The World As I See It: Based on Interviews With Malcolm Hoenlein

malcolm heonlein
An Iron Dome Missile Defense battery set up in the southern Israeli city of Sderot fires an intercepting missile in August 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)


ON THE AGENDA: Middle East Plan, Iran, Hamas

The Trump administration announced plans to roll out the first stage of the Middle East peace plan at the upcoming economic conference in Bahrain. Both the PA and Hamas have stated that they were not consulted about the conference and do not plan to attend. With this as a starting note, what prospects does any plan have as it seems near certain to be shunned by Palestinian leadership?

t this point, the intention seems to be to roll out the plan in steps. The administration seems to be planning for a high-level meeting in Bahrain this coming June to focus on the economic aspects which will only be the first stage in the evolving release of the initiative. I think we will see opportunities for the Palestinians to build up their infrastructure and internal governance in a way that will encourage investment in the private sector and attract more jobs.

Since the beginning of this process, the Palestinian approach has been one of rejection. They have been given the opportunity to consult at many junctures, but have steadily refused to meet with members of the administration.

At the same time, they continue policies that distance them from being able to come to the table with Israel or the U.S. The PA continues to pay rewards to terrorists and their families in a “pay to slay” program which have not been reduced one iota since the passage of the Taylor Force Act. Israel withdrew funding commensurate to the amount that goes to these “pensions,” which is around seven percent of the amount transferred annually, and in response the PA announced that they would not accept any of the funds at all.

Until now, tens of thousands of Palestinians have been treated in Israeli hospitals annually, but now the PA announced that in response to Israel withdrawing the funds, that their health insurance will no longer reimburse Israeli hospitals and banned Palestinians from going to these hospitals. At the same time, Jibril Rajoub, one of the PA’s senior leaders, recently chose to be treated in Tel Aviv’s Ichilov hospital in one of many signs of the rampant hypocrisy and corruption.

malcolm hoenlein
Palestinians burn tires in Gaza City during a protest against U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Yerushalayim as the capital of Israel, in December 2017. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Nevertheless, if Arab nations in the region and some key European countries get on board and pressure the Palestinians to consider some of the options being presented by the U.S. plan, it will be hard for them to continue stonewalling any overtures in their direction. The train will start moving and I think it is very possible that certain forces within the PA itself might realize the benefits they have to derive from participating.

Perhaps a serious peace plan is worth introducing, as the PA’s reaction only serves to highlight that they are the rejectionist party with regards to peace. It might be time for some of their Arab colleagues to see this with the hope that they will pressure Abbas and his government to take a more constructive approach.

It’s too early to see if the current proposed conference is still more than a month away, but there are some early signs of Arab nations expressing support. The U.S. itself has quite a bit of leverage as well, which could help put the process in motion. But hopefully the PA leadership will realize that they should participate out of their own self-interest and that of their people, who only stand to gain by coming to the table. They have squandered much of the good will towards them in the Arab world and beyond. They face serious decisions about their future.

The president has made some bold moves and statements towards Iran over the last week. What do you feel sparked this standoff and do you fear it could escalate into a more serious confrontation?

When you deal with Iran the situation can always escalate, either deliberately, by way of one of their many proxies, or even as a result of a mistake or miscalculation. The Iranians have continued their provocations and undermining of other regimes, as well as expanding their nuclear and missile programs.

I think what likely prompted the U.S.’s actions is intelligence reports about progressive steps the Iranians have taken to try to tighten their hold on the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz, which are both major waterways particularly regarding the transfer of oil. The Iranians have been mounting missiles on small, fast boats patrolling the Persian Gulf. They put sea mines and rocket launchers in the sea, are threatening to cut off the Straits of Hormuz, and we know that the Iranian navy has moved ships from the Caspian Sea to the Gulf area.

malcolm hoenlein
A protest against the United States and Israel during a rally after Friday prayers in Tehran, last month. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

One needs only to look at Iran’s leaders’ own statements to see that they confirm what the U.S. and Israel have long asserted. They themselves say that it would only take them four days to reach a 20 percent level of uranium enrichment, the most important step necessary to produce a nuclear weapon-grade uranium and that they have left their nuclear development facilities intact, despite signing the nuclear deal.

Their actions are posing a real threat to the U.S.’s interests and those of our allies. Iran’s actions have to be taken seriously and it has to be borne in mind that they are controlled by a radical regime which is under additional pressure now from the rapidly deteriorating economic situation in the country.

Nobody wants a war. Iran certainly doesn’t want one, since it understands that the U.S. could decimate it militarily. Iran may be able to inflict quite a lot of damage, but ultimately it is not able to stand up to the U.S. Still, no one wants the situation to come to that, and I don’t believe that it has to. You have to put them on notice and show that America is willing to do what it must to stand by its commitments and by its allies, and that we will take any steps necessary to protect our interests.

I think America’s actions reflect an understanding that the only language the Iranians understand is strength, and if they encounter resolute polices backed by aircraft carriers, they will back down.

Over half a year ago, after the Pittsburgh shooting, we discussed various responses and implications. Now something similar has occurred in Poway within a relatively short frame of time. Does this, together with a steady rise in vandalism and petty street crime against Jews, beg the frightening question of whether this is something that American Jews should get used to?

We should never get used to or desensitized to anti-Semitism and we have to react with the same resoluteness each time. Every incident has to give us renewed determination to reject and fight these acts and manifestations. It’s imperative that we don’t let the near-daily stories of assaults against individuals and institutions to become a matter of routine, and it is up to us to keep pressure on law enforcement so that each incident is taken seriously and that it is addressed at all levels of government.

I think that Pittsburgh was such a shock, and as I said then, it was the end of the “age of innocence” for American Jews. For those who felt Pittsburgh was a one-time aberration, Poway was a tragic booster shot. One only needs to follow the news to see that what is going on in the U.S. is part of a world-wide pandemic of anti-Semitism. We are not where Europe is yet, but we certainly seem to be moving in that direction.

malcolm hoenlein
Signs of support and flowers adorn a post in front of the Chabad of Poway after the fatal shooting in April. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

The fact that the anti-Semitism that we face here in America is coming from so many directions certainly makes it more complex. Anti-Semitism is not new and it always existed in America, but after the Holocaust it had become largely politically incorrect to express it publicly. Now we see those restraints being removed in the extreme right, on the left, Islamists, and with a range of motivations including those with neighborhood grudges against growing Jewish populations.

No matter where it is coming from, though, there has to be a zero-tolerance policy, and it should not be the job of the Jewish community to see that this is enforced. This is a responsibility that rests with non-Jews in government, media, the judiciary, religious leadership and all aspects of public life. We need to hear it decried by people in sports and entertainment as well, who have more ability to reach youth. All the more so when those in public life engage in or flirt with anti-Semitism. They must be called out and rebuked by their peers and by all those that shape public opinion. As we have seen clearly, it is not a matter that we can afford to tolerate any longer, not on campuses, in our communities, in newspapers, on broadcasts. All must be held accountable.

This month saw yet another short spate of Hamas rocket attacks against Israel — this time fatal ones. These seem to start and stop without much rhyme or reason. What are Hamas’ goals and is there more for Israel to do to prevent these semi-regular flare-ups?

Israel is trying to prevent the import of more weapons to Gaza. Now, that is not as simple as it might sound since a lot of what is brought in for the purpose of making equipment or infrastructure for terrorism is crude material that is only processed into its final product in Gaza. That is why we have seen Israel holding up shipments of metals and other materials suspected to be for making rockets and even cement that is intended to build terror tunnels.

In this last exchange, Hamas fired over 110 rockets against Ashdod in an hour, which challenges Iron Dome’s ability to intercept the fire.

Israel struck many key locations, including arms depots and rocket launchers. These surgical strikes are designed to minimize civilian casualties, but that is something the world does not pay attention to.

Israel does not want to send ground troops into Gaza, even though that might eventually be necessary. The price would be very high in lives, and Hamas has prepared for that possibility. Fighting in such a confined area would be very difficult, as we saw in 2014. That is why attacks by air and artillery are highly preferable methods for Israel, even if their effectiveness is somewhat limited.

But it is not a situation that can go on indefinitely. Life for those who live along the border gets progressively worse and fatalities, injuries and property damage from rockets and incendiaries mount. This last exchange cost an estimated $15 million in physical damage, in addition to the lives lost and people wounded.

Israel has to weigh its options carefully and see what can be done without being counterproductive. Hopefully they will find a course of action that will have longer-term consequences and make life more livable for those in the south.

For now, the demonstrations at the border continue as protesters try to break the fence and goad Israeli patrols into attacking civilians. But at the same time no one can be an armchair general and decide what Israel should be doing, as the situation is very complex and a lot of considerations go into any actions they take.

As for Hamas’ agenda in keeping up these attacks, first they are trying to fend off competition from more extreme groups that threaten their power. The demonstrations and periodic attacks also serve to divert attention from the corruption and people’s frustration and to channel the people’s anger towards Israel rather than towards them. Their leadership also needs to keep the support of Iran and others who fund them. If they want more money for terror, they need to show that they are producing it. Some have said that this latest spate of rockets was requested by Iran to draw Israel away from Syria so that it could strengthen its position there.

In more positive news vis-à-vis Israel, the German Bundestag adopted a measure that declared BDS to be an anti-Semitic movement. It’s an important statement and will strengthen the many leaders in academia who have stood up to attempts by student government to cut ties with Israel. We hope that this move will have an influence in building greater international support for Israel in Europe and beyond.