The myth of good Israel vs. bad Israel (II)

Posted: January 11th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Left | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Where was “the peace camp” when the Knesset decided to probe human rights NGOs?

As the Knesset is passing one undemocratic law after the other, many people ask themselves where is the famous Israeli Left. I have long argued that supporting the two-states solution (as many Israelis say they do) doesn’t necessarily relate to support of human rights, freedom, equality before the law and other democratic values. Only a small minority in Israel is still fighting for those issues.

Outsiders, especially from the Jewish-Liberal camp, tend to exaggerate the role the left plays in Israeli politics, and to downplay the racist and anti-democratic tendencies in the Israeli center. I guess it makes it easier for them to continue seeing in Israel the model Jewish democracy they dream of. But the truth is that until now, Labor and Kadima members didn’t try to stand up to the torrent of laws and racist moves initiated by the extreme right. At best, they gave some fable remarks to the media or issued condemnation, but they failed to engage in meaningful political action, probably because they felt that their public never demanded it.

Last week, the Israeli Knesset decided – in an overwhelming majority and with the support of Netanyahu and his government – to initiate an investigation of the funding and activities of human rights organizations (or as Roi Maor rightly called it, Knesset Committee on un-Israeli activities).

In the days leading to the Knesset debate on this issue, there was a considerable media build-up. Writers and pundits warned of the damaging effect this decision might have on the Israeli democracy. Yet when the vote came, most Kadima and Labor members failed to show up.

The following members of Knesset – all of them considered among Israel’s “pragmatists” – where among those who had other issues to attend to during what could turn out to be one of the most crucial moments in the history of the Israeli parliament:

Labor: Ehud Barak, Daniel Ben-Simon, Avishay Braverman, Amir Peretz, Eithan Cabel, Einat Wilf, Matan Vilnai, Binyamin Ben Eliezer, Orit Noked. Kadima: Tzipi Livni, Shaul Mofaz, Shay Hermesh, Dalia Itzik, Ze’ev Bielski, Avi Dichter, And that’s just a partial list.

Many of these Knesset Members had official reasons for their absence, but as we all know, they would have showed up if they felt strongly enough about this issue. Politicians don’t miss political events which are important for their constituency. To Livni’s credit, she issued yesterday an explanation for her absence from the vote. She also declared that Kadima would try to challenge the decision in future votes, and still, from the leader of the opposition and the so called “peace camp”, we can expect more, much more.

Suddenly, it’s Netanyahu that needs Obama, not the other way

Posted: December 24th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

With challenges to the Israeli PM around the corner, the White House finally has some leverage over Jerusalem. But will the administration use it?

The main problem the White House faced in its attempts to renew the settlements moratorium was the lack of political leverage over Jerusalem. The administration offered Netanyahu some carrots, but it didn’t have sticks ready for the event of an Israeli refusal. It seems that president Obama simply couldn’t spend more political currency on confronting the Israeli PM and his powerful allies in Washington.

Ironically, it is the collapse of the peace talks that seems to present the US with an opportunity to force concessions out of Neatnayhu – or make him pay a price for his political choices. In the coming months, the Israeli PM will need the administration’s help in rescuing him from two tough challenges, one at home and one abroad.

At the UN, the Palestinians are expected to bring before the Security Council a resolution deeming Israel’s settlements as illegal.

Already, “a senior administration source” told Haaretz that the US opposes Palestinian unilateral moves:

“Final status issues can only be resolved through negotiations between the parties, not by recourse to the UN Security Council. We, therefore, consistently oppose any attempt to take final status issues to the council as such efforts do not move us closer to our goal of two states living side by side in peace and security.”

Yet as diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid notes, a vote in the Security Council can put the US in an embarrassing position:

In contrast to similar cases, the draft resolution distributed by the Palestinians this time is relatively moderate, avoiding extreme anti-Israeli language. The Americans may therefore find themselves isolated in the UN if they decide to veto the resolution, and they may find it difficult to do so.

Instead of looking at the Palestinian move as an attack on US policy in the region, the administration could chose to view the whole situation as an opportunity, and not a risk. In exchange for supporting Jerusalem, the US could demand Netanyahu to come up with an offer on borders (unlike former Israeli PMs, Netanyahu chose not to present a peace plan or even a map) and if Natanyahu refuses, deny him the diplomatic umbrella. The American argument could be very simple: if Israel wants to defend its settlement policy, it should make clear which settlements would be left in the final agreement, and which ones are to be evacuated (and therefore, couldn’t be expanded).

Netanyahu could use American help at home as well. He needs at least the appearance of negotiations to maintain his coalition. Labor strongman Binyamin Ben Elyezer said this week that if there is no peace process, Labor would quit the government in a month or two. Minister Avishay Braverman wants out now. If Labor does quit, we might end up with an extreme rightwing coalition – but these don’t tend to last very long.

Since the announcement on the failure of the settlements deal, the Labor party is in turmoil, and pressure on it to leave the government is mounting. As long as US envoy George Mitchell is running back and forth between Ramallah and Jerusalem, Ehud Barak continues to claim he remains in government in the interest of peace. But the US could easily deny him this excuse.

Altogether, it seems that the failure of the moratorium deal actually helped Washington more than it did Jerusalem. For the first time in months, Netanayhu needs Obama more than Obama need Netanyahu.

Flotilla: Inquiry panel tough on NGO representatives, easy on IDF generals

Posted: November 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, the US and us, war | Tags: , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

A critical review of the protocols of the Turkel Committee, assigned to investigate the raid on the Mavi Marmara which left 9 dead, reveals a deep pro-IDF and government bias by committee members

One of the great favors the Obama administration did Benjamin Netanyahu last year (another one for which it received very little credit) was its support for an Israeli-led inquiry on the flotilla incident.

The Turkel committee – led by a former Israeli Supreme Court justice Jacob Turkel and joined by two international observers – was meant to prevent another Goldstone-style report. When the committee was formed, American and Israeli officials assured the world that “Israeli democracy is well capable of investigating itself,” and therefore, no international inquiry is necessary.

Perhaps it’s time to revisit these statements.

A critical review of the Turkel Committee protocols by the Israeli blogger Tom reveals some disturbing elements in the Committee’s work, and especially its treatment of the different witnesses who appeared before it.

The Turkel Committee heard only two of more than 600 passengers on board the Mavi Marmara.  Both of them weren’t involved in the actual battle. At the same time, the committee heard at least ten senior Israel officials, including PM Benjamin Netanyahu, defense minister Ehud Barak, chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi (twice) and several other senior generals (the committee is not allowed access to soldiers and officers who took part in the raid, so it had to settle for the official IDF report).

Apparently, there were striking differences in the ways the Turkel committee treated Israeli officials and generals, passengers, and Israeli human rights activists. The latter were not involved in the raid itself, and were only called to provide background on the situation in Gaza, yet it seems that for some committee members, they represented the real enemy. A Mavi Marmara passenger and Israeli activists who testified before the committee were subjected to hostile interrogations; Army Generals and senior officials, on the other hand, were met with praises and flattery by committee members.

“I want to praise (the army) for the (investigative) work it did,” one committee member told IDF chief of staff Ashkenazy during his testimony. “The efforts you took (in presenting the committee with a full picture on the situation in Gaza) were inhuman,” said a committee member to another general. “The work you did deserves much appreciation,” a committee member told the Foreign Office’s director general. An official statement by the committee spokesperson refers to another general’s testimony as “impressive” and “thorough.”

At the same time, NGO representatives were met with anger and hostility by committee members. “You are bothering us by coming here,” says committee member General (ret.) Amos Horev to Jessica Montel of B’Tselem, “stick (in your testimony) to humanitarian issues.”

Tom counted the words on the Turkel protocols, and then compared the proportional space given to the testimonies of IDF and government officials to that allowed to representatives of human rights organizations. The results are striking: the generals were allowed to speak with little or no interruptions, while the human rights representatives were stopped and questioned frequently.

Here are Tom’s findings for 13 protocols that were posted on the committee’s Hebrew website:

Witness   |   percentage of witness’ account during testimony   |    percentage of committee members’ interruptions

PM Banjamin Netanyahu     85.5            14.5
DM Ehud Barak                        92.1            7.9
MK Tzipi Livni                          82.8            17.2

IDF Generals
Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazy
(First testimony)                    86.8        13.2
(Second testimony)               84.9        15.1
Army Prosecutor Avichay Mandelblit    83.2        16.8
Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot          83.3        16.7

Yossi Gal (Foreign Office)            66        34
Yossi Edelstein (Interior Office)        71        29
Benni Kniak (Prisons Commander)        82.1        17.9

human rights representatives
B’Tselem                                                 57        43
Physicians for Human Rights        64.4        35.6
Gisha (free passage to Gaza)          53.8        46.2

Tom notes (my translation):

The amazing thing here is the remarkable consistency of the figures. Heaps of texts (the protocol of the testimony of IDF Prosecutor Avichai Mandelblit, for example, has more than 30,000 words), different witnesses with different positions, no less than seven committee members (…) that may raise questions, and still, a clear pattern regarding the treatment of witnesses emerges: at the top are the senior politicians, who get to speak virtually nonstop; in fact it’s not a testimony but more like a speech (…) slightly below them are senior military personnel – they also get to speak almost without interruption, with each receiving more than 83 percent of the total testimony time (…). Senior bureaucrats, especially the foreign ministry director general, are interrupted more often, but they also don’t have too much to complain about. And who got the harshest treatment? Representatives of human rights organizations – B’Tselem, Physicians for Human Rights, Gisha. B’Tselem and Gisha representatives got (to speak during) just a little over half the time of their testimony (…).

This is worth some more pondering. After all, it is the political and the military leadership that should be the center of the committee’s work. It’s their decisions which are studied. Human rights organizations were invited to the committee to give general background on the humanitarian situation in Gaza. They were not under investigation there (…). The actual state of affairs should have been exactly the opposite: Turkel Committee representatives were to intervene much more during the testimonies of the generals and politicians: to ask them to clarify, explain and elaborate. The testimonies of representatives of human rights organizations were to be used only for general background, not as a basis for cross-examination.

So, what do you think the Turkel report will look like?

US media more exited about peace talks than Israelis and Palestinians themselves

Posted: September 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, media, The Right, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Take a look at today’s front pages shown here. The one on the Left is Yedioth Ahronoth’s, Israel’s leading tabloid. On the right is the American NY Post.

yedioth vs. nypost

Yedioth’s top story reads “wave of terrorism”, referring to the two shooting attacks carried out by Hamas militants against settlers in the last 48 hours. On the bottom and on the right side of the page there are health, sports and other magazine stories. The only reference to the peace process is the quote in small print, on the top of the page. It reads: “Netanyahu: I came for an historic compromise.”

The place, the size and the coloring of Netanyahu’s words put his speech in its proper context. But if you get your news from the Post (and let’s hope you don’t), you might actually believe history can be made here.


This is Maariv, another Israeli tabloid: the front page combines the story of the West Bank attacks and their aftermath, the attempts by settlers to renew construction in the territories and the diplomatic process. The talks themselves don’t get the top story, not even a central image, like they do in the New York Times, shown below. Again, the US papers seem to give the talks a greater importance than the Israeli media. Bizarre, to say the least.


As part of a research for a story I’m working on, I recently went through the archives of Maariv and Yedioth from 1993-1994, the years the Oslo accord was negotiated and signed. Entire papers, not just the front pages, dealt with the talks. The same goes for the days of the Camp David summit in 2000. Today on the other hand, nobody in the Middle East really cares about the diplomatic process, and I actually wonder how many even know we might be “one year from a final agreement,” as the White House puts it.

It’s easy to tell when things get serious. The settlers make a good litmus test for the intentions of the Israeli leadership. They have good ties with the Israeli administration and army. When the settlers sense danger, they let it show. And while they went after Sharon and Rabin with everything they got, they are awfully quiet now. There wasn’t even a single major protest against Netanyahu, The NRP is still in the government, and the right flank of the Likud has never been more silent. The Israeli tabloids – like all tabloids – reflect their society’s mood: This is clearly not a country on the verge of its most important decision in decades.

The NY Times editorial declared that with optimism and conviction, the talks might lead to an agreement and the administration asked the parties not to give in to cynicism. But the diplomatic process is not a sports competition, and pep talks can’t help when the gap between the parties is too big.

The Palestinian leadership has lost most of its credibility and legitimacy with its own people, and the bleeding gets worse with every picture of Abu-Mazen shaking hands with Netanyahu. Hamas has just given us the first taste of what leaving it out of the process means. Even so, the positions of PM Fayad and President Abbas are incredibly far from those of Barak and Netanyahu. The Israeli leadership – and to be honest, the Israeli public as well – cannot give the Palestinians the minimum they can settle with. Under these circumstances, even if an agreement is reached, it won’t mean a thing.

As I’ve written before, the current stage in the conflict is not just about peace. It’s about ending the occupation and getting the Palestinians their rights. Some people in the American administration understood that, but for their own reasons, they decided to pursue the failed policies of the past two decades. I have a lot of criticism for the way the Israeli media covers the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but this time they got it right: for now, this round of talks is a farce.

UPDATE: The Israeli media finally joined the party. Friday’s top story is the summit in Washington, though most pundits remain very skeptic regarding the chances that the talks will have a meaningful result.


I will be working and writing from New York in the next three months.

Peace talks resuming: actually, there is nothing to talk about

Posted: August 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

The Obama administration finally got what it wanted, and the Palestinians were dragged into direct peace negotiations that would probably lead to nowhere. Even Yossi Beilin, maybe the single most committed politician to the idea of direct talks and the two-states solution, is pretty sure that no agreement will come out of this, not to mention every member of the Israeli seven-minister cabinet, the top decision-making forum, who has an automatic majority against any concessions. In this cabinet, the only difference between the “dovish” Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the “hawkish” Foreign Minister Lieberman is that one thinks we should negotiate so that the world will learn again that “we have no partner”, while the other believes we shouldn’t even do that.

As for Beilin, this is what he told the New York Times:

“I think this is a huge mistake by the U.S. administration (…) There is not a chance in the world that in a year — or two or three — peace can be achieved. The gap between the sides is too big. Netanyahu did not come to power to divide Jerusalem or find a solution to the Palestinian refugees.”

On a phone conversation I had with him a month ago, Beilin expressed similar views. At best, he said, Netanyahu will end up unilaterally withdrawing to the security barrier, and even this will happen under tremendous pressure, and when the Prime Minister feels really cornered. “Netanyahu simply can’t do it,” he said.

Yesterday, Nahum Barnea, Israel’s top diplomatic correspondent, wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth that while he received a torrent of phone calls from foreign media representatives regarding the talks, Israelis and Palestinians hardly care about them. Some people view low expectations as a good sign, but in the peace process’ dynamic they make both sides enter the negotiations with the sole purpose of blaming the other party for the inevitable failure. This seems to be the case this time as well.

Sources in the administration told the NY Times that “while talks may be risky, the current drift is even riskier, and the only possible way forward is to put the leaders of the two sides together with American help”. This is complete nonsense. When talks fail, the urge to resort to violence is higher. It seems that the administration simply wanted a political achievement here, the famous photo-op with Israeli and Palestinian leaders every president must have. Since the White House failed to get any real concessions from Netanyahu, it started applying the pressure on the Palestinians in order to create the appearance of progress.

This has been the path all US presidents, Democrats and Republican alike, have taken in the past two decades. As a precondition to dealing with them, they demanded the Palestinians to stop resisting the occupation, to change their national charter, to recognize Israel, to conduct elections, to ignore the results of the elections, and lately, to cancel the elections altogether; to negotiate while Israel is building settlements (that’s “without preconditions” for you), to arrest those opposing negotiations, to withdraw their request to have the Goldstone Report discussed in the UN, to negotiate while half their population is under siege, and to do it with an Israeli Prime Minister who refuses to accept the 67′ borders even as a starting point for the talks.

The Palestinians did all this, and more. Being the weakest party in the Middle East, they never really had any choice. Even the “moderate” Arab leaders didn’t back them when it came to confronting the White House.

And what do you know? In two decades, all these negotiations didn’t lead to the evacuation of a single settlement. Not one. It was the armed struggle, and the thousands of casualties on both sides, that made the Israeli government pull out of Gaza. This time, there were no negotiations involved.


The truth is that there is very little to negotiate. Strange as it may seem, the Palestinians don’t have anything to give Israel. More often than we care to believe, Israel’s demands are nothing but excuses, reasons not to give the Palestinians what is theirs to begin with: their freedom.

What can Israel possibly get from the Palestinians in exchange for the termination of the occupation? A guarantee they won’t attack us? Suppose we have one – how do we know the next Palestinian government will honor it? And the one after it? The truth is we can’t know. No matter what agreement is signed, Israel will have to take care of its own security, possibly with the help of the US. For that we don’t need the talks.

Maybe we want the Palestinians to give up the right of return? But the problem is not the abstract right but the very real refugees. If we don’t come up with some solution for their situation, they will continue to demand to go back to their families’ old homes, no matter what will be written on the piece of paper president Abbas will sign, immediately before he loses the elections and disappear forever.

The same goes for Jerusalem – if the problem won’t be solved and the sovereignty will be divided, the battle over the city will go on, regardless of what any agreement might say. The latest of Netanyahu’s tricks is the demand that the Palestinians will declare that Israel is a Jewish state. This is completely absurd. Since when do we need Abu-Mazen to decide out national character? This is an internal Israeli affair, nothing to do with the talks.

In short, Israel simply asks the Palestinians to make all kinds of promises they might or might not keep, and while we debate these issues endlessly, the occupation goes on and on.

Yes, there are many minor issues to debate: borders, taxing, water etc, but there has already been a lot of thinking on these details, and there are solutions at hand. The only real question is whether Israel is capable of doing one of the two: get out from the West Bank and accept the consequences this step might have on its security, or annex the land, give the Palestinians their rights, and see the character of the state changed. Both are bad options from most Israelis’ point of view, so it’s little wonder we rather not chose. What incredible is our ability to convince ourselves that the Palestinians are to blame.

Jeffrey Goldberg’s Iran piece: an Israeli perspective

Posted: August 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, the US and us, war | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

I finally got to read the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg cover story on the probability of an Israeli attack on Iran. Much has been said on this issue, so I’ll add here just a few observations, from an Israeli perspective.

Goldberg mentions just few of the names of the people he has been talking to, but one can gather that most of them come from the Israeli defense establishment, and some from the government. Goldberg has spoken to Labor hawks such as Ephraim Sneh and Ehud Barak, he has met with PM Benjamin Netanyahu, and with several high ranking generals whose names he doesn’t disclose. From these conversations he concludes that the common belief in Israel is that Iran is a new Nazi Germany, and therefore must be attacked, whatever the price is and as slim as the chances of successfully delaying the nuclear program may be.

The views of Israeli generals and senior officials in the Defense Department on Iran are of great interest, but they should be put in the right context. There are many in Israel who don’t see Iran as an existential threat, or, more precisely, they don’t see it as a different threat than those Israel faced in the past. There are even more who think that the risk in attacking Iran is far greater then the possible benefits.

Israeli Generals have a tendency for creating mass hysteria. Defense Minister Dayan thought in 1973 that the end of Israel has come, and Israel armed its nuclear warheads. Army officials declared in 1991 that Israel should send its air force in respond to the Iraqi missiles fired on Israeli cities. They were  wrong. Luckily, the army doesn’t always get what it wants, even in Israel.

President Shimon Peres, the only official not related to the Israeli military complex that was interviewed and quoted by Goldberg, seems very critical of the idea of an Israeli attack on the Iranian nuclear facilities, and even rejects the attempts to cause the US to attack Iran. But Peres is the exception in Goldberg’s piece, and his words are brought at the end, once the case was established.

In my view, Goldberg might have rushed to adopt some of Netanyahu’s rhetoric, and especially the references to the Holocaust – and then wrongly presented it as the sole view in Israel.

Goldberg writes:

It is this line of thinking, which suggests that rational deterrence theory, or the threat of mutual assured destruction, might not apply in the case of Iran, that has the Israeli government on a knife’s edge. And this is not a worry that is confined to Israel’s right. Even the left-wing Meretz Party, which is harsh in its condemnation of Netanyahu’s policies toward the Palestinians, considers Iran’s nuclear program to be an existential threat.

Reading this, one can conclude that Meretz share Natanyahu’s views on Iran, and even his ideas regarding how Israel should deal with it. Yet Meretz officials have rarely mention Iran, and the party’s platform clearly states that Israel should support negotiations between the international community and Iran, and only if those fail, resort to “methods which will be determined by the Security Council”. I don’t remember any Meretz official expressing any sort of support in an attack on Iran, Israeli or American (If I had to guess, I would say that Goldberg attributed Yossi Beilin’s view on Iran to Meretz, but Beilin was never really a part of Meretz, and he in no way represents the party today. But this is only a hunch).

I’m pretty sure that there are also people in Labor and Kadima, and even in the Likud and the Orthodox parties, who oppose an attack on Iran. I wonder with how many of them Goldberg met.

As for the Israeli public, the little polling that was done on this issue had mixed results at best. Many people quote the poll which had 25 to 30 percent of the Israelis declaring that they would consider leaving the state if Iran gained a nuclear bomb as a proof to the public’s anxiety, but there are different numbers as well. For example, a poll conducted by the Institute for National Security Studies had 80 percent of Israelis declaring the Iranian bomb wouldn’t change their life. This is form Reuters report on the INSS poll, (my Italic):

“The Israeli leadership may be more informed,” INSS research director Yehuda Ben Meir told Reuters, explaining that the discrepancy between public and government views about Iran.

But he added: “I think the Israeli public does not see this as an existential threat, and here there may be an exaggeration by some members of the leadership.

“Most Israelis appear willing to place their bet on Israel’s deterrent capability and, I would add, on Iran’s rational behavior.”

I must say that I also don’t feel a great anxiety in the Israeli public regarding Iran, or at least not what you would expect if Israelis really believed that they are facing a second Holocaust. People don’t discuss this issue so much, and when they do, you don’t get this sense of mass hysteria I got from Goldberg’s article. In fact, the article had me worried: I’m sure Goldberg did a fine job in presenting the views of the Israeli military leadership, and now I feel an Israeli or American attack on Iran might be more probable than I imagined.

There is another issue in the article which bothered me. It seems that Goldberg also adopted Netnayahu’s views regarding the connection, or the lack of one, between the peace process and Iran. According to the Israeli PM, the two issues are not related, and if they are, it’s Iran that is preventing a meaningful dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians from taking place. This is why the Palestinians are hardly mentioned in Goldberg’s piece; as if one can talk about the geo-political game and leave them out (or Syria, for that matter).

But there are those, even in Israel, who view things differently. Many pundits, diplomats and even retired generals, have been arguing for sometime now that a real effort on the Palestinian front will make it much easier for Israel to deal with Iran. It will enable the creation of a coalition that would block Iran’s influence, and help moderate regimes fight the Iranian influence. In the past, top IDF generals made a similar case for peace with Syria, arguing that it would disconnect Iran from one of its major allies and make dealing with Hezbollah much easier.

Israel could have pursued these options. There is a moderate and relatively stable Palestinian leadership in the West Bank. Syria has made several attempts to resume negotiations. The Arab peace initiative is on the table for more then 8 years. Yet Israel made no attempt to create new alliances and reduce tension in ways that could help her face the challenge from Iran.

The question of Iran goes way beyond the chances of sending a few squads on a bombing mission. But even though Jeffrey Goldberg acknowledges that the importance on an Iranian nuclear bomb will be in its effect on the geo-political relations in this region, he doesn’t draw any conclusions regarding Israel’s foreign policy.

If I had spent this much time with PM Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, I would have liked to know the answers to the following question: if Iran is the biggest threat the Jewish people faced since Nazi Germany, why not compromise on other issues – important as those might be – and maybe help reduce this threat, isolate it, or just deal with it on more favorable terms? Why not try getting Syria out of the game, possibly also Lebanon as a result? Why not strike a deal with Abu-Mazen and help legitimize Israel in the Arab world?

For me, the fact that Netanyahu is ready to confront an American president – and with it, the entire international community – so he can build a few more housing units near Nablus or Hebron, shows that deep inside, even he might not be thinking that Israel is facing a new Hitler. If this was the case, everything else had to become unimportant.

Yet he got Jeffrey Goldberg convinced.

Flotilla | IDF spokesperson spins Mavi Marmara video for local political purposes

Posted: August 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, media | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

After weeks in which Israel refused to release the media confiscated form the journalists on the Gaza-bound flotilla, a short clip is posted on the IDF radio site, just at the perfect timing for Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi’s needs

Israeli chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi testified this week before the Turkel committee, the investigating panel Israel has formed to look into the events surrounding the deadly raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla.

In what seemed like a strange coincident, while Ashkenazy was testifying, IDF Radio released another short clip from the videos taken on the the Mavi Marmara and later confiscated by the army. This new video, it was claimed, shows Arab Knesset Member Hanin Zoabi “in the presence of armed men on board the ship”. The Israeli media immediately jumped on the story, and Ashkenazy was temporarily forgotten.

MK Zoabi, who was on the Mavi Marmara, was the target of unprecedented public outrage in the Jewish public. She was almost physically attacked by Knessent Members, and later striped of some of her privileges as a member of the Israeli Parliament.

The head of the IDF Spokesperson unit, brigadier general Avi Bnayahu, is the closest ally of Chief of Staff Ashkenazi, among high ranking officers.

As can be seen below, the clip the IDF released was heavily edited. MK Zoabi is seen passing on the deck when two men with sticks are passing, later she is seen with other men carrying sticks, but this is apparently after the IDF soldiers boarded the ship. Yet the headlines describing the clip in the Hebrew media declared that unlike what Zoabi told reporters after the raid, “She knew the passengers were armed“. Even Haaretz site claimed that the film proved MK Zoabi knew of the existence of weapons on the ship.

Leaving aside the fact that calling people carrying sticks and polls armed – especially when they face battle ships and commando soldiers – is taking it a bit far; there is little doubt on my mind that by releasing the film IDF spokesperson tried to provoke public anger against an Israeli Member of Parliament in order to silence the growing criticism over the army’s performances, and especially the talk regarding the actions of Chief of Staff Ashkenazy, who remained at his home and didn’t supervise the attack from Central Command in Tel Aviv.

If the Israeli army had serious allegations against MK Zoabi, he should have turned them to the state prosecutor’s office, rather than post them on the IDF radio’s site (As far as I know, it’s the only Mavi Marmara video not released officially on the army spokesperson’s site, but through the radio station). But it is the timing tells the real story: there hasn’t been a Maramara clip released in weeks now, and suddenly, when the chief of staff faces some public criticism, suddenly there are new “evidences” Israelis must see.

These are not easy days for the IDF’s commander, who is caught in an ugly public battle with defense minister Ehud Barak over the identity of his successor. Barak whishes that GOC Southern Command Yoav Galant will take over the Israeli army and Ashkenazi wants anyone but Galant. Affairs turned toxic last week after channel 2 published a document detailing a PR campaign to boost the chances of Galant winning the job (Galant claimed the document is fake and that this is a set-up intended to smear him). This led to a police investigation, and current suggestions are that the source for the leaked document was army spokesperson Avi Bnayahu.

It seems that Bnayahu, maybe even Ashkenazy, used the oldest trick in the handbook for the Israeli politician: Faced with troubles, find an unpopular Arab and attack him.


The release of the new video by the Army spokesperson – this time, it seems, not to help Israel’s case in the world but for the army’s local political needs – should remind us that Israel is still holding the evidences that could have shed light on the events that took place on the Mavi Marmara and led to the death of nine people.

As they were led off the ships in the Israeli port of Ashdod, around 60 journalists who were present on the Gaza-bound flotilla had all their electronic items taken from them and all recorded media confiscated, never to be returned. Kürşat Bayhan, a Turkish reporter, told Zaman newspaper that he tried to hide his camera’s flash memory card under his tongue, but it was discovered and confiscated during a medical examination. Iara Lee, a Brazilian-American filmmaker who managed to smuggle out of Israel an hour-long video, said in a news conference at United Nations that another memory card she had was discovered and taken from her.

During the days following the raid, IDF spokesperson released short clips which appeared to have been taken from the footage confiscated from media representatives. These segments – who appeared to have backed some of Israel’s claims regarding the events – were released without stating who them, were and when.

At the time, I contacted the army spokesperson in request for an official explanation regarding the detention of journalists present on a foreign vessel and the confiscation of their recorded material.

In an official comment, IDF spokesperson stated that all media was taken from the journalists “for security reasons”, and that it was used later by the army “due to false allegations that were brought up.”

The army spokesperson chose not to comment on my question regarding the legal ground for these actions.

Diplomacy: Is Obama leading us to a new Camp David?

Posted: August 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Right, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

Last week, the Arab League authorized Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to engage in direct negotiations with Israel. Abbas is still refusing the talks, but estimates are it’s only a matter of weeks before negotiations will be launched. So it seems that the US administration finally got its first achievement: Palestinians and Israelis will be talking again.

In recent months, the US administration abandoned its initial policy, of applying pressure on the Israeli government, and instead put the heat on the Palestinians. Whether the change of course was taken due to the political price the president was paying at home for his public disagreements with the Israeli government or simply because those in the administration closer to Israel finally had the upper hand, the shift in the American policy remains unmistakable.

According to Palestinian sources, in a letter to president Abbas, the administration threatened that failure to resume negotiations will have “grave consequences” for American-Palestinian relations. On the other hand, if Abbas agreed, he was promised a Palestinian state “within a couple of years”.

I won’t go into why the Palestinians refused to negotiate with Netanyahu’s government to begin with (I addressed this issue here). What’s important is that unlike Israel, president Mahmoud Abbas has no leverage in Washington. He can’t disobey an American president in the way an Israeli PM can. If Washington and Jerusalem want direct negotiations, they are all but inevitable.

On the verge of a new round of talks, it’s important to look on the lessons of the past.  the last time the Palestinians were forced to negotiate with Israel against their will was at Camp David. Back then, the Oslo agreements reached a dead end (a leaked video recently revealed PM Netanyahu boosting on how he managed to stop Oslo), hostility and mistrust were on the rise, and an Israeli leadership, with the help of an American administration eager for immediate success, tried to impose a final agreement. Just like today, at first the Clinton administration rejected the idea of a summit on the final agreement, but Prime Minister Ehud Barak was able to convince them that this was the only way to go.

In his important article on the failed 200o summit, Robert Malley, who was a member of the US team to the talks, analyzed the internal dynamic both on the Palestinian and on the Israeli sides coming to Camp David and during the negotiations. The similarities to the situation today are striking:

Barak’s team was convinced that the Israeli public would ratify an agreement with the Palestinians, even one that entailed far-reaching concessions, so long as it was final and brought quiet and normalcy to the country. But Barak and his associates also felt that the best way to bring the agreement before the Israeli public was to minimize any political friction along the way. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had paid a tremendous political (and physical) price by alienating the Israeli right wing and failing to bring its members along during the Oslo process. Barak was determined not to repeat that mistake.

Much in the same way, Netanyahu’s main concern today is to keep his government intact and the public behind him. He made it clear that he would not make any step that would put his coalition in danger.

Barak saw no reason to needlessly alienate the settler constituency. Moreover, insofar as new housing units were being established on land that Israel ultimately would annex under a permanent deal—at least any permanent deal Barak would sign—he saw no harm to the Palestinians in permitting such construction


In Barak’s mind, Arafat had to be made to understand that there was no “third way,” no “reversion to the interim approach,” but rather a corridor leading either to an agreement or to confrontation. Seeking to enlist the support of the US and European nations for this plan, he asked them to threaten Arafat with the consequences of his obstinacy: the blame would be laid on the Palestinians and relations with them would be downgraded. Likewise, and throughout Camp David, Barak repeatedly urged the US to avoid mention of any fall-back options or of the possibility of continued negotiations in the event the summit failed.

This logeic was interpreted by the Palestinians as an attempt to force on them accepting an agreement that they couldn’t swallow. I suggest reading the next part carefully (my italic):

behind almost all of Barak’s moves, Arafat believed he could discern the objective of either forcing him to swallow an unconscionable deal or mobilizing the world to isolate and weaken the Palestinians if they refused to yield. Barak’s stated view that the alternative to an agreement would be a situation far grimmer than the status quo created an atmosphere of pressure that only confirmed Arafat’s suspicions—and the greater the pressure, the more stubborn the belief among Palestinians that Barak was trying to dupe them.


On June 15, during his final meeting with Clinton before Camp David, Arafat set forth his case: Barak had not implemented prior agreements, there had been no progress in the negotiations, and the prime minister was holding all the cards. The only conceivable outcome of going to a summit, he told Secretary Albright, was to have everything explode in the President’s face. If there is no summit, at least there will still be hope. The summit is our last card, Arafat said—do you really want to burn it? In the end, Arafat went to Camp David, for not to do so would have been to incur America’s anger; but he went intent more on surviving than on benefiting from it.

As for the US, what damaged its role as a mediator more than anything was an exaggerated understanding to the Israelis’ political concerns at home.

As the broker of the agreement, the President was expected to present a final deal that Arafat could not refuse. Indeed, that notion was the premise of Barak’s attraction to a summit. But the United States’ ability to play the part was hamstrung by two of its other roles. First, America’s political and cultural affinity with Israel translated into an acute sensitivity to Israeli domestic concerns and an exaggerated appreciation of Israel’s substantive moves. American officials initially were taken aback when Barak indicated he could accept a division of the Old City or Palestinian sovereignty over many of Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods—a reaction that reflected less an assessment of what a “fair solution” ought to be than a sense of what the Israeli public could stomach. The US team often pondered whether Barak could sell a given proposal to his people, including some he himself had made. The question rarely, if ever, was asked about Arafat.

A second constraint on the US derived from its strategic relationship with Israel. One consequence of this was the “no-surprise rule,” an American commitment, if not to clear, at least to share in advance, each of its ideas with Israel. (…) the “no-surprise rule” held a few surprises of its own. In a curious, boomerang-like effect, it helped convince the Palestinians that any US idea, no matter how forthcoming, was an Israeli one, and therefore both immediately suspect and eminently negotiable.


Ehud Barak was warned by the Israeli intelligence that failure in Camp David would end in another round of violence, yet he chose to try and impose on the Palestinians the final agreement he wanted to have. The US Administration had its issues with this approach, but it decided to back Barak. Dennis Ross, the US special envoy to the Middle East at the time, played a key role in this decision. Later, Ross had a major part in creating the American tendency to back the Israeli side and ignore the Palestinians during the negotiations. Aaron David Miller, who was on Ross’ team, accused him of leading the US to act as “Israel’s lawyer“. This policy had resulted in disastrous consequences for both Palestinians and Israelis.

Barak and Netanyahu, The Israeli hawks that rejected the Oslo accord, are in power again, and Dennis Ross is again advocating pressure on the Palestinians so that they would agree to an agreement the Israeli public would have no troubles with.

The frightening part is that nothing really changed in the Israeli-American position since the year 2000. Israel still refuses land exchange that would leave the Palestinians with a territory equal to the occupied land of 1967 (according to Mr. Malley’s account that was a major part of the reason negotiations broke in Camp David). If anything, it seems that the current Netanyahu-Barak government is willing to fewer concessions then those of the Barak’s 1999-2001 government. Just like in the 90′s, Netanyahu is still refusing to evacuate the Jordan Valley and East Jerusalem. The only difference is that now he is willing to call the remaining territory “a Palestinian state”.

The year 2000 was not that long ago, and I remember well the failure of Camp David. Back then, no one imagined how bad the second Intifada would be for both sides, just as it’s hard to imagine what a new round of violence might bring. I hope the Obama administration, whose motives I don’t doubt, would look deep into those lessons, and avoid taking the same path.

Netanyahu won’t deliver

Posted: July 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Right, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

A year and a half into Benjamin Netanyahu’s second term, it’s clear that no matter what the Palestinians do or say, this Israeli PM will not sign a final agreement. I don’t think that even the US administration can change that. At most, it could ignite a process that the next government can carry on; much in the way President Bush forced PM Yitzhak Shamir into the Madrid conference.

Every Israeli leader is more likely to prefer the statues quo to concessions on the Palestinian issue (I explained why here). But in Netanyahu’s case, stalling the process doesn’t seem to be a tactical decision, but a strategic one.

As Akiva Eldar points in Haaretz today, in recent weeks, the Palestinians have agreed to everything Israel always asked them. They are ready for border changes that will leave the big settlements on the Israeli side; they agree to international forces in the West Bank that would monitor the situation and help protect the border; they are ready to give up the right of return into the state of Israel; and it seems that they are ready for a reasonable compromise in Jerusalem.

The Palestinian leadership explained its positions on all the core issues in details, both to the American envoy and in public – something that surly didn’t help them in their political battle against the Hamas hardliners – yet they got no response from Israel. Netanyahu refused to reveal Israel’s positions, in public or in private.

Every step Netanyahu took, from the partial settlement moratorium to allowing more goods into Gaza, was done under tremendous international pressure, and only after any other alternative failed. When felt cornered, he preferred to take the political battle to Washington, where, with the help of AIPAC, he repeatedly embarrassed the US president. By doing so, he made the support of Israel a partisan issue, divided the Jewish community and used much of the Israeli lobby’s political credit. All of this didn’t matter as long as he got what he wanted: for now, it seems that the administration is finally off his back.

Netanyahu is no fool. He knows what price this sort of maneuvering carries. Yet he prefers it to every alternative. I guess he estimates that the maximum he is willing to give is not even close to the minimum the Palestinians can settle with. So why do anything that would start a political fight with the right?

I don’t know the roots of Netanayhu’s positions: is it his upbringing, his reading of the political map in Israel or his view of the country’s long-term interests. Yet the bottom line couldn’t have been clearer: Netanyahu simply prefers the statues quo.

Read the rest of this entry »

Flotilla | what to make of the IDF “hit list” story?

Posted: June 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Left, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Other flotilla related news from Israel: army declares all recordable media was confiscated from journalists on ships “for security reasons”; Defense Minister Barak losing key supporter in his party

On the hours following the Israeli raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla, there were rumors of an Israeli “hit list” that has fallen from the pocket of one of the soldiers.

The Turkish TV even had some pictures of the list:

Later on, we learned that the passengers who attacked the ship were able to take three IDF soldiers (apparently an officer and two commandos) as prisoners and held them for 15 to 30 minutes. It seemed that the list was taken from these soldiers.

On the Iara Lee footage you can see one of the passengers showing the list to the camera (44:18 min), saying that:

“We got pictures of challenger 2 [apparently a code for ship name]… it came from the Israelis. Different ships and who’s on them, who to concentrate on… they have pictures of who they wanted.”

The last page shown on this film (45:22 min) – actually it’s the first page in Hebrew, which is read from right to left – reads “List of Passengers and Ships.”

The head of the Turkish organization IHH, Bulent Yildirim, whose name was on the list, referred to it as a “hit list”, claiming the IDF’s intention was to kill the 16 people listed on it. Another one of the names is that of Palestinian-Israeli leader Sheikh Raad Saleh, who was rumored to have been killed on the hours following the attack. As it turned out, one of the casualties looked very much like Saleh, and that, together with his name on the IDF list, caused the confusion.

I don’t think this was a hit list. Killing the passengers on the ships, with so many witnesses around, seems like an absurd idea – and the way things unfolded shows it very well. It would have been much easier to get to these people anywhere else in the world.

To me the list looks more like a standard intelligence document with name of suspects needed for arrest/questioning. The IDF calls them Bingo Lists. I think the army wanted to put its hands on these people, or even just inform the soldiers who they are, so that they take some care when dealing with them. In the days following the deportation of the passengers, there were reports in the Israeli press from unnamed army sources, who ere extremely upset that some of the people on the Mavi Marmara were released. We can assume that they meant the people on the Bingo List.

Still, the list tells us something very important: that the IDF knew who was on the ships – and that it even considered some of the passengers as hostile, possibly even terrorists. So how can we explain the IDF’s claim that the soldiers were surprised by the attack on the first soldiers that landed on the upper deck?

One rumor I heard is that the army simply blew it. They came to arrest people, but the whole operation was poorly planned and executed. According to this theory – and it’s no more than a theory – the whole “surprise” narrative was born to cover for Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and especially navy commander Eliezer Marom, who personally supervised the operation from one of the Israeli ships. If the Israeli public knew the whole story, the theory goes, it would have been their neck on the line.


There are more testimonies of misuse of credit cards that were confiscated by the IDF from the flotilla’s passengers. The IDF also continues to use the videos it confiscated form the journalists and passengers for its own propoganda purposes.

Some 60 journalists were arrested by Israel following the raid on the ships, and all their recordable media confiscated by the army. I contacted IDF spokesperson asking for official comment on these matters for an article I published in Ha-Ir magazine this weekend (Hebrew scan here). The response I got was that the confiscation was done “for security reasons”.


Defense Minister Ehud Barak will be going to Washington next week. Barak is the administration’s favorite guy in the government, and the White House is counting on him to force Netanyahu into concessions. This strategy has failed so far, and even Barak’s few remaining allies in his party are giving up hope on him.

Labor party strongman Benjamin Ben-Eliezer was quoted today saying that if the government doesn’t come up with its own peace initiative “in the next few weeks”, he would join the fraction calling for the party to leave the government. Ben-Eliezer was Barak’s most important supporter in his party, but relations between the two cooled after Ben-Eliezer supported an international probe into the raid on the flotilla.

It seems that Netanyahu’s government is beginning to feel some real pressure, and currently Barak is its weakest link.