Thursday, August 28, 2014

In Israel, danger to the north

In the winter of 2006 I found myself at a party in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I somehow managed to get into a conversation about the Golan Heights. This was only a few months after the 2006 Lebanon War, during which I had been living in Jerusalem, and frankly pretty happy that Israel's possession of the Golan was keeping Hezbollah rockets, mortars and missiles that much farther away. The central premise of my interlocutor's argument that winter evening was that Israel has one of the most advanced armies in the world and that this technological edge should satisfy any security concerns when it comes to handing over parts of northern Israel to Lebanon or Syria. My counterargument then, which I believe is perhaps even more valid today, was that having advanced weapons systems and good intelligence is important and certainly an Israeli advantage in any conflict, but that the primary security concern in the north is not that the Lebanese or Syrian army is going to launch a massive ground invasion, but rather that the high ground would (and already does) provide the perfect place for non-state actors such as Hezbollah to fire rockets and mortars.

While it is true that for decades the border with Syria was relatively stable, Hezbollah rockets, infiltrators and snipers posed a constant threat to both civilians and the IDF along the border with Lebanon. Hezbollah remains a threat today to Israeli civilians, but as the civil war in Syria has raged on and expanded in the last two years, fighting between the Assad regime and various opposition forces has reached the border with Israel, occasionally spilling over into Israeli territory. This week we have seen perhaps the most troubling developments yet, with reports that Syrian militants have taken hostage members of the UN peace keeping force stationed along the Syria-Israel border, as well as mortars fired from inside Syria landing inside Israeli territory. 

Israel is a small country that is under constant threat from a range of enemies. While Jordan and Egypt are reliable partners when it comes to security, they both face their own thorny political and security challenges, internally and within the region. These relationships are very important for all parties involved and represent a major step forward in Israel's relationship with its Arab neighbors, but the security landscape has shifted significantly in the last  decade and now it is non-state actors and the spillover from proxy wars that represent the primary threat to Israel. 

This reality makes the security of the Golan and the people who live there, even more of a concern for Israel. But the threat posed by an expansion of Hezbollah or any of the motley crew of anti-Assad forces is not limited to those who reside in northern Israel. The danger of a terrorist foothold in the Golan is that these groups would use both the geography and geology to their advantage, exploiting a position deeper inside Israeli territory and perched high atop the Golan peaks, to try to kill as many Israeli civilians as possible.

As I argued 8 years ago, and believe now more than ever, Israel must remain vigilant in the north. Anyone who has travelled in this part of the country and looked across the border to see the flag of Hezbollah flying in Lebanese villages, or the noted the proximity of Damascus to the Israeli border, is likely to agree. 

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Education is at the root of civil society and socioeconomic mobility in America

In each generation American thinkers, artists and leaders struggle with the tension between an idealized version of what America is "meant to be" and what it really is. From the Puritan vision of a "City on the Hill" to contemporary ideas about US responsibilities in the spheres of economic, moral and military leadership on the global stage, the space between our highest ideals and what we achieve, both at home and abroad, has long been fertile ground for the exploration and expression of American identity.

The actors and perspectives may change over time, but one piece of the conversation has remained constant, and that is the idea of upward socioeconomic mobility as tool not only for the individual to his or her particular lot in life, but a foundational idea upon which the country was built. In theory, anyone who works hard in this country can improve their own circumstances, through grit and hard work.

This is a notion which contains an important kernel of truth - people can improve their lives through effort and determination. Education is vital to this kind of advancement, and with free public education, public libraries  and limitless resources online, moving up the socioeconomic ladder should be easier than ever.

But it isn't.

In fact, as Brookings Institution Fellow Richard Reeves writes in an excellent new piece, it may now be harder than ever to bridge the ever-widening gulf between not just the rich and poor in America, but between the very rich and everyone else. In his piece, entitled "Saving Horatio Alger," Mr. Reeves offers an erudite meditation on other salient elements beyond simply the possession (or lack thereof) of material resources, when it comes to class and mobility in America.

He correctly brings in not only the factors of race and racism as they relate to economic opportunity, but the way that demographics and centers of economic activity changed during the early years of the republic, sometimes setting up a stark sense of disjunction between what Americans believed anyone could do and the realities of daily life. It is a contrast which we continue to see today. Mr. Reeves points to the 1970's as a period during which this process began to accelerate, citing the influences of American tax policy and global economic growth as contributing factors in setting us on this present course. He also delves into ideas around meritocracy and how they influence the ways in which we see both ourselves and others around us.

While there will always be those who will say our darkest days are just upon us, and others who say they are long past, I think that we should be very concerned about the gap, both economic and social, widening every day in this country. It is not only a matter of who has how much in their bank account - such calculations are simply the arithmetic of wages and fortune - but the social impact, the increasingly deleterious effect on civil society of a population where the upper half feels (and acts) as though it cannot be bothered by such pedestrian things as civic engagement, and the lower half feels entirely shut out of the political process and the opportunity to play a meaningful role in civil society.

I am not making the argument here for the importance of a Middle Class (others can, and have, done so much more eloquently) but for bolstering the connections across and between every element of society. It is not a ladder to economic success that will guarantee a stronger, healthier, more equal society, but a vast web in which everyone feels they have real opportunity, and no one - rich, poor or in between - can escape a sense of obligation to their fellow citizen or the society we share.

One place to start improving the strength and quality of civil society is in the public schools. I am not an expert on education, but I can state with certainty that in my experience as an adjunct professor teaching English literature that I encountered far too many high school graduates who were ill-prepared to continue their education.  I am not talking here about the technical skills of how to organize a five-paragraph essay or mastering the minutiae of MLA citation, but of more essential skills: how to recognize the different parts of speech, the ability to compare and contrast two separate pieces of writing on a similar topic, the difference between a short story and an essay.

The myth of meritocracy and a relatively easy climb up the socioeconomic ladder was never completely true, but nor was it made out of whole cloth and for those who have found success, material or otherwise, education has always played a key role. Sometimes the seeds of success are sewn in a classroom, other times the autodidact plants and plows his or her own field amidst the library stacks, but either way education has proven time and again a crucial resource in strengthening civil society and enabling socioeconomic mobility.

We can, and should, have conversations about tax policy, racism, and shifts in the global economy. These have been, and continue to be, important factors in the big picture. But increasing access to educational opportunities at every level, from free programs at public libraries to vocational training for adults and advocating for affordable college tuition and graduate programs are things that we can work on today. Over time this investment in education will pay significant dividends, strengthening the web of civil society and over time helping to bridge the chasm between rich and poor, not to mention the gulf that separates our highest ideals from the realities that Mr. Reeves and those of us who care about the future of this country, are considering every day.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Once more, Hamas seeks to plunge Israel and Gaza into despair

Over the past 43 days the people of Israel and those who care about this tiny outpost of democracy in the Middle East have been on an emotional roller coaster.  Each hopeful high that came with a ceasefire or word of talks in Egypt seemed to be followed by an inevitable plunge into despair, as Hamas either violated a truce or rapidly resumed its assault the moment one would officially end. This seesaw cycle of conflict and short periods of calm has undoubtedly been exhausting for everyone involved, and most keenly felt by the Israeli civilians living in fear of rockets and tunnels, as well as these innocent Palestinians held hostage in Gaza by Hamas and it's terrorist minions.

For the past 5 days there was relative calm in this conflict, and today brought some hope that a 24 hour extension might buy a little more time for both sides to talk, but once again Hamas could not resist the urge to try and murder Israeli civilians and now the fighting has escalated significantly. With reports thus afternoon of intense rocket attacks on major population centers such as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, it's hard not to think that Hamas may be trying to draw Israeli ground forces back into Gaza. I hope I'm wrong about that, but regardless of the precise goals behind this renewed round of violence, Hamas is the cause of whatever death and destruction which follows.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

It's not only about the rockets

For the past 30 days the world has focused its attention on events in Gaza, as Israel has responded to an endless wave of rocket, mortar and missile attacks initiated by the terrorist group Hamas. As Israel has sought to neutralize this threat by targeting terrorists, Hamas has consistently aimed its weapons at civilians with the explicit goal of killing as many non-combatants as possible.

It's a stark contrast and one which I, and many others, have pointed out time and again. But the threat posed by Hamas is not limited to indirect fire (mortars and rockets) nor is it a new danger which suddenly appeared at the start of July 2014. While I am hopeful that a ceasefire will hold sometime soon, there are significant reasons to worry that even if the rockets stop that Hamas will not give up its strategic objectives and simply shift tactics, something which they have demonstrated capacity to do in the past.

Since it's founding in 1987 by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the stated goal of Hamas has been the destruction of the State of Israel. For years, Hamas has done everything it can to not only launch direct, violent assaults on Israeli civilians, but to derail any diplomatic or political movement toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

With Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and the construction of the security fence, the number of suicide bombings dropped as Hamas and other terror groups were forced to shift their approach on the ground. Over the past few years residents of the Israeli town of Sderot and other communities close to Gaza have lived in constant terror from rockets fired out of the strip. And occasionally, as was the case in 2009, 2012 and now 2014, these rocket attacks have expanded and intensified to the point where Israeli leaders felt a need to respond in a direct and sustained way.

This summer, during Operation Defensive Edge, the next iteration of Hamas tactical terror was revealed to the world, as the IDF began to uncover an elaborate network of tunnels beginning in Gaza and ending inside Israel. These tunnels, which were constructed with supplies originally intended for schools, hospitals and housing, were built to facilitate the murder and kidnapping of Israeli citizens. This fact alone should provide sufficient indication that while ending the rocket fire is very important, such a success  would only be a tactical victory, since Hamas is clearly devoted to developing multiple methods to spread mayhem and murder.

I would like nothing more than for a real ceasefire to be declared, and for Hamas and the subordinate terror groups it controls (Islamic Jihad, etc.) to actually cease and desist from attacking Israel.  This would be a significant thing, and likely represent a crucial first step in viable peace talks.

Unfortunately, I am not optimistic that the current ceasefire will be extended tomorrow night - and it's not only about the rockets - there may be additional tunnels, and this week we also saw attacks by terrorists using guns, knives and even a tractor inside Israel. The proponents of Palestinian nationalist terror have no intention of  stopping, regardless of what the UN, the US and of course Israel, desire.

If Hamas stops firing rockets and the children of Gaza and Israel can sleep more soundly tonight as a result, I am happy. But until Hamas is disarmed and dismantled, no one can guarantee that a few days, a few weeks, a few months from now, the conflict will not flare up again. It may be missiles from Gaza or a shooting attack in Jerusalem or a bombing in Tel Aviv, but one way or another Hamas will make its malevolent presence felt again - sadly, of that I have no doubt.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Between rockets and kidnapping, Hamas seems bent on destroying Gaza

As troubling as the conflict in Gaza has been over the last few weeks, today the world woke up to news that should really have people worried : early reports that Hamas had quickly broken an a 72-hour humanitarian ceasefire, followed by news that an Israeli soldier had been kidnapped in Gaza. 

It's no surprise that Hamas, which does not care how many Gazans die in this conflict, quickly abrogated the ceasefire. It should also be no surprise that Hamas kidnapped a soldier - just yesterday the media reported an attempt by terrorists to capture the body of a fallen Israeli soldier, and only through the brave actions of an IDF commander were they stopped. For Hamas, attempted kidnapping is to be expected. 

All of that being said, it still struck me initially as a stupid move, since I highly doubt Israel would make another prisoner trade as they did in order to get Gilad Shalit back. If a prisoner trade is what Hamas is looking for, then this was indeed a strategic error. 

But the more I think about it, the more It seems that Hamas is not looking for a way to free fellow terrorists, per se, but to provoke the strongest possible Israeli response. If this is the scenario, then Hamas is trying to accomplish two things with this action: to draw the IDF deeper into Gaza, where it will be easier for the terrorists to attack Israeli soldiers, and at the same time to cause more death and destruction within Gaza that they can blame on Israel. 

While Hamas is undoubtedly celebrating this abduction, it is no victory for the people of Gaza or the dream of an independent Palestinian state. In fact, it is a tragedy for both Israel and the Palestinians. This incident ( and the miles  of terror tunnels dug beneath Israel) should send a clear signal to all of those who said, only a few months ago, that Hamas could become a partner for peace, that this organization has only one real goal: to destroy the State of Israel.

No one can say with certainty what will happen next, but whatever it is, it won't be good. 

Now the waiting begins. 

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.