Friday, August 31, 2012

Efraim Halevy is no Winston Churchill

Efraim Halevy

Ari Shavit interviews  Efraim Halevy, the former head of Mossad.  Excerpts:

More than any other interviewee in this series, he displays empathy for the Iranians and tries to understand them.

“What I have to say is complex” Efraim Halevy tells me. “I do indeed argue that a nuclear Iran does not constitute an existential threat to Israel. If one day we wake up and discover that Iran has no, that does not mean the start of the countdown to the end of Israel’s existence. Israel need not despair. We have deterrent capability and preventive capability. If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, Israel will be able to design a true operational response that will be able to cope with that. We will be able to prevent a Hiroshima in Tel Aviv and we will prevent a Hiroshima in Tel  Aviv; so we must not talk about a Hiroshima in Tel Aviv, because prophecies like that are self-fulfilling. Nor must we draw baseless analogies with the 1930s. 

“The true Churchillian way is not to talk about the possibilities of a second Holocaust, but to ensure that there will be no holocaust here.  I was a boy in Britain during the Blitz. I remember vividly Churchill’s speeches blaring from the radio. He did not talk about the possibility that Britain may not survive. On the contrary: even in the direst straits he said that Britain should have the upper hand. He promised that whatever happened, come what may, in the end Britain would win. Anyone who purports to be Churchill needs to talk like Churchill and project self-confidence.


“But we must not become confused”, Halevy continues. “A nuclear Iran is not an existential threat, but a nuclear Iran is a grave matter. Nuclear weapons in Iran’s hands upset the regional balance and create a very serious strategic. Nor can we completely rule out the possibility that if Iran possesses nuclear weapons it will ultimately use them. When the danger is very great, even if the risk that it will be realized is only 10 percent, we need it to treat it as a risk of 100 percent.  So I am not one of those who are indifferent to the Iranian danger. Under no circumstances am I ready to accept a nuclear Iran. But I maintain that the way to prevent nuclearization is nor necessarily by means of force.

What we need to do is to try and understand the Iranians” the former Mossad head says.  “The basic feeling of the ancient nation is one of humiliation. Both religious Iranians and secular Iranian feel that for 200 years the Western powers used them as their playthings”

I believe that if the west could acquire the sense of greatness Iran would forsake the nuclear road. If Iran were offered trains add oil refineries and place of honor in regional trade, it would consider this seriously.  You say carrots? The carrots offered to Iran until now were not big enough. Maybe the sticks were not enough either.

I am not Chamberlain. I am not  proposing peace with honor or peace in our time, but a realistic view of the situation. It is tru that the present Iranian regime does not want Israel to exist. But theat desire is not their top priority , an they themselves know that it cannot be realized.  The Iranians are afraid of us no less than we are afraid of them.   

Efraim Halevy’s view on the Iranian threat is what happens when you exclude the essential ideological/religious factors from the equation.  When you believe that they are all essentially like us.  When you project our values onto them and believe they are motivated by the same desires, based on the same system of ethics.  The result is a total and lethal misreading of the Iranian threat.

Efraim Halevy remembers Churchill’s speeches from childhood but he obviously forgot what Churchill wrote in his 6 volume masterpiece The Second World War.  Churchill understood whom he was dealing with. In the Vol I , The Gathering Storm, page 50, he wrote:

 Hitler’s sentence was reduced from four years to thirteen months. These months in the Landsberg fortress were, however, sufficient to enable him to complete in outline Mein Kampf, a treatise on his political philosophy inscribed to the dead of the recent Putsch. When eventually he came to power, there was no book which deserved more careful study from the rulers, political and military, of the Allied Powers. All was there – the programme of German resurrection; the technique of party propaganda;the programme of German resurrection;the technique of party propaganda;the plan for combating Marxism;the concept of a National-Socialist State;the rightful position of Germany at the summit of the world

In contrast,  Efrain Halevy completely skips over the Twelver ideology that is the quintessence of the Iranian threat.  How can serious politicians and journalist keep on discussing Iran without mentioning the Mahdi and the Twelvers?

Dr. Timothy Furnish

There are Islamic scholars in the West who do not share Bernard Lewis’s views on the Iranian threat.  But at least they acknowledge that correctly assessing the Twelver Shi'ism  doctrine is essential. Here is my email exchange with Dr. Timothy Furnish,  Assistant Professor, History, Georgia Perimeter College; Ph.D., Islamic History; M.A., Church History (with his permission),  who sent me his article . His site is

My questions in blue, his answers in dark red.  

Thank you for answering. If I understand correctly, you would basically agree with Ze’ev Maghen  who says that institutionalization of Mahdism  is not only not messianic or apocalyptic in character, but is in fact the fiercest enemy of messianism.  Is it correct to say that in your view Ahmadinejad  has no desire to employ weapons in a nuclear jihad in order to hotwire the arrival of the Mahdi?

Yes, I believe Maghen is correct, albeit a bit hyperbolic. And yes, I don't believe that "hotwiring the apocalypse" is really part of Twelver doctrine as understood in Tehran-Qom--although it is a view held by some of the Sunni groups, and possibly by non-establishment Twelver groups like Ansar al-Mahdi in Iraq

I do not quite understand your sentence “Full-blown jihad has been ipso facto illegitimate since the Greater Occultation cut off communications with the Mahdi in 939 AD.”  Are you referring only to the Twelver Shi`i jihad or to jihad in general?
I meant "full-blown Twelver jihad;" I thought that was clear from the context. 

In short, you position is that Islamic Republic’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is not for apocalyptic purposes but for a more mundane, and manageable, geopolitical ones. Did I get the gist correctly?

I hope you are right. However, since this does not seem to be an exact science like deriving Maxwel’s four equations in my Feynman’s Lectures on Physics, which describe in exactly the same way the same laws of physics in Iran and Israel, analyzing what these people think may be prone to error? Is it not? And an error may be very, very costly .
I agree. I have even said at conferences and in a number of radio interviews that if I were Israeli, I might not trust my analysis--or at least be fully confident with it. 

How do you explain Bernard Lewis’s statement “For people with this mindset, M.A.D. is not a constraint; it is an inducement..”?  Is Bernard Lewis simply wrong?  Why did he come to this conclusion?  Have you ever talked to him about this?   Shouldn’t there have been a meeting of leading Islamic scholars to clarify what the probabilities are that these are really geopolitical motives?
While I have great, GREAT respect for Dr. Lewis he is not an expert on Iranian Shi`ism, and he is getting  quite on in years.  I have no idea why he advances this idea, although perhaps my friend Dr. Andrew Bostom may be on to something in his critique of Lewis:
Such a meeting of Islamic scholarly minds would be a good idea.  I have no idea how to bring it about, however. 

After all, there seems to be even think tanks that believe that there is a potential danger:

“Even if Iran’s current regime is rational, the regime could change in ways that make deterrence less viable.

Some fear that leaders embracing an apocalyptic variant of Shiism (sometimes referred to as the “cult of the Mahdi”) might eventually seize control of the regime.”

I simply don't buy this "cult of the Mahdi" thinking--as I point out in my long paper on Iran and WMD's (the INEGMA one), this is a (willful?) misunderstanding of the Anjuman-i Hojjatiyeh organization, in my opinion. 

or Mehdi Khalaji’s altogether confusing article from which I remember this

In some hadiths, the Mahdi will kill two-thirds of the world’s population, and he “will clean the earth from nonbelievers and
deniers [of Islam]. . . he will continue to kill the enemies of God until God is satisfied.”10 The Mahdi “will order
his twelve thousand solders to kill anyone who does not believe in your religion.”11

 My understanding is that Ahmadinejad is just a figurehead and the real powered lies with the clerics who do not want the Mahdi right away. But this may change.  
I don't think Ahmadinejad is just a figurehead; in fact, I think he's far more popular in Iran than Khamenei.  Whether that's true of the IRGC is the question. 

The real question  that remains is what are the probabilities of these Twelvers really pursuing their eschatological beliefs. Should not Reza Kahlili’s  empirical evidence about what these people really think be taken into account? After all he spent 10 years among them.   

Of course Kahlili's views should be taken into account; but so too should the perhaps cynical view that he says what some folks want to hear for various motives, such as money. 

Would you board a plane if you knew that the possibility that it would crash is 5 percent?

Maybe--if I were fleeing, say, an erupting volcano or bird flu epidemic. 
I did not say I'm sure I'm right; I simply do research and then reach conclusions based on that.  I am very pro-Israel and I very much dislike the current regime in Iran.  And I am an incessant critic of the violence proclivities of Islam, partly (but not only) because I am a believing Christian. But, on the other hand, I don't think misrepresenting the doctrines of Twelver Shi`ism in order to advance political positions is good, either. 
Does that help?

-- and my reply

Does that help?
Yes and no.  The key sentence for me is, of course, -  I have even said at conferences and in a number of radio interviews that if I were Israeli, I might not trust my analysis--or at least be fully confident with it. 
So I'm back to square one.  It is past midnight here and I will have to read Bostom's  article with a clear head. But from what I have read by Bostom before, I seems that he considers  Bernard Lewis too "soft" on Islam. Even if that were the case, and I do agree to a point,  does it not give even more weight to his opinion on Iran and MAD?. If Lewis, who is usually so "understanding" with Islam, has such a determined view on MAD and Iran, then there must be a reason. Why hasn't anybody tried to clarify why is he so sure? I am a software developer and not a scholar of Islam, but I have read 8 of his books ( reading The Assassins now ) and from what I've read I came to the conclusion that he would not come up with wild irresponsible statements.

Likewise about Kahlili. Surely you could not give the same weight to opinions which consider he is doing what he is doing for money compared to him risking his life for 10 years under cover? If his story were inaccurate I do not think that the former CIA director James Woolsey would want to be seen in his company, and they were together on a panel discussion.

My gut feeling is that the war may erupt any moment because weather Lewis is totally right or not, they just cannot take the risk.

What is much more clear to me is that the present policies of the Obama administration towards the Muslim Brotherhood are bordering on the absurd, and the fact that only 5 congressmen noticed that something is wrong is very worrying.  


A final comment: When will Ari Shavit start interviewing scholars of Islam?   

Friday, August 24, 2012

Avoiding another Hiroshima while Obama keeps supporting the Muslim Brotherhood

In his COUNTDOWN series on Iran,  Ari Shavit this week interviews Ephraim Sneh, former  Deputy Minister of Defense, in a piece titled Avoiding another Hiroshima

“I’ve been in all the dialogues on the Iran issue,” he replies. “I’ve been at all the discussions and heard all arguments: It will be like the Cold War, like the U.S - U.S.S.R., like India-Pakistan. And I say: Nonsense. Total nonsense. Where there is no symmetry, there is no mutual deterrence. And between us and the Iranians there is no symmetry. In two dimensions at least, relations between us are completely asymmetrical. The first is vulnerability. Iran’s territory is 70 times larger than Israel’s – 70 times. So there is no comparison when it comes to vulnerability. What do we have here, all in all? Three power stations, two seaports, one international airport. The Weizmann Institute, Tel Aviv University, the Technion, the high-tech cities. So the temptation to strike us is enormous. Even if a single atomic bomb cannot destroy the entire country, it can certainly wipe us out economically and intellectually.”

“The second dimension is that of values. The mental chasm between us and the Iranians is much deeper than people are ready to grasp. We sanctify life, while Shiism sanctifies death. We have a democratic ethos, while  they have an ethos of sacrifice. During their war with Iraq, the ayatollahs had no problem sending Iranian children off to use their bodies to clear minefields. In the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah killed Muslim Arabs in the Galilee and just declared them to be shahids [martyrs]. So it is certainly possible that the supreme leadership in Teheran will decide one day that it’s fine to sacrifice the lives of five million or 10 million Iranians in order to destroy the Zionist entity. In their view of things, this could definitely be considered a reasonable equation.”

“What saved the world at the time of the Cuba crisis was the fact that John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev were of the same culture.* They were bitter ideological enemies, but both acted responsibly because both sanctified human life. This is not the situation with Khamenei. No one can know what he envisions in the middle of the night. Pragmatism for his regime is pragmatism that serves crazy objectives. So there will be no symmetry between us and the Iranians and no mutual deterrence. Therefore, Iranian nuclear weaponry is not something that can be accepted. The possibility of living with an Iranian nuclear bomb just doesn’t exist. 

*Excluding Castro who wanted to destroy the US no mater what, according to released documents after the Cold War ended .

A surprisingly realistic assessment. However, Sneh’s recommendations are less so:

“We are very close to the moment of truth,” answers Ephraim Sneh. “but we still have a few months left. I would prefer to be with the Americans in the spring rather than against Americans in the fall. If we’d had responsible leadership in the past few years, it would have reached an understanding with the Unites States that Israel will be flexible with the Palestinian issue and America will be tough on the Iranian issue. Together we would have built a strong regional front versus Teheran and stood strong against the steady Islamization process that is shaking up the region. But Netanyhau and Defense Minister Ehud] Barak did the exact opposite. They brought U.S. Israeli relations to an all-time low”  

Netanyahu and Barak brought U.S. Israeli relations to an all-time low? Wow!  A question for Mr Sneh: How do you stand strong against the steady Islamization process that is shaking up the region when Obama supports the Muslim Brotherhood?  

Former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy:

    • The State Department has an emissary in Egypt who trains operatives of the Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations in democracy procedures. We’re helping them get elected.
    • The State Department announced that the Obama administration would be “satisfied” with the election of a Muslim Brotherhood–dominated government in Egypt.
    • The State Department has collaborated with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a bloc of governments heavily influenced by the Brotherhood, in seeking to restrict American free-speech rights in deference to sharia prohibitions against examination and negative criticism of Islam.
    • The State Department has excluded Israel, the world’s leading target of terrorism, from its “Global Counterterrorism Forum,” a group that brings the United States together with several Islamist governments, prominently including its co-chair, Turkey. By the way, the Erdogan regime in Turkey now finances the terrorist organization Hamas, which is the Muslim Brotherhood’s Palestinian branch. At the forum’s kickoff, Secretary Clinton decried various terrorist attacks and terrorist groups; but she did not mention Hamas or attacks against Israel. Transparently, this was in deference to the Islamist governments the administration has chosen to partner with — to the exclusion of Israel. Those government’s adhere to the Muslim Brotherhood’s position that Hamas is not a terrorist organization and that attacks against Israel are not terrorism.
    • The State Department and the Obama administration waived congressional restrictions in order to transfer about $1.5 billion dollars in aid to Egypt after the Muslim Brotherhood’s victory in the parliamentary elections.
    • The State Department and the Obama administration waived congressional restrictions in order to transfer millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinian territories notwithstanding that Gaza is ruled by the Hamas, which is a designated terrorist organization under American law — meaning that to provide it with material support is a serious federal crime.
    • The State Department and the administration recently hosted a contingent from Egypt’s newly elected parliament that included not only Muslim Brotherhood members but a member of the Islamic Group (Gama’at al Islamia). The Islamic Group is the jihadist organization headed by the Blind Sheikh (Omar Abdel Rahman), who is serving a life sentence for his leading role in a terrorist campaign against the United States in the early Nineties. Like Hamas, the Islamic Group is a designated as a terrorist organization to which it is illegal to provide material support.
    • On a just-completed trip to Egypt, Secretary Clinton pressured the ruling military junta to hand over power to the newly elected parliament, which is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, and to the newly elected president, Mohamed Morsi, who is a top Brotherhood official. Secretary Clinton later met with Morsi, who has also been extended the honor of an invitation to visit the White House in September.
All this, despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s extensive record of hostility toward the United States, and despite the fact that Morsi, in his first public statement after being elected president, announced that one of his top priorities is to pressure the United States for the release of the Blind Sheikh.

A final comment: When will Ari Shavit start interviewing scholars of Islam?  

Friday, August 10, 2012

Telling the truth about the Iranian threat, drop by drop

Ari Shavit continues with his series on the Iranian threat. Today he interviews the "decision maker".
The decision maker  is a controversial person. There was a time when he was regarded as a savior, but right after he was seen as a pariah. But even those who loath the decision maker admit that he is exceptionally intelligent . Even his detractors are aware that he possesses unique strategic experience.
But you haven't answered my main question . Even you admit that Iranian nuclearization is inevitable, the counter argument is that Iran's nuclearization will be much more dangerous to Israel if we bomb Iran than if we don't . Even Yehezkel  Dror  warned about a vengeful nuclear Iran. Better an Iranian nuclear bomb with no Israeli bombing in 2015 than an Iranian nuclear bomb in 2020 after an Israeli bombing . 

The decision maker does not like the question. He grows impatient: " There is a logical fallacy here. People presume that if we do not act, Iran will not go nuclear. But that is not the situation. If we do not act it's almost certain that Iran will go nuclear. If we do act , there is a good chance that Iran will not go nuclear for a long while.
A country does not go to war in hope or expectation that another country will join it. Such an act is an irresponsible gamble. But the question is how do you define backing. Was there backing in the Six-Day War? Do you think that in 1967 the Americans told Foreign Minister  Abba Eban and Mossad chief Meir Amit anything different than what they are telling us now?  But then Ebban saw difficulty in the opportunity and Amit saw an opportunity in the  difficulty, and the Eshkol government made a decision. And what was that all about? About the closure of the Strait of Tiran? The sword hanging over our neck today  is a lot sharper than the sword that hung over before the Six-Day War.
If Israel forgoes the chance to act and it becomes clear that it no longer has the power to act, the likelihood of an American action will decrease. So we cannot wait a year to find out who was right: the one who said that the likelihood of an American action is high or the one who said that the likelihood  of an American action is low. We can't wait to find out one morning that we relied on the Americans but were fooled because the Americans didn't act in the end. We need to look at the reality right now with total clarity . Even a cruel reality must be looked at with total  clarity. Even a cruel reality must be looked at with total clarity. Israel is strong and Israel is responsible, and Israel will do what it has to do."

Total clarity? Historians of the future will be puzzled by the fact that Israel even while  facing an existential threat, greater than the one on the eve of the Six-Day War in 1967,  was still reluctant to discuss the true nature of the Iranian threat.  The crucial religious/ideological angle which would  give clarity to the Iranian motives is being deliberately avoided. Why?  

Friday, August 3, 2012

David Grossman vs. Bernard Lewis. Whom do you trust more on Iran?

Israeli writer David Grossman has written an article in Ha’aretz titled On silence about the Iranian threat and Israeli reaction. Here are a few excerpts: 

As things stand, the prime minister enjoys the support of a broad coalition and is not pestered by a solid opposition. In a sense, he is functioning as an autocrat – King Bibi, as Time Magazine called him. Meaning that when fateful decisions have to be made, the Israeli’s people’s future and destiny will be subject, above all to the judgment of Netanyahu’s extreme, rigid and unbending world view.

In other words, even the many Israelis from all over the political map who do not want Israel to attack Iran – along with certain security chiefs – are now trapped, in the most fateful way, within the prime minister’s hermetic world view.

Yet Netanyahu has loyal partners in the government, people who are meant to share  in the outlook  and decision-making. Their advantage over the average citizen supposedly lies in their “superior knowledge” as they have been presented with “all the facts and considerations”. True this is how a democratic government works, but Israelis have learned from hard experience that heir leaders are not immune to serious mistakes, and that , like everyone else- and perhaps even a drop more – they are vulnerable to self deception and getting carried away with hawkish euphoria.
Certainly, an Iran armed with nuclear weapons is a real danger, not just a paranoid figment of Israeli government imagination. But even in the present situation there are other avenues, other possibilities for action or non action , and of course there is always the unequivocal American assurance that Iran will not become a nuclear power. 

Why aren’t ministers and defense officials, people who are serving here and now, not those who have completed their terms, standing up and speaking their minds?

Netanyahu’s extreme, rigid, unbending and hermetic world view?  But isn’t  David Grossman precisely describing the world he lives in?  Have we ever heard David Grossman quote Bernard Lewis about Iran?

Particular importance should be attached to the policies, and perhaps still more the attitudes, of the present rulers of Iran, who seem to be preparing for a final apocalyptic battle between the forces of God [themselves] and of the Devil [ the Great Satan--the United States].  They see this as the final struggle of the End of Time and are therefore undeterred by any level of slaughter and destruction even among their own people . "Allah will know his own" is the phase commonly used, meaning that among the multiple victims God will recognize the Muslims and give them a quick pass to heaven.

                In this context, the deterrent that worked so well during the Cold War, namely M.A.D. (Mutual Assured Destruction) , would have no meaning.  At the End of Time, there will be general destruction  anyway.  What will matter is the final destination of the dead-- hell for the infidels, and the delights of heaven for the believers. For people with this mindset, M.A.D. is not a constraint; it is an inducement...

What does David Grossman know about the Twelvers and Shia eschatology?  How can he and so many others engage in discussions about Iran without mentioning the ideological/religious reasons that make the Iranian threat what it is? Isn’t David Grossman himself rigid, unbending and hermetic in not trying to learn more about how the Iranian mullahs think?

The whole discussion in Israel and the US about Iran is absurd. We are actually the most irrational party. Everything is being discussed except what should be discussed first, and that is the Shia eschatology that motivates the Shia faithful.  Even Ari Shavit who did a pretty good job interviewing ex generals, including Moshe Ya’alon,  refuses to interview people who know most about Iran and Islam like professor of Islam at Hebrew University Raphael Israeli.  How can a journalist of Ari Shavit’s  stature not realize  that his whole series on Iran is incomplete and therefore inaccurate if he does not give a perspective from a scholar of Islam?  

On silence. Should not ministers and defense officials be protesting that the real discussion on the nature of the Iranian regime and what motivates them is nonexistent? How can we estimate the threat if we refuse to discuss its essence? 

It boils down to whom do you trust more– Islam ignoramus David Grossman or one of the leading scholars of Islam in the West, Bernard Lewis?    

Works on Islam/Middle East
David Grossman
Bernard Lewis
The Yellow Wind [הזמן הצהוב / Ha-Zeman ha-tsahov, 1987]. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1988, ISBN 0-374-29345-7
The Origins of Ismailism (1940)
Sleeping on a Wire: Conversations with Palestinians in Israel [נוכחים נפקדים / Nokhehim Nifkadim, 1992]. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1993, ISBN 0-374-17788-0
A Handbook of Diplomatic and Political Arabic (1947)
Death as a Way of Life: Israel Ten Years after Oslo [מוות כדרך חיים / Mavet ke-derech khayyim, 2003]. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003, ISBN 0-374-10211-2
Lion’s honey : the myth of Samson [דבש אריות / Dvash arayiot, 2005]. Edinburgh; New York: Canongate, 2006, ISBN 1-84195-656-2

Istanbul and the Civilizations of the Ottoman Empire (1963)

The Cambridge History of Islam (2 vols. 1970, revised 4 vols. 1978, editor with Peter Malcolm Holt and Ann K.S. Lambton)

Islam: From the Prophet Muhammad to the capture of Constantinople (1974, editor)

History — Remembered, Recovered, Invented (1975)

Race and Color in Islam (1979)

Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: The Functioning of a Plural Society (1982, editor with Benjamin Braude)

The Muslim Discovery of Europe (1982)

Semites and Anti-Semites (1986)

Islam from the Prophet Muhammad to the Capture of Constantinople (1987)

The Political Language of Islam (1988)

The Shaping of the Modern Middle East (1994)

Cultures in Conflict (1994)

The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years (published in U.K. as The Middle East: 2,000 Years of History from the Rise of Christianity to the Present Day) (1995)

The Future of the Middle East (1997)

The Multiple Identities of the Middle East (1998)

A Middle East Mosaic: Fragments of Life, Letters and History (2000)

Music of a Distant Drum: Classical Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Hebrew Poems (2001)

The Muslim Discovery of Europe (2001)

Islam: The Religion and the People (2008, with Buntzie Ellis Churchill)

Faith and Power: Religion and Politics in the Middle East (2010) Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-514421-5

The End of Modern History in the Middle East (2011) Hoover Institution Press.