that diminishes their standing is ignorant and misguided.

“It’s not clear what Kerry was thinking,” Ravid wrote. Indeed, Kerry’s Israeli critics assumed that he was not thinking at all. One commentator accused him of a “rookie mistake.” But this evaluation assigns responsibility to the wrong man, and incorrectly identifies the nature of the miscalculation. The true architect of the fiasco was not Kerry but President Obama, and the blunder was no tactical mishap. Rather, it was the logical product of a grand strategy, and fits seamlessly into an unmistakably broad pattern.

All across the Middle East, the traditional allies of the United States, just like the Israeli Left, feel that Obama has betrayed them. Egyptians, Saudis, Jordanians, Emiratis, and Turks, despite the very real differences among them, nurture grievances similar in kind to those expressed on the pages of Haaretz. Ravid’s question—“What was Kerry thinking?”—deserves to be recast. It would get closer to the heart of the matter to ask what the president was thinking.

The answer is as simple as it is surprising: the president is dreaming of an historical accommodation with Iran. The pursuit of that accommodation is the great white whale of Obama’s Middle East strategy, and capturing it is all that matters; everything else is insignificant by comparison. The goal looms so large as to influence every other facet of American policy, even so seemingly unrelated a matter as a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

 

During the latter decades of the cold war, American presidents developed a strong sense of “our team” and “their team” when it came to the Middle East. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, that attitude persisted—even as “their team” transformed itself from the Soviet camp into Iran’s so-called Resistance Alliance, which includes such otherwise disparate partners and proxies as Syria, Hizballah, and Hamas.

Obama has abandoned that conception entirely. To be sure, he still pays lip service to countering Iran’s malign influence in the region. But in practice, nothing could be farther from his mind. Last January, he offered what is undoubtedly a more accurate account of his thinking when he mused about Iran becoming a stabilizing force in the Middle East. “[I]f we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion,” he told David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, “you could see an equilibrium developing between . . . [Sunni] Gulf states and [Shiite] Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.”

Two key assumptions inform this line of reasoning. First, the president posits that Iran is now a defensive power. Holding on for dear life in the volatile Middle East, it has no sustained interest in undermining the United States, which might even serve as its ally in countering Sunni extremism. Second, Hamas and Hizballah are similarly defensive—and ready, under the right circumstances, to moderate their aggressive hostility.

In brief, President Obama now thinks of the region’s politics in terms of a roundtable. Everyone seated at it is potentially equal to everyone else, and the job of the United States is to narrow the gaps among antagonists in an effort to bring the system to the desired state of “equilibrium.” It was precisely this concept that informed American diplomacy over the Gaza ceasefire. Although the administration was quickly forced to backpedal and abandon its proposal in the face of opposition from Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, the incident illustrated starkly how its Ahab-like fixation on a grand bargain with Iran has created a culture that makes stiffing American allies just a normal part of doing business.

Is it necessary to point out that those allies see the politics of the region very differently? They envisage not a round table but, at best, a rectangular one, with their team sitting on one side and Iran and its proxies on the other. They expect the United States either to join their side or to tilt heavily in their favor.

They also see something else: the complex and multiform divisions on the ground that make the Middle East so challenging. In addition to the rift between Iran and its opponents, there also exists a rivalry between those states, preeminently Turkey and Qatar, that support the Muslim Brotherhood and those, preeminently Egypt and Saudi Arabia, that oppose it. Because Hamas is both an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and a proxy of Iran, these two rivalries have intersected in the Gaza war—which is why, in the eyes of Egyptian and Saudi leaders, Hamas represents a double threat. Even though the spectacle of a Jewish military victory over a Palestinian adversary is profoundly unpopular on their own streets, they are eager to see Israel crush that threat.

When John Kerry developed his ceasefire proposal, he largely ignored all this, and particularly the preferences of Riyadh and Cairo. Not only was he enhancing Hamas’s power and prestige but, through his courtship of Turkey and Qatar, he was also offering it a path out from under the thumb of the Egyptians. Still worse, Kerry’s proposal was a windfall for the Iranians, who have played an indispensable role in building Hamas’s military machine and who, even as Kerry was working to settle the conflict, egged Hamas on against Israel. Whether Kerry consciously intended to benefit Iran is immaterial. The roundtable approach to Middle East problems, the fruitless search for equilibrium, automatically works to Iran’s advantage.

 

No wonder, then, that Obama’s policies are in a shambles. It is impossible to succeed in the Middle East without partners, and so long as he remains bent on empowering Iran and its proxies (who, for their part, continue to make no secret of their loathing for the United States), America’s traditional allies will withhold their own support for Washington’s initiatives. This fact raises a question: when it finally becomes obvious not only that the president’s policy will never work but that it has, in fact, contributed to producing ever greater mayhem and carnage in the region, will he reverse field? 

The answer is no. Early on his presidency, perhaps even before he was inaugurated, Obama resolved that he would be remembered in history for pulling the United States back from the Middle East—for ending wars, not starting them. The roundtable approach is his scenario for what should replace the American-led order of yesteryear. To admit that an equilibrium with Iran is a chimera—and that instead of ending wars he has helped prolong and multiply them—would be tantamount to renouncing his cherished legacy.

The president has already displayed an extremely high tolerance for turmoil in the Middle East, and he will display an even higher one before entertaining the notion that his strategy is profoundly misconceived. “Apparently,” Obama said in a recent press conference, “people have forgotten that America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything around the world, and so our diplomatic efforts often take time. They often will see progress and then a step backward. That’s been true in the Middle East.”

Our current step backward will undoubtedly last for at least two more years—at untold cost to the region, to us, and to “our team.” As Libya crumbles, Syria and Gaza burn, and the “caliphate” leaves a trail of headless corpses from Baghdad to Damascus, more rivers of blood will flow. America’s allies are on their own. 

_______________

Michael Doran, a senior fellow of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration. He is finishing a book on Eisenhower and the Middle East. He tweets @doranimated.

More about: Barack Obama, Foreign Policy, Hamas, Iran, John Kerry, Middle East

 

Defensible Borders in the Age of IS

What does the upheaval in the Middle East mean for Israel’s territorial needs?

Defensible Borders in the Age of IS
An excerpt of a map showing threats to Israeli population centers from the West Bank. Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
 
Observation
Oct. 22 2014 12:01AM
About the author

Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs, is a former ambassador of Israel to the United Nations (1997-1999) and the author of, among other books , Hatred’s Kingdom, The Fight for Jerusalem, and The Rise of Nuclear Iran.


How has the tumult in the Middle East affected the debate over Israel’s territorial requirements? For an answer, Mosaic approached Dore Gold, head of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, who has long promoted the concept of defensible borders primarily as a means of meeting Israel’s security needs in the West Bank. Our exchange was conducted by email. 

Q. Before we get to the idea of “defensible borders” itself, can you begin by telling us about your involvement in it?  

A: I became immersed in this issue when I was serving as foreign-policy adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his first term in the late 1990s. I was tasked with converting the IDF’s “Interests Map” for the West Bank into a form that could be presented to President Bill Clinton; I joined the prime minister for that presentation in the White House Map Room. Four years later, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon asked me to condense the work for his meeting in the Oval Office with President George W. Bush.

This formed the nucleus of what, starting in 2005, would become a series of monographs on the subject published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Copiously illustrated with maps and photographs, they featured essays by such prominent authors as Moshe Yaalon, now Israel’s defense minister, Yaakov Amidror, until recently Israel’s national security adviser, and Major General (ret.) Uzi Dayan. The latest edition in the series was released this year, by coincidence just prior to the Gaza war. [Mosaic linked to a number of chapters here Eds.]

Q. What was the original idea, and has it changed at all in light of regional developments over the years?

A: The idea was first put forward by Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon after the Six-Day War of 1967. As commander of the pre-state Palmah, Allon was one of the architects of Israel’s national-security doctrine, and had also been a mentor of Yitzhak Rabin. His essential point was, and is, simple enough: Israel must retain certain territories on the West Bank for its security.

Q: What about the Palestinians? That land, after all, is increasingly referred to as occupied Palestinian territory.

A: Let’s back up a bit. At present, no one has sovereignty over the West Bank. The last sovereign power there was the Ottoman Empire, which formally renounced its claim after World War I. The West Bank then became a part of British Mandatory Palestine, which was designated to become the Jewish national home. The 1948 Arab war to annihilate the newly established state of Israel ended with the West Bank in Jordanian hands, and there it remained until 1967. In June of that year, Jordan joined an Arab war coalition, led by Egypt, that was aimed explicitly at finishing the job begun in 1948. That war ended with Israel in control of territory on several fronts, one of which was the West Bank.

Because Israel had acted in self-defense in 1967, noted scholars of international law, including Stephen Schwebel, who later served as president of the International Court of Justice, and Eugene Rostow, a former dean of Yale Law School and Under Secretary of State in the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, recognized its claims as stronger than those of any other party. Indeed, UN Security Council Resolution 242, adopted in the aftermath of the June 1967 war, affirmed that Israel was not required to withdraw fully from the West Bank or return to the pre-1967 lines, but rather was entitled to “secure and recognized boundaries” that were still to be determined through negotiation.

In short, the West Bank remains disputed territory to which both Israel and the Palestinians have claims. The West Bank is not “Palestinian” territory; there was no Palestinian state there prior to 1967, and the Palestinians never had sovereignty there. For its part, Israel has legal rights that need to be acknowledged, and security concerns that must be incorporated into any understanding of where the final borders will lie. One thing that Israeli prime ministers from Golda Meir to Benjamin Netanyahu have made clear is that Israel cannot withdraw to the pre-June 1967 lines, which were a permanent invitation to attack—in a word, indefensible.

A: Are there Israeli experts who disagree with you? And have recent events, including in Gaza, strengthened their position or yours?

A: In the internal Israeli debate, some have argued that the whole concept of defensible borders has become outdated. In 1967, they remind us, the threat to Israel along its eastern front came from the combined strength of the armored and infantry formations of Syria and Jordan, plus an expeditionary force from Iraq. The IDF at the time was built around a small standing army that only gained full strength after the mobilization of reserves–which is why, if Israel were again to face a surprise attack, strategic depth was critical. It was in this environment that Yigal Allon put forward his plan.

And today? Israel remains a small country with a limited population base—certainly in comparison with its much larger neighbors—and there also remain real and persistent constraints on its ability to disperse its military capabilities. Critics of defensible borders like to point out that the constellation of hostile forces has changed markedly. The Syrian army has been badly degraded, the Iraqi army has been battered by war and domestic chaos, and Egypt and Jordan are at peace with Israel. Thus, they conclude, the danger of attack by large conventional armies is no longer. Of course there is terrorism, but that’s a different matter, and besides, the critics say, it’s not on the same scale as the previous threats faced by Israel.

My response is that, for at least the short term, the terrorist threat to Israel from the east is unlike anything we have seen before in terms of scale and character. Terror used to be conducted by small squads of three to five men who penetrated Israel’s borders in order to seize hostages or place explosive devices under vehicles or in public places. Today, organizations like the Islamic State (IS), in possession of robust weaponry that includes sophisticated anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, have defeated whole divisions of the Iraqi army and confiscated vast amounts of equipment and money.

This year, operating with battalion-size formations, IS and its ideological cousin the al-Nusra Front have defeated Syrian armored forces and made deep inroads into the heart of Iraq. Despite recent setbacks thanks to American-led airstrikes, this is no mere tactical nuisance.

As for the longer term, no one can speak with any certainty. It’s true that, for the moment, a conventional assault by an existing state is unlikely. But the Middle East region is changing so dramatically before our eyes that Israel needs to be prepared for any eventuality. 

Q: Even without an army like IS’s, Hamas was able to smuggle weapons into Gaza and tunnel its way into Israel itself. Doesn’t that call into question the idea of defensible borders on the West Bank?

A: To the contrary. The war this summer disclosed the sheer size of the arsenal that Hamas had managed to build up over the years. But how did most of those weapons arrive? In withdrawing from Gaza in 2005, Israel gave up a strip of land on the perimeter, called the Philadelphi Route, which had served to separate Gaza from the Egyptian Sinai. Thereafter, the number of tunnels under this route mushroomed, as did the quantity and quality of the weapons passing through them to Hamas and other groups.

On the West Bank, our outer perimeter is the Jordan Valley, which Israel controls. If Israel were to withdraw from the valley, weapons would flow to areas adjacent to Israeli cities.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Shoulder-fired missiles that can take down aircraft were found among the items smuggled into Gaza. No such weapons have been brought into the West Bank—yet. If they did get in, the security of Ben-Gurion airport would be placed at severe risk. To guarantee a demilitarized West Bank, then, Israel must retain the Jordan Valley, the functional equivalent of Gaza’s Philadelphi Route.

Q: Many commentators insist that, since Israel has such a strong army, it can afford to be more forthcoming with concessions and take greater risks for peace. 

A: We’ve just gone through the third Gaza war. The first time we withdrew from Gaza, it was said reassuringly that if Hamas failed to keep the peace, we could just re-invade and resume our control of the territory; what’s more, if attacked by even a single rocket, we would have international legitimacy to retaliate with the full power of the IDF.

We learned, painfully, that this was not the case. Israeli towns came under attack by Hamas rockets that were embedded in Palestinian civilian areas, making the effective use of Israel’s superior power much more difficult. Not only that, but after finally taking action in Operation Cast Lead in 2009, Israel was pilloried by the Goldstone Report and faced international condemnation at the UN Human Rights Council. The same thing is happening now, in a diplomatic atmosphere that if anything is more hostile, and more solidly stacked against Israel, than before.

My conclusion: it’s far better for Israel not to put itself in a position in which its vulnerabilities invite aggression but it is unable to respond with power. Once again, strategic depth makes a difference.

Q: A final question. You argue that the Jordan Valley must be kept under Israeli control. Why can’t Israel agree to international peacekeeping teams instead of the IDF, as is often proposed?

A: Israel has always been reluctant to base its defense on international forces, and when it’s agreed to them it has suffered. Under challenge, such forces invariably back down or collapse. During the lead-up to the 1967 Six-Day War, President Nasser of Egypt demanded that the UN withdraw its peacekeeping force in Sinai. UN Secretary-General U Thant agreed to Nasser’s demand, thereby removing the lone buffer between Israel’s southern border and 90,000 massed Egyptian troops.

It used to be said that no one would ever dare attack international peacekeepers; the thought was just too outrageous to be entertained. That illusion has likewise been put to rest over the years. Overt acts of aggression can force UN peacekeepers to leave, while the mere threat of aggression has demonstrably compromised their neutrality or led to their being co-opted by enemy forces like Hizballah. Only the other week, on Israel’s Golan Heights border with Syria, the al-Nusra front captured a contingent of Fijian soldiers from the UN Disengagement Observer Force and successfully held them for ransom. For all of these reasons, Israel’s position has always been that it cannot leave itself exposed, and must defend itself by itself.

As for the Jordan Valley, it’s worth remembering that, a month before his assassination in November 1995, Yitzhak Rabin declared in the Knesset that the future security border of Israel would be in the Jordan Valley, in the widest sense of that geographical term.

This is what’s meant by defensible borders. Until the lion lies down with the lamb, there is simply no alternative to them, and no amount of wishful thinking will change that fact.

More about: Dore Gold, interview, Israel, West Bank

 

The Silent Partnership

How the president has exploited the international campaign against IS in order to accommodate Iran.

The Silent Partnership
President Barack Obama speaks during a meeting with foreign defense ministers. AP Photo/Evan Vucci.
 
Michael Doran
Observation
Oct. 15 2014 5:00AM
About the author

Michael Doran, a senior fellow of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council. He is finishing a book on Eisenhower and the Middle East. He tweets @doranimated.


When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke at the United Nations on September 29, he had a number of concerns on his mind, but one stood out above the rest. He feared that President Obama was downgrading the struggle against the Iranian nuclear program. “To defeat [the Islamic State] and leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power,” Netanyahu said in the most quotable line of his speech, “is to win the battle and lose the war.”

Netanyahu had good reason to sound the alarm. An examination of Obama’s recent moves in the Middle East reveals that he has exploited the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State (IS) in order to increase cooperation with Iran in matters of regional security. Of course, administration officials dismiss any suggestion that they are “coordinating” with the Iranians militarily. In their next breath, however, they grudgingly concede otherwise—acknowledging, for example, that we provided advance notice to Tehran of the anti-IS coalition’s bombing plans in Syria. They also acknowledge opening “a quiet backchannel” to Tehran in order to “de-conflict” Iranian and American operations in Iraq.

Indeed, “de-conflict” is the favored euphemism of the moment. “No, we’re not going to coordinate,” Secretary of State Kerry said in reference to Iran’s client Bashar Assad and the military campaign against IS. “We will certainly want to de-conflict, . . . but we’re not going to coordinate.”

Too clever by half, this distinction is hardly lost on America’s traditional allies in the region, all of whom regard the Iranian alliance system, which includes Syria and Hizballah, as their primary enemy. Middle East media are replete with stories of backroom deals between Washington and Tehran. Given the enormous gap between what the Americans are claiming in public about Iran and what they are seen to be doing in private, even the false reports carry an air of plausibility.

No less a personage than Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, recently joked about the hypocrisy. Emerging from a hospital stay for surgery, he said he’d amused himself during his convalescence by keeping track of the lies of American officials who, while disclaiming any appeals for Iranian assistance, were privately begging for help. Even John Kerry, he delighted in adding, had approached the Iranian foreign minister with cap in hand—the very same Kerry who had piously announced “in front of the whole world, ‘We will not request help from Iran.’”

 

According to Khamenei, Iran has rejected all of the American requests. But Tehran has indeed permitted operational coordination—sorry, “de-confliction”—with the United States. In effect, Khamenei has set Iran up as America’s silent partner in the Middle East, and Kerry himself, at a recent hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, testified to the value the administration places on this partnership. Grilled by Senator Marco Rubio about glaring deficiencies in the American strategy against IS, Kerry offered a stunning defense. “[Y]ou’re presuming that Iran and Syria don’t have any capacity to take on [IS],” he lectured Rubio. “If we are failing and failing miserably, who knows what choice they might make.”

Iran, in the administration’s view, should thus be seen as a force multiplier for the United States. This line of reasoning has a long history, as one can detect by reading between the lines of Leon Panetta’s new memoir, Worthy Fights. Panetta, who served Obama both as secretary of defense and director of the CIA, recounts how he and his colleagues on the National Security Council (NSC) fought with the president over the American endgame in Iraq. Urged by the NSC to reach an agreement with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for American troops to remain in the country, the president refused. Why? Obama, Panetta explained in a recent interview, nursed “the hope that perhaps others in the world could step up to the plate and take on” the role of stabilizing Iraq.

Which others? Panetta did not specify, but Obama undoubtedly assumed that Iran, the obvious candidate, would see Iraqi stability as in its own self-interest. It was a severe miscalculation. The precipitous departure of the American forces, Panetta argues in his book, removed the United States as a bulwark against Shiite sectarianism and led ineluctably to the alienation of Iraq’s Sunnis—developments that (as Panetta omits to point out) took place under the sheltering umbrella of Iranian power.

Later, when civil war broke out in Syria, Obama’s policy was similarly deferential to Tehran, and with similar consequences. In 2012, he rejected another unanimous recommendation of the NSC: this time, to aid the Syrian rebels. It was the same advice he’d received from America’s allies in the Middle East, who grew ever more insistent as it became clear that Iranian intervention was giving Bashar Assad the upper hand. But Obama held his ground and, in doing so, effectively recognized Syria as an Iranian sphere of interest and hence inviolate.

Of course, Obama has never described his calculus in such terms. But he has hinted at it—by, for example, expressing his opposition to American participation in a Sunni-Shiite “proxy war,” which is nothing if not a synonym for a war against Iran.

 

Impolitic recent statements by Vice President Joseph Biden testify further to the astounding bias in the Obama administration against America’s traditional friends in the Middle East. Discussing the Syrian civil war, Biden developed at length the theme that “our biggest problem is our allies”—even as, on the ground in Syria, coalition military operations against IS are indirectly strengthening those allies’ enemies, starting with Assad. In the words of an American official quoted in the New York Times, “It would be silly for [Assad’s forces] not to take advantage of the U.S. doing airstrikes. . . . Essentially, we’ve allowed them to perform an economy of force. They don’t have to be focused all over the country, just on those who threaten their population centers.”

In the past, to assuage America’s allies who were angry at the pro-Iranian bias in U.S. policy, Obama pledged to build up the anti-Assad rebels in the Free Syrian Army (FSA). But he never really followed through on his pledge. Now he is playing the same tattered card in order to enhance the coalition against IS. But General John Allen, the commander of the coalition, has made the insincerity transparent by stating that training and equipping the FSA “could take years”—in other words, until after Obama has left office.

What would it take for Obama to change course? Here, Turkey has assumed the lead. If the American leader wants Turkey as a full-fledged ally, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has insisted, then he must agree to oust Syria’s Assad. This demand places Obama in a difficult bind. If he fails to gain Turkey as a true partner, the coalition against IS will be hollow at its core. But he has explicitly dedicated himself to avoiding the kind of large-scale war that Turkey requires of him.

More to the point, meeting Turkey’s demand would also entail scuttling the administration’s silent partnership with Iran in Syria—a move that Tehran, for its part, would not take sitting down and might counter by, for instance, bringing Israel under attack. Indeed, as Iran’s deputy foreign minister recently revealed, Tehran has directly warned that efforts by the U.S. or its allies to topple Bashar Assad would place Israel at risk. Hizballah’s October 7 attack on Israeli forces, its first declared such operation since 2006, proves the seriousness of the threat.

And Iran has other means of retaliation as well, for instance by adopting an even more recalcitrant position in the current negotiations over its nuclear program. By all accounts, those negotiations are failing. With no agreement expected before November 24, the expiration date of last year’s interim deal, Khamenei can contemplate several possible courses of action. He might, for example, extend the interim deal in return for a reward in the form of further relief from sanctions. That would at least allow Obama to buy time. But what if Khamenei were instead to demand an even more exorbitant reward, or threaten to abandon negotiations altogether?

Either of those choices would deeply complicate Obama’s life, precisely at the moment when the war against IS grows ever more burdensome. Whatever Khamenei chooses, it is he, not Obama, who now holds the initiative.

In brief, our silent partnership with Tehran has simultaneously emboldened Tehran and other enemies and alienated our allies: the very same allies who are vital to subduing IS. In the meantime, that silent partnership not only has done nothing for us, it has considerably weakened our hand—and that of its main proponent, Barack Obama. Yet he shows no sign of considering alternative strategies. No wonder Netanyahu sounded the alarm in New York.

More about: Barack Obama, Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Policy, Iran, Islamic State, Nuclear Bomb

 

Mosaic 2.0

Welcome to Mosaic in its brand-new look.

Mosaic 2.0
 
Observation
The Editors
Oct. 5 2014 6:00PM

Dear reader,

Welcome to Mosaic’s brand-new look! After a year and a half of publication, we’ve re-launched our site in a form that’s visually cleaner and clearer than before, more coherently designed, more aesthetically pleasing—and, especially, much easier to read and use.

If you’re already a seasoned reader of Mosaic, you’ll notice the two most obvious changes right away. First, our big monthly essays, which are Mosaic’s main distinguishing feature, are now seamlessly integrated both with their invited responses and with the author’s final say at the end of the month. Second, our daily Editors’ Picks, presenting the best and most important items culled from around the web, come to you on their own page; each item is summarized by us in an introductory paragraph or two, followed often by a key extract from the “Pick” itself, and then by a link to the source publication for when you want to read more.

Other improvements are forthcoming. Our site will shortly become more mobile-friendly, eliminating the need to zoom in or pinch the text during your commute. Each monthly essay and its responses will be available as a Mosaic Book—an ebook you can read on your web browser, your Kindle, or your phone or tablet. With the facility afforded to us by our new design, we’re also planning to increase the frequency of shorter original pieces and to feature regular columnists.

Since its birth, Mosaic has become, for a growing audience, essential reading: the home for clear, bold, in-depth, definitive treatments of the most pressing issues concerning Jews, Judaism, and the Jewish state. To our first-time visitors: we’re delighted to have you with us, and we hope you’ll want to stay. To our regular readers: welcome back, and we hope our new look makes your experience of the site all the more enjoyable.

Whether new or old, once you’ve had a chance to familiarize yourself with today’s Mosaic, we’d be very happy to hear from you with your thoughts, questions, or concerns. Write to us any time at editors@mosaicm[email protected].

Cordially,

The Editors
Mosaic

More about: Announcements, From the Editors

 

Guilty, Guilty, Guilty

Why should we confess, particularly on Yom Kippur? Why in public? And why so many times?

Guilty, Guilty, Guilty
From Jews praying in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, 1878, by the Polish Jewish painter Maurycy Gottlieb (1856-1879). Via Wikimedia.
 
Atar Hadari
Observation
Oct. 2 2014 6:00PM
About the author

Atar Hadari, born in Israel and raised in England, is a poet and translator whose Rembrandt’s Bible, a collection of biblical monologues, was recently published in the UK by Indigo Dreams. He writes regularly for Mosaic.


I have two Jewish neighbors on my street in the little Yorkshire town of Hebden Bridge. One, who has chosen to have nothing to do with religion of any kind, has a daughter who’s opted to live as an evangelical Christian. The other, a woman in her late thirties and the daughter of good North London Jews, married a man she met at college who was cosmopolitan, intellectual, and sensitive—all the things she considers to be Jewish characteristics. “It’s only when he’s with his parents that I realize he’s not Jewish.” When we moved into the neighborhood, she initially brought her two daughters to our house for Sabbath meals, but as time passed she stopped accepting our invitation. Clearly it was simpler to avoid a shared religious ritual, even over a meal, than to address the questions her daughters were quickly becoming old enough to raise.

So it was a surprise when she asked me to come speak to her students about Jewish tradition. A hospice nurse, she had become a lecturer on end-of-life care and was now teaching a whole course on the subject. What irked her enough to seek me out was the frivolity with which some of her students mocked the need for ritual and symbolic acts in patients who might “still believe in that sort of thing,” as if they were a pygmy tribe. The nursing school is at the University of Bradford, in the middle of Britain’s largest Muslim community, but she was not about to invite an imam, or a Church of England vicar, or a Roman Catholic priest, and she didn’t know any rabbis. But we had talked about end-of-life care and about my interest in using extended interviews or memoir transcription as an alternative therapy for the dying:  a way of getting people to review unfinished business or to find a starting point for conversations they might wish to have with their family.

In other words, we’d talked about vidui: the Hebrew term for a form of private or public confession recited quietly as part of daily prayer in some congregations and aloud in all congregations as part of the Yom Kippur service. The daily version, beginning ashamnu, is shorter; something like it appears in the Book of Daniel, “We have sinned, and corrupted, been wicked, and rebelled, even by turning from your commandments and judgments.” The verbs both in it and in the longer version, “Al het,” are in the plural—“we,” not “I”—and both are acrostics, a form that can aid the memory by providing a catalogue of dozens of sins in alphabetical order.

 

The term vidui recalls the confession that Moses instructs his brother Aaron the High Priest to make during Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:21) in order to transfer the sins of the people onto a goat that is then sent away into the wilderness. Now the goat is gone, and so is the High Priest; but the sins and the people remain, so the confession endures.

But why should we confess, and particularly on Yom Kippur? The Talmud (Shabbat 32a) says that all who are sentenced to death make a confession. It adds, eloquently (in the minor tractate of Smahot): “Many have confessed but have not died; and many who have not confessed have died. And many who are walking outside in the marketplace confess. By the merit of your confession, you shall live.” And this is the phrasing that Joseph Karo in the 16th century codified into law in his Shulhan Arukh, turning a recommendation into a requirement.

But again: what is so important about confessing? And why in public? And why through these prescribed formulas? Surely nobody ever committed quite so many sins as these, or sinned in so ornate a manner as to require such a minuet of expiation.

Yom Kippur entails acknowledging a list of sins you may not personally have committed. The point of the recitation is in the collective, which serves two functions. The first is that by acknowledging yourself to be in the collective, by shouldering a communal burden, you are confessing everything: not just what you are willing to confess to but also what you are not willing to confess, sins you committed knowingly and sins you committed unknowingly, sins that you were barely aware of. You are acknowledging that you have done it all, and if you haven’t yet done it all you might do it all, and even if you might not, you are hopeful in any case of forgiveness. It’s a letting-go of everything, the stains you can see and the ones you cannot. You want to be clean.

The second function of the collective is to replace the service of the High Priest and his transference of the collective’s sins onto a goat. The community standing together is a testament to your personal seriousness of purpose. In a sense, you are putting your own fate in the hands of all the people around you. Like Abraham haggling with the Almighty before the destruction of Sodom, you are asking whether He would really destroy all this great congregation if there turned out to be fewer righteous individuals than He’d expected to find here. By reciting all possible sins as part of your own account, you are drawing about yourself the merit of all those present. You are saying to the Almighty not only what you are—the catalogue of sins, of which you have committed at least one or two—but also who you hope to be: a part of this group you choose to stand with and that contains (again, a hope) some righteous souls. You hope that it’s not goats but, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, the content of our character that is the deciding factor as we face the Almighty.

 

So I went with my neighbor, who will not be attending the Yom Kippur service, to the school of nursing where she works, and into an auditorium of 120 student nurses, male and female. I asked for a show of hands to get a sense of what traditions the audience would be slotting vidui into. There were a couple of Pakistani Muslims in the front row, a few Catholics dotted about, one or two Protestants, and the rest were the great wash of English post-believers. It used to be said that the Church of England is what the British had instead of religion. They largely do not have even that anymore.

That was why I was there. My post-religious neighbor may not observe much in the way of Jewish practice herself, but she takes the dying seriously, and while she didn’t trust herself enough to pound the message into her students’ heads, she was expecting me to dent their disdain toward the remnants of a generation that did still practice. I was supposed to make them feel more sympathetic to the flotsam and jetsam left on the beach after the tide of belief in God went out.

I didn’t pound Torah into them. Among the various high and low roads across the terrain of faith, I chose one of each. Taking a high road, I first presented the vidui as a simple legal requirement, like last rites for Catholics. You have to say it, or, if you aren’t capable of saying it, have someone say it for you. Simple; cut and dried. I recited a few lines in Hebrew to give them a sense of the music of it, and then read the English text to give them a sense of the swath of sins covered, the intricate span of corruption. I think that may have impressed even the committed atheists.

And then I took the low, humanist road and pitched straight for the soft underbelly of my unbelieving crowd: guilt, and fear. I told them about my idea of interviewing the terminally ill and editing their autobiographical accounts into books that they could give to their (soon to be) survivors and perhaps use as conversation-openers before it was too late to set anything right. I said we all need to get the story of our life straight before we die, there’s nobody who doesn’t benefit from looking over what they hoped to have done and what they actually did, what they could have done and should have done, what they need to make right in order to let go, and to be let go of in turn. For the most part, I think they bought it. The low road was something even the most religion-phobic could not balk at. I got a round of applause; my neighbor said, “I knew you could teach”; and the students went out buzzing away among themselves.

My neighbor’s husband called me the following week, fulminating because four of the 120 students had complained, anonymously of course, that if they were going to have a representative of a religion speak to them, it should have been from one of the religions they were likely to encounter in their nursing wards. He thought the complaint was anti-Semitic, but I didn’t take it that way. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the Muslims who complained, or the Catholics, or even the Protestants. They seemed both to be engaged with what I said about the vidui and not to object to my humanist idea of a memoir.

No, I suspect the few complaints came out of the larger mass of post-believers, the ones who are happy to take up nursing but don’t like to think that dying is something that might happen to them, or that the people who will be dying on their watch are actually like them—are people. I think the four complainants were complaining not because they wanted  a Church of England vicar but because I raised the spectre of their own death, and not only that but the spectre of their loneliness dying alone in a hospital with no way to re-establish the connection to whatever relationships remained unresolved as they approached their end. So I took their protest as a compliment. I took it that my case for the prosecution—or was it for the defense?—had rattled them.

 

A few lines of the Al het, the Yom Kippur vidui, to close. I’ve chosen these because they leaped out at me for being rooted in the body and not the mind:

For a sin we sinned before you in breaking bounds
And for a sin we sinned before you in argument.
For a sin we sinned before you with intent against a friend
And for a sin we sinned before you with a narrow mind.
For a sin we sinned before you being feather brained
And for a sin we sinned before you being stiff necked.
For a sin we sinned before you being swift of foot to do wrong
And for a sin we sinned before you with a slanderous tongue.
For a sin we sinned before you with an empty vow
And a sin we sinned before you with a baseless hate.

There is no tune for this prayer; it’s as long as your guilt and as flat as the desert. But when I think of the last synagogue I spent Yom Kippur in, a tiny shtiebel in Leeds, the sound track in my head for this time of year is the closing passage of Avinu malkeinu, another recitation of sinfulness and entreaty for forgiveness, sung with particular longing only on the Days of Awe and other public fast days. It climaxes:

Our Father our King
Pardon and answer us
Because we have no deeds
Deal with us in charity and kindness
And deliver us.

At the end of the day, we ask the Almighty to treat us as we should have treated our fellows, hoping He will do better than we did.

More about: High Holidays, Jewish ritual, Religion, Yom Kippur