2012: The year democracy ends

Posted: January 1st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: elections, The Left, The Right | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off

A not-so-crazy speculation for the new year: A date for new elections will be set; at least one major Arab party won’t be allowed to participate in them, resulting in a call for boycott in the Palestinian public and the Jewish left. With the Arabs out of the Knesset, the right will enjoy a much bigger majority, forever

If you leave out the West Bank, Israel is still a functioning democracy. New bills are threatening freedom of speech, minorities’ rights are not defended and specific laws targeting non-Jews effectively make them second class-citizens.

But still, the core elements of a functioning democracy – most notably political representation of all citizens – are still there.

Yet even this somewhat flawed system could disappear this year.

The common wisdom in the Israeli political system is that a new date for early elections – later this year or in the first half of 2013 – will be set in the coming months. Some claim that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would like to hold general elections in Israel before November 2012, because the prospect of Barack Obama winning another term might hurt the Israeli premier in the polls. Others cite the police investigation against Avigdor Lieberman as a reason.

According to the Israeli system, the Central Elections Committee has the right to forbid parties who support terrorism, racism or oppose democracy from participating in the elections. But the committee is a political body, composed of Members of Knesset, and is currently controlled by the right. In the past, it has tried to use this article in the law for political purposes, but has failed. This time it may succeed.

It is very likely that the Central Elections Committee may ban the two major Arab parties, Balad and Raam-Taal, from participating in the elections. Given the public hostility to Balad, and especially to its MK Hanin Zoabi, letting Balad participate would be a huge surprise.

The Central Elections Committee has already disqualified Balad and Raam-Taal from participating in the last elections, when the public sphere was much more tolerant. In Balad’s case, even representatives of Labor supported the decision.

As expected, the Supreme Court overruled the Central Election Committee’s decision and allowed the two Arab parties to take part in the 2009 elections that brought Netanyahu into power (same thing happened in 2003). Balad won three seats and Raam-Taal four. One could even argue that members of the Knesset knew in advance what the Court’s ruling would be.

The public atmosphere in Israel has changed, and so has the Supreme Court, which is more conservative than it has been in the last couple of decades. If faced with a similar scenario in the next elections, I believe that is very likely that the court will not overrule a Knesset decision to disqualify Balad and perhaps even Raam-Taal.

The result would almost certainly be a call for all Palestinian citizens to boycott the elections. And to be honest, I am not sure that any Jewish progressive should participate in an election in which the ruling coalition bans opposition parties. Arab parties that would be allowed to run – if there are such – would be faced with a major problem, as would Jewish democrats – the few that are left.

Historically, the dilemma whether to boycott elections or leave the parliament in protest of anti-democratic laws has always been a major crossroad on the way to authoritarian regimes.

Low Arab turnout, and perhaps even full non-participation, would hand the right a landslide victory in the elections (the left has not won a majority in the Jewish public since 1973, and currently it is far from it, even with the Arab vote). Such events would surely benefit Avigdor Lieberman, by framing the elections around the Palestinian citizens. Lieberman’s racist proposals surrounding the issue could attract many new voters to his party.

The 19th Knesset will be much more rightwing then the current one. More importantly, Israel won’t be able to go on claiming that it respects minority rights after forcing their representatives out of the Knesset. The left will be torn apart and the Palestinian minority will be forever alienated.

And from there it will all go downhill.


Hasbara: Why does the world fail to understand us?

Posted: November 13th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: media, the US and us | Tags: , , , | Comments Off

I have used the word “Hasbara” pretty freely recently, and so do more and more people, without stopping to explain what it actually means. The use of this term has been widespread in Israeli Hebrew for many years now, usually with a positive meaning, though not always in a positive context – there is a never-ending debate on “the failure of Hasabra” – yet I often wonder how many people outside Israel actually know it, let alone understand what it stands for. So here are a few words on Hasbara.

Hasbara is a form of propaganda aimed at an international audience, primarily, but not exclusively, in western countries. It is meant to influence the conversation in a way that positively portrays Israeli political moves and policies, including actions undertaken by Israel in the past. Often, Hasbara efforts includes a negative portrayal of the Arabs and especially of Palestinians.

The Hebrew meaning of the word Hasbara (הסברה) is “explanation” (the term “propaganda” has a different word in Hebrew – תעמולה). I believe that the popular use of this term also reflects a widespread public notion that a better effort of explaining Israel’s actions to the world will generate better understandings of Israel’s policies, and more international support. A less common use of the verb “to explain” (להסביר), which has to do with welcoming someone, was used in the past by the Tourism Ministry in campaigns urging Israelis to show a hospitable approach to tourists.

Hasbara represents only one side of propaganda, as it is mostly aimed at foreign audience. The use of the Hebrew term Hasbara in a critical context, rather than “propaganda” or “public diplomacy” (the title of the Wikipedia entry on the issue), is necessary, because Hasbara efforts are wider and their goals much more ambitious than any similar activities taken by all democracies and most non-democracies. Hasbara targets political elites, opinion makers and the public simultaneously; it includes traditional advocacy efforts as well as more general appeals made through mass media, and it is carried out by government agencies, non-governmental organizations, lobbying groups, private citizens, students, journalists and bloggers.

The Israeli government encourages all citizens to actively engage in Hasbara. Recently, it even distributed brochures with talking points to all Israelis traveling abroad (a Hebrew web version of the campaign can be viewed here). Israelis are asked to engage in politically-oriented conversations with their hosts and contacts abroad. Rather than discuss the Palestinian conflict, they are advised to cite Israeli technological achievements, mention environmental policies and take pride in notable cultural works. The West Bank is to be discussed – under its ancient Hebrew name, Judea and Samaria – as a potential tourist marvel.

Until a few years ago, the main government agency carrying out Hasbara work was the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, through its Media and Hasbara department. Under Ehud Olmert’s government, and more so under Netanyahu’s, there was a considerable increase in Hasbara efforts. Prime Minister Netanyahu has launched for the first time a Hasbara Ministry, headed by a government minister (the current hasbara minister is Yuli Edelstein). The Hasbara Ministry includes a situation room, which operates in five languages; it has a new-media team that can reach, according to the office’s web page, 100,000 volunteers on social media networks, as well as many bloggers.

UPDATE: The Ministry of Hasbara is hiring! “Advantage to minorities and representatives of the gay community.” More details here.

On top of the Hasbara Ministry, there is a Hasbara branch in the Prime Minister’s Office (in charge of both local and international PR). The IDF Spokesperson has an international arm with a new media branch, which makes Hasbara efforts and does not limit itself to providing information on army activities. Other government agencies, such as the Ministry of Tourism or the Ministry of Culture, also take part in ad-hoc Hasbara activities. There are other agencies that have gradually moved into greater involvement in Hasbara – perhaps the most notable is The Jewish Agency, which used to serve as a liaison to Jewish communities abroad, and now trains its envoys to American campuses to engage in propaganda.

Under Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the Foreign Ministry was instructed to take a bigger role in the Hasbara effort (a popular rant against the foreign ministry for many years was that it deals with peacemaking instead of advocacy, and Lieberman has promised to solve that). I was contacted awhile ago by a private agency that won a contract with the foreign ministry; they were looking for professionals to play hostile journalists in simulations with Israeli diplomats.

Much of the Hasbara work carried out outside official channels – but with heavy official influence – is carried out through non-governmental organizations such as Stand With Us, The Israel Project and more. These organizations produce resources – booklets, slideshows, flyers, maps, polls and more – and spin news events in ways which are favorable to the Israeli government. A lot of thought is put into influencing opinion-makers: journalists and bloggers are flown on a regular basis to tours in Israel, accompanied by government officials, while Israeli representatives – former diplomats, journalists, soldiers and officers – are brought to give lectures at campuses, think-tanks, conferences and other public events around the world. Organizations also try to influence the grassroots level by granting Hasbara fellowships to international students in Israel.

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There is an interesting tension in Israel between the tremendous efforts put into Hasbara – Israeli advocacy is probably the most widespread and ambitious state-run propaganda effort in the world today – and a sense of “Hasbara failure” in the Israeli public. Rants about the fact that Israel is misunderstood and complaints about the incompetence of those dealing with Hasbara are often heard in the popular media. In my opinion, “the failure of Hasbara” is actually a failure of policy – especially, but not limited to, that relating to the occupation and the control over the Palestinians.

Understanding this point could shed light on a self-defeating element in the Hasbara battle: as Israel loses interest in finding a solution to the Palestinian question that would meet the minimal moral standards of the Western World – either “one man one vote” or complete Palestinian sovereignty over a contiguous territorial unit – Hasbara efforts are just likely to draw more attention to the ongoing Israeli failure to live up to the promise of its talking points, and will shed more light on the ever-growing gap between the model, picture-perfect democracy reflected in brochures and the grim reality on the ground.


Israeli public, politicians split on Iran (with advantage to skeptics)

Posted: November 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, Polls, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

The lack of national consensus makes an Israeli attack on the Iranian nuclear facilities unlikely, yet the escalating threats could create a dangerous dynamic in the longer run ● Public discourse is lacking a serious debate on the consequences of the attack

After months and years in which it has been kept in back rooms or limited to hints and remarks the true meaning of which was understood only by a few people, the Iran debate is suddenly so public that at times it’s hard to make any sense of it. Never has the possibility of a war – a war! – been debated so openly in Israel. Haaret’z top headline today (Thursday) was a poll showing the Israeli public split – 41 in favor and 39 opposing – on a possible Israeli strike against Iran nuclear facilities. According to those numbers, ultra-Orthodox Israelis are particularly keen on the attack (do they know something the rest of us don’t?) and a surprising 21 percent of Israeli-Palestinians are in support.

Some people find the idea of polling such issues bizarre (next – a reality show?) , but history has shown that when left alone to decide in secret on such issues, politicians and generals don’t exercise better judgment than the man on the street. Knowing that the public’s eye is on them, the military and political chiefs in Tel Aviv might be a bit more careful. I agree with Larry Derfner – a public debate on Iran is generally a good thing, and we should be happy that most of the Israel press is engaging in it. Unsurprisingly, it was the pro-Netanyahu tabloid Yisrael Hayon that had a quote in its top headline criticizing public statements made by ex-Mossad chief against the attack, reminding that Israel’s (former) chief spies are sworn to secrecy.

I was buying coffee near my home on Thursday when a siren sounded; I had a vague memory that a civil defense drill was due to take place, but people around me were genuinely concerned. Later, I read that the Home Front Command told reporters that the drill was scheduled a long time ago – just like the Air Force maneuver on the other side of the Mediterranean – yet one can’t help thinking that if Israel is not planning to attack Iran, it wants things to at least to be seen that way.

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It’s not clear whether Israel has the military capability to seriously damage the Iranian nuclear program, but an attack, some people argue, will send a message to the entire Middle East that Israel will act against any country in the region that attempts to develop a nuclear weapon. Even if this won’t stop Iran, such an attack might deter other countries in the region, and prevent the nightmare scenario of an all-out nuclear arms race. Some also hope that the possibility of Israeli attack might strengthen international pressure on Iran, or promote more effective sanctions.

But deterrence is a double-edged sword; it is meant to prevent the need to use military force but sometimes it ends up actually leading to it. It’s easy to see why: You start by threatening to use force if your national interests are jeopardized, and after a while, you have no choice but acting upon your threats in order to make sure that they are seen as credible in the future. This is the real danger of the current game Israel is playing: While I doubt if there is a real desire to attack in the political system or the military right now, as time passes the urge to strike is likely to grow, if only in order to prove to other countries that Israel’s threats are credible.

As for now, it seems that the “Iran Skeptics” camps still has the upper hand in the national debate: in the eight-minister cabinet that constitutes Israel’s top decision-making forum, four ministers are reported to oppose the attack (according to Haaretz those are Benny Begin, Moshe Ya’alon, Eli Yishai and Dan Meridor), three are considered in favor and one’s position is unclear, though it has been reported that he is leaning towards the opposition (that’s Finance Minister Yuval Shteinitz). Reports suggest that the military and Mossad are also not very enthusiastic about the idea, and as I mentioned, there is the very public campaign launched by the former head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, with the silent support of former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and former head of Shabak (the Shin Bet internal security service) Yuval Diskin, though it should be noted that none of the three hold any formal role in security establishment right now.

Finally, the latest development is the criticism against Netanyahu’s push for attack, voiced by Kadima’s Tzipi Livni. This is pretty rare – the political tradition in Israel has it that the opposition does not question the government’s security decisions, certainly not in public, and never in advance. Livni wouldn’t have spoken if she had felt that she is alone on this issue.

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One thing that is missing from the public debate on Iran is a serious consideration of the consequences of an Israeli attack. The Iranian response – both direct and by proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas – could be pretty tough, and if it actually causes great damage or result in a large number of civilian casualties, Israel might see itself as being forced to retaliate. Therefore, the correct framing of the question isn’t an attack on Iran, but a possible war with Iran and its regional allies. An escalation of this sort might result in drawing the United States and other countries, probably against their will, into the fight. Again, the consequences for all parties involved – Israelis, Palestinians, Iranians, Lebanese and maybe Syrians – could be terrible.

The fact that Natanayhu is far from enjoying a national consensus behind him on Iran, even before a single shot was fired, makes me think that maybe an attack is not around the corner, at least for the time being.


Triumphant over flotilla, Netanyahu is stronger than ever

Posted: July 2nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: elections, In the News, The Left, The Right | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

With no threat from his political rivals and no pressure from Washington, the Israeli PM is enjoying the best weeks of his career. Yet his rightwing politics are likely to bring a much bigger change than his supporters care to imagine

If Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu could have one wish, I guess it would be to conduct general elections tomorrow. Between the cheers of his obedient followers in Congress and his success in preventing the Gaza-bound flotilla from sailing to the Strip, the Israeli prime minister is enjoying the best weeks of his term, possibly of his entire career.

Unlike in the first two years of his term, Netanyahu finally seems in control. The Greek decision to prevent the flotilla from sailing has taken everyone by surprise, but as it turned out, the PM has been preparing the ground for some time.

Haaretz quoted yesterday  an Israeli diplomat saying that Netanyahu “Netanyahu has become Greece’s lobbyist to the European Union.”  Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou returned the favor yesterday: As the American boat “Audacity of Hope” was about to leave the port of Athens, the authorities issued an order prohibiting all flotilla vessels from sailing. It is very unlikely that the Greeks would have dared stopping a Canadian or American ship without permission from their respective governments, so one could speculate that other administrations–and most notably, Washington—stood by Netanyahu’s side. For a politician often portrayed as hated and despised by world leaders, this is no small thing.

The Israeli morning papers are likely to praise the Prime Minister tomorrow. Netanyahu’s numbers are will go up again, and his coalition will become safer than ever before. Unlike in his first term, Netanyahu is now able to communicate his messages both to the center and to his base on the Israeli right. Politicians around Netanyahu recognize that. On Friday, dovish Likud minister Dan Meridor backed the PM in an interview to Maariv – and he is just one of the former rivals who now praise Netanyahu.

Kadima, the Knesset’s biggest party, failed so far to produce its own agenda, and its leader, Tzipi Livni, was revealed as a shallow politician. Besides repeating talking points regarding government policies, Livni did not make one substantial move that would challenge the government. Furthermore, the fight over Labor leadership has taken the predictable ugly turn, ensuring that the winner will get a fragmented and bitter party that would make his life miserable and suffer another blow at the elections.

Defense Minister Barak polls zero Knesset seats, which means he depends on Netanyahu for his political survival, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman waits the Attorney General’s decision regarding his corruption charges, and Shas’ Eli Yishay is too busy with the return of former party leader Aryeh Deri to cause the PM any trouble. As far as Netanyahu can see, the horizon is clear.

Netanyahu might be the strongest Israeli PM in the last two decades—stronger than Sharon and Rabin—despite not having their IDF record, charisma or leadership skills. He is for sure the best survivor: General elections are due to take place on autumn 2013, and by then, Netanyahu will be the longest serving Israeli PM since David Ben-Gurion.

Yet the Middle East has a strange way of turning your victories against you. Netanyahu has no vision, and his politics resemble troubleshooting. It’s no wonder that his goals are the subject of an endless guessing game.

It seems that ultimately, Netanyahu wishes to secure Israeli control over as much as possible of the West Bank, understanding that he won’t be able to control it all forever. If that is the case, his policies are likely to backfire: It was Netanyahu’s rejectionism that got the world’s attention to nature of the occupation; it’s his backing of the settlements that will ensure Israel is unable to force a quasi-state on the Palestinians (since there will be no room left for even this kinda of a state); it’s Netanyahu’s successful manipulation of the US Congress that proved the limits of the administration’s and the State Department’s ability to serve as an honest broker between Palestinians and Israelis and left Jews in the States torn apart and bitter; and it’s his coalition’s anti-democratic legislation that shows the need to an overhaul reform regarding the Jewish character of the Israeli state.

In short, The Prime Minister is winning every battle on his way to lose the entire war. As long as his poll numbers are high and his republican backers are happy, I guess he would be the last to care.

One final note: While everyone’s eyes were on the Greek ports, the people of Bil’in celebrated the removal of the security barrier erected by Israeli on their land six years ago. Back then, the thought that a few hundred villagers will be able to defeat the Israeli military establishment seemed delusional; now everybody is talking about the challenge of a Palestinian unarmed revolt. There are undercurrents at play which are not always easy to detect, and this is a lesson Netanyahu and his shortsighted admirers would do well to remember.


Poll: Netanyahu, US congress & AIPAC stand to the right of Israeli public

Posted: May 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, Polls, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

According to Maariv’s poll, 57 percent of Israelis accept the principles outlined in president Obama’s Middle East speech. By being more pro-Israeli than the Knesset, the US Congress indicates that the road to peace and justice in the region cannot pass through Washington

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) speaks at the AIPAC Policy Conference 2011. In Israel, Kantor’s view would have placed him in a settler’s party (photo: AIPAC)

In the morning following Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech before a joint session of Congress, a poll published by the Israeli daily Maariv indicates that while Netanyahu enjoys considerable support among Israelis, the public is far more inclined than its prime minister to make concessions to the Palestinians.

According to a Teleseker-Maariv poll, conducted last night, a clear majority of 57 percent of Israelis would have wanted Netanyahu to say “yes” (or “yes, but“) to the path to a two-state solution outlined in President Obama’s speech.

(As pollster Dahlia Scheindlin wrote on this site, such figures correspond to previous polls, which show, for most part, the support of most of the Jewish public for a two-state solution based on the ‘67 borders.)

At the same time, if elections were held today, the Maariv poll has Netanyahu’s Likud party receiving 30 seats (it holds 27 today), with opposition party Kadima dropping from 27 to 26 seats. The poll shows Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu rising from 14 to 16 seats.

If those numbers represent the real attitude of the Israeli public, then Netanyahu has presented a false picture in the speeches given during his U.S. visit– he enjoys a stronger coalition than he cares to present, but in rejecting the 1967 borders as the basis for negotiations, he doesn’t reflect the views of most Israelis.

My bet is that with time, more Israelis will come to oppose the ‘67-based solution and a compromise over Jerusalem, as the prime minister’s messages increasingly sinks in with some of his supporters, who are now more open to concessions than he is.

What’s even more interesting is how far to the right the Washington establishment is on these issues. If they were Israelis, all of those attacking President Obama on Israel – from the Senate majority leader to the Washington Post’s editorial page – would have been part of the right flank of the Likud, or a moderate settler party. Right now, the Israeli consensus – if such thing exists – is to the left of the beltway (though Netanyahu is working very hard to change that).

If the events of the past few days have taught us anything, it’s that the unique connection between Washington politicians (Republicans and Democrats alike), the Jewish lobby and Israeli hawks is the main obstacle to the termination of the occupation.

Under the current circumstances, the road to justice and peace in the region cannot pass through the U.S. capital.


Knesset polls: The Israeli Right has the upper hand

Posted: May 7th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, Polls, The Left, The Right | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Financial paper Globes: Avigdor Lieberman’s party getting stronger; reaches 18 Knesset seats

Though we are still far from elections, two polls were published last week in the Israel media. According to both, if elections were held today, the Right-Orthodox block would have remained in power, possibly even getting stronger.

In Globes‘ poll from Sunday, Avigdor Lieberman’s party, Israel Beitenu, goes up to 18 seats of the Knesset’s 120 (it has 14 currently) and the Likud reaches 29 seats (27 now). Kadima would have dropped from 28 to 26 seats and Labor to 8. Labor has won 13 seats in the last elections, but since split to two parties – Atzmaut, under Ehud Barak (5 seats) and Labor (8 seats). According to all recent polls Atzmaut, Barak’s new party, will be left out of the next Knesset.

Altogether, the right rises to 72 seats, while the center-left block drops to 48.

Yedioth Ahronoth’s poll, which was published last Friday, checked what would be the result for Labor under several potential leaders (following Barak’s departure, Labor will soon conduct new premieres). Amram Mitzna, who announced his candidacy this week, has the best result – 17 seats – but even together with Kadima’s 25 seats in this poll, the rightwing and Orthodox parties hold a majority of 62 seats. When Labor is under other leaders the Right is even stronger. Avigdor Lieberman polls 16 seats.

According to the same poll, a majority of the public (48 against 41) thinks that Israel should recognize an independent Palestinian state, while keeping the so-called “settlements blocks”; and a clear majority (53 percent) believes that Netanyahu should present his own peace plan in his visit to Washington this month, and include in it “significant concessions”.

Yedioth’s poll was conducted before the Palestinian reconciliation was announced, so these figures could have changed significantly since. Yet one could still draw two conclusions, which are at odd with the messages coming out of the PM’s office: First, Netanyahu’s coalition is stable, and if he calls new elections, he is likely to win them; second, the PM has a mandate from the public to make concessions – and it is his own choice not to do so.


Let’s not talk about it: American Jews’ problem discussing Israel

Posted: April 5th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: the US and us | Tags: , , , | 15 Comments »

My piece on last weekend’s Haaretz Magazine, and some other thoughts on the issue

USA and Israel Flags at Pro-Israel Rally in Downtown Chicago (photo: Josh.ev9/flickr)

USA and Israel Flags at Pro-Israel Rally in Downtown Chicago (photo: Josh.ev9/flickr)

While visiting New York last year, I got into a long political conversation with a friend, after which he invited me to dinner at his house. “But you must promise me we won’t discuss Israel,” he warned me. “It might ruin the evening.” About the same time, a friend wanted to introduce me to her new Jewish-American partner. “The one thing we can’t talk about is Israel,” I was told.

I wasn’t the last time I heard such comments. In other cases, I saw people get extremely upset, even hostile, when arguing about Israel. I knew that Israel was a complicated issue for Jews, but it seems that in recent years, the debate over Israel has become so polarized and tense, that it’s gotten to a point where many people would rather avoid it altogether.

When I got back to Israel, I offered my editors in Haaretz to write a piece about this issue. I spent a long time speaking to scholars, community leaders, activists and writers. Some of them were quoted in my piece, many weren’t. The interesting thing was that nobody – not even one person – denied the problem. Furthermore, once the article was published, people commented on one detail or another, but once again, the feeling that reform and conservative Jews have a tough time reaching a consensus over the role of Israel in their community was something that everyone shared:

“Our communities have really been torn apart surrounding Israel,” says [retired Rabbi Sheldon] Lewis. “People have attacked each other personally, friendships have ended, people have left synagogues because of it and have even disappeared entirely from the community. When I was a community rabbi I experienced that myself. The film festival may have been the most dramatic and well-known incident, but things have been going downhill for years.”

This is from writer Eric Alterman:

“In the past, you could say to liberal friends who criticized Israel ‘What would you do if you were in their place?’” says Alterman. “After all, no country would agree to undertake security risks [like] those that are required from Israel. But in recent years it’s more and more difficult to say it. It’s much more complicated to justify the raid on the Turkish flotilla, or the way Israel handled Gaza, or the attacks on human rights organizations. It looks like we we’re reaching a point where liberal American Jews will be forced to choose between their values and their emotional attachment to Israel. And many, alas, are going to stick with their values. There’s a sense of failure of an idea with regards to Israel. This is something very painful for me to say.”

You can read the entire piece here.

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Defining the problem is easier than reaching a conclusion on its political implications. More than anything, I felt a growing cultural gap between Israel and American Jews, and cultural issues manifest themselves politically in unexpected ways.

What was most interesting for me was to hear so many people saying that violations of civil and human rights in Israel contradict Jewish values. I expected people to speak of political values, and identify themselves as Liberals, and therefore at odds with the current trends in Israeli politics, but I realized that what I call liberalism was, for many people I’ve spoken to, part of their cultural and even religious identity as Jews.

Which makes things even more complicated.

Israel was never a very liberal place. Until the 80′s, the Israeli left had nothing to do with liberalism (one could probably argue that the Likud was more liberal than Mapai, the old Labor party). Liberals (in the American sense of leftwing politics) took the lead in Israeli politics only for a brief moment in the 90′s, when, during Rabin’s government, they got some important laws passed and benefited from a very active Supreme Court.

By the end of the decade, it was all over. Netanyahu’s government with its racist laws and the toxic atmosphere it spreads is just part of a process that has been going on for more than a decade. In a way, I think that liberal Jews in the US wanted to see something of them in Israel, and recently, they are having a hard time finding it. That is the reason for all the anger and frustration.

I would be very careful to conclude that this process will damage Israel’s ability to gain political support in the US, or to advocate its policies in Washington. Many people I’ve spoken to said that the evangelical right more than makes up for the loss of Jewish support for Israel – if there is such a loss. I tend to agree. Also, Israeli politicians are extremely capable at manipulating the anxieties of American Jews, as Netanyahu’s successes in confronting pressure from the White House regarding construction in East Jerusalem has taught us. Yes, many Jews resent Avigdor Lieberman, but only a few would translate these feelings to positions that have something to do with the political reality.

This is not to say that Israel doesn’t face a major diplomatic crisis – only that this crisis has to do with the growing desire in other parts of the American establishment to see the end of the occupation. Even more important is the rest of the international community, which is clearly impatient with Jerusalem. But this dynamic won’t be affected by the difficulties of a Newton synagogue with hosting a political debate or by the backlash following a show at a Jewish theater in DC. The problem of liberal American Jews with Israel will remain what it is – a problem of American Jews.


Netanyahu gets back at Lieberman, NGO probe dies in Knesset

Posted: February 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Left, The Right | Tags: , , , | Comments Off

The Knesset delivered some good news yesterday: The decision to form an investigative committee that would look into the work of leftwing NGOs has lost momentum and is likely not to be implemented. It seems that the second vote, necessary to confirm the probe, won’t even take place.

The NGO’s investigative committee won a clear majority a few weeks ago, when it was brought for the first of two votes. So what made Knesset members change their mind?

First, there was a backlash against the Knesset members from the left who failed to oppose the original bill (most of them simply didn’t show up for the vote). Then came  the biggest leftwing protest in years, which took place in Tel Aviv. The unusual turnout, organizers claimed, was largely due to the coming probe.

Around the same time, Kadima, still the biggest party in the Knesset, recognized an opportunity to embarrass Netanyahu. Tzipi Livni noticed the mounting opposition to the probe, and decided that all Kadima members would oppose it, thus making sure the second vote in the Knesset would be a close one.

The final vote was intended to take place next Monday. In order to win it, the entire coalition had to be mobilized. That included PM Netanyahu himself, who would have preferred not to be seen raising his hand in support of such a controversial measure. On top of this, four senior Likud members – Miki Eithan, Benny Begin, Dan Meridor and Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin – made it clear that they would oppose the bill.

Now the vote was expected to be extremely close, probably falling one way or the other on a single vote. Suddenly, the pressure was on the coalition. Few more Likud members feared they were going to fail on both fronts: they would have their name on the list of supporters for the probe (something they weren’t too thrilled about), and still lose the vote.

Yesterday, Netanyahu surrendered, and freed all Likud members to vote as they wish. The move all but eliminated the chances to secure a Knesset majority, and Avigdor Lieberman – whose party came up with the idea of the probe – decided to postpone the vote in order to avoid an embarrassing loss at the Knesset.

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The background to these events is the growing rivalry between PM Netanyahu and his Foreign Minister. A few days ago, Lieberman humiliated Netanyahu (and not for the first time) by vetoing the appointment of his security adviser Uzi Arad as the ambassador in London. Some people think that letting the NGO prove die was Netanyahu’s way of getting back at Lieberman, by depriving him of a major political achievement. This move, however, might cause more voters from the right flank of the Likud to turn to Israeli Beiteinu.

The real winner of the day was Tzipi Livni. Kadima bet on opposition to the probe – and won the battle. After all the challenges to her leadership, it seems that Livni took control over her party, at least for the time being.

As for Netanyahu, just a month ago, after the split at Labor, it looked as if his seat was secured for the rest of his term. Not anymore. Netanyahu is at the mercy of Lieberman, and it seems that the Foreign Minister is getting impatient with him by the day. The only thing holding Lieberman from calling new elections is the Attorney General’s coming decision whether to press charges against him, due to be given in the next few weeks. My guess is that Lieberman will wait to see to see whether he is forced to resign from the government and go to court, and only then decide on the fate of this coalition.


Please, no more peace plans

Posted: February 14th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Right, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , | 11 Comments »

The Israeli leadership wants to hold on to the status-quo, the Palestinian leadership is split, and the US discovers the limits of its power. Under these circumstances, the problem is not the lack of solutions for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the absence of political forces that could implement them. A response to Bernard Avishai

Olmert, Abbas and Bush at the opening of the Annapolis talks (U.S. Navy photo by Gin Kai)

Olmert, Abbas and Bush at the opening of the Annapolis talks (U.S. Navy photo by Gin Kai)

Some 20 years ago, just before I started my mandatory service in the IDF, I remember reading “No Trumpets, No Drums” by Sari Nusseibeh & Mark Heller. The Israeli and Palestinian authors of the book conducted negotiations for several months, leading to the outline of the two-state solution described in the book. At the time, the idea of a Palestinian state was still a taboo for most of the Israeli public, even in the Left, and I still remember going through the book and realizing that there might, after all, be a solution to what used to be called “the Palestinian problem.”

Reading Bernard Avishai’s excellent piece on the negotiations between Olmert and Abbas in this week’s edition of the New York Times Magazine, I couldn’t help remembering “No Trumpets, No Drums.” The similarities between the agreement Nusseibeh and Heller reached and the ideas discussed by the Israeli Prime Minister and the Palestinian president were striking, only this time they didn’t bring any sense of hope with them.

Another memory: Recently, I attended a public peace conference hosted by an Israeli-Palestinian NGO. Between the formal debates, I had a few conversations with representatives of different peace groups. Over dinner, one of them told me of a peace plan he came up with. “It’s not that different from the Geneva Initiative,” he admitted, “only with a few modifications.” A businessman I met was working on establishing an Israeli-Palestinian civilian think tank. His goal: To come up with a plan for a two-state solution…

In recent years, I have also met plenty out-of-the-box thinkers: People proposing a formula for a Palestinian-Israeli confederation; those who dream of abolishing national borders in the Middle East; and even a guy who claims that the Palestinians are the lost Jewish tribes, and therefore, see no reason for the conflict. All we need, he told me, is to explain this to people.

In short, there is no shortage of solutions (and it’s not surprising the serious ones look quite similar). The more the situation on the ground deteriorates, the more plans people come up with. I guess it’s only natural, and I don’t want to dismiss this tendency altogether. Ideas are important. They show people that the current trends can change, and they can lead to political action. The problem, I think, is that in recent years, all these plans and ideas replaced politics, and therefore, became counter-productive.

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Many people looked at the failed Annapolis process as a missed opportunity, a version of the “generous offer” narrative used to describe the Camp David summit in 2000. Look how close the two sides are, these people say. If only the administration was more engaged we could have had an agreement. If only the war in Gaza didn’t break out. If only Ehud Olmert stayed in power.

But wasn’t the war evidence to the fact that it’s impossible to sign an agreement with only half the Palestinian Authority, and leave Gaza out of the process? And didn’t the result of the Israeli elections prove that the public prefers Netanyahu’s rejectionism to Kadima’s two-state platform? Couldn’t the failure to reach an agreement serve as proof that at least one of the parties – if not both – find the negotiation’s outcome impossible to live with, or simply impractical?

I believe that the problem is not the absence of a plan, but that of a leadership which is able to carry it out. Olmert went further than any Israeli leader, but he still didn’t come close to the minimum the Palestinians could have lived with (the reaction to the Palestine Papers reveals how far behind from its leadership was the Palestinian public). And while the Israeli PM was negotiating, Netanyahu and Lieberman warned of these “dangerous concessions” and made it clear that the next Israeli government would not see itself committed to the understandings between the lame-duck Prime Minister and the Palestinian President (when the crucial meetings between the two leaders took place, Olmert has already announced he would retire form his post due to corruption allegations, and that he wouldn’t run for re-election). It seems that the talks between Olmert and Abbas were closer in spirit to the Nusseibeh-Heller negotiations or to the talks that led to the Geneva Accord than to the Oslo process: full of good-will, but short on political authority that could back it up.

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How do we get out of this dead-end? Avishai thinks that the US should present its own peace plan, based on the points of agreement between Olmert and Abbas. He writes on his TPM blog:

The point is, an Obama plan should be presented first to (and coordinated in advance with) the EU, the Quartet, the leaders of the OECD, and congressional leaders for that matter. It should be declared consistent with Olmert’s offer and designed (as Olmert’s offer was) to be “in the spirit” of the Arab League Initiative of 2002. Its great victory would not be in (immediately) getting Israelis and Palestinians to yes, but in creating an international consensus which all sides, especially Netanyahu and Israeli leaders and journalists more generally, would have to contend with for the foreseeable future. Obama could make the plan concrete by, for example, offering to provide funding for the RAND Corporation’s ARC project, tying a Palestinian state together with a transportation corridor, and offering Israeli infrastructure companies the chance to participate.

In the NYT piece, Avishai explains:

It is hard to imagine Netanyahu resisting an Obama initiative should the president fully commit to an American package based on these talks and rally the E.U., Russia and the United Nations.

Is it so hard to imagine? Some described the moratorium deal offered by the Administration last autumn as the best ever for Israel, and yet, Netanyahu rejected it. And it wasn’t even about a full peace treaty, just 90 days of settlement freeze, a good-will move that would enable negotiations to move forward.

Right now, there is no political force in Israel which is able to carry out the evacuation of settlements necessary for a peace deal, or to sell the Jewish public the return of dozens to hundred of thousands of Palestinian refugees. Without those, there would be no peace. There could be some intermediate treaty or a unilateral withdrawal, but it won’t bring peace.

The current Israeli leadership can’t even agree on a peace plan that would hand the Palestinians 60 percent of the West Bank, as some ministers proposed. The Knesset has a block of 60-65 members that would never agree to the concessions offered by Ehud Barak in Camp David, let alone those negotiated by Olmert. That’s the reason for the absence of peace talks – there is nothing to discuss.

If we had learned something during President Obama’s first couple of years, it’s his administration’s limits in applying effective pressure on a determined rightwing Israeli government. The administration tried to play it tough, but Netanyahu called their bluff – and won. Many people in Israel and Palestine, including myself, were hoping for a better outcome, but I don’t think the administration is to blame, in spite of mistakes it made. The political circumstances are such that applying pressure on Jerusalem is simply too expensive, in terms of political currency. A president might lose a lot by confronting an Israeli PM, and gain very little. Perhaps that’s the reason that the last two presidents pushed their peace plan just as they were getting ready to leave the White House.

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So, what should the US do? In my opinion, the answer is not much, at least for the time being. As recent events taught us, there are limits to the ability to shape the Middle East’s politics from the Oval Office. The US should take a step back, and most importantly, let Jerusalem face the consequences of the occupation by gradually lifting the diplomatic shield it provides Israel with. It should be done in a smart enough way not to hurt the administration politically, but the message needs to be clear: If Israel continues to hold on to the West Bank, it will become more and more isolated. With time, this message would resonate with policy makers and with the Jewish public.

We could also hope that the Palestinians will be able to unite their government, so that when the opportunity presents itself, the leadership that negotiates the end of the occupation would enjoy a greater legitimacy than Abbas and Saeb Erekat did in 2008. Hamas has a veto power over agreements, just as the Israeli Right has. If these forces are not engaged with, there isn’t a plan in the world that would bring peace.


Would the incoming Israeli Chief of Staff favor an attack on Iran?

Posted: February 6th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, the US and us, war | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments »

Major General Benny Gantz spoke frequently on Iran, but his position regarding the military option remains unclear

After an unprecedented series of events, consisting of a public dispute between the Defense Minister and the departing Chief of Staff and two canceled appointments to replace the latter, it seems that the IDF finally has its new commander: Major General Benny Gantz.

Gantz was the head of the Northern Command, the military attaché in Washington and in his last role, Deputy Chief of Staff. Last summer, after Defense Minister Ehud Barak decided not to appoint him as the new IDF commander, Gantz left the army.

As Deputy Chief of Staff, Gantz was in charge of the work relating to the Iranian nuclear threat. In interviews and public appearances he referred to Iran as a danger not only to Israel but to the entire international community.

Last spring, Gantz said that “there is no question regarding our moral right to act [againt Iran]“ [Heb]. Yet according to Ynet’s defense analyst Ron Ben-Yishay, much like the departing Gabi Ashkenazi, Gantz belongs to the “skeptics” camp, and would like to avoid IDF military action against the Iranian nuclear facilities. Unlike Ashkenazi, Gantz is not expected to oppose such an action if the political leadership decides to carry it out.

Here is a video of Gantz speaking on Iran at the previous Herzliya conference:

UPDATE: Haaretz’s Amir Oren also estimate that Benni Gantz opposes a military strike on Iran. “Gantz is part of the level-headed camp, led by Gabi Ashkenazi,” writes Oren [link in Hebrew]. Oren names other senior IDF generals that hold the same views, and concludes that the “pro-active” coalition on Iran, led by Netanyahu and Barak, is disintegrating.

Both Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are said to be among those favoring a military confrontation with Iran, if all other efforts to stop the nuclear program fails. Departing Chief of Staff Ashkenazi as well as Ministers Avigdor Lieberman and Moshe Yaalon are considered among those opposing an attack on Iran.

Israeli Chiefs of Staff are appointed for three years, though it is not uncommon for the term to be extended to four years. That means Gantz would leave office between 2014 and 2015.