Hasbara: Why does the world fail to understand us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Second thoughts on the White House meeting: Netanyahu’s mistake

Posted: May 21st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Right, the US and us | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments »

This morning, I posted an analysis of the latest diplomatic developments, titled “Obama finally confronts Netanyahu, but to what end?” The more I think and read about it, I get the feeling that I got at least some of the story wrong. Looking back on the events of the last couple of days, I don’t thing the president was really trying to confront Netanyahu. Yes, he accepted some of the State Department’s thoughts on the need to present a peace plan, but he didn’t go all the way with it, he didn’t say anything that should have embarrassed Jerusalem, and he was pretty hard on the Palestinians.

I actually believe now that Obama was trying to show Netanyahu a way to oppose the Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence. In outlining the path to the two-state solution, Obama was clearly aiming to the Israeli consensus. His plan was all too similar to the ideas former Prime Ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak put forward – one could even argue that Olmert went a little further on some issues.

The problem was that Netanyahu overreacted—and not for the first time. The Israeli PM responded to the president’s speech with an aggressive statement, and he kept the same tone after the meeting with Obama. Americans don’t like to see their president schooled this way, and even some of the PM’s supporters in the US were surprised, even angered, by his choice of words.

The fact that the Israeli and American positions are not that far from each other, and yet they brought such clash between the two leaders, show the degree of mistrust and the lack of coordination between Washington and Jerusalem right now. Netanyahu can only blame himself for that.

I wonder whether Netanyahu is beginning to realize the mistake he made. It would be interesting to see what effect this would have on his next two speeches in Washington.


Please, no more peace plans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the NYT piece, Avishai explains:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Israeli rejectionism?

Posted: June 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Settlements | Tags: , , , , , , , | 21 Comments »

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recognizes Jewish rights in Israel, and is ready for a two state solution with some borders modifications that will allow Israel to keep some of the bigger settlements.

In a meeting in Washington with 30 Jewish leaders, among them those who supports Netanyahu’s government such as AIPAC and ADL, Abaas declared that if Israel accepts a solution based on the 67′ borders, direct negotiations can resume.

Haaretz reports:

The Palestinian president said during the discussion that he had in the past proposed creating a trilateral commission to monitor and punish incitement, but that Israel did not agree to it.

When asked what he could offer Israelis to show that he was serious about peace initiatives, Abbas reminded the participants that he had addressed the Israeli public in an interview on Channel 10. “Why wouldn’t Bibi go to Palestinian TV and do the same?” said the Palestinian president.

“I would never deny [the] Jewish right to the land of Israel,” Abbas then declared.

A few months ago, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said that he is ready to have the Palestinian refugees return to the Palestinian state (rather then Israel), so basically, it can be said that all of Israel’s major concerns have been met by the Palestinians. We need to appreciate the price Palestinian leaders are paying at home for such declarations.

Yet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to show very little enthusiasm for the diplomatic process, and his senior cabinet ministers keep opposing any concessions. Deputy PM Moshe Yaalon just recently said in an interview to Yedioth Ahronoth that “nobody in the seven ministers cabinet (the Government’s decision making forum) believes we can reach an agreement.”

The reason for Israeli rejectionism lies in the internal political dynamic in Israel. No matter what Palestinians say or do, Israeli leaders have no real incentive to go through the extremely difficult process of evacuating settlements. This is why they are preparing the public for a failure of the negotiations, even though we now have the most moderate Palestinian leadership ever.

UPDATE: Laura Rozan’s report of Abbas’ meeting with Jewish leaders refers to a couple of important issues which Haaretz didn’t mention: PM Olmert’s “generous offer” which the Palestinians supposedly turned down, and the demilitarization of the Palestinian state:

It was his first such public forum speaking event in Washington ever, Brookings’ Vice President and former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk noted when he introduced the Palestinian leader, who he said he had known since 1993.

(…)

Indyk pointed out that it’s generally understood in the West that Abbas did not accept the proposal Olmert offered, based on 1967 borders and agreed land swaps, but Abbas said they were still negotiating when Olmert stepped down amid an Israeli corruption investigation.

“The man has said in the clearest of terms he accepts Prime Minister Netanyahu’s assessment of a demilitarized state,” former Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) told POLITICO Thursday. “He doesn’t want tanks, he doesn’t want missiles, he wants an internal security force.”


The litmus test for Israel’s intentions

Posted: May 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off

Every now and then I get to hear the argument that Israel never claimed the West Bank for itself (therefore it’s not Apartheid nor occupation, etc.). After all, Barak offered almost the entire West Bank to the Palestinians in Camp David, and in 2008 Ehud Olmert had gone even further, so basically it’s the Palestinians fault that we are still there.

But even of you subscribe to the “generous offers” idea – and I don’t – actions speak louder than words, and Israel never stopped colonizing the West Bank. Even while talking to the Palestinians about evacuation, we kept sending our settlers to the occupied territories, thus making it practically impossible to carry out a full withdrawal. The greatest trick Israel was ever able to pull out was the spreading the notion that the settlers “hijacked” the state. The settlements are, and have always been, a government project, financed by taxpayer money and carried out by state agencies, from the justice and housing departments to defense ministry.

Read Akiva Eldar’s report in today’s Haaretz. Israel wouldn’t even evacuate the outpost that the state itself has declared illegal, and it states so publicly!

A statement that prosecutors sent the High Court at the end of last week on behalf of the defense minister, the army’s commander in the West Bank, the head of the Civil Administration and the commander of the Samaria and Judea Police District needs to be read at least twice in order to believe it is a document from a supreme law enforcement authority.

The statement relates to a petition by Palestinians via human rights organization Yesh Din, asking to enforce a High Court decision to evacuate the illegal outpost Amona, established about 10 years ago. Petitioners have also asked for the removal of fences that prevent access to their lands. The petitioners’ attorney, Michael Sfard, noted that during the four years since the demolition of nine structures at the outpost (which took place only after a previous petition by Yesh Din), Amona settlers have built new buildings to replace them.

In the statement to the High Court, the State Prosecutor’s Office confirms Amona is an illegal outpost. It stresses that the defense minister, the Civil Administration and the police take a grave view of the improper conduct of the Mateh Binyamin local council (which receives its budget from the state!), “and most certainly when it comes to construction on private lands belonging to Palestinians”. The prosecution saw fit to boast that “for many years now the state has been strict about not building any settlement on private land”. Really, bully for the state. It would be interesting to note, incidentally, what it intends to do with the property it handed out to settlers before it stopped stealing private land.

And here comes the line that could go down in a book of records for insolence: The prosecution asks to reject the demand to evacuate the illegal settlement, since diverting the limited means of enforcement to old illegal construction “is not high on the respondents’ agenda.” And why not? “Means of enforcement” are needed to implement the temporary building freeze in the settlements.

In other words, the government’s decision in the matter of the temporary moratorium on construction in the settlements has become the illegal settlements’ insurance policy. All that remains is for them to ask the government to extend the freeze.

President Obama was right to insist on the settlements issue. It is the litmus text for Israel’s intentions. And right now, it doesn’t show any sign of a policy change.


End of the wasted decade / slightly optimistic analysis of the current moment in Israeli politics

Posted: December 29th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Left, The Right, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Fireworks1

Almost two weeks of intense political maneuvering ended yesterday. Many people on the Left got worried by Benjamin Netanyahu’s effort to split the opposition Kadima party or to have it join his coalition. Both options, it seemed, would have made the PM even stronger, and everything that’s good for Netanyahu is surly bad for the peace process. Or isn’t it?

While I write here regularly against the current Israeli policies, and consider myself to be a part of the Left, I think that the last year have moved us closer to the end of Israeli occupation of the West Bank, possibly also to the end of the siege on Gaza. The current political circumstances are pretty favorable, to the point that if I could have replaced Netanyahu with other Israeli leaders – say Livni or Barak – I probably wouldn’t go for it.

To understand why, we need to dive into the depth of the complex political dynamics in Israel.

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If left to do as he wishes, I have no doubt PM Benjamin Netanyahu wouldn’t make one step towards the end of the Israeli occupation. His ideological background is one that views the West Bank as part of the land of Israel; he believes that an independent Palestinian state would put Israel’s national security in danger; and his political base has always been on the Israeli right.

But political leaders have to consider political circumstances and limitations, and Netanyahu – unlike the two other PMs from Likud, Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon – is extremely sensitive to outside pressure. And pressure came from the first moment Netanyahu entered his office.

First, there was the new approach from Washington. It’s not just Obama, but the whole backlash against the Middle East policy of the Bush administration. Furthermore, the world knew Netanyahu, and remembered him as the man who succeeded Yitzhak Rabin and almost single handedly buried the Oslo accord. And if somebody was ready to consider the idea of “a new Netanyahu”, along came the appointment of Avigdor Liberman to the Foreign Office and fixed the image of this government – quiet rightly, I must say – as the most extreme Israel ever had. Even Israel’s supporters are having troubles in the last year explaining the PM’s fondness for settling in the West Bank or defending the daily gaffe by the Foreign Minister.

And there was the war in Gaza. It’s hard to grasp how differently the international community and most Israelis view operation Cast Lead. Israelis see the war as a justified, even heroic, act against Hamas’ aggression – which was the Palestinian response to the good fate we showed in withdrawing from the Gaza strip – while most of the international community sees Cast Lead as a barbaric attack on (mostly) innocent civilians. And while the Goldstone report might never be adopted by the UN Security Council, the respond it initiated made it clear that in the near future – and unless something very dramatic happens and change everything (we always have to add this sentence in the post 11/9 world, don’t we?) – there won’t be another Cast Lead. The world won’t allow it.

All these elements – the change in Washington, the suspicious welcome the world gave Netanyahu and the respond to the war in Gaza – are forcing Netanyahu to do something he never planned to – at least with regards to the Palestinians: to act. That’s why he announced the settlement moratorium, and that’s why he is willing, according to today’s reports, to negotiate a Palestinian state on the 67′ borders, and even to talk about Jerusalem’s statues. And this is the man that won the 1996 elections after he accused Shimon Peres of agreeing to divide the Israeli capitol.

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Yes, I would have preferred a Hadash-Meretz government. But this isn’t, and won’t be an option in this generation. Right now, the political leaders with a shot at the PM office are Tzipi Livni, Ehud Barak, maybe Shaul Mofaz, and god forbid, Avigdor Liberman. Next in line after them are people with basically the same agenda.

I don’t trust Ehud Barak. I don’t know what drives him, I don’t think anyone understands what his views are, and I believe he has at least partial responsibility for the failure of the Camp David summit and the negotiations with the Syrians – and all that followed this failure.

With Kadima and Livni, it’s even worse. Under Ehud Olmert, this party brought to perfection the art of talking about peace and declaring wars. Read the rest of this entry »


The problem with Benjamin Netanyahu

Posted: December 25th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: elections, In the News, The Right | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Why the PM’s brilliant political moves this week won’t help him

netanyahu

This was one of the strangest weeks I can remember in Israeli politics. It started with everybody waiting for a prisoner exchange deal with Hamas that could change the diplomatic reality in the entire region – just to forget it immediately as PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s move against Kadima was reveled. Gilad Shalit was back in his cave in a split of a second, and all attention was turned to the seven backbenchers who supposedly agreed to deflect from Kadima to Likud, thus making Netanyahu’s coalition – which is fairly strong as is – significantly more stable.

Even as it turned out that Netanyahu wasn’t able to split Kadima (only one Knesset Member, the unimportant Eli Aflalo – known mostly for his impressive mustache – announced his departure from the opposition party), it seems that he handed his political opponent the blow of her career. Now Tzipi Livni has to chose between abandoning her entire political strategy and accepting Netanyahu’s offer to join his coalition, to trying to keep her party together in the opposition – a task which seems much more daunting by the day, if no entirely impossible.

In the last couple of days, many pundits were praising the PM for his brilliant move. Here is for example Amir Mizroch, news editor at The Jerusalem Post, on his blog:

If he had managed to pull it off, Netanyahu would have stepped up a level as a political operator. This was a Sharon-like move. In fact, this was the move designed to counter Sharon’s establishment of Kadima. Sharon undone. Disengagement from Kadima. If he had managed to pull it off…

But to what end?

When Yitzhak Rabin was split Tzomet party in 1995 he did it to pass the Oslo agreement in the Knesset, once it was clear that the Orthodox Shas would vote against it; and when Ariel Sharon split the Likud he did it to carry out his plan of unilateral withdrawal from the Palestinian territories. Netanayhu, it seems, is trying to break Kadima for little more than getting even at his political opponents. The only reason that would really require Netanyahu to strengthen the left flank of his coalition is some sort of diplomatic progress with the Palestinians or with Syria. With regards to Iran, the Goldstone report, the Hamas and Gilad Shalit, the Knesset and the public are more than likely to support whatever decision the PM would take.

Right now there are no negotiations with the Palestinians or the Syrians, and in any case, all indications are that Netanyahu wouldn’t go one step further than where the White House forces him. He accepted the two state solution because of president Obama’s speech in Cairo, and he agreed to a partial settlement freeze only after tremendous pressure from Washington. As even some of Netanyahu’s supporters recognized, in both cases, his move came too late to hand him real political gains, and the world remained suspicious of the Israeli PM’s agenda.

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This is something that characterized Netanyahu’s approach to politics throughout his career: he (almost) never initiates moves. He always reacts. This has nothing to do with ideology, Left or Right. There are leaders on the right who try to shape reality themselves (Ariel Sharon and George W Bush come to mind, and maybe that’s part of the reason they had such good personal relations), as there are some leaders on the Left who tend to react to events. It’s a matter of personality. Read the rest of this entry »


Fire Ambassador Oren

Posted: December 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: The Right, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

Israel’s ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, believes that supporting a two states solution and a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, or opposing the war in Gaza, are illegitimate positions, which open the door for no less than the distraction of Israel. J street, the pro-peace lobbing group which advocates such ideas, is in Oren’s view “a unique problem”.

Forward reports:

Addressing a breakfast session at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s biennial convention December 7, Ambassador Michael Oren described J Street as “a unique problem in that it not only opposes one policy of one Israeli government, it opposes all policies of all Israeli governments. It’s significantly out of the mainstream.”

After a speech that touched on the spiritual basis for and the threats to the state of Israel, Oren issued an unscripted condemnation of J Street.

“This is not a matter of settlements here [or] there. We understand there are differences of opinion,” Oren said. “But when it comes to the survival of the Jewish state, there should be no differences of opinion. You are fooling around with the lives of 7 million people. This is no joke.”

If I were one of Meretz or Labor’s member, or even Kadima’s, this would have been enough for me to demand for Dr. Oren to be sent back to Jerusalem. These parties hold some of J Street’s views (in Meretz’s case, probably all of them), so Oren is practically accusing them of “fooling around with the lives of 7 million people”. Even if he didn’t cross the line of talking about elected members of the Knesset, he got very close to it, considering the fact that Meretz, Labor and Kadima even sent representatives to the J Street convention.

James Besser touched this point on his blog at The Jewish Week site, when he wrote that “[according to the ambassador's approach], guys like Rabin and Ariel Sharon must have been secretly anti-Israel.”

It is no surprise that Oren is turning out to be the Likud’s ambassador to Washington, rather than Israel’s. Prior to his appointment, Dr. Oren was an associate researcher on the Shalem Center, the rightwing think tank and publishing house which is financed by Benjamin Netanyahu’s close friend, gambling billionaire Sheldon Adelson (who is also the publisher of the free rightwing tabloid Israel Hayon). When Netanyhau returned to the PM office, he appointed people from the Shalem Center and Israel Hayom to senior positions in his administration. These are the hardcore ideologists behind Israel’s current policies. Read the rest of this entry »


U.S. ambassador discusses Settlements, Goldstone, Peace process, Iran (plus commentary)

Posted: November 4th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »
ambassador James Cunningham

ambassador Cunningham

U.S. ambassador to Israel, Mr. James B. Cunningham, gave today a short lecture at the Tel Aviv University on “U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East: One Year into the Obama Presidency”. Mr. Cunningham said that the Administration has “a sense of urgency” in trying to bring the renewal of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, and emphasized several times that “time is not on our side” and that “the status quo is not sustainable”.

The ambassador admitted though that the task of bringing the parties back to the negotiating table “has proved to be very difficult”, and that the administrating is currently looking for “new ways”. Among the reasons for the current standstill Mr. Cunningham mentioned the situation created by the Goldstone report. He also noted that with regards to the settlement issue, the response the administration got from the Israeli government “is less than we hoped for”. Read the rest of this entry »


Netanyahu accepts a Palestinian state (has some tiny conditions, though)

Posted: June 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Right, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

cross-posted with FPW.

You can say that Benjamin Netanyahu raised impossible demands from the Palestinians in his “major diplomatic speech,” as he called it (full text here). You can say that he didn’t accept the American demand for a complete stop of all construction projects in the West bank and East Jerusalem. You can say that he spent most of his time repeating his usual narrative of peace-seeking Israelis and Arab Rejectionism, and that he was “boldly stepping into 1993“. And you would probably be right in saying all this.

But what I heard today was the last Israeli leader to accept the idea of a Palestinian state.

There is no national figure to the right of Netanyahu, only second rate extremists. Avigdor Liberman long ago accepted the idea of a Palestinian state. So did, in less than a decade, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni – all of them formerly Likud people, even hard-liners, who finally understood that from an Israeli point of view, even a Zionist one, there is no real alternative. Twenty years ago, even Labor leaders didn’t speak of a Palestinian state. It was considered a radical-leftist idea. Things changed; one can’t deny that – but at what price!

So much for historical perspective. Now we can take apart some of the smaller details of the speech:

Negotiations: Netanyahu called for immediate negotiations with all Arab leaders, “without preconditions.” This in something Israeli leaders always said, and the Arabs will probably reject this idea again. The reason is simple: The only asset the Arab leaders are holding is the possibility of legitimizing Israel, and negotiations can be seen as a form of legitimation. That’s why most leaders will ask for something in return before engaging in direct talks – if not from Israel, than from the US.

A Jewish State: Netanyahu wasn’t completely honest when he claimed to be ready to negotiate without preconditions. He had some conditions, especially for the Palestinian side. First, he asked Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state (in fact, if I got it right, he kind of asked the whole Arab world to do so). This is something the Palestinians will never do, because they would be betraying the cause of Palestinians citizens of Israel – which make up 20 percent of the population – for equal political and civil rights. But Netanyahu knows that this demand sounds good to the Israeli public, as well as to American Jews (unlike his insistence on building settlements), so he keeps on raising the issue, assuming it can help him out of tough corners in the future.

Hamas: Netanyahu had another condition for the Palestinians. He demanded the PA does something the Israeli Army couldn’t do: remove Hamas from power and re-seize control over the Gaza strip. Again, Netanyahu probably knows that moderate Arab leaders, with the silent support of the Obama administration, are moving in the opposite direction, of establishing a Palestinian unity government that will be able to negotiate with Israel. The Hamas problem allows him to buy time.

In my view, this is currently the biggest obstacle in the way of the peace process. This is not about declaring something about a Jewish homeland, like the previous demand. We can always work out a fancy statement that will keep almost everyone happy. This is a real political mess: Hamas controls Gaza. The PLO controls the West Bank. Are we to establish three states? The position Netanyahu took actually gives veto power over any agreement to Hamas – and the PM might be counting on them to use it.

Settlements: Thirty words. That’s what Netanyahu had to say about the issue which stood at the bottom of his confrontation with Obama, as well as his political problems at home. Bottom line: the PM presented the consensus he was able to build in his government as a response to the American demand. No new settlements will be built, and there will be no further confiscation of Palestinian land (I won’t go into the legal details, but this doesn’t mean much, because Israel decided long ago most of the land in the WB is “public land”, and therefore open for construction). We will have to see what Israel really does on the ground – and how the Administration responds – in order to judge both sides’ commitment to their positions.

Borders, Security, Refugees and Jerusalem: we had nothing new here. A typical Israeli hard-line. Netanyahu even said at one point that “my positions on these matters are well known.” And that’s exactly how we should look at them – his positions, which will be subject to whatever happens at the negotiating table.

And that’s my bottom line: I never thought – and I still don’t think – that Benjamin Netanyahu is the right man to lead Israel out of the West Bank (not to mention bring peace for the region). Not because he is a radical – Sharon was considered much worse before he took power – but because he hasn’t got the right character, nor the right ambitions. But he can still play a big role in this process, and if he does, this day will be remembered as his first step. It took Obama only two months to get him there. We should be optimistic.