Why isn’t Netanyahu promoting the new deal on the settlements?

Posted: November 14th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , | 18 Comments »

An e-mail I got from an American friend (based in Tel Aviv) in response to my last post makes a noteworthy observation:

An interesting element here is the way American papers are saying Netanyahu agreed to push for a settlement freeze while Israeli media has him, somewhat indifferently, just bringing the American proposals to his cabinet. The difference sounds subtle but it’s not. I haven’t seen a word about Netanyahu arguing before the cabinet why the deal is worthwhile and should be approved. It sounds to me like he told Clinton he’d push, but back in Israel he’s letting his deputies trash a proposal he didn’t want in the first place.

I’m not in Israel right now, so I don’t hear everything that’s being said by the Israeli media, but that’s the impression I’m getting too: Netanyahu is getting credit in the US for agreeing to the new deal, while in Israel he is not going publicly in favor of it. In fact, since the “process” started, Netanyahu hasn’t really prepared the Israeli public for concessions – on the contrary, he is constantly declaring that “the Palestinians are not ready,” thus moving the Israeli public opinion to the right and making future concessions even harder to imagine.

Also worth reading is Mitchell Plitnick take on the new offer. According to Mitchell, since Israel was offered even more by Dennis Ross recently, seeing the new deal as a major setback is “much ado about nothing.” Read his post here.


New deal on moratorium: This administration’s worst move yet?

Posted: November 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , | 7 Comments »

With the new deal, the US might have given up all leverage over Jerusalem for the next two years, agreed to construction in Jerusalem (and ultimately, the rest of the West Bank), and seems to get nothing in return

Like that women in a townhall meeting before the midterms, I am exhausted of defending President Barack Obama. As if the last year wasn’t bad enough, the new deal Netanyahu was offered in exchange for a limited-Jerusalem-excluded-90-days-only moratorium, seems like the administration’s worst move ever.

Netanyahu apparently reached an understanding with Washington that the building freeze would not apply to Jerusalem, and that no further moratorium would be sought following the 90-day period.

(…)

In exchange for a freeze extension, the US would object to international attempts to force a diplomatic agreement on Israel in the UN and in other global forums, while utilizing the American veto power in the UN Security Council.

According to the proposal, the US would also boost its resistance to the de-legitimization campaign against Israel and to attempts by Arab states to deprive Israel’s right to self-defense [what's that? key words for Goldstone? for the Nuclear program?].

Moreover, the US Administration would ask Congress to approve the sale of another 20 advanced fighter jets to Israel worth some $3 billion. This would supplement a comprehensive future Israeli-American security agreement, to be signed alongside a peace deal, in the aims of addressing Israel’s security needs in any future treaty.

The F-35 Jets deal is not the big news here. Sooner or later, the US would have sold the plans to Israel, if only to help Lockheed Martin, who seems to be having troubles selling its new toys to the rest of the world.

The diplomatic assurances are much more troubling. By promising an automatic veto against any international move or any unilateral attempt by the Palestinians do declare independence, the Administration gave up any leverage over Jerusalem in 2011. And since 2012 is elections year, one can say that Netanyahu got a Carte Blanch from Obama and Clinton for the rest of his term.

Furthermore, the administration promised not to demand any more moratoriums, and to exclude Jerusalem from the current one. In other words, the White House agreed not to oppose construction in the settlements starting from January 2011, and to accept all construction in East Jerusalem right now. This is, by itself, a terrible move.

What did the Americans get in return? And what did the Palestinians get? apparently, nothing. The negotiations might resume, but it’s hard to believe that any breakthrough will be reached in the next couple of months. The two sides are simply too far from each other on every key issue. My guess: the Palestinians would end up abandoning the talks or refusing some “generous offer” by Netanyahu. Once more they will be accused of missing their best opportunities. Camp David 2000, all over again.

Nothing is certain, of course. The administration might have gotten some backroom promises from Nettanyahu regarding the upcoming talks. The Israeli Right can try to oppose the new moratorium. In the longer run, the Palestinians could always shut down the PA and put Israel in an impossible position (many people think this could be their best move). But in all these developments, the administration will depend on others. Unless team Obama has a diplomatic plan it wants to impose on both sides, it seems that the White House has played its hand – and lost.


Watch: Jewish protest against Netanyahu at New Orleans assembly

Posted: November 9th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Left, the US and us | Tags: , , | Comments Off

Netanyahu’s speech at the Jewish General Assembly in New Orleans. This act got considerable media coverage in Israel.

My favorite part is when the bearded guy hysterically tears up one of the protesters’ signs, to the cheers of the crowd (2:40 min).

Here is a report on the people behind the protest.


The midterms: an Israeli perspective (UPDATED)

Posted: November 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, the US and us | Tags: , , , , | 15 Comments »

Obama lost, Israel won, declares a headline on Ynet, Israel’s most popular news site

The original post was updated.

President Barack Obama is not popular in Israel, to say the least. Israelis knew John McCain as their supporters; Obama was a mystery. Early in 2009, the new president’s attempts to approach the Arab world defined him as a pro-Palestinian, at least in the eyes of many Israelis. Minister Limor Livnat (Likud) expressed the common view in the government when she declared that “we fell into the hands of a horrible administration” (other politicians were blunter, simply calling Obama “a new Pharaoh“). Rightwing comments on the internet often refers to him just as “Hussein”.

First impressions are very hard to change, and recent efforts by the administration to improve the president’s image with the Israeli public and were unsuccessful (at the same time, they destroyed the administration’s credibility with the Palestinian public). Even today, the relations between Jerusalem and the White House are often framed by the media with confrontational terms, emphasizing the lack of trust between the two sides and overplaying misunderstandings and arguments. When Washington tried to show a more welcoming face to Jerusalem – as it did during Netanyahu’s last visit to Washington – its actions were portrayed as a staged effort, designed for internal purposes. Altogether, it seems that the White House was probably better off sticking to its original line.

Under these conditions, the Democratic defeat in the midterm election pleased many Israelis. An op-ed on Ynet on the eve of the elections declared Netanyahu as “the leading candidate for Congress,” while Haaretz’s diplomatic correspondent, Aluf Benn, even speculated that Netanyahu did not extend the moratorium on settlements construction in order to help “his GOP friends” on the hill.

It’s clear that nobody in the PM office would shed tears over the blow the Democrats suffered in the midterm elections. Having said that, I guess Netanyahu is smart enough to know that a conservative House can’t prevent a determined Democratic president from trying to push the diplomatic process forward. As many pundits estimate, the administration might even become more active on foreign policy, as the new balance of power in Washington would make it hard to peruse domestic reforms.

For Israelis, the elections are interesting for what they tell about the president’s image and support – they got more media coverage than midterms usually get – but their political implications are far from being clear. I believe that the power struggle between Dennis Ross and George Mitchell in the White House – in which Ross seems to have the upper hand – would turn up to be much more important than the landslide victory the GOP won today. Those Israeli officials that enjoyed seeing president Obama humiliated probably know that too.

One final thought from an Israeli perspective: many people have noticed that Israel is heading towards becoming a partisan issue in Washington. The Obama-Netanyahu confrontation is speeding up this process, but it’s not the whole story. It seems that the liberal camp in the US is distancing itself form Israel, Much in the way the European Left has done in the past. Questions on the pros and cons of the “special relations” that were once raised only in back rooms are now openly discussed by the US media. The moral appeal of Israel seems to be weakening, at least in the eyes of Democrats.

The midterms could speed up this process, especially if the Republicans adopt Israel as a an vessel for attacks on the White House, and a generational change occur in the Democratic party, bringing a new set of candidates that would distance themselves from Jerusalem and AIPAC. The current success of the “pro-Israeli” camp in Washington might turn to be a double-edged sword.

UPDATE: the Israeli newspapers were going down to print as the first exit polls were published in the US, so the size of the democratic defeat wasn’t known to the reporters and the papers’ tones remained somewhat reserved. Only Yisrael Hayom, the pro-Netanyahu free tabloid, didn’t hesitate to frame the elections as a blow to the president. The paper’s analysis article, written by Prof. Avraham Ben-Zvi, predicted that from now on, the president won’t be able to pursue an ambitious foreign policy and would focus on co-operating with the Republicans on the home front. The White House’s Middle East policy, wrote Prof. Ben Zvi, would be limited to crisis solving.

On Ynet, Israel’s most popular news site, an op-ed by Yoram Etinger declares that “Obama lost, Israel won“. Etinger calls for the Israeli government to increase its effort to win support on the Hill, claiming that the pro-Israeli congress can counter-weight the White House and the State Department’s policy.

Maariv’s Shmuel Rosner, former Haaretz correspondent in Washington and one of the better writers on American politics in Israel, doesn’t rush to conclusions, stating that the future of the American Middle East policy is still unclear:

“The Israeli reader should understand: America didn’t vote against Obama because the way he treated Netanyahu’s government, nor because of his Middle East policy, Iraq or Afghanistan. These elections were determined on one reason only: the economy… [The elections' results] might hurt the administration’s ability to apply pressure on Israel. On the other hand, a Republican control over the House would prevent Obama from gaining major achievements that involves legislation. What are we left with? Foreign policy.

Where will Jerusalem and Washington go from here? Netanayhu wasn’t ready make significant decisions in the peace process when Obama was at the height of his powers, and my guess is that after the midterms, feeling he has more leverage over the White House, his positions will be even tougher. Right now, I think Netanyahu is more concerned about the future of his coalition than over relations with America. If Labor quits his government – a move that seems more likely recently – his slide towards new elections will begin. From this fate, even Eric Cantor couldn’t save the Israeli PM.


Did Netanyahu refused extending the moratorium to hurt Obama and help GOP in midterms?

Posted: October 31st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Aluf Benn, Haaretz’s diplomatic correspondent, had this weekend an analysis piece on the possibility the Palestinian Authority will ask a UN recognition of a unilateral declaration of independence.

Benn urged the Israeli government not to automatically object such a move. Israel, he writes, would be better off taking part in shaping a Security Council resolution than in just opposing one. As Ami Kaufman notes, given Israel’s mistrust towards international institutions, it’s a very surprising idea.

Equally interesting is a paragraph in Benn’s piece on Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent diplomatic moves (my italic):

Netanyahu rejected Obama’s request for a two-month extension of the settlement freeze; the president had wanted quiet on the Middle East front while he concentrated on the midterm elections. For his part, Netanyahu explained that he needed to show “credibility and steadfastness” at home, and indeed the incentives promised by the U.S. president in exchange for the extension did not sway the prime minister. One can surmise that Netanyahu did not want to help Obama ahead of the U.S. elections, and thus annoy the president’s Republican rivals. Netanyahu needs the support of GOP politicians to thwart the pressure coming from the White House.


The political line of Israeli papers (a reader’s guide)

Posted: October 26th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: media, The Left, The Right | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 28 Comments »

Maariv and Yedioth Ahronoth showing the same headline (photo: yossi gurvitz)Newspapers in Israel have always been of great importance. One of the first things early Zionists did in Palestine was to create their own Hebrew papers. Every major political faction had its own publication, usually a national daily. Even today, with the decline of printed journalism, papers are still widely read, especially among opinion makers.

The Hebrew papers raise issues and frame political questions; Knesset members often quote news items and op-eds during Knesset debates, and Knesset committees conduct debates on issues exposed by the printed media. It is worth noting that Israel has never had strong local daily papers, so the printed media always tended to deal with national questions of diplomacy, politics and security, and less with local issues such as crime and local policies. So if you want to understand Israeli society and Israeli politics, you need to understand Hebrew printed media.

The old party papers died over the last two decades or so, and today’s papers don’t have a certain partisan affiliation. Papers in Israel usually don’t endorse candidates or parties, but they do have a political line. In the cases of Haaretz and Yisrael Hayom this line is very clear. With Maariv – and especially with Yedioth – it tends to be more subtle, and has changed over the years.

Here is a short guide to the political lines taken by Israel’s newspapers these days. Remember that these assessments are subjective as well, and reflect my own views and knowledge. Disclaimer: I worked for Maariv and for Yedioth’s internet division in the past, and in the past six months I have written a few stories for Haaretz.

Yedioth Ahronoth

Market Share* (June 2010): 35 percent on weekdays, 43.7 on weekends.

Internet site: Ynet (English edition here).

Politics: After years of dominating the printed media market, Israel’s leading tabloid has met a fierce rival – the free paper Yisrael Hayom, launched three years ago by gambling billionaire Sheldon Adelson. Many people believe that this is the reason for the sharp anti-Netanyahu tone Yedioth has taken over the past year. The paper is constantly publishing articles attacking the Prime Minister, his staff and even his wife. Star pundit Nahum Barnea is especially hostile to Netanyahu; in fact, I think there is only one columnist in Yedioth – Hanoch Daum – who is an open Netanyahu supporter and a proxy to the Netanyahu family.

Leaving Netanyahu aside, Yedioth is a fairly centrist paper. It tends to be conservative on military and security issues, but more open than other tabloids when it comes to dealing with civil rights issues. The campaign the paper launched against the State Prosecution and the Supreme Court for their intervention in policy issues and nominations of high ranking officials seems to have calmed down recently.

I think people outside Israel don’t pay enough attention to Yedioth. For years, the paper was known for its ability to capture the voice of the average middle class Israeli. The front page story of the papers’ weekend magazine always presented “the man of the moment”, or the story that would be discussed during the following week. Yedioth is not as strong today – but it is still the most important media organization in Israel. Yedioth’s internet site (Ynet) is by far the most popular news site in Israel.

Yair Lapid, channel 2 anchorman and a possible candidate in the next elections, has a widely read column in Yedioth.

The bottom line for Yedioth Ahronoth: Conservative on security and Supreme Court; critical of the government and Netanyahu himself; slightly more liberal than the two other tabloids.

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Yisrael Hayom

Market Share (June 2010): 35 percent on weekdays, 25.7 on weekends.

Internet site: Yisrael Hayom (Hebrew, printed edition only).

Politics: According to most estimates, Sheldon Adelson’s free tabloid, which is circulated in 250,000 copies, is losing money. But Adelson’s intention in launching the paper was not to gain profits, but political influence.

Adelson’s paper is edited by a former proxy to Netanyahu, Amos Regev. Under Regev, Israel Hayom is extremely supportive of the Prime Minister, constantly pushing stories that present Netanyahu and his family in a positive way. Recently, the paper is taking on an even more nationalistic editorial line.

[A more detailed post about the ties between Yisrael Hayom and Netanyahu can be found here.]

Yisrael Hayom is very hostile to the Palestinians; it tends to emphasize security threats and to present a favorable coverage of some of the new Knesset bills which are aimed against the Arab minority, Arabs members of Knesset and leftwing NGO’s (though one could find in it from time to time an occasional op-ed expressing different views).

Yisrael Hayom is supportive of the State Prosecution and the Supreme Court, but only on corruption issues, not civil rights ones.

Yisrael Hayom doesn’t have its own publishing house, so the paper has outsourced its printing and distribution to Haaretz. There are rumors that this move saved Haaretz from bankruptcy.

The bottom line for Yisrael Hayom: Conservative on security, diplomacy and civil rights; highly supportive of Netanyahu.

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Maariv

Market Share (June 2010): 12.5 percent on weekdays, 16.1 on weekends.

Internet site: nrg (Hebrew only).

Politics: for years, Maariv was Yedioth’s greatest enemy (when I moved from Ynet to Maariv in 2003, I was told by one of the senior editors that I would never write for Yedioth again), but now both papers join hands in the battle against Yisrael Hayom.

Maariv ran into financial difficulties more than six years ago, and since then it has been changing its editors and CEO’s frequently. A new team of editors (Yoav Zur and Yoav Golan), and a new co-publisher (businessman Zachi Rachiv) seem to have stabilized the paper a bit recently.

Under its new editors, Maariv has taken a sharp turn to the right. The paper’s subtle criticism of Netanyahu could be a bit misleading. Maariv keeps a very nationalistic and conservative line. It was Maariv that launched the campaign against the New Israel Fund by publishing the Im Tirzu reports. The paper is extremely hostile to the Arab population and to human rights organizations, and recently, it shows a hospitable attitude to the settlement project (a recent double spread all but invited people to live in Tapuach, a settlement formally known as the stronghold of Kahane supporters). Among Israeli papers, Maariv is the most supportive of Avigdor Lieberman’s policies, and it usually presents a somewhat favorable coverage of the bills Israel Beitenu is trying to pass in the Knesset.

Rumors have it that it was a conscious decision by Maariv’s editors and managing board to take an editorial line that would exploit the current nationalistic trends in the Israeli society. The promotion of conservative contributors such as Kalman Livskind and Ben-Dror Yemini support this theory. Yemini is known for his campaigning against “lefty” influence in the Israel academia and media. He has repeatedly called to hold state funds from critical movies and from artists and professors who are “anti-Israeli”. Last week he published a double spread attacking Haaretz journalist Gidon Levi for an interview he gave to the Independent.

The bottom line for Maariv: Highly conservative on security; anti-civil rights, anti-Supreme Court; slightly critical of Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

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Haaretz

Market Share (June 2010): 6.4 percent on weekdays, 7.4 on weekends.

Internet site: Haaretz (English site here).

Politics: Haaretz was Israel’s liberal paper for many years, and one could claim that it’s the only paper committed to supporting civil rights and promoting democratic values. By Israeli standards, Haaretz is very critical of the IDF, thought in the past few years the paper was criticized for pushing Palestinians’ civil right issues into its back pages. Many leftwing activists and politicians are also dismayed by the liberal line Haaretz tends to take on economical issues.

Haaretz’s editorial line is very critical of Netanyahu and Lieberman, though some important contributors, such as Ari Shavit and Yoel Marcus are less clear on the issue. Haaretz journalist Amira Hass is especially known for her work on Palestinian rights issues.

Haaretz’ circulation is not substantial – it’s almost similar to that of the unimportant free tabloid Israel Post – but it is widely read and discussed by public opinion makers, politicians, diplomats and the international press, so it has a more substantial weight than its numbers. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that very few Israelis actually read Haaretz.

The bottom line for Haaretz: liberal on security, civil rights and economy; supportive of the Supreme Court; very critical of Netanyahu’s government.

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(*) Maariv and Israel Hayom are the only daily papers in Israel to disclose their circulation figures. The common way to measure papers’ share of the market – and the one used to determine advertising prices – is through the TGI poll, conducted twice a year by the independent company TNS-Telegal. The figures in this post relate to the June 2010 poll.

For daily updates on the leading stories in the Israel Hebrew press, check out the daily media roundup on +972 magazine.


Netanyahu’s government: from here it’s all downhill

Posted: October 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: elections, In the News, The Left, The Right | Tags: , , , , | 10 Comments »

The current Israeli government has reached the end of the road. Soon, Netanyahu will have to chose between changing his coalition to new elections

Benjamin Netanyahu returned to the Prime Minister office determined not to repeat the mistakes of his previous term, those that led to his premature downfall in 1999. This time, he enjoyed a better starting point: unlike in his first term, Netanyahu has a strong rightwing majority in the Knesset, and he was able to cover his left flank by pulling Labor into the government.

But things didn’t work out as Netanyahu expected, and people familiar enough with Israeli politics already estimate that the current government has reached the end of its road. Knesset speaker and Likud member Rubi Rivlin even predicted that by the end of the current Knesset session, six months from now, the date of the next elections will have been set.

The cracks in Netanyahu’s coalition are easy to spot. Netanyahu’s most important coalition partner, defense minister Ehud Barak, was quoted today In Israel’ leading tabloid, Yedioth Ahronoth, criticizing the Prime Minister for his demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state now.

“We don’t need an aggressive Winston Churchill now, but a De Gaulle,” said Barak, according to Yedioth. Churchill is Netanyahu’s role model; De Gaulle is the President that ended French occupation in Algeria.

Barak is the weakest link in the coalition, and he is just about to break. He has been under pressure for supporting Netanyahu from the day he entered his government, and he can’t hold much longer. Haaretz editorial already called for the resignation of Labor ministers because of the Loyalty Oath bill, top labor officials have left Barak’s camp one after the other, and Maariv’s top story today was a declaration by MK Avishay Braverman that he will run for Labor’s leadership.

Barak feels the heat. He stopped defending Netanyahu in public a while ago, and it seems as if he is preparing the ground for his departure from government (the other option, that he would leave Labor and stick by Netanyahu, doesn’t seem very likely now).

Netanyahu’s senior partner on the Right, Avigdor Lieberman, smells the blood as well. When Lieberman was on Netanyahu’s side, he kept quiet and never doubted the peace process in public. Now he does it at the UN, much to the dismay of the Prime Minister. Lieberman might be forced to leave the government soon because of a police investigation on corruption charges, and he probably wants his exit to be noisy. Like Barak, he wants to show voters that he left power behind for ideological reasons.

There are other signs that the Prime Minister doesn’t enjoy the same respect within his coalition or even his party. Politicians have a great sense for weakness, and if Netanyahu wasn’t getting weaker, Knesset speaker Rivlin – who wants to succeed Peres as president and needs the Prime Minister’s support for that – would have never challenged him publicly. The game has changed: now Netanyahu needs Rivlin more than Rivlin needs Netanyahu.

What’s now?

One thing is clear: in the current Knesset, the only possible Prime Minister is Netanyahu. Tzipi Livni cannot have a majority without either Lieberman or Netanyahu himself as partners, and she probably won’t have any of them. Assuming there is no immediate breakthrough in the peace process (or a war…) and Labor does leave the government, we are left with the following scenarios:

A. New centrist government: Netanyahu declares he wants to move forward in the peace process, and invites Kadima to join him. Even if Livni agrees, such a deal won’t last for long, as Kadima might think that it’s in her interest to break the partnership sooner than later. Netanyahu knows that, so he hesitates on turning to Livni. UPDATE: as I’m writing this, Haaretz reports that Netanyahu is considering having Kadima join his government.

B. New extreme-right government: Labor leaves the coalition and Netanyahu relays on the right for staying in power. That would make him the most “lefty” element in his coalition – a very bad position for a PM. The settlers would make his life miserable, and the international pressure would become unbearable. Result: early elections.

C. Elections: according to the Israeli law, when the government falls, new elections must be held in three months. In reality, when the government is about to fall, it sets up a date for new elections much further away (usually in six to eight months), so the prime Minister can remain in power and engage in a long campaign which is not dominated by a crisis atmosphere. If Netanyahu is cornered, he might go for elections, especially if he feels that there is not a powerful challenger around. Right now, there isn’t any one, but if Tel Aviv’s mayor ron huldai chooses to run, he might be the strongest candidate the Left had in years.

I think Netanyahu haven’t made up his mind regarding the choices he faces. He views the current coalition as the best one for him, so he would probably wait to see how the midterm elections in the US affect him and hope that the fault for the failure of the peace process would fall on the Palestinians (Israeli representatives in Washington are already working to make sure it does).

Eventually, and without some sort of external development that would save him, I think Netanyahu would prefer to change his coalition than to have early elections. If Kadima enters his government, we might have another round of meaningless talks with the Palestinians before things break up again.

If, however, Netanyahu turns to the Right, events might turn real crazy.


AIPAC, a voice for the Israeli Right (updated)

Posted: October 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Right, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , | 21 Comments »

Some thoughts on the destructive role AIPAC and other “pro-Israeli” organizations play in Israeli politics

Mon_Evening_Gala_Banquet_Netanyahu

New York, NY – Recently, I met a friend who works with the US office of an Israeli NGO. He told me of a conversation he once had with a top AIPAC official (since it was a private conversation, I won’t disclose the name of the official here).

“We appreciate the work that you are doing in Israel,” the AIPAC guy told my friend. “We often give it as an example to the fact that Israel is indeed a thriving democracy. But you shouldn’t have opened a US office, and you shouldn’t be lobbying on the Hill.”

I am not sure what words exactly did the AIPAC man used, but according to my friend, his message was clear enough: even Israelis shouldn’t criticize Israeli government abroad.

Attacks by AIPAC on Jewish and Palestinians activists are very common, but what I found interesting in this anecdote is the way AIPAC views Israeli NGO and opposition groups: not as a party that raises legitimate concerns that should be addressed, but as a tool in their PR effort.

This approach was demonstrated again when the head of The Israel Project (TIP), Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, was asked by an Israeli reporter what’s her organization’s view on the Loyalty Oath issue, which caused a political storm in Israel last week. “We didn’t put out a press release,” was all Mizrahi would say, according to JTA’s report.

AIPAC and TIP would probably argue that those are internal Israeli affairs, and that they would support any decision by the Israeli government. AIPAC often claims that it has no position regarding the political debates in Israel, and that all it does is supporting the policy decided by Israeli elected officials.

However, a closer look at the political dynamic shows that AIPAC and groups like The Israel Project and Stand With Us do play a growing role in those so-called “internal” issues, as the anecdote cited above might suggest.

A battle is now raging in Israel, between those wishing to change the political status quo – especially, but not only, on the Palestinian issue – and those wishing to keep things as they are. Netanyahu is clearly a status quo man. He didn’t express one original thought on the Palestinian issue before the elections, and it was only under tremendous US pressure that he was ready to declare limited support in the idea of a de-militarized Palestinian state.

In the last year and a half, and due to political developments in Israel and outside it, Netanyahu feels cornered – and it is AIPAC that comes to his aid (much to the disappointment of many Israelis). By supporting Netanyahu abroad, AIPAC actually does take sides in the internal Israeli debate. It helps maintain the status quo.

It’s important to understand that AIPAC’s influence is really felt only when it comes to supporting the Israeli Right. Let’s assume Israel elects a Left-wing Prime Minister that signs a peace deal. This imaginary Prime Minister won’t need the help of AIPAC on the Hill (because even a Republican Congress won’t object to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement), but he will face intense opposition – both at home and from the elements in the Jewish community in the US. I do not think, though, that pro-Israeli groups such as AIPAC, TIP or Stand with US will engage in an intense effort to promote the peace deal and to fight the opposition in the American community.

In other words, in the current political context, only the Israeli hawks, the settlers and the extreme-right benefit form the work of AIPAC and the rest of the so-called pro-Israeli organizations. Left wing and centrists leaders don’t need their help.

This dynamic is well understood with the Israeli peace camp, which often feels frustration and anger over the actions of AIPAC. Only in the US can AIPAC pretend to represent “all Israelis” (and let’s not forget that twenty percent of Israelis are Arabs). In recent months, AIPAC fought against the American demand to extend the partial moratorium on construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. In other words, in the most controversial issue in Israeli politics in the past few decades, AIPAC has taken the side of the “greater Israel”. No elaborate rationalization can change this simple fact.

Last summer, when the effort by various peace organizations and political parties to stop the colonization of Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem – a key issue for the success of the peace process – was met with an even greater mobilization by the representatives of the organized community in Washington to fight back American pressure around Jerusalem. During this confrontation, a hundred peace activists and public figures, residents of Jerusalem, even sent a public letter to Eli Wiesel, begging him to stop “supporting” Israel on this issue.

The politics of AIPAC – which are viewed as the voice of the entire Jewish community – make many peace activists wonder why American Jews don’t support the Israelis who share their liberal values, and instead choose to be – as a friend of mine bluntly put it – “cheerleaders for the occupation”.

I don’t think US Jews are “cheerleaders for the occupation”. On the contrary, in my conversations with them I sense great concern and anxiety over the path Israel has taken, especially in recent years. But I also feel that many of them are confused, ill-informed and misguided by the people who claim to carry their political message to Washington.

If I had one piece of advice I could give my Jewish friends in America who truly wish the best for both Israelis and Palestinians, it would be to prevent AIPAC – and similar organizations – form claiming to speak in their name. The truth is they are speaking for the political interests of Lieberman and Netanyahu.

UPDATE: after publishing this post, a colleague sent me this link to an article published last year by Douglas M. Bloomfield, who spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC. Mr. Bloomfield is quoting sources in AIPAC that remember how the organization coordinated its policy in the nineties with (then) opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, in an effort to stop the peace process:

One of the topics AIPAC won’t want discussed, say these sources, is how closely it coordinated with Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1990s, when he led the Israeli Likud opposition and later when he was prime minister, to impede the Oslo peace process being pressed by President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.

That could not only validate AIPAC’s critics, who accuse it of being a branch of the Likud, but also lead to an investigation of violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

“What they don’t want out is that even though they publicly sounded like they were supporting the Oslo process, they were working all the time to undermine it,” said a well-informed source.

“After Rabin came in in 1992 and said he wanted to make peace and signed the Oslo accords, and the U.S. was supposed to pay the tab, every restriction on all political and financial dealings [by the Palestinians] came out of our office,” said the insider. “We took full advantage of every lapse by [Yasser] Arafat and the Palestinians to put on more restrictions and limit relations,” the source added.

One of the topics AIPAC won’t want discussed, say these sources, is how closely it coordinated with Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1990s, when he led the Israeli Likud opposition and later when he was prime minister, to impede the Oslo peace process being pressed by President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.

That could not only validate AIPAC’s critics, who accuse it of being a branch of the Likud, but also lead to an investigation of violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

“What they don’t want out is that even though they publicly sounded like they were supporting the Oslo process, they were working all the time to undermine it,” said a well-informed source.

“After Rabin came in in 1992 and said he wanted to make peace and signed the Oslo accords, and the U.S. was supposed to pay the tab, every restriction on all political and financial dealings [by the Palestinians] came out of our office,” said the insider. “We took full advantage of every lapse by [Yasser] Arafat and the Palestinians to put on more restrictions and limit relations,” the source added.


The Israel Project vs. J Street: from pro-Israel to pro-Netanyahu

Posted: October 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Right, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , | 12 Comments »

In the current political context, groups like “The Israel Project” and “Stand with US” represent more than anything the interest of extreme rightwing Israeli politicians

I have first heard of The Israel Project (TIP) when I traveled to Denver in 2008 to cover the Democratic National Convention for Maariv. TIP had a press conference with pollsters Frank Lunz and Stan Greenberg. Lunz is the guy who is teaching speakers for Israel to call the Palestinians “Arabs” because it makes Americans think of oil and money rather than refugees. Greenberg is the endangered specie of our time: a pro-Israeli liberal.

The spirits at Denver – and later, at the GOP convention at Saint Paul, were a similar event was held – were high. American support for Israel was at an all-time record, and the buffet was excellent.

The halt of peace negotiations, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza or the rapid expansion of the settlements didn’t seem like a problem. If these issues bothered anyone (They probably didn’t make Stan Greenberg happy), it was for what was labeled as the “challenges” that they might present for those repeating Israeli talking points abroad.

It’s easy to forget how many things have changed in the last two years. Now, Jennifer Mizrahi, Founder and President of TIP, has some concerns. Still, it’s not the expansion of settlements or the future of Israeli democracy that worries her. Her problem is J Street, which seems to deceive the Jewish-American public into thinking that opposing settlements is desirable.

This is what Mizrahi writes about the left-wing Jewish advocacy group on TIP Blog:

The real problem with J Street… is not that it misled people by hiding the fact that it received contributions from people whose support of Israel is suspect. Rather, it is that J Street uses a false premise to take time and resources from thousands of people – including American leaders — whose concern for Israel is unquestioned.

You get that? J street is dangerous because it makes pro-Israelis waste time and money on ridiculous ideas, such as actively engaging with the Israeli government over its control over the life of 2.5 Palestinians in the West Bank.

The same can’t be said about The Israel Project. TIP never wasted their time on such original thoughts, or any new idea regarding the Palestinian problem for that matter. They simply follow orders from Jerusalem, regardless of the identity of the person seating in the PM office.

No Israeli official is too hawkish for TIP. Mizrachi describes PM Netanyahu and his government – the one with Eli Yishai and Avigdor Lieberman as his senior coalition partners – as one that is willing to make “painful sacrifices” for peace. Both those ministers deny it, but let’s not get too obsessed with such details.

“20% of Israeli citizens are Arabs who have full rights,” she writes, while at the same week Israeli Foreign Minister is calling in the UN General Assembly for “population exchange”.

“Why is it so hard for some Arabs and Iran to accept that Israel should be the national and democratic homeland of the Jewish people,” adds Mizrahi, while Deputy PM Moshe Yaalon is declaring that there is not even a chance of a peace deal, and claims that all seven top cabinets ministers agree with him on this one.

TIP and similar pro-Israeli groups argue that Israelis want peace and quote polls showing that the Jewish public opposes the settlements and supports a Palestinian state, but at the same time, they go against the will of those very same Israelis and fight for settlements expansion. In short, they are not interested in Israel (and surly not in the Palestinians) but in the desires of the current political leadership in Israel, and especially those of PM Benjamin Netanyahu.

Recently, Netanyahu found himself facing some decisions that might force him to replace his coalition partners, so he can carry on the talks with Mahmoud Abbas. But TIP doesn’t want Netanyahu to be cornered. They want Abbas to face the pressure. So they attack J Street for not taking its talking points from the Israeli PM office.

I wonder where Jennifer Mizrahi is drawing her moral and political lines, if she has such. What kind of Israeli act or which politician she wouldn’t support? Twenty Five years ago, would she have explained why the Sabrah and Shatila massacre was OK? Will she be speaking for PM Lieberman in a decade?

Right now we have a very extreme Israeli leadership and a very moderate Palestinian one – to the point where most Palestinians don’t think Abbas and Fayad represent them. Jerusalem is currently insisting on its right to built settlements – something the entire world opposes, and even considerable numbers of Israelis. And we have a Foreign Minister who is our proud version of the neo-Fascists in Europe. Yet TIP and other Jewish lobbying groups are doing all they can to lead the Jewish community – one of the most liberal groups in the US – into supporting them.

And they say J Street is the one deceiving people.


Israeli actors, directors and playwrights: we won’t perform in the settlements

Posted: August 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: culture, In the News, The Settlements | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Leading Israeli theater actors, playwrights and directors signed a letter announcing they refuse to perform or have their work shown in the Ariel Culture Hall in the West Bank.

Earlier this week it was revealed that the Culture Hall in Ariel, which is due to open in November, will host productions from all major Israeli theaters. This would be the first time such productions take place in the West bank.

Arab-Israeli actor Yousef Sweid immediately announced he won’t take part in shows in the occupied territories. He was joined by actor Rami Heuberger and playwright Shmuel Hasfari. Hasfari is one of the leaders of The National Left, a Zionist movement calling for the immediate evacuation of the West Bank and the establishing of a Palestinian state.

In a letter published today on Ynet, notable Israeli theater artist declared that:

We wish to express our disgust from the intention of the Israeli theaters to perform in the new hall in Ariel. The actors among us declare here that they won’t perform in Ariel, or any other settlement. We call the managing boards of the theaters to conduct their activities inside Israel’s sovereign territory.

The article on Ynet names 32 actors, composers and writers that signed the letter. Among them are Renee Yerushalmi, winner of the Israel prize, and Yehoshua Sobol, one of Israel’s most celebrated playwrights, and Prof. Gad Kinar, head of the theater department in Tel Aviv University. “I wouldn’t have signed my contract in the Cameri [theater] if I was told I’m about to perform in the occupied territories,” said TV and theater actor Dror Keren.

“It seems that the theaters will have to make major changes in their casts, if they want their work shown in Ariel,” the article on Ynet concludes. The writers are less of a problem, since the theaters can probably have the plays shown without their consent. Still, this is a major development, especially since under the new boycott bill, which stands a good chance of becoming a law in the one of the next Knesset session, any call to boycott Israel or the settlements could result in a fine of up to 30,000 Shekels (9,000 USD), without proof of damages.

So far, no theater has backed down from the intention to perform in the West Bank.

UPDATE: Culture minister Limor Livnat and PM Benjamin Netanyahu issued statements condemning the boycott letter. The pressure made four Cameri actors, including TV star Dror Keren, to announce they are withdrawing their signature from the letter, and that they will perform in Ariel after all.