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Jesus and the Palestinians

For many decades, Evangelical support for Israel seemed rock solid. Today, however, many younger Christians in Western churches are hesitant to give Israel the same unconditional support which their parents did. Stories of Palestinian suffering have attracted the sympathy of young Evangelicals, rather than the struggles and triumphs of Israel.

They appear to be motivated more by the cause of social justice for the ‘oppressed’ Palestinians than a prophecy-driven backing of the restored Jewish state. Many Christian youngsters have sided with the Palestinians as the perceived underdog. And in any case, Jesus in the Gospels seems to have very little to say about the current situation. So for a generation known to read far less from the Old Testament than previous generations, this supposed New Testament ‘silence’ makes a big difference in how they view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Today, they simply ask: What would Jesus do?

That is, would Jesus affirm the national calling of Israel according to the promises made to the Hebrew patriarchs and prophets? Would he affirm Israel’s right to live in the land? Or would he rather side with the Palestinians as a weak and suppressed minority?

A strong guide for answering these questions is to look at how Jesus dealt with the most prominent indigenous minority living in Israel during his time. As we shall see, there are many striking parallels between the Samaritan people in the days of Jesus and the Palestinians of today. So who were the Samaritans and how did Jesus treat them?

A Replaced People

The first time the Bible mentions the Samaritans is in II Kings 17:22-41, which gives their historical background. The passage recounts how the northern Kingdom of Israel was “carried away from their own land” (verse 23) and taken into exile in 722 BC by Assyria, whose King Sargon II followed a common practice of conquering empires in those days. He replaced the dislodged Israelites with people from other regions of his empire. Thus, he took people “from Babylon, Cuthah, Ava, Hamath, and from Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of Israel; and they took possession of Samaria and dwelt in its cities” (verse 24).

These new implants, thereafter called the Samaritans, began intermingling with some of the Israelite remnant left in the land and quickly adopted some of their religious practices. Besides their own gods and traditions, they also worshipped and “feared” the God of Israel.

Then in 586-582 BC, a second uprooting occurred when the southern Kingdom of Judah also was forced into exile by the Babylonian Empire. This gave even more room for the Samaritan people to expand and solidify their presence in the Land of Israel.

Resisting the restoration

Some 70 years later, the Jewish people started to return to the land and to rebuild the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. Yet the Samaritan communities were among the strongest opponents of this Jewish restoration. They resisted it religiously and politically (Ezra 4; Nehemiah 4:1-3). Nevertheless, Jerusalem and the Temple were restored, and the Jews re-established their presence again in their promised homeland because the Lord was with them (Haggai 1:13).

Still, the Samaritans continued to oppose the Jewish return and to develop their own rival culture and national identity. Over time, they even cultivated their own form of pseudo-Judaism. The prophets and other writings of the Tanakh were rejected and only the five Books of Moses were considered binding. For this reason, they rejected the idea of a promised Messiah from the lineage of David who would restore the Kingdom for Israel. Rather, they expected a messiah figure who would be “a prophet like Moses”, as the book of Deuteronomy foretold, ushering in a moral and spiritual revival but not a national restoration.

Tense Relationship

By the time Jesus came along, the Samaritans had lived in the land for more than 700 years. They developed their own narrative of the region’s history and considered themselves as the true Israel and rightful heirs of the land, claiming descent from Ephraim and Manasseh. The Temple in Jerusalem was considered an apostate shrine and its worship blasphemous to God. During the time of Alexander the Great, the Samaritans built an alternative temple on their holy mountain of Mt. Gerizim - the biblical "Mountain of Blessing" overlooking Shechem.

Meantime, the Jews did not recognise the Samaritans as part of their people and would not allow them to enter the Temple in Jerusalem. Yet when Jesus was a child, around 6-to-9 AD, Samaritans reportedly forced their way into the Temple during Passover and desecrated it by throwing bones into the sanctuary. Indeed, for the centuries it was a relationship characterised by tension and disdain. Jewish writings from 200 BC called Samaritans “the foolish people”.

Thus, during the time of Jesus both Jews and Samaritans refused to mingle (John 4:9). Jewish pilgrims who were on the way to worship in Jerusalem were harassed (Luke 9:51-55). The Jewish historian Josephus reports that in 52 AD, Samaritans even massacred a group of Jews making pilgrimage to Jerusalem. For Jews, the name “Samaritan” became a curse word (John 8:48). Even the disciples of Jesus were not fond of them and were anxious to call down fire on their heads (Luke 9:54).

Jesus Crosses the Border

Amid this hostile, complex relationship, Jesus sets a refreshingly different tone towards the Samaritan populace. The Gospels surprisingly record that Jesus healed them (Luke 17:16) and reached out to them individually and as a community (John 4). In fact, Jesus rarely shared such deep thoughts on worship, his own Messianic identity, and the Spirit of God as he did with the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well. The encounter eventually led to revival in the entire village and it was there that Jesus spoke about the fields being white for harvest (John 4:35ff).

Then there is the legendary parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’ (Luke 10:30-37). Surely, it was offensive to Jewish listeners when Jesus described the Samaritan and not the Jewish priests as being a true neighbour to the man in need.

Thus Jesus would not allow himself to be drawn in into the negative stereotypes of his time. When his disciples wanted to call down fire on a Samaritan village for not allowing their master to pass, Jesus rebuked them harshly, saying: “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” (Luke 9:56)

So Jesus did not consider them as enemies, but reached out to them with compassion and love. He healed them, ministered to them, used them as examples to his Jewish brethren, and even envisioned them as part of the harvest.

Jesus and the Samaritan Narrative

Still, while Jesus may have displayed an unusually kind attitude towards the Samaritans he did not buy into their version of history. When Jesus healed the ten lepers, the only one who returned to thank him was a Samaritan, to which Jesus replied: "Were there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?" (Luke 17:18)

Jesus had reached out to him with compassion and healing, yet he still considered him a “foreigner”. The Greek word used here is “allogenes”, and is used in the Septuagint translation to mean the “stranger” who dwelt within the land. He would have many rights and privileges but was still excluded from the covenant promises and privileges of Israel. It was the same Greek word used in the inscription around the temple courts allowing access only to Jews but not to “allogenes” - foreigners.

So Jesus reached out to the Samaritan people but also maintained a clear distinction between them and the Jews. He once instructed his disciples “not to enter a city of the Samaritans”, but to focus rather on “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6-5).

Finally, when Jesus ministered to the Samaritan woman at the well, she confronted him with her people's own narrative: “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.” (John 4:20)

In other words, she wanted to know whose narrative was correct. And Jesus answered: “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth….” (John 4:20–23)

Jesus portends that a new era in salvation history was soon coming when the place of worship would become secondary, and each believer would become a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit. But Jesus did not conclude that Jewish tradition would become irrelevant. On the contrary, he strongly challenged her Samaritan belief system, saying: “You worship what you do not know.” At the same time, he identifies himself with Jewish tradition in a manner rarely found in the Gospels: “We know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews.”

In a way, Jesus underscores with the Samaritan woman what he also stated to the healed leper, that they were 'foreigners' to the covenants of God with Israel. The only way for them to become truly part of the household of God would be through the covenants and revelation given to the Jewish nation.

Note that he did not say that salvation is received by becoming Jewish, but rather that she should reconsider her theological and personal attitude towards the Jews. Decades later, the Apostle Paul would make the same point: ““What advantage then has the Jew, or what is the profit of circumcision? Much in every way! Chiefly because to them were committed the oracles of God.” (Romans 3:1-2; see also Romans 9:4–5)

Jesus thus affirms to the Samaritan woman the ancient Abrahamic calling of Israel, that through them “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). This covenant relationship with Abraham's natural descendants remains even if they reject Jesus as their Messiah (Romans 11:28).

The Samaritans of Our Day

There is still a small Samaritan community living in Israel today. They number less than a thousand members and are mostly located on Mt. Gerizim, near modern-day Nablus. However, they are too small to play a significant role in current affairs. Instead, the community which more closely mirrors the dynamic between Jews and Samaritans at the time of Jesus is that of the Palestinians.

When the Jews were exiled by the Romans under Titus in 70 AD and later under Hadrian in 120 AD, other people groups moved in. Each successive conqueror seizing control of this major crossroads of the world brought their own ethnic mix, whether the Romans, Byzantines, Arab-Muslim invaders, the Crusaders, the Mameluks or the Ottoman Turks. The result is an indigenous people with a broad amalgam of ethnic backgrounds. Some Palestinian Christians today may claim to be descendants of the first Messianic Jewish community in Israel, but this would be difficult to prove after all the turbulent history in the region.

Scholars have also documented that when Jews started to return and cultivate the Land of Israel in the 1800s, many Arabs from neighbouring countries also came to find work created by the Zionist movement.

Most of these people today would call themselves Palestinians. The vast majority of these Palestinians are Muslims. They not only reject the teachings of the Bible but also maintain that Jews have no right or historic connection to the land. Supported by the global ummah (body of Muslim believers), they resist by all means the restoration of Israel on the land much like the Samaritans in the times of Nehemiah and Ezra.

On the other hand, the small Palestinian Christian community shares in many ways a common faith in Christ and the Bible that we do, yet they have developed their own unique twist to history and theology. Many of the Palestinians Christians contest the restoration of a Jewish State, both politically and theologically. In their own nationalised version of Replacement theology, they not only see the Jewish people as being replaced by the Church but Jesus has become a Palestinian - one of the true custodians of the Holy Land. The promises of God to Israel have elapsed by either being fulfilled in Jesus or now falling to the Palestinian people.

Like in biblical times, both sides rarely mingle and the tense relationship has drawn even more blood than in the times of Nehemiah, Ezra and Jesus.

A Call for Today

The unique approach of Jesus to the Samaritans can help us face the challenges of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today. Jesus demonstrated a heart of compassion towards the Samaritans, who were not accepted by most of his fellow Jews. Under his ministry, they were privileged as the only people besides the Jews who experienced the personal touch of the Messiah. After his resurrection, Jesus instructed his disciples to consider the Samaritans as the very first non-Jews to receive the Gospel. Phillip, Peter and John did just that and brought a powerful revival to them.

Likewise, the Church today is called to show similar compassion in reaching out to the Palestinian people and in particular the believers among them. They often feel forgotten by many Evangelicals around the world who show support to Israel but ignore their Arab brothers living in the land.

But we also learn from Jesus that despite the fact that Samaritans had lived in the land of Israel for hundreds of years, Jesus still considered them 'foreigners', even though it surely offended them. Jesus did not deny their right to live in the land, but he also affirmed the unique covenant promises enjoyed by Israel, including the land promise.

Paul notes that Jesus “has become a servant to the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made to the fathers” (Romans 15:8). He was sent by God to “remember his holy covenant, which he swore to Abraham” (Luke 1:72ff), not to forget or forfeit that covenant.

So Christ, in his time of earthly ministry, set a remarkable example for us on how to reach out to the Palestinians - and the Christians especially - without compromising the divine calling of his own people.

This might be a challenging balancing act for today, as the harsh realities on the ground are often more complex than they appear. For Palestinian Christians to look into the eyes of young Israeli soldiers and call them “beloved for the sake of the fathers” is far more difficult than for Christians from abroad. For many Jewish believers, it is equally difficult to accept as their brothers and sisters those Palestinian Christians who question their biblical right to the land and even voice support for Israel's worst enemies.

In the end, the Church in the nations is called to pray and care for both sides. We are called to uphold God’s promises to Israel and support a nation which after 2000 years has returned to the land of their fathers and remains surrounded by implacable foes bent on her destruction. We are also called to recognise the needs of our Arab brothers and sisters in the land who are often caught in between their long-time Muslim neighbours and the new Jewish reality.

That means we are called to be peacemakers without compromising truth. May the Lord help us in pursuing these worthy aims.

Dr. Jürgen Bühler
ICEJ Executive Director


This article first appeared in the May edition of the ICEJ's Word from Jerusalem magazine. Read the latest Word from Jerusalem

Christians Rediscovering Passover

For Jews and Christians, the Passover season is a special time for reflection on the rich spiritual truths contained within this remarkable holiday. Indeed, we can all observe the command to “remember” the incredible Israelite deliverance from bondage in Egypt.

For Christians, the events of a momentous Passover some 15 centuries later have given added meaning to this holiday, so that the truths of the first are reinforced in the latter. Deliverance from Pharaoh’s taskmasters became freedom from slavery to sin. The blood of a lamb on the doorposts became a typology of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

Yet the parallels between Pesach and Easter were lost for centuries to most Christians when the early Church fathers deliberately severed our faith from its Jewish roots. In time, this hostility to Judaism produced vicious blood libels against Jews at Passover.

Today, however, multitudes of Christians are rediscovering our Hebraic roots. Indeed, TIME magazine recently identified growing Christian interest in our faith’s Jewish heritage as one of the ten top trends of our day.
Even respected Jewish scholars have started joining Christian theologians in rediscovering the “Jewishness” of Jesus and the Hebraic origins of Christianity. One notable in this regard is the late Prof. David Flusser of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, considered the leading Orthodox Jewish expert on the Second Temple era and Early Christianity.

Flusser placed Jesus within the Pharasic tradition and viewed him as among the great sages of his time, such as Hillel and Ben-Shammai. But Flusser concluded that the Galilean preacher went boldly beyond the classic Judaism of that day, for instance by proclaiming the advent of the Kingdom of God and espousing a radical ethic of loving one’s enemy.
As a result of such groundbreaking scholarship, the Feast of Passover is one occasion when the lineage and cultural identity of Jesus as a “son of the covenant” now holds so much more meaning for Christians. In fact, nothing reattaches Christians to their Jewish roots faster than realizing the Last Supper was actually a Passover seder meal being led by a Jewish rabbi.

Thus, we can now see in the Gospel narratives just how closely Jesus held to Jewish traditions in presiding over the Passover meal with his disciples—or rather, his talmidim.
For instance, he followed the custom then developing in First Century Judaism of serving four cups of wine at the Passover meal to mirror the four great “I wills” of Exodus 6:6-7. When Jesus took the third cup—considered the “cup of redemption”—he used it to seal a new covenant with his followers.

Interestingly, he also used customary Jewish words of betrothal at that same moment, promising to go build them all mansions in his Father’s house and to come back for them one day as a bridegroom for his bride (John 14:2-3).
In serving them wine and unleavened bread, Jesus further played off the command to “remember” the Passover by instructing his disciples to always partake of it “in remembrance of me!”

Then, one of the most extraordinary moments of the Last Supper came when he washed the feet of his disciples.
Like other great rabbis of his day, Jesus had developed a unique preaching style by telling parables, many of which are universally known to this day, such as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. But he was different in the way he also practiced what he preached. In washing the feet of his disciples, the rabbi Jesus taught by deed and not just words what it means to be a servant in His kingdom (John 13:14-15).

And finally, Jesus demonstrated tremendous grace that evening when he gave the place of the guest of honor to his immediate left to Judas, even though he knew this was the one about to betray him. What a difference it would have made down through history if Christians had understood that Jesus was never bitter towards Judas.

Sadly, it is too late to change that history. But we are witnessing a sea change in Christian attitudes towards the Jewish people today, as we understand better the Jewish matrix of our faith. This historic shift is helping to build Christian support for an embattled Israel at a critical hour. And just as importantly, it is shielding multitudes of Christians against modern-day blood libels and other anti-Semitic lies now being hurled at the Jewish state.

David Parsons
ICEJ Media Director

ICEJ IN THE MEDIA

Over recent years, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem has been gaining increased attention in the Israeli media, with dozens of reports about our many events and activities appearing in local newspapers and on television and radio broadcasts. Just about every week, the ICEJ has been covered in print, on TV news shows or over the radio airwaves, giving Israelis an added awareness that millions of Christians are standing with them in both word and deed.

Many of the reports in the Hebrew media have focused on the ICEJ’s annual Feast of Tabernacles celebration in Jerusalem, which draws thousands of Christians to Israel each year for this biblical festival of joy. Others have centered on our AID projects, especially our efforts to enlist Christian help for poor Holocaust survivors. Still other reports highlighted our many contributions to aliyah, particularly in bringing home members of the Bnei Menashe community from India in recent years.

In addition, several articles and TV reports profiled members of the ICEJ staff as well some of our family of representatives and supporters abroad.

For example, Dr. Jürgen Bühler, the ICEJ’s Executive Director, was the subject last year of a feature article in the weekend supplement of Yediot Aharonot, one of the nation’s largest newspapers with a daily circulation of over 600,000. Under the title “I owe my life to the Jewish people”, Jürgen recounted his family’s deep connection to the Jewish people and also described his current work in overseeing all the various facets of the Christian Embassy’s global ministry.

The Yediot sports section recently covered the visit to Israel of Marcos Tavares, a Brazilian football star playing in Europe and also the ICEJ’s national director in Slovenia.

Meanwhile Israel HaYom, the other big Hebrew newspaper in Israel, ran a very glowing feature on our Haifa Home for Holocaust Survivors, under the heading “Community of Grace”. The article noted the unique role of the Christian Embassy in launching the first retirement home in Israel solely dedicated to helping needy survivors.

Israel HaYom also recently carried a lengthy interview with MP Kenneth Meshoe, a parliamentarian and ICEJ board member from South Africa, in which he discussed the legacy of the nation’s late president Nelson Mandela and debunked the false ‘Israel equals apartheid’ analogy.

The same Hebrew newspaper profiled Egyptian lawyer Majed el-Shafie and Ugandan pastor Umar Mulinde, both Muslim converts to Christianity who were assisted by the ICEJ after escaping to Israel.

Reports on the ICEJ and our Feast of Tabernacles were broadcast on Israel TV channels 1, 2 and 10 and the new I-24 global Israel channel in English. Arutz Sheva and Israel Radio also aired several very positive reports on the Christian Embassy.
 

The impact of this increased media coverage has been apparent, as many Israelis have contacted the Embassy from across the country telling us they have seen reports on us and were grateful for our steadfast support.

Israel gives warm welcome to Canada’s Harper

Israeli officials rolled out the red carpet recently for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen J. Harper, one of the most stalwart allies of Israel today. Indeed, it is difficult to think of another prominent world leader in recent decades who has been so consistent and principled in his backing of the Jewish state. Thus the Israeli people received Harper with open arms and he reciprocated with more words of encouragement and admiration for their nation.

Harper is a conservative Christian leader who was making his very first visit to Israel. He was accompanied by a large 250-member Canadian delegation consisting of senior government officials, top businessmen, as well as Jewish and Christian leaders – including ICEJ-Canada national director Donna Holbrook.

Harper’s official itinerary included memorable moments at Yad Vashem, at a state dinner held in his honour, and at a bird watching observatory named for Harper in the Hula Valley in northern Galilee. But the highlight was his speech before the Knesset, where he told the nation’s lawmakers that Canada would stand behind them through “fire and water”.

“Canada and Israel are the greatest of friends, and the most natural of allies”, Harper assured. “The friendship between us is rooted in history, [and] nourished by shared values...”

“[I]t is right to support Israel because, after generations of persecution, the Jewish people deserve their own homeland and deserve to live safely and peacefully in that homeland”, he continued.

“It is a Canadian tradition to stand for what is principled and just, regardless of whether it is convenient or popular”, added Harper, who explained that his country’s support for Israel means at least three things.

“First, Canada finds it deplorable that some in the international community still question the legitimacy of the existence of the state of Israel...”

“Second, Canada believes that Israel should be able to exercise its full rights as a UN member-state and to enjoy the full measure of its sovereignty...”

“Third, we refuse to single out Israel for criticism on the international stage... [I]n the world of diplomacy, with one, solitary, Jewish state and scores of others, it is all too easy ‘to go along to get along’ and single out Israel. But such... is not a balanced approach, nor a sophisticated one; it is, quite simply, weak and wrong.”

Harper also deplored the new anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Israelism, saying it “attempts to make the old bigotry acceptable for a new generation”.

“You are a great friend of Israel and the Jewish people”, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Harper as he welcomed him to Jerusalem. “I am speaking for all of the people of Israel. This world is often cynical and hypocritical, and you have shown great moral leadership...”

For Christians as well who stand with Israel, it is encouraging to know that there is an elected world leader right now who truly shares our biblical faith and worldview.


 

A Region in Transition

As we enter 2014, Israel finds itself in a region undergoing tremendous changes, with the outcome of the historic shifts of the 'Arab Spring' still unclear. The challenges facing Israel include the renewed Palestinian peace talks, the persistent campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state, the relentless bloodshed in Syria, and the recurring turmoil in Egypt. The United States also appears to be altering its approach to the region, baffling traditional allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia. And the most over-arching concern remains the ever-growing Iranian nuclear threat.

Yet some Israeli analysts say the nation is in better shape than one might think. In a recent briefing by Amos Yadlin, former head of IDF Military Intelligence, he optimistically noted that Israel is an island of stability and strength in the midst of a chaotic Middle East. Its most rabid enemy Syria is paralyzed by civil war, and the new military rulers in Egypt appear to be a lot friendlier than the Muslim Brotherhood. He added that Israel also will soon achieve energy independence with its huge discoveries of natural gas off the coast and shale oil on land,

Still, Yadlin conceded that the threat of a nuclear armed Iran overrides all other concerns, and aleading security think-tank in London has just warned Iran now has the 'breakout' capability to build an atomic warhead in one month's time.

So it is not hard to see why Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu has become so alarmed about Tehran's drive for nuclear arms. With US Secretary of State John Kerry standing at his side in late November, Netanyahu publicly berated the proposed nuclear agreement being offered by the Western powers to the Islamic Republic, describing it as a "very, very bad deal" which Israel "utterly rejects".

Should Israel truly be worried about the recent deal reached with Iran? Does Iran indeed pose an existential threat to Israel? And are things really looking up for Israel when it comes to other regional challenges? These as some of the key questions facing the nation as we enter the new year.

Rapprochement with Iran
The diplomatic "charm offensive" launched by new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations last September changed the dynamics of the prolonged nuclear stand-off with Iran. The world's leading powers decided to reach an interim deal with Iran that offers limited sanctions relief in exchange for a halt to uranium enrichment over the next six months. During this time, talks will continue on a permanent accord to resolve the intractable dispute over Iran’s atomic ambitions.

The Obama administration hailed the deal for making the world more secure. But Netanyahu called it an “historic mistake” which had made the world a "much more dangerous place". He charged that for the first time the world had conceded to Iran the right to enrich uranium, while also relieving the pressure of sanctions that have taken years to build up. This was all in exchange for cosmetic Iranian concessions that they can reverse in a matter of weeks.

Israeli officials also contended the deal undermines six UN Security Council resolutions which require Iran to completely dismantle its enrichment facilities. They also stressed that Iran has invested over $200 billion dollars in its nuclear program already without seeing any peaceful benefits yet - not even one watt of electrical power.

Many in the US Congress also shared Israel's concerns that Iran can easily reverse its actions and then it will take years to reinstate sanctions and build up the economic pressure which forced Tehran to the negotiating table.

Ultimately, critics of the Geneva agreement claim it has revealed US President Barack Obama is now more interested in an historic rapprochement with Iran than simply stopping the Islamic regime’s quest for nuclear arms. Indeed, the US has been making diplomatic overtures to Iran not seen since the storming of the US Embassy back in 1979, including Obama's personal outreach to Rouhani last September.

American policy shifts
The Obama administration has made other recent moves in the Middle East that sent shockwaves through the region. First, the White House suspended hundreds of millions of dollars in US aid to Egypt in protest of the army's overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government back in July. This upset not only Cairo but Jerusalem as well, since US foreign aid is a linchpin of the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.

Meanwhile, Obama also backtracked on his threats to launch strikes against the Assad regime in Syria for using chemical weapons against civilians, a retreat that also likely included assurances of Assad's political survival for now. This all had Saudi Arabia so upset, it refused a seat on the UN Security Council in protest of Washington's new approach to the region.

By courting Iran, the US is increasingly viewed in the region as tilting towards the Shi'ite bloc at the expense of the Sunni Arab majority. This comes as the ancient Sunni-Shi'ite rift has intensified once again in the wake of the Arab Spring, especially in Syria but also in Iraq and Lebanon. The Syrian death toll from two years of fighting now tops 130,000, with another six to eight million driven from their homes.

Charting the Arab Spring
January marks three full years since the wave of political uprisings known as the Arab Spring began sweeping across the Middle East. The turmoil has seen entrenched dictators toppled and nations ravaged by violence and civil war. Yet 36 months in, it is still difficult to gauge the exact impact and direction of these historic upheavals.

The Arab Spring first spawned hopes that democratic freedoms would finally take hold in the Arab world. But such optimism quickly ran aground on the harsh realities of this volatile region. One clear trend has emerged, however, and that is every time an Arab country has allowed free elections the people have voted in radical Islamic elements that are actually bent on suppressing democratic rights.

Scholars suggest the notion that Islam and democracy are incompatible seems to be holding true, as it is a religion which does not separate mosque and state, and requires total subservience to shari'a law.

Meanwhile, international efforts are ratcheting up to convene another peace conference in early 2014 to end the brutal civil war in Syria. The main sticking point remains the rebel forces' demand that dictator Bashar Assad first agree to step down from power during the transition to a new government.

Kerry's quest
Another effort at brokering peace in the region does appear to be gathering steam – the renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. US Secretary of State John Kerry has now made ten trips to the region in the past year in pursuit of an historic peace deal. Yet a final agreement remains out of reach, as the gaps on most core issues remain too far apart. For instance, the Palestinians are adamantly refusing Israel's demand for a continued military presence in the Jordan Valley, while Israelis see unrelenting Palestinian incitement as a signal they are still unwilling to compromise. The Palestinian Authority also lacks control of Gaza and thus could not keep its end of the bargain.

So Kerry is now claiming progress towards a "framework" agreement to guide the parties in future negotiations towards a comprehensive deal to end this 100 year-old conflict. Such an interim deal could be completed by the April deadline set by the Obama team, but the resulting final-status talks could then drag on for years and any final peace agreement could take even longer to implement.

By then, who knows what new changes and upheavals will have recoiled their way through the Middle East.
 

Peace talks resume amid low expectations

An intense American-led diplomatic push has finally succeeded in bringing Israeli and Palestinian officials together for the first direct peace talks in more than three years. But those talks have already hit some early snags and the level of optimism for a real breakthrough is extremely low on both sides.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has paid no less than six visits to the region in six months in an unrelenting effort to get the two sides back to the negotiating table. And in late July he finally broke the ice, hosting Israeli and the Palestinian representatives in Washington for an initial round of direct talks.

The meetings marked a belated victory for the Obama administration, which during its first term managed to get the two sides together for a few brief hours in September 2009, but only after pressuring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into declaring a 10-month settlement freeze. Otherwise, the parties have not engaged in direct talks since Ehud Olmert was the Israeli premier, largely due to the stiff pre-conditions demanded by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Over recent years, Abbas has insisted that Israel release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, accept the pre-1967 lines as the basis for talks, and declare a total freeze on Jewish building in Judea/Samaria and eastern Jerusalem. But Netanyahu resisted any attempt to pry out concessions ahead of talks.

Kerry managed to break the stand-off when Netanyahu recently agreed to release 104 Palestinian prisoners convicted of lethal terrorist acts in the pre-Oslo era (before 1993), but only in stages to ensure the Palestinians remain at the peace table. Abbas apparently conceded on his other demands, a move which did not sit well with the majority of his Fatah faction.

Still, some in Israel suspect the US forced Netanyahu to quietly agree to a settlement freeze and talks based on the pre-’67 lines. Some of this suspicion has arisen due to the veil of secrecy imposed over the talks.

Some reports have indicated, however, that the Palestinians want to first draw the permanent borders for a Palestinian state, while Israel wants to focus on security arrangements before deciding how much territory to give up. In either case, there are many other tough issues yet to decide, such as the Palestinians' claim to a 'right of return' for millions of refugees and the fate of Jerusalem.

Given the many obstacles to a deal and the turmoil shaking the rest of the region, many view the American diplomatic focus on the Israeli-Palestinian front as an oddity. The civil war in Syria has claimed over 100,000 lives. Egypt is close to sliding into a civil war as well. And all the while, Iran is racing towards a nuclear weapons capability. So why the obsession with Palestinian grievances against Israel?

Israeli analysts suggest the Obama administration has decided to focus on the one issue in the region the US still has some sway over, in hopes that some progress there might restore Washington’s ability to impact other regional events.

“Everything else is self-destructing, and the one product that Kerry can get his arms around as secretary of state is the Palestinian-Israeli crisis”, Dan Diker, former Secretary General of the World Jewish Congress, told ICEJ News. “It’s something that is known. It’s something that he has a dear friend in – namely Israel... But the question being asked by pundits and analysts alike is why the focus on this track when the rest of the region is going up in flames.”

“For the United States, the Palestinian file is one that is still open and there’s a certain inertia that it has to be closed”, explained Amb. Danny Ayalon, Israel’s former deputy foreign minister. “But based on my talks with many Arab leaders, including from the Gulf states, the best way to reassert American leadership and credibility in the region is to stop Iran… and the Palestinian conflict is almost a side issue in comparison.”

For their part, Israeli and Palestinian leaders are both seen as agreeing to resume direct talks because neither wants to be assigned blame for scuttling Kerry’s determined diplomatic efforts. Netanyahu also may have renewed the talks as part of a wider deal with the US regarding the Iranian nuclear threat, analysts added.

“These talks are all about who gets blamed for the failure of the peace process”, surmised Diker. “The Palestinians are coming back to the talks because it is very difficult to turn down the United States, and especially the hundreds of millions of dollars in financial assistance the US is providing. They rely completely on Western aid to meet their budgets.”

Nonetheless, Kerry has set an ambitious goal of concluding a final status accord within nine months. Yet quick polls of both the Israeli and Palestinian publics showed neither people has high expectations the talks will produce a deal anytime soon. Nearly 80% of Israelis surveyed said they doubted a peace deal is within reach for now, while the Palestinians polled showed a similar degree of skepticism.

In an indication of the difficulties ahead, Abbas recently told Arab journalists that he would not agree to one single Israeli Jew living in a Palestinian state. Most Israelis saw his hardline stance as a sign the Palestinians are still not ready for compromise.


Iran seeking second route to nukes

For two decades, Western governments have been focused on Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons via its vast uranium enrichment program, centered around the Natanz and Fordow enrichment plants. But Tehran is now believed to be pursuing a second route to nuclear arms through the nearly-completed heavy water nuclear reactor at Arak, which could be turning out weapons-grade plutonium by next summer.

According to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal, American and European officials are increasingly concerned the Arak facility, due to become operational by July 2014, will be capable of producing two nuclear bombs' worth of plutonium a year. India, Pakistan and North Korea have all built nuclear bombs using plutonium derived from similar heavy water plants.

The warning comes amid reports that international sanctions on Iran are beginning to take a much heavier toll on its economy. Iran's hard currency reserves have plummeted as Western sanctions have cut off Iran's access to world oil markets. Iranian officials also recently reported an inflation rate of 45% and acknowledged the economy is set to contract for the first time in three decades.

Iran's newly-elected President Hassan Rouhani has offered to resume talks with Western governments, hoping to trade some minor concessions for a lifting of most of the sanctions. But he also declared that Israel is "a wound on the body of the Islamic world", echoing the words of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini that the Jewish state is a "cancer" that must be removed.

Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu responded that Rouhani had shown his true face sooner than many expected. "A nation that threatens to destroy the State of Israel must not be allowed to have weapons of mass destruction," Netanyahu stated.

Netanyahu also told CBS News that Iran was "within a few weeks" of crossing his red line of having enough enriched uranium to produce a bomb, leaving the West not much time to decide on how to stop Tehran. Although there is no sense of impending war in Israel at present, the nation has stepped up the distribution of gas masks and civil preparedness drills.

David Parsons is media director for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem; www.icej.org

Egypt My People

Two-and-a-half years into the Arab Spring (or “Arab Winter” as some call it), the regional unrest is still gathering steam. While Israel seems to be an island of peace and economic stability, the rest of the Middle East is increasingly chaotic and no one can foresee what the near future will bring.

It all started in December 2010 when popular unrest began in Tunisia and then quickly spread to Egypt, Libya and other parts of the Arab world. In the case of Egypt, the initial hopes for a democratic spring of true political freedoms soon soured with the election of an Islamist government led by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Before long, protesters returned to the streets. For some, their hopes for freedom and democracy were being shattered by efforts to impose stricter forms of shari’a law. Others grew anxious over the Brotherhood’s inability to rescue the crumbling economy. The military recently stepped in to take control of the country once more, but all signs are pointing towards a civil war. Already, the unrest has left dozens of civilians dead.

In Syria, the Arab Spring has provoked a brutal civil war which has claimed more lives over the past two years than all the Arab-Israeli wars combined. More than 100,000 people have been killed as troops loyal to the Assad regime battle against rebel forces, and even rebel factions fight against each other.

This mounting death toll follows a decade of war and bloodshed in neighbouring Iraq. Even though American soldiers left the frontlines of battle in Iraq in 2011, another 5,000 people have been killed since then in clashes between various Islamic militias.

The Western world seems lost as to what to do about all this violence and mayhem. Another invasion like Iraq or intervention like Libya is fraught with peril. The situation in Egypt is quite complex. Military coups are in general opposed by Western democracies, however over the past few weeks the guardians of democracy in the West were surprisingly silent as they hope that the military will install a more liberal government.

Western leaders are in a similar dilemma regarding Syria, in that they are ready to get rid of a repressive dictator but concerned over radical Islamist elements in the opposition.

Egypt’s unique history

Despite all of the above, I do believe there is a positive biblical perspective to consider when watching these developments unfold today. A look back in history can help give us a fresh and hopeful outlook on current events.

From ancient times until today, Egypt has always played a central role in the region. The country mentioned in the Bible the most – besides Israel – is Egypt, with some 700 references. The Hebrew Patriarchs spent time in Egypt - Abraham in Genesis 12:10 and Jacob in Genesis 46:3-6. All twelve sons of Jacob, for whom the tribes of Israel are named, died in Egypt. And of course, the great Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt features prominently in Scripture.

Even Abraham’s relations with the Egyptian woman Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, from whom arose the Arab nations.

Egypt’s ignored history

Throughout the Bible the nation of Egypt is generally referenced in negative terms, often alluding to bondage and sin (e.g., Revelation 11:8). But there is another side to Egypt’s history which developed over the centuries.

King Solomon, for instance, established a friendly pact with Egypt when he married Pharaoh’s daughter and even built her a palace in Jerusalem. While the woman became a source of idol worship in Israel, it was the beginning of a political and economic alliance that lasted for a long time - albeit with some often violent interruptions. Yet this alliance was never fully reliable – in fact, God warned Israel not to place their trust in Egypt (2 Kings 18:21).

The main change, however, occurred at the time of the Babylonian Exile when a significant number of Jews fled to Egypt and established a sizable Jewish community there (2 Kings 25:26). According to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, this Diaspora community grew to more than one million in number around the second century BC, centered in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria. This city grew to great prominence in Antiquity and produced such leading Jewish figures as the philosopher Philo of Alexandria.

Josephus records that during the second century BC even a replica of the Jerusalem Temple was built in Egypt and maintained by Onia, a son of the High Priest in Jerusalem.

It was in Egypt where the Tanakh (the Old Testament) was first translated into a foreign language. This Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible was called the Septuagint (LXX), referring to the 70 priests/scholars who translated the Scriptures for the legendary library of Alexandria.

The Apostle Paul would often quote from the Septuagint when he referenced Old Testament verses in his New Testament epistles. Thus, the Septuagint became an important tool for preaching the Gospel among the Greek-speaking gentile nations.

According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus also spent some of his childhood in Egypt when his parents sought refuge there from Herod’s jealous wrath (Matthew 2:13-15, quoting Hosea 11:1).

In Church history, it was Egypt where the new faith in Jesus Christ experienced its strongest early growth, with Christian communities being established all across the country. Members of the Egyptian Coptic Church today claim to be the descendants of this first century church, which would make it the oldest of the historic churches still around. Some of the current revival meetings reported out of Egypt are led by born-again, Spirit-filled Coptic priests. Along with Lebanon, Egypt is still home to one of the largest Christian communities in the Middle East, with Copts making up some 10% of the nation’s 80 million citizens.

Hope for Egypt and Syria

When we look at Egypt today, we all should be greatly encouraged to pray for this nation. While many prophecies declare judgment over Egypt, the Bible also assigns it a glorious future.

The prophet Isaiah speaks in chapter 19 most clearly about God’s redemptive purposes for Egypt. He foresees a national revival in Egypt which will be nothing short of miraculous (Isaiah 19:18-25).

Egypt will have a national place of worship - “an altar for the Lord” (v. 19).

“The Lord will be known to Egypt and the Egyptians will know the Lord in that day.” (v. 21)

It will culminate in a period of peace for the entire region, which will include Egypt, Assyria and Israel: “In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria... In that day Israel will be one of three with Egypt and Assyria – a blessing in the midst of the land.” (Isaiah 19:23-24)

What a wonderful hope! The goal which all political initiatives in recent decades have failed to produce will come into reality. It is remarkable that Isaiah could see peace and restoration for both great empires – Assyria and Egypt – each of which threatened Israel at the time the prophecy was given.

While on the one hand Isaiah prophesied against “the broken reed” of Egypt (Isaiah 36:6) and against Assyria (“Woe to Assyria, the rod of my anger...” Isaiah 10:5), the prophet could also see that God’s plan of salvation would eventually prevail also for these gentile nations that were hostile to Israel.

As we read this remarkable chapter in context, the passage begins by describing great troubles for Egypt. The prophet sees political turmoil coming, in which “Egyptians will be against Egyptians” (Isaiah 19:2). It speaks about a “cruel master” ruling the country for a while (v. 4) and of great natural calamity and economic challenges (vs. 5-10).

People will look for counsel but will find none to give understanding. The prophet challenges the wise to give understanding and to “let them know what the Lord has purposed” (v. 12). Still, nobody is able to give understanding – very much like today. Yet it will be in this time of great trouble when “they will cry to the Lord because of the oppressors, and He will send them a Saviour and a Mighty One, and He will deliver them” (v. 20).

Assyria was the second great world empire at the time of Isaiah. Its borders included much of the modern-day nations of Syria and Iraq. When we look at the current situation, we see not only Egypt but also Syria and Iraq in a state of chaos and civil war as alluded to in Isaiah 19:1-15.

Times of fulfilment

Time will tell whether we will see Isaiah 19 fulfilled in our day, but we have to recognise that much about the current situation fits this passage. I doubt whether there was any period in history when we could see the developments coincide with the prophetic word like today.

Many Bible scholars today recognise that with the re-establishment of the state of Israel and the return of the Jews from exile, we have entered into a new season of prophetic fulfilment. As the prophets foretold, the Jews have returned from all four corners of the earth. The desert is blossoming and Israel has established itself as a prosperous and secure nation even in times of conflict. This enables us to look ahead with expectancy that other amazing prophecies will be fulfilled.

No matter your eschatology, Isaiah 19 should serve as a strong reminder of the great purposes of God with Israel and its neighbours. It might be tempting to focus only on the negative headlines about Islamists seizing power and to just expect judgment ahead. But we all need to understand that the God of Israel has plans and purposes of peace and reconciliation for the entire region (see for example, Jeremiah 48:47; 49:6, 39).

Isaiah 19 starts with a declaration of God being in control: “Behold, the Lord rides on a swift cloud, and will come into Egypt; The idols of Egypt will totter at His presence.” A mere look at the facts on the ground right now might portend chaos and uncertainty. Surely, the counsellors will fail in their wisdom. But the purpose of God for Egypt is established and it eventually will lead to her national salvation alongside Israel.

Conclusion

It is important to develop a view for the region which looks beyond what we see in the daily headlines. While on the surface a clash of religions and ideologies seems underway and the region appears to be sliding into the hands of radical Islamists, we should never stop placing our hope in the One who says “all authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). Jesus is Lord of all the nations and the next great harvest field appears to be in the Muslim world.

In the Bible, we frequently see a pattern whereby troubles come upon Israel in order to draw her people closer to God. The Book of Judges has much to say about this ongoing cycle of an Israel in distress which repents and experiences peace, and yet when they turn from God again their troubles return. The Book of Hebrew encourages us that times of discipline and correction are a sign of God at work in those He loves (Hebrews 12:3-11).

At the end of the day, God wants to bring this troubled region to a place where he can truly call out to “Egypt My people and Assyria the work of my hands”. Sometimes, God does come “with darkness under His feet” (Psalm 18:9). We have seen this in other countries in recent decades. Just two generations ago China was taken over by a radical Communist regime and yet today it is witnessing one of the greatest revivals in human history. Iran was taken over by apocalyptic Ayatollahs and yet it is currently experiencing the fastest rate of church growth in the world.

Let us not forget that God has a wonderful plan and purpose for every single nation in the earth. Paul said in Acts 17:26-27 that the Lord determines the times and borders of nations (and even their respective rulers) “in order that they might seek Him”.

There is a purpose of God today for every single nation in the Middle East and it is ultimately a purpose of salvation. Let us pray like never before for these countries. The Lord wants people from Egypt, Syria, Iraq and the entire Middle East in heaven with Him one day. And God wants to bring His peace to the region and to the entire world. This needs to be our objective and prayer.

Jerusalem, a Praise in the Earth

“For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, Priest of the Most High God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of kings and blessed him, to whom also Abraham gave a tenth part of all, first being translated “King of righteousness,” and then also King of Salem, meaning “King of peace,” without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, remains a priest continually.”  Hebrews 7: 1-3

Jerusalem first appears in Scripture as a mysterious city ruled by a very unique person named Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18-20). He is an eternal priest/king that reigns over a city whose name means "place of righteousness and peace." This Melchizedek is honored and served by Abraham, the great Patriarch of Israel, and he is thus a type of the Messiah. Therefore, Jerusalem is the City of God and from the very dawn of time it is elevated to symbolize His eternal and perfect dwelling place. By serving Melchizedek, Abraham gives recognition to the ideals of the city, which are:

1.  That humanity is fallen and lost in darkness and war.

2.  That humanity's great need is to find its way home to the city where God will dwell with His people forever. This is a real city not a fictitious one. Jesus said, "In My Father’s house are many mansions, if it were not so I would have told you." (John 14:2)

3.  That this way home is only by atonement. The King of the city will give the world bread and wine! That is, He will provide Himself a sacrifice for the fallen world.

4.  That Abraham and his people, Israel, will serve the world with the message of the city. The Bible says that Abraham went out looking for a city whose foundations were built by God (Hebrews 11:10). He found Jerusalem and Melchizedek, Priest of the most High God!

5.  That the right of passage to the city is God's righteousness and peace! The two go together and there will be no peace in this dark world until the city gives them to the world. Any peace by human political endeavor is destined to fail without these two ingredients (1 Thessalonians 5:3). God has to give them by His grace as Melchizedek did to Abraham (Titus 2:11). Yet until then some peace, however imperfect, is better than no peace because it allows the message of the city to be preached (1 Timothy 2:1-4).

6.  That the longing of the redeemed is for the day when the city will become “a praise in the earth.” (Isaiah 62:7; Jeremiah 33:9)

These are the ideals that undergird the city of Jerusalem. Sadly, the city today sits astride a fallen world. This “fallenness” is characterized by an unrelenting hatred of God and His messenger - Abraham and the Jewish people. Therefore, the city has been and will be assaulted by peoples seeking to destroy it and remove it from Abraham’s children. Indeed, Jerusalem has suffered more assaults than any other city on earth but it still stands because God is her founder. She will yet again endure a global assault and survive (Zechariah 12:1-3).

In this final assault the nations will be humbled, the Messiah will come to reign over the nations and they will learn war no more (Isaiah 2:1-4; Isaiah 11:1-5; Revelation 12:5). The city will become "a praise in the earth" as the nations ascend year-by-year to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles! Then after one last battle it will merge with the New Jerusalem and forever, those who live there will walk in perfect righteousness and peace! Behold all things will become new! (Revelation 21:1-5)

However, the city’s journey toward this day of praise and glory will be successful in part because of the faithful prayers of God’s people who know and love her. This eternal Jerusalem will forever be a reminder of Abraham, the messenger, for on its gates will be inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. And on her foundation stones will be the names of the twelve Apostles of the Lamb who gave bread and wine to the world! (Revelation 21:12-14; Luke 22:17-20)

Rev. Hedding is the former executive director of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.

Israel’s first line of defense

Syria's brutal civil war and Iran's renegade nuclear program pose serious threats to countries across the Middle East and beyond. Yet Israel is the only nation truly stepping forward to confront these challenges, as the West still seems to be shell-shocked by the fallout of the 2003 Iraq war.

The US intelligence community in particular has been perilously slow at deciphering the obvious - that Iran is on the threshold of nuclear weapons capabilities and the Syrian regime has used chemical agents against its own citizens. This has given the Obama administration cover for its very hesitant approach to these impending threats.

Ten years ago, the US-led invasion of Iraq was driven by concerns over Iraq's development of weapons of mass destruction and its involvement in sponsoring global terror, including a suspected role in the September 11 terror attacks. For instance, there were those reported mobile gas labs and Saddam Hussein's attempts to acquire uranium ore in central Africa. Meanwhile, the lead 9/11 hijacker supposedly met with Iraqi agents in Prague and a mothballed jetliner outside Baghdad had been used to practice commandeering passenger planes with box-cutter knives.

Much of this intelligence was questioned at the time as being cooked up by hawkish and "Zionist" elements in Washington, particularly in the Pentagon. But then CIA chief George Tenet suggested the information gathered on Iraq's WMDs was a "slam dunk" case and Secretary of State Colin Powell held up that five-pound bag of sugar at the UN Security Council to underline the seriousness of the anthrax threat.

And so the invasion of Iraq ensued. Yet significant stockpiles of WMDs were never located and the death toll began to mount. Although Saddam was swiftly toppled, both al-Qaeda and Iran prolonged the bloodshed by deliberately turning Iraq into the main battlefield against the Crusader West.

Now no one today pines away for Saddam's return and most of his chemical and biological arsenals likely wound up in Syria. But the war fatigue from Iraq and the intelligence failures associated with that conflict are still impacting us, as the West seems handicapped in dealing with the growing Syrian and Iranian threats.

In the case of Iran, there has been a persistent gap between US and Israeli estimates on Tehran's progress towards developing atomic weapons. The Americans and Europeans have had less confidence in their intelligence and thus have preferred diplomacy. That intelligence gap is now closing simply because Iran has drawn so close to the nuclear threshold. Thus, US President Barack Obama recently acknowledged that Tehran is one year or less away from being able to construct the Bomb.

At the UN Opening Assembly last September, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu famously set a red line for stopping Iran's atomic quest, insisting the Ayatollahs must not be allowed to accumulate 250 kilos of uranium enriched to 20% purity - the amount needed to make one bomb. Iran has basically reached that point, although it diverted some for use in fuel rods and needs a little more time now to build back up to Bibi's red line.

In any event, we have reached the moment of truth on whether the US administration will keep its promise to confront Iran militarily, if necessary, or opt for containment. Vice President Joe Biden insists Obama "does not bluff," but what if Biden is bluffing?

Meantime, the bloodbath in Syria has claimed over 70,000 lives in the past two years, but the NATO countries have been loath to get involved, perhaps because Syria lacks oil reserves like Libya. Moreover, two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have soured the West on such interventions.

Obama did draw a red line in Syria, warning the US would act if Bashar al-Assad used his deadly arsenal of chemical weapons in his fight to stay in power. Yet in the face of credible reports that Assad loyalists indeed have used chemical agents on rebel forces, the White House now wants to establish a "chain of custody" back to the Assad regime.

As with Iran, this is a decision borne of a lack of Western political will to confront the rising dangers in Syria, and an intelligence community that is still gun-shy from the failures in Iraq a decade ago.

Israel, on the other hand, has trusted its intelligence and acted decisively to reinforce its own red lines in Syria. Jerusalem does not want to get entangled in the civil war between Assad and the Sunni Arab majority, in part because the rebel forces are teeming with jihadists who hate Israel as well. But Netanyahu has warned that any attempt to funnel advanced weapons or WMDs to Hizbullah or al-Qaeda militias would be thwarted.

The IDF has now backed up that warning with precision air strikes on at least three occasions in recent months. This includes twice targeting missile convoys headed for Hizbullah in Lebanon, as well as destroying a military research factory near Damascus.

These bold actions carried great risks, but they also sent a strong message to Iran that Israel means business when it comes to weapons of mass annihilation.

So far Syria has not retaliated for the Israeli attacks, most likely due to the Assad regime's current preoccupation with survival. But it also failed to directly respond to the IAF's reported strikes on the secret al-Kibar nuclear reactor in September 2006.

At that time, Israel had ample proof it was a nuclear plant based on a North Korean model and shared its hard evidence with the Bush administration. This included soil samples and photos of the reactor coil taken inside the plant by Israeli commandoes operating deep inside Syria. Yet the Bush team was still smarting from Iraq.

Recent accounts indicate Vice President Dick Cheney stood alone in urging President George W. Bush to take military action. But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld urged the matter be handed over to the UN. They relied on intelligence briefings which conceded the Syrian plant was a nuclear reactor but questioned whether it was part of an atomic weapons program.

This reflected the fact that, after Iraq, America's intelligence branches changed their entire system for grading the certainty and uncertainty of their data and conclusions, and consistently came down on the cautious side on nearly every security challenge analyzed.

In other words, the spooks got spooked by Iraq and have never recovered.

But not Israel! The Olmert government trusted its intelligence and courageously ordered air strikes on al-Kibar, which succeeded without drawing any Syrian military response.

No doubt Syria and its allies Iran and Hizbullah will now try to retaliate for the latest air strikes near Damascus through terror attacks on Israeli and Jewish 'soft targets' abroad.

But Israel is starting to feel it alone has the pluck to face the mounting threats from Syria and Iran, while the West remains handcuffed by the mistakes of yesteryear.

The problem is that Iran was and remains a much bigger threat to the region and the world than Iraq was ten years ago. In fact, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon paid two separate visits to Washington in the lead-up to the Iraq war specifically to warn Bush that Iran was the greater threat.

So how did we wind up in this difficult place, where the West is so wearied of war and hamstrung by lingering doubts that it cannot deal with the real threat posed by Iran and its proxies? I believe all this negative fallout is because the US was seduced into Iraq.

Now Saddam is thankfully gone and our intelligence was not that far off. But something lured us into a fight in Iraq that dragged on way too long and handcuffed the West in dealing with the more serious menace in Tehran. I believe that something was what the Bible describes as seducing or deceiving spirits, which we are told will operate on a global scale in the "last days" (2 Thessalonians 2; 2 Timothy 3:13).

The West must defend our freedoms, but I believe we are being slowly seduced into an endless war with Islam. It is a spirit that wants to destroy Israel but will never succeed. Yet it will seek to drain our resolve and stir up excuses for demonizing Israel and the West. It also seeks to provoke us into a massive military response that would result in the deaths of multitudes of Muslims. And that perhaps is what the devil wants most of all.

David Parsons is media director for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem; www.icej.org

Handcuffed by Iraq

Syria's brutal civil war and Iran's renegade nuclear program pose serious threats to countries across the Middle East and beyond. Yet Israel is the only nation truly stepping forward to confront these challenges, as the West still seems to be shell-shocked by the fallout of the 2003 Iraq war.

The US intelligence community in particular has been perilously slow at deciphering the obvious - that Iran is on the threshold of nuclear weapons capabilities and the Syrian regime has used chemical agents against its own citizens. This has given the Obama administration cover for its very hesitant approach to these impending threats.

Ten years ago, the US-led invasion of Iraq was driven by concerns over Iraq's development of weapons of mass destruction and its involvement in sponsoring global terror, including a suspected role in the September 11 terror attacks. For instance, there were those reported mobile gas labs and Saddam Hussein's attempts to acquire uranium ore in central Africa. Meanwhile, the lead 9/11 hijacker supposedly met with Iraqi agents in Prague and a mothballed jetliner outside Baghdad had been used to practice commandeering passenger planes with box-cutter knives.

Much of this intelligence was questioned at the time as being cooked up by hawkish and "Zionist" elements in Washington, particularly in the Pentagon. But then CIA chief George Tenet suggested the information gathered on Iraq's WMDs was a "slam dunk" case and Secretary of State Colin Powell held up that five-pound bag of sugar at the UN Security Council to underline the seriousness of the anthrax threat.

And so the invasion of Iraq ensued. Yet significant stockpiles of WMDs were never located and the death toll began to mount. Although Saddam was swiftly toppled, both al-Qaeda and Iran prolonged the bloodshed by deliberately turning Iraq into the main battlefield against the Crusader West.

Now no one today pines away for Saddam's return and most of his chemical and biological arsenals likely wound up in Syria. But the war fatigue from Iraq and the intelligence failures associated with that conflict are still impacting us, as the West seems handicapped in dealing with the growing Syrian and Iranian threats.

In the case of Iran, there has been a persistent gap between US and Israeli estimates on Tehran's progress towards developing atomic weapons. The Americans and Europeans have had less confidence in their intelligence and thus have preferred diplomacy. That intelligence gap is now closing simply because Iran has drawn so close to the nuclear threshold. Thus, US President Barack Obama recently acknowledged that Tehran is one year or less away from being able to construct the Bomb.

At the UN Opening Assembly last September, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu famously set a red line for stopping Iran's atomic quest, insisting the Ayatollahs must not be allowed to accumulate 250 kilos of uranium enriched to 20% purity - the amount needed to make one bomb. Iran has basically reached that point, although it diverted some for use in fuel rods and needs a little more time now to build back up to Bibi's red line.

In any event, we have reached the moment of truth on whether the US administration will keep its promise to confront Iran militarily, if necessary, or opt for containment. Vice President Joe Biden insists Obama "does not bluff," but what if Biden is bluffing?

Meantime, the bloodbath in Syria has claimed over 70,000 lives in the past two years, but the NATO countries have been loath to get involved, perhaps because Syria lacks oil reserves like Libya. Moreover, two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have soured the West on such interventions.

Obama did draw a red line in Syria, warning the US would act if Bashar al-Assad used his deadly arsenal of chemical weapons in his fight to stay in power. Yet in the face of credible reports that Assad loyalists indeed have used chemical agents on rebel forces, the White House now wants to establish a "chain of custody" back to the Assad regime.

As with Iran, this is a decision borne of a lack of Western political will to confront the rising dangers in Syria, and an intelligence community that is still gun-shy from the failures in Iraq a decade ago.

Israel, on the other hand, has trusted its intelligence and acted decisively to reinforce its own red lines in Syria. Jerusalem does not want to get entangled in the civil war between Assad and the Sunni Arab majority, in part because the rebel forces are teeming with jihadists who hate Israel as well. But Netanyahu has warned that any attempt to funnel advanced weapons or WMDs to Hizbullah or al-Qaeda militias would be thwarted.

The IDF has now backed up that warning with precision air strikes on at least three occasions in recent months. This includes twice targeting missile convoys headed for Hizbullah in Lebanon, as well as destroying a military research factory near Damascus.

These bold actions carried great risks, but they also sent a strong message to Iran that Israel means business when it comes to weapons of mass annihilation.

So far Syria has not retaliated for the Israeli attacks, most likely due to the Assad regime's current preoccupation with survival. But it also failed to directly respond to the IAF's reported strikes on the secret al-Kibar nuclear reactor in September 2006.

At that time, Israel had ample proof it was a nuclear plant based on a North Korean model and shared its hard evidence with the Bush administration. This included soil samples and photos of the reactor coil taken inside the plant by Israeli commandoes operating deep inside Syria. Yet the Bush team was still smarting from Iraq.

Recent accounts indicate Vice President Dick Cheney stood alone in urging President George W. Bush to take military action. But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld urged the matter be handed over to the UN. They relied on intelligence briefings which conceded the Syrian plant was a nuclear reactor but questioned whether it was part of an atomic weapons program.

This reflected the fact that, after Iraq, America's intelligence branches changed their entire system for grading the certainty and uncertainty of their data and conclusions, and consistently came down on the cautious side on nearly every security challenge analyzed.

In other words, the spooks got spooked by Iraq and have never recovered.

But not Israel! The Olmert government trusted its intelligence and courageously ordered air strikes on al-Kibar, which succeeded without drawing any Syrian military response.

No doubt Syria and its allies Iran and Hizbullah will now try to retaliate for the latest air strikes near Damascus through terror attacks on Israeli and Jewish 'soft targets' abroad.

But Israel is starting to feel it alone has the pluck to face the mounting threats from Syria and Iran, while the West remains handcuffed by the mistakes of yesteryear.

The problem is that Iran was and remains a much bigger threat to the region and the world than Iraq was ten years ago. In fact, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon paid two separate visits to Washington in the lead-up to the Iraq war specifically to warn Bush that Iran was the greater threat.

So how did we wind up in this difficult place, where the West is so wearied of war and hamstrung by lingering doubts that it cannot deal with the real threat posed by Iran and its proxies? I believe all this negative fallout is because the US was seduced into Iraq.

Now Saddam is thankfully gone and our intelligence was not that far off. But something lured us into a fight in Iraq that dragged on way too long and handcuffed the West in dealing with the more serious menace in Tehran. I believe that something was what the Bible describes as seducing or deceiving spirits, which we are told will operate on a global scale in the "last days" (2 Thessalonians 2; 2 Timothy 3:13).

The West must defend our freedoms, but I believe we are being slowly seduced into an endless war with Islam. It is a spirit that wants to destroy Israel but will never succeed. Yet it will seek to drain our resolve and stir up excuses for demonizing Israel and the West. It also seeks to provoke us into a massive military response that would result in the deaths of multitudes of Muslims. And that perhaps is what the devil wants most of all.

David Parsons is media director for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem; www.icej.org

 

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