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Hoenlein: “Don’t Believe Everything You Read” About Middle East & Israel

New York—Buried somewhere in all the words written about the Middle East are facts on the ground, and in an exclusive interview with JLBC on Erev Shabbos, May 10, Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, talks about the risks of knee-jerk reactions to media reports that are not accurate, don’t offer context, omit important facts, and are “pashut” (simply) outright lies.

As an example of a widely spread story designed to impugn the President of the United States and paint a dark picture of the relationship between the U.S. and Israel, Hoenlein chose the one that accuses U.S. President Barack Obama of twisting Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s arm to get him to settle the Gaza flotilla conflict with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

It happens to be the-other-way-round. “The fact is that it was Bibi who asked Obama to set it up,” Hoenlein said, “With the ever-changing landscape in the Middle East, and the need to contain Iran and what’s going on Syria—events that are destabilizing the entire region—both sides wanted a cooling off after P.M. Erdogan apologized for his offensive comments about Zionism.”

His advice to people who think they know because they read everything on the Internet, watch it on TV and read newspapers is: “You cannot believe what you read, hear or even see. Stop looking at things on a superficial level.”

“When we look at these complex issues in a simplistic way, it leads to ill-advised judgments and poor policy. We have to think things through. An example of that kind of approach was when the Americans and their allies provided the rebels in Libya with munitions—and later most of those guns ended up in Sinai and Gaza, in Mali and even Syria.”

Hoenlein warns that there are infinite complications in this age of globalization of issues, nothing is at it seems, and within the chaos, one discovers that people from around the world are connected to the fighting in Syria and the deliberate destabilization of the entire region. “The situation in Syria is what it is because it was cobbled together by the colonialists.  It wasn’t its own country, like Egypt was and is.”

In the week JLBC spoke to Hoenlein there was lots of action. The Turks and Israelis were talking; Israel bombed advanced weapons from Iran that were moving to Hezbollah in Lebanon via Syria; the PFLP-GC  called for volunteers to take back the Golan; two bombs went off on the Turkish border with Syria and scores of people were killed and injured—Turkey accused Syria, Syria denied it… and Middle East press reports and analysis concluded that because of the bombing, Assad’s people are accusing Israel of being the puppet master behind the rebels, and that compared to conquest by Israel, Assad isn’t such a bad guy after all…

And then evidence cropped up to show that the poison gas Sarin was used by someone in Syria. Hoenlein told JLBC, “The likelihood is that the Syrian Army was testing in it a limited venue, and there is so far no smoking gun to prove that it was the rebels.”

Said Hoenlein, “Syria is not just rebels against Assad.  There is a many layered conflict. You’ve got Turkey vs. Iran, Shiite vs. Sunni, Jihadists vs. other Jihadists, Qatar vs. Saudi Arabia, Russia vs. the U.S., Hezbollah vs al-Nusra, etc. The Syrian battle is playing itself out on so many levels that you have to be careful how you react. You only get to see a minute part of the entire scenario in the media. Some of those public reactions, which aren’t truly thought through can complicate long-term planning, endanger the region and harm Israel’s security.”

So should America get involved in Syria? Hoenlein is blunt. “Most of the rebels are not people we want to deal with. Perhaps it should have been stopped early on or we should have identified and helped parties that might support a democratic future. Should we worry about Hezbollah?

They are suffering from this war. They are not getting their supplies like they used to. They also lost lots of men in Syria and are trying to recruit new troops. They have several thousand men in Syria today. They have tens of thousands of rockets and could add to their arsenal if Assad falls or provides them with some of his missiles or chemical weapons.  They also face challenges within Lebanon with border clashes becoming more frequent. Hezbollah is a factor and will be one as long as Iran continues to support it.  Foreign intervention in Syria is keeping the war going.  Russia and Iran with help from Iraq prop up Assad.  Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey, and others help the rebels.  More foreign fighters are joining the battle including hundreds from England, Ireland, France and elsewhere. They are often incited by media, clerics, political leaders and information on the Internet.

“There’s an interesting side note.  Medicins Sans Frontiers, Doctors without Borders, who are working in the refugee camps on the Syrian borders, noticed a large influx of young Frenchmen who said they were inspired by the Islamist extremist who murdered the Jewish children in Toulouse…

“Iran and Hezbollah are reported to be putting together an army of 150,000 men, recruited and trained Shiites, to come in and protect Iran’s interests in Syria. Hezbollah troops are protecting Assad’s likely escape route into a secure Alawite enclave; Russia said they won’t allow any intervention from another country for regime change. Lebanon is at great risk, and we need to bolster Jordan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, even Morocco. Qatar is playing a duplicitous game—they support some Jihadists in Syria and HAMAS, to whom they gave 400 million dollars.”

In Jordan, King Abdullah has been coping with a Parliament with a significant Muslim Brotherhood membership that has become more vocal and extreme in its attitudes towards those who cooperate with Israel. What is Hoenlein’s assessment?

“The King is trying to walk a fine line. He knows his relationship with Israel is vital and tries to moderate the extremists in his government. But he has a huge problem. His population is currently 20 percent refugees from Syria, which puts a tremendous burden on an economy with thin margins. It does not help that among these refugees are agents and others who want to cause disorder or destabilize his regime. On top of that, the Syrian Army is sending agents provocateur who have murdered people and are a great danger to the King—who is trying to enact reforms and make positive changes.”

Now, a propos that bit about Obama twisting Bibi’s arm to call Erdogan—can Hoenlein please explain to JLBC readers what is really going on between Turkey and Israel? Isn’t the enemy of my enemy my ally?

Here is his answer: “There is a complicated relationship between Israel and Turkey. And during all this time of controversy, Turkish trade with Israel skyrocketed. It has been an ongoing trend, and increased sharply even during the time of tension. Here are some of the realities:

“We are not going to go back to the old status quo, when there was a special military relationship between Israel and Turkey, because most of the military people the Israelis dealt with are now in jail.  Erdogan purged the media, the military and the judicial system, which is what Morsi did in Egypt except he failed with the judiciary.

“In the chaos of the region, Erdogan saw an opportunity to propel himself to center stage. The way to get his numbers up was to be anti-Israel, so he took the lead in insulting Israel, and his numbers went up in all the Middle East polls; he became the single most popular leader in the region. Then he tried to cement that title by visiting Egypt, Libya and others and to project his role over a wider region. His goal is to reestablish the Ottoman Empire in the 21st century.

“He was rejected in Egypt and they do not want interference from Turkey. Libya rejected him, too. All his forays into the new regimes failed. His relationship with Assad fell apart with the rebellion, as tourism and commerce took a hard hit. Then the relationship became hostile as Turkey took in refugees and aided and abetted the resistance.

“At the same time, Israel was developing relationships with Greece and Cyprus, which showed Erdogan that Israel didn’t need to depend solely on Turkey as an ally. Then there was the decline in Israeli tourism to Turkey—hundreds of thousands of Israelis who would visit Turkey yearly stopped going, and businessmen felt it and protested.

“In addition to all that, Iran and Turkey were playing together, doing end-runs around the sanctions, trading in gold and money markets—and then Erdogan increasingly realized that Iran was a danger to Turkey. The U.S. pressured Turkey to stop the money laundering, pointed out that Assad was working against them; the Turks are helping the rebels, and the Sunni/Shiite divide is widening and spreading the two apart.

“Then Erdogan made that terrible statement on Zionism and was criticized by everyone. And when he apologized for his vile comments on Zionism,  Bibi asked Obama to facilitate a phone call between him and Erdogan to try to ease the tensions.  Obama did that, and now Israeli and Turkish teams are in discussions in Israel to negotiate a settlement on the flotilla incident.”

For years, people have been talking about how to stop the spread of hatred and fear. JLBC asked Hoenlein if he had a solution. “You have to get down to the source to stop it. One has to outlaw incitement in all its forms, holding those who incite to account.  Whether it is clerics, government officials or media, they must be stopped. We have to find creative and effective ways to get facts out.  We must take the campaign to delegitimize Israel seriously and recognize that its goal is to isolate the Jewish state and its supporters.

“After all, this is a time when critical decisions are being made that will affect us for generations to come.”

By Jeanette Friedman

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