Editor’s Notes: That elusive balance

By David Horovitz August 8, 2008

The lessons of this week’s Fulbright fiasco and Gaza influx

Internalizing its security vulnerabilities in the years since 9/11, the United States has gradually tightened its vetting procedures for issuing entry visas. The process can still be relatively straightforward for those wishing to visit the US from our conflict zone, but it can also prove to be an immensely time-consuming and frustrating affair if extensive personal checks are deemed necessary.

I happen to know of a recent case involving a teenage Israeli Arab who, perhaps simply because he has a very common Arabic first name, had to wait many weeks for his application to be vetted. He was ultimately able to participate in a summer program in the US – a program, moreover, specifically designed to foster constructive dialogue among Jews, Christians and Muslims – only after the intervention of senior American politicians, and still only got his visa several days after the program had begun.

Unfortunately, given the lengthening record of Muslim extremists exploiting any and every means of access, such careful procedures are all-too necessary and appropriate.

And yet, evidently, even the increased care that the US now takes with applicants from our area is not always adequate – as evidenced by the latest extraordinary twist in the saga of the ‘Fulbright Seven.’

The plight of the Fulbright scholars, it may be recalled, sparked a diplomatic spat between Israel and the US, after seven Gaza candidates for this most prestigious of US educational exchange programs had their scholarship grants withdrawn by the State Department in May because Israel was raising security objections to letting them out of Gaza for their visa interviews.

In fact, Israel was refusing to allow anyone out of Gaza except for humanitarian emergency cases, and the impact of this policy on the Fulbright students made headline news. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice personally intervened, reportedly even contacting Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni over the affair. ‘If you cannot engage young people and give complete horizons to their expectations and their dreams,’ Rice declared bitterly, ‘I don’t know that there would be any future for Palestine.’

The Prime Minister’s Office objected that it maintains an official specifically charged with handling such special cases as the Fulbright applicants, and insisted – as a PMO official reiterated to me on Thursday – that it had not been approached by the US authorities about the seven, and that the first it heard of American frustration at their plight was when a New York Times reporter called up to inquire. It may well be, in turn, that the American consular staffers handling the matter were unaware of this official and his mandate.

The scholarships were reinstated in June and Israel reluctantly agreed to let four of the seven leave the Strip for their visa interviews. In an editorial at the time, The New York Times lectured that this change of course was ‘a welcome victory,’ but one that should not have required State Department muscle-flexing: Israel ‘should want to see more of Gaza’s young people follow a path of hope and education rather than hopelessness and martyrdom.’ Hundreds of other foreign fellowship winners are ‘still trapped in Gaza by the same Israeli policy,’ it went on. And while Israel ‘has a right and a duty to defend itself against Hamas terrorism,’ the newspaper concluded, ‘punishing students… will only sow more anger and hate.’

With Israel still refusing to let the remaining trio – Zuhair Abu Shaaban, Fidaa Abed and Osama Daoud – leave Gaza for their interviews, US visa officials took the unprecedented step last month of going to the Gaza border and meeting the students there, using portable equipment specially flown in from Washington to take the necessary fingerprints.

Here, plainly, was a case of intransigent Israel, citing dubious allegations about ties to Hamas, needlessly depriving these bright young prospects of a once-in-a-lifetime educational opportunity, and the US driving heroically to the rescue. The baselessness of the Israeli security concerns was ostensibly confirmed, moreover, on July 30, when, at the conclusion of those stringent US security checks, all three Gazans were indeed granted their US visas.

Except that this week, those visas were revoked. US officials did not immediately explain why, although unnamed sources have said the belated realization of a potential risk relates to the self-same issues that had prompted Israel to bar the trio from leaving Gaza.

There have been suggestions that had Israel communicated all its intelligence about the three earlier in the process, the visas would never have been issued. An official in the Prime Minister’s Office told me that ‘Israel gave information’ to the Americans ‘before the visas were issued and after the visas were issued. There has been an ongoing process. We left no doubt all along that there were very serious concerns here.’ Given that these were Fulbright students, he said, Israel might have put aside its concerns if they weren’t acute – ‘if this had been in the gray area. But it was black and white, and we told this to the Americans.’

So urgently concerned did the Americans become this week that Fidaa Abed, who had already made the journey to the US (via the Erez crossing and the Allenby Bridge to Jordan, accompanied by officials from the American Consulate) unaware that his visa had been cancelled, was actually stopped at the airport, flown back to Amman and ordered home to Gaza – a man who the Americans had criticized Israel for not allowing to cross into our own country, now turned back at the crossing into theirs. One can only imagine the raised voices in the relevant Washington offices at so dramatic a volte face – and one can only speculate as to the gravity of the security concerns that impelled it.

WHETHER OR not this fiasco was a consequence of an Israeli failure to communicate the extent of its concerns in an efficient manner, it is not the first time that the US has seemed to underestimate some of the potential dangers associated with the entirely admirable effort to enable deserving young Gazans to enjoy the benefits of the Fulbright program.

A previous incident had fatal consequences: Traveling in a convoy into the Gaza Strip to interview Fulbright candidates five years ago, American officials were the targets of what Rice’s predecessor Colin Powell described at the time as an outrageous terrorist attack. Detonated under the diplomatic convoy shortly after it had begun its progress into Gaza, a massive remote-controlled bomb killed three US security personnel and injured a US diplomat. Yasser Arafat condemned the attack. Powell condemned Arafat’s Palestinian leadership, insisting on ‘the need to move urgently to end terrorism.’

What these specific incidents suggest more fundamentally, however, is that America, which understands the challenges Israel faces and the threat of Islamic extremism better than just about any other international player, nonetheless can both err itself on occasion and would have Israel err too when it comes to finding the elusive balance between enabling freedoms that can boost moderation and maintaining restrictions that can prevent terrorism.

Another immensely significant effort in finding that balance between encouraging Palestinian moderation and thwarting violence has been playing out over recent months in the West Bank, where hundreds of members of the Palestinian Authority’s security apparatus are gradually being deployed after returning from months of US-financed training in Jordan.

Disagreements over how much responsibility to entrust to them have not generally flared into the kind of open argument that swirled around the Fulbright candidates, but there are certainly tensions rumbling beneath the surface.

Broadly speaking, the Americans, having invested their best efforts and tens of millions of dollars in the training, are encouraging Israel to give these troops a chance – to stand back a little, both literally and figuratively, and see if these properly equipped, thoroughly trained, hopefully highly motivated and, yes, stringently vetted (by Israel and the US) recruits are capable of imposing a workable security framework in the areas where they are stationed.

When Hamas secured its hold on power in Gaza last June via a violent coup against the PA’s forces, this US-financed Palestinian troop-training project was derisively branded a failure by many in Israel – unfairly so, given that the project had, at that stage, not yet received its funding and begun operations.

But Israel is still deeply wary about relinquishing too much authority and independence to the PA forces. Individual IDF commanders are necessarily anxious to ensure that terrorist attacks are prevented in their particular areas of responsibility, and thus reluctant to halt operations of their own in potentially hostile districts even if the newly trained PA forces are deployed there. The greater the IDF’s presence, however, the more neutered the PA forces feel, and the less likely they may prove to act firmly and decisively against extremism.

Earlier this week, senior IDF officials held a ‘coordination meeting’ with their Palestinian counterparts precisely to discuss an appropriate division of authority and responsibility that would, on the one hand, encourage the development of the PA’s own capabilities and, on the other, avoid exacerbating security risks to Israel. According to an IDF statement issued after the talks, ‘the Palestinians expressed appreciation for having the ability to act independently as part of the recent campaign for improving public order’ in the area of Jenin and northern Samaria.

Has the appropriate balance now been found? Time will tell. Past experience does not encourage optimism.

BEYOND THE specific area of security, moreover, the Americans have been leading the ‘friendly’ international pressure on Israel to seize the moment, take reasonable risks for peace and reach an accord with the PA’s Mahmoud Abbas – an accord that may not be implementable now but can constitute the ‘political horizon’ to bolster Palestinian moderates and begin to roll back the Hamas extremists’ inexorable gains.

Here, too, though, the question is whether those who are seeking to press for progress overestimate the risks that Israel dare take and the willingness and capability on the other side. President Bush, Secretary Rice, Prime Minister Brown, President Sarkozy et al insist that an accord is there for the signing. But is Abbas a viable partner? In large part because of his failure to reform Fatah, he continues to hemorrhage domestic support, has already lost Gaza and is consistently losing ground to Hamas in the West Bank. But he has also done precious little to reverse the strategic delegitimization of Israel so effectively pursued by his predecessor Arafat, who assured the Palestinian people that there was no Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and no legitimate Jewish claim to sovereignty in Palestine.

Israel has a vital interest in a workable accommodation with the Palestinians. But how does that interest stack up against the possibility that concessions made in negotiations with Abbas will merely be banked by a subsequent, more extreme Palestinian leadership? And who is most capable of answering that question, of finding the appropriate, elusive balance – the international community, however well-intentioned, or Israel itself?

IN ITS original conception, 2005′s disengagement from Gaza was intended to relieve Israel of responsibility for 1.3 million Palestinians, reducing a degree of demographic pressure, demonstrating Israel’s commitment to viable compromise, freeing up at least part of the IDF while giving it greater international legitimacy to act against Gaza extremism where necessary, and providing the Palestinians with the opportunity to build a model state.

In fact, Israel has not been able to disown Gaza, the strain on the IDF has been exacerbated by the incessant rocket attacks, Hamas has cemented its hold on the Strip, and the nature of the Israeli relationship to Gaza is becoming ever-more surreal.

Israel supplies fuel to Gaza – and has its fuel delivery men shot dead by Gaza gunmen. It supplies electricity to Gaza – and has its power station targeted by rockets manufactured with that electricity. And this week, Israel rescued some of its enemies from Gaza, saving them from likely murder at the hands of even worse enemies, and we witnessed scenes of utter absurdity in which Gaza gunmen, injured in their violent struggle with Hamas, sat up in their Israeli hospital beds and told the TV crews that they thanked the lord that the Jewish state had been there to save them. (Some international TV reports disseminated a rather different narrative, in which brutal Israel had taken dozens of Palestinians out of Gaza, handcuffed and humiliatingly stripped down to their underwear. But that’s a whole other, familiar, story…)

In June, The New York Times headlined its Israel-upbraiding editorial ‘The Lesson of the Fulbright Seven.’ And indeed, Israel should and does ‘want to see more of Gaza’s young people follow a path of hope and education rather than hopelessness and martyrdom.’ It, too, has to struggle to find the right balance, as it has essentially acknowledged by allowing several dozen Gazans with foreign study grants to leave the Strip since the Fulbright row erupted.

But there are two other lessons of the Fulbright saga, and of this week’s world-upside-down influx to Israel of terrified, desperate Palestinian gunmen from Gaza. First, that Israel is the sole reliable guarantor of its own security and can only be thoroughly cautious in relinquishing aspects of that role, even as it seeks to empower relative Palestinian moderates. And second, that where at least some Palestinians are concerned, Israel is the best guarantor of their security as well.

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