Kerry Tells Senators That Obama Syria Policy Is Collapsing

Kerry Tells Senators That Obama Syria Policy Is Collapsing

Feb. 3 (Bloomberg) — Two prominent Republican senators say that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told them — along with 13 other members of a bipartisan congressional delegation — that President Barack Obama’s administration is in need of a new, more assertive, Syria policy; that al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria pose a direct terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland; that Russia is arming the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and is generally subverting chances for a peaceful settlement; that Assad is violating his promise to expeditiously part with his massive stores of chemical weapons; and that, in Kerry’s view, it may be time to consider more dramatic arming of moderate Syrian rebel factions.

Kerry is said to have made these blunt assertions Sunday morning behind the closed doors of a cramped meeting room in the Bayerischer Hof hotel in Munich, as the 50th annual Munich Security Conference was coming to a close in a ballroom two floors below. A day earlier, Kerry, in a joint appearance with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on the ballroom stage, gave an uncompromising defense of the Obama administration’s level of foreign engagement: saying that, “I can’t think of a place in the world where we’re retreating.”

Kerry’s presentation to the congressional delegation suggests that, at least in the case of Syria, he believes the U.S. could be doing much more. His enthusiasm for engagement and dissatisfaction with current policy, is in one sense no surprise: Kerry has consistently been the most prominent advocate inside the administration of a more assertive American role in Syria. Who could forget his late August speech, overflowing with Churchillian outrage, in which he promised that the U.S. would hold the Assad regime accountable for the “moral obscenity” of chemical weapons attacks? (This promise was put on hold after Obama declined to strike Syria, and after the Russians negotiated the so-far mainly theoretical surrender of the regime’s stockpile of chemical weapons.)

According to participants in the meeting, Kerry spent a good deal of time sounding out the members about their constituents’ tolerance for greater engagement in Syria. He was told, almost uniformly, that there is little appetite for deeper involvement at home. One congressman, Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois, told Kerry that his August speech on the need to confront Assad was powerful, but that the president subsequently “dropped the ball.”

Kerry’s Sunday briefing was meant to be private, but the Senate’s two most prominent Syria hawks, Republicans John McCain — the leader of the U.S. delegation to the security conference — and Lindsey Graham provided a readout of the meeting to three journalists who flew with them on a delegation plane back to Washington: Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of The Washington PostJosh Rogin, the Daily Beast‘s national security reporter; and me.

According to Graham, Kerry gave the clear impression that Syria is slipping out of control. He said Kerry told the delegation that, “the al Qaeda threat is real, it is getting out of hand.” The secretary, he said, raised the threat of al Qaeda unprompted. “He acknowledged that the chemical weapons [delivery] is being slow-rolled; the Russians continue to supply arms [and that] we are at a point now where we are going to have to change our strategy. He openly talked about supporting arming the rebels. He openly talked about forming a coalition against al Qaeda because it’s a direct threat.”

“I would not characterize what he said as a plea for a new policy, but that, in light of recent, dramatic developments, the administration is exploring possible new directions,” said one Democratic House member who was in the meeting. “He wasn’t arguing so much that the administration needs a new policy, but that the administration is considering a range of options based on recent developments.”

The delegation, which included such senators as Republicans Roy Blunt and Kelly Ayotte and Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, as well as such high-ranking House members as Michigan’s Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and New York’s Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, met with Kerry for about 45 minutes, immediately before both Kerry and the delegation left on separate planes to Washington.

Late Sunday night, shortly after the delegation plane landed, Hiatt, Rogin and I asked Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, to respond to the senators’ characterization of Kerry’s remarks. She emailed the following response: “Like [White House chief of staff] Denis McDonough this morning on the Sunday shows, Secretary Kerry has stated publicly many times that more needs to be done rapidly by the regime to move chemical weapons to the port at Latakia, that we need to continue doing more to end the conflict, and that he has pushed the Russians to help in this effort.”

Psaki’s response continued, “No one in this administration thinks we’re doing enough until the humanitarian crisis has been solved and the civil war ended. That is no different from the message Secretary Kerry conveyed during the private meeting. The meeting was an opportunity to hear from and engage with members of Congress and it is unfortunate that his comments are being mischaracterized by some participants.”

In a separate email sent Monday morning, Psaki responded to the claim that Kerry is reintroducing the idea of supporting arming certain rebel groups. “It’s no secret that some members of Congress support this approach, but at no point during the meeting did Secretary Kerry raise lethal assistance for the opposition. He was describing a range of options that the administration has always had at its disposal, including more work within the structure of the international community, and engaging with Congress on their ideas is an important part of that process.”

On the matter of Syria, the feeling at the Munich Security Conference, the world’s premier gathering of security experts, was that of helplessness. On the first night of the conference, Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special representative for Syria, said, “We’ve just had eight days of negotiations in Geneva. … I’m sorry to report there was no progress.”

The impotence of the West, as evidenced by the failure of Geneva II talks, and by continued reports of mass murder committed by Assad’s forces, prompted former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter to publicly compare the situation of Syrian citizens today to that of Jews in World War II Europe. “In the United States, we often ask, ‘Why didn’t Roosevelt bomb the trains?’ We aren’t very different,” she said.

There are many reasons a secretary of state — particularly one who has been more inclined to intervene in Syria than many of his colleagues in the White House national security apparatus — might see this particular moment in the three-year-old Syria crisis as an inflection point. The utter failure of the Geneva peace talks is one reason. Reports that Syria is not complying with its promise to divest itself of its chemical weapons stockpiles is another. Add to this the recent disclosure of damning evidence that the Syria regime has tortured and starved 11,000 people to death (more than 130,000 people so far have died in the civil war), and it is understandable why Kerry would believe it is time for a new American approach.

But the main impetus for a dramatic new approach might be the claim made last week by James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, that one of the main jihadi groups fighting in Syria, the Nusra Front, “does have aspirations for attacks on the homeland.” Clapper compared parts of Syria today to the tribal areas of Pakistan, which have long been havens for jihadi terror groups.

(In her email this morning, the State Department’s Psaki wrote that “while Secretary Kerry restated what we have said many times publicly about our concern about the growing threat of extremists, he did not draw a direct connection to the threat on the homeland or reference comments made by other administration officials. This is a case of members [of Congress] projecting what they want to hear and not stating the accurate facts of what was discussed.”)

If it is indeed true that the al Qaeda-oriented Nusra Front is seeking targets in the U.S., then the Syria conflict must become, by necessity, a paramount national security concern for the U.S. The impact of Clapper’s testimony could be profound: If parts of Syria are becoming, in essence, al Qaeda havens, and if jihadis are plotting attacks on American targets from those havens, then the Obama administration, which has made the fight against al Qaeda the centerpiece of its national security strategy, will have to engage in Syria in ways it has so far tried to avoid. Such engagement would be terribly complicated, because the U.S. would essentially be facing two despicable adversaries in Syria that are battling each other: Assad’s forces (and its Hezbollah and Iranian helpers) on the one hand, and the al Qaeda-inspired and affiliated foes of Assad, on the other.

This is why McCain argued to us, on the flight from Munich, that it is all the more important now to provide support to those rebel formations that could plausibly be designated as “moderate.” He said: “All I can do is hope that there is cumulative evidence, the failure of Geneva II, the atrocities of the 11,000, the continued regionalization of the conflict — sooner or later, the president will decide this is in America’s national security interest.”

President Obama’s position on Syrian engagement has been far less forward-leaning than that of his secretary of state. “All along John has wanted more vigorous action,” said McCain. “I said to John on the way out, ‘Don’t make it a half measure.’ I said you’ve really got to do something to change the momentum.”

Obama has never believed the more moderate rebel factions would be capable of defeating the Assad regime (and it should be noted that these rebel groups, despite McCain’s beliefs, are particularly weak today). McCain opposed Graham’s suggestion that the administration begin using drone strikes against al Qaeda-affiliated militants in Syria. “Eventually you’ve got to confront them, so to me, it’s a choice of, do we hit them after they hit us, or do we hit them before they hit us?” Graham said. “Because eventually we are going to engage these guys, and it seems to me there’s an appetite growing among the Arab countries and even a little bit [with] Russia quite frankly that we’ve got to change the momentum when it comes to the al Qaeda presence.”

AFP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Does Hagel Actually Have A ‘Jewish Problem’?

Does Hagel Actually Have A ‘Jewish Problem’?

As if life in Washington wasn’t dispiriting enough, we must now get ready for a bruising fight over whether former senator Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama’s nominee as the new Secretary of Defense, has a “Jewish problem.”

Hagel’s confirmation by the Senate isn’t a sure thing in any case — gay-rights activists are unhappy with his more archaic views (conveniently renounced as soon as his name was floated) on matters of sexual orientation, and defense hawks think that Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, is allergic to the projection of American force and overeager to gut the Pentagon’s budget.

But Hagel’s statements about Jews, Israel and the looming confrontation with Iran may take up a good deal of bandwidth. So: Is Hagel anti-Semitic?

The short answer is no. The long answer is also no. Which is not to say that Hagel will soon win the American Jewish Committee’s Man of the Year award. He takes a tougher line on certain Israeli government policies, and a softer line on Iran, than most mainstream American politicians, but some of his views are shared by many of Israel’s left-of-center politicians and ex-military chiefs.

The anti-Semitism charge was recently advanced by Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal, who wrote that Hagel’s use of the term “Jewish lobby” — in a conversation with Aaron David Miller, the former Middle East negotiator who doesn’t hide either his Jewishness or his support for Israel — had an “olfactory element” to it. Hagel’s statement that “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people” on Capitol Hill was particularly ripe, Stephens said.

“No lesser authorities on the subject than John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, authors of  The Israel Lobby, have insisted the term ‘Jewish lobby’ is ‘inaccurate and misleading, both because the [Israel] lobby includes non-Jews like Christian Zionists and because many Jewish Americans do not support the hard-line policies favored by its most powerful elements,’” Stephens wrote.

The term “Jewish lobby” is unpleasant and imprecise, certainly, but Hagel’s comment about the power of this alleged lobby strikes me, after years of listening to legislators whine about the awfulness of pressure groups generally, as inoffensive, if dumb.

On the other hand, Hagel, in his two terms in the Senate, voted to support Israel in ways that matter to actual Israelis, including to its defense officials. He supported a close relationship between the U.S. military and the Israel Defense Forces, and he regularly voted to grant Israel generous aid packages. If he has a record of animus toward the Jewish state or prejudice toward Jews, I’m not seeing it.

In fact, one of the more distressing features of the nomination is not Hagel himself, but some of the supporters he’s been accruing, people who believe that Hagel shares their loathing of a strong American relationship with Israel. These include people who do express animus toward Israel and toward the American Jews who support Israel.

The aforementioned Walt, who has enthusiastically praised Hagel on his blog, is an example. In his 2007 book with Mearsheimer, Walt blamed American Jewish organizations for dragging the U.S. to war in Iraq, and argued that the pro-Israel lobby is causally related to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In the duo’s feverish telling, the lobby’s stranglehold over Congress forced the U.S. into an alliance with Israel, which provoked previously pacific Muslim fundamentalist terrorists to commit mass murder.

There is nothing in Hagel’s record to suggest that he scapegoats Jews and Israel in the Walt manner — Hagel has argued, in fact, that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was motivated by oil — and there is nothing in his record to suggest he will try to persuade Obama to separate the U.S. from Israel in any meaningful way.

The Hagel nomination doesn’t represent nearly so drastic a shift in Obama’s Middle East policy as some people might believe (or hope), especially when you consider the views of Obama’s first secretary of defense, Robert Gates.

Gates, who emerged from the same non-interventionist or “realist” wing of the Republican Party as Hagel, took two positions on Israel that seemed superficially contradictory. The first was to complain, sometimes bitterly, about what he saw as Israel’s self-destructive policies, including its commitment to expanding West Bank settlements. The second was to strengthen the Pentagon’s relationship with Israel’s military.

Gates didn’t see the contradiction: He believed that Israel should be a safe and flourishing homeland for the Jewish people, and he also believed that its current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, wasn’t grateful for American support and was instituting policies that would ultimately make Israel more difficult to secure as a Jewish democracy.

Hagel, it seems, is on the same page. As is — and this is the most salient point — the president, who has consistently made similar arguments.

Hagel has differed from the president on one important issue: Iran. Obama has taken a tougher line than Hagel on sanctions and on the need to consider military force to stop Iran’s nuclear program. A widespread assumption is that, in nominating Hagel, Obama is moving closer to his position. But it’s far more likely, given Obama’s stated commitment to keeping nuclear weapons out of Iranian hands, that Hagel’s position has moved closer to the president’s.

We’ll have to wait for Hagel’s confirmation hearing to learn his exact thinking on Iran, and we can only hope that this issue is given more prominence than his graceless use of the term “Jewish lobby.”

Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.

Photo credit: AP/Nati Harnik, File

In Iran Nuke Talks, Ehud Barak Is Man To See

In Iran Nuke Talks, Ehud Barak Is Man To See

When U.S. President Barack Obama dispatches his negotiators to Baghdad next week to join talks with Iran over the future of its nuclear program, he’ll be most concerned about the reaction of one man: Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Obama believes that Barak, and not Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is the Israeli leader agitating most vociferously for a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, a strike the Obama administration thinks would be grossly premature and quite possibly catastrophic. (Your humble columnist concurs with this assessment.)

If Barak sees these talks as productive — especially in light of evidence that the U.S. and its allies are doing a credible job of keeping Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold — then Obama will have successfully pushed off an Israeli strike, at least until after the U.S. presidential election in November.

Barak has made clear that he seeks one thing above all in the nuclear talks: for Iran to shut down its formerly secret nuclear enrichment facility at Fordo, near the city of Qom. Obama has made Barak’s preoccupation with Fordo his own.

It’s not hard to see why both men see Fordo as a crucial component of Iran’s nuclear program. Once Iran moves its enrichment program to Fordo — which is built inside a mountain and has hardened defenses against nearly all conventional munitions — it will probably have entered a “zone of immunity,” in which Israel would no longer be able to cripple its centrifuges. (The Israelis, like the Obama administration and many international experts, don’t doubt that Iran would seek to build a nuclear weapon if political and technical conditions allowed for it.)

For Barak, keeping Iran outside the zone of immunity is paramount. If Iran moves its nuclear program beyond the reach of the Israeli air force, Netanyahu and Barak believe they will have outsourced the security of their nation to the U.S., which has more advanced weaponry. But in Barak’s estimation, the U.S. has gone 0-2 in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons to hostile, unstable countries. Pakistan and North Korea both built and tested nuclear weapons over U.S. objections. Barak has pointed out that Israel is 2-0 in the same arena, having destroyed nuclear facilities in both Iraq and Syria from the air.

If he thinks Iran — a country whose government advocates the destruction of Israel — is close to immunizing itself against a preventative Israeli attack, he will argue for an immediate strike. By some estimates, work on the hardening of Fordo continues at a steady pace.

In the past three years, Obama has intensified pressure on Iran in ways that have forced the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has ultimate authority over Iran’s nuclear program, to make at least semi-positive noises about compromise. Thanks to an international effort orchestrated by Obama to isolate the regime, tankers loaded with Iranian oil are sitting off the country’s coast — with no buyers to be found.

Obama doesn’t believe that the Iranians will rush to compromise before sanctions go into full effect on July 1. But there is a plausible chance that Iran could reach an agreement with the other countries at the Baghdad talks — known as P5+1 – – and promise to shutter the Fordo facility.

If this happened, then Barak would be at least partially happy. Because Barak doesn’t actually want to strike Iran this year — he wants to maintain the ability to strike Iran next year, and the year after that.

Obama has studied Barak and Netanyahu carefully. He’s fully aware that Barak was Netanyahu’s commander in the Israeli army, and he understands that Netanyahu often defers to Barak on matters of security. Although a sharp-taloned hawk on Iran, Barak is a former leader of Israel’s Labor Party and generally in ideological harmony with Obama. He is also far less apt to lecture Obama on the imperatives of history, and more likely to engage in practical discussions about ways to derail Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Which is why the Baghdad talks are so crucial. Obama thinks they could buy him substantial time with Israel, as he works over the coming months to convince Khamenei that his nuclear program is folly. But if the talks fail to persuade Iran to close the Fordo facility, then Barak and Netanyahu — who now sit atop a powerful coalition government — could be moving again toward a strike.

(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Palestine May Win A Vote, But Won’t Be A State

(Bloomberg) — The Palestinian national liberation movement has arguably been the least successful such movement of the past 100 years. The Arabs have tried on many occasions to defeat Israel militarily, and to break it through terrorism and boycotts, and have failed each time.

Even so, independence was within reach of the Palestinians at many different points in their history. The Jews in Palestine, early in the arc of political Zionism, sought simply to live as an autonomous minority within an Arab entity. The Arabs rejected the idea — some violently — and the Jews abandoned the notion.

The United Nations offered statehood to the Arabs in Palestine in 1947. The Arabs chose the path of war, and threatened the Jews with annihilation. Then they lost the war. Arab states controlled the West Bank and Gaza until 1967, but did nothing at all to advance the cause of Palestinian rights. After the Six Day War in June of that year, many Israelis hoped that Arab leaders would offer peace in exchange for occupied territory. That idea was rejected.

At Camp David, in 2000, Bill Clinton came closer than anyone to engineering the creation of a Palestinian state. Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, turned his back on Clinton without even making a counteroffer. More recently, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert offered Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, a similar deal. Abbas rejected it.

UN Recognition

Now Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, plans to ask the UN to recognize an independent state of Palestine. The request, whether granted or not (the General Assembly will support the notion; success at the Security Council is unlikely), will only defer the goal of an independent Palestine.

The support of Togo and Bolivia and Yemen would surely give Abbas a warm and happy feeling, but it will be irrelevant to the Palestinian cause. Abbas says he seeks a state for his people on the West Bank and in Gaza, with a capital in East Jerusalem. If that’s true, then there are only two member states of the UN that can bring it about: Israel and the U.S. Neither supports this resolution. Most Israelis view it as an attempt to limit their options in future negotiations, or to deny to them the holiest sites of the Jewish people and delegitimize the idea of a Jewish state.

Symbolic and Counterproductive

The U.S. opposes Abbas’s resolution — and will veto it if it reaches the Security Council — but not because the U.S. rejects the idea of a Palestinian state. President Barack Obama has been sincere in his support of Palestinian independence. The U.S. opposes the resolution because it would represent yet another entirely symbolic and counterproductive gesture in the long history of Palestinian gesture-making.

“This is about shortcutting a process for which there are no shortcuts,” Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told me. “At the end of the day, there’s only one way to create two states for two peoples, and that is negotiations.”

Rice went on, “To have a drama that changes very little in the world vis-a-vis the actual conflict, and then to expect that while one party is taking this great victory lap the other party is going to run to the negotiating table, is not necessarily realistic.”

A Tragic Moment

The particular tragedy of this moment is that there is, for the first time, a pragmatic alternative to the fantasy-based approach to independence of Arafat and Abbas. During the past few years, the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad (ostensibly Abbas’s No. 2, though the men are said to detest each other), has quietly built a security force that has restored law and order on the West Bank and stopped terrorists from attacking Israelis. He has built the framework for transparent governance, and created an increasingly viable economy. He has expressed repeatedly his distaste for Abbas’s UN recognition campaign, understanding — as Obama and Rice understand — that it will hurt the cause it claims to help.

Fayyad has the potential to be the David Ben Gurion of the Palestinians — a pragmatist, like Israel’s founding prime minister, who builds the structures of a state in advance of statehood, as a means of showing the world that Palestine will be a viable and constructive addition to the community of nations. But Abbas’s UN campaign threatens the entire project.

Another threat to Fayyad’s aspirations, to be sure, is the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his exceedingly right-wing coalition. Netanyahu has not done much to suggest to Palestinians that negotiations would bear fruit. But Abbas has been Netanyahu’s partner in paralysis. Two points have been obscured by the drama at the UN: Abbas, not Netanyahu, is the leader who has refused to enter negotiations without conditions. And Abbas is seeking something at the UN that was already offered to the Palestinians — and rejected by them.

Robert Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations has noted that Abbas is ostensibly seeking UN recognition because he prefers to negotiate as the leader of an independent state. But the Palestinians were offered independence with “provisional borders” in the now- forgotten 2003 peace talks known as the Roadmap. “The Palestinian leadership,” Danin wrote, “long rejected this option, fearing that establishing a state prior to resolving all outstanding final status issues with Israel would leave them unresolved in perpetuity.” Now Abbas is seeking an even more symbolic form of independence.

The True Goal

What, then, is Abbas’s true goal? It may be nothing more than an attempt to ensure his legacy, or to marginalize rivals like Fayyad. But he recently said something revealing: “We are going to complain that as Palestinians we have been under occupation for 63 years.”

The occupation, as it is generally understood, did not begin 63 years ago. Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza 44 years ago. Sixty-three years ago is when Israel itself was founded. If Abbas’s goal at the UN is the enfranchisement of his people, then he will not succeed. If his goal to demonize and delegitimize his enemy, then he very well might.

(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Israel Surrounded As Arab Spring Turns Darker

Sept. 13 (Bloomberg) — The Middle East is plunging toward crisis. The early promise of Tahrir Square has been supplanted by dismay that the Egyptian authorities — such as they are — allowed mobs to lay siege to the Israeli embassy in Cairo this past weekend.

Not long ago, Turkey and Israel were strategic partners. Now, relations between those two key U.S. allies are in ruins. When a recent United Nations report on the deadly confrontation between the Israeli military and a flotilla of Gaza-bound activists that sparked this crisis largely exonerated Israel, Turkey reacted by threatening to send warships to the eastern Mediterranean.

And the Jewish state faces a miserable month at the UN, where the Palestinians, who have refused to meet Israel at the negotiating table, are planning to seek recognition as an independent state, with potentially catastrophic consequences for both sides.

“As the months of Arab Spring have turned autumnal, Israel has increasingly become a target of public outrage,” the New York Times’ Ethan Bronner wrote this weekend from Jerusalem. “Some here say Israel is again being made a scapegoat, this time for unfulfilled revolutionary promises. But there is another interpretation, and it is the predominant one abroad — Muslims, Arabs and indeed many around the globe believe Israel is unjustly occupying Palestinian territories, and they are furious at Israel for it.”

Two Interpretations

The first interpretation — that Israel is a scapegoat for the failures of the Arab Spring (and many other previous ailments afflicting the Middle East) — is self-evidently true. The attack on the Israeli embassy grew from a rally in Tahrir Square called “Correcting the Path.” Its organizers meant to pressure the country’s military rulers to accelerate political changes. It is easier to burn an Israeli flag than reform the Egyptian government. And Israel, of course, did not cause Egypt’s economic woes, nor is it responsible for violence in Syria, poverty in Algeria or illiteracy in Yemen.

The second interpretation of recent events — that Arabs and Muslims are furious at Israel for occupying Palestinian territory — is superficially true, but it neglects to take into account a relevant and complicating fact: Israel’s crises with Egypt and Turkey are both rooted in an Israeli decision to relinquish Palestinian territory.

Forgotten History

Here is a bit of recent, though apparently forgotten, history: In 2003, the then-prime minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, announced that Israel would unilaterally withdraw about 8,500 settlers from its 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip, and pull out its army as well. The territory would be handed over, in its entirety, to the Palestinian Authority.

In the summer of 2005, he executed the plan, ordering the Israeli army to expel the settlers. It would have been better, for many reasons, for Sharon to have negotiated this handover directly with his adversaries. But the fact remains that Israel gave the Palestinians of Gaza what they claimed they wanted: their territory, which they said would become part of their independent state.

How did Gazans respond? First, looters destroyed the vast settlement greenhouses that could have formed the basis of a new Gaza economy. Then, voters elected into power Hamas, a terrorist organization devoted to the annihilation of Israel. Gaza quickly became a launching pad for rocket attacks against Israeli towns.

In response, Israel blockaded Gaza to keep weapons from reaching its enemies. It was this blockade that pro-Hamas activists, many of them from Turkey, were trying to breach when their flotilla was boarded by Israeli forces last year. Nine activists were killed. The flotilla raid, and the subsequent collapse of relations between the two countries, can be traced in large part to Sharon’s decision.

Gaza and Sinai

In Egypt, the story is similar. The attack on the embassy in Cairo — which forced Israel to send air force planes to Egypt to rescue its diplomatic personnel — was part of an angry reaction to the accidental killing of at least three Egyptian soldiers last month. (The exact number killed is disputed.) The problem began when a group of terrorists, including some reportedly from Gaza, crossed the Israeli border from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and killed eight Israelis. The Israeli security forces, in pursuit of the terrorists, mistakenly killed the Egyptian soldiers. The Israeli government later formally expressed regret for the incident.

Most of the protesters in Cairo cared not at all about a terrorist invasion of Israel from Egyptian territory, or about the murdered Israelis themselves. Their only concern was what they saw as Israel’s criminal response.

Why, after decades of quiet, has the Egypt-Israel border become so tumultuous? Two reasons: The interim Egyptian government has lost control over the Sinai since the revolution, and Gaza, which borders the Sinai, has been transformed by Hamas into a weapons-importing and terror-exporting mini-state. And how did this come about? Sharon brought this about, by ceding Gaza to the Palestinians.

This is not, by the way, an argument against territorial compromise. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, needs to find a creative solution to the problem posed by his country’s continued occupation of much of the West Bank. But that job is made much more difficult by Israel’s enemies, who choose to ignore Israel’s last attempt at giving up territory. And it is made more difficult still by Israeli voters, who, when confronted by demands for further territorial compromise, look to Gaza and say, “Not so fast.”

(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Jeffrey Goldberg at