Popular anchorman’s entry into politics likely to secure PM’s rule

Posted: January 11th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: elections, Polls, The Left, The Right | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

Yair Lapid left his position in Channel 2 News and announced his intention to enter politics. He is likely to split the secular vote in a way that won’t allow anyone but the Likud to form the next government

One of the questions that has dominated the political landscape in Israel in the last couple of years received an (almost) definite answer this week, when the most popular journalist in Israel, Yair Lapid, resigned from his post as Channel 2′s Friday evening anchorman in order to enter politics.

If he had it his way, Lapid would have waited for new elections to be called – probably later this year – but the Knesset legislators forced him to reveal his cards. A bill subjecting every journalist to a full “cooling off” period of a year before entering politics was about to become a law, and Lapid, who probably made up his mind on his political future a while ago, had to leave his comfortable position in front of a prime-time audience. The official announcement came in the form of a resignation letter to his bosses at the station.

Lapid, 49, is the son of the late journalist-turned-politician Yosef (Tommy) Lapid and novelist Shulamit Lapid. He grew up in Tel Aviv and London, served as a reporter for the IDF’s magazine Bamahane, and later started working for his father’s paper, Maariv. His star rose in the 90′s, when he acted in an Israeli film and hosted popular TV talk shows on Channels 1 and 2. Lapid wrote books and a TV mini-series, led TV campaigns for Israel’s largest bank, and since 2008 hosted the prestigious weekly news magazine on Channel 2. Lapid also writes the leading full-page column in Yedioth Ahronoth’s Friday edition, the most widely read paper in Israel.

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For such a public figure, Lapid’s political views are extremely vague. His father, a Knesset member and then government minister, was known for his militant secularism, both in public and in his personal life. Lying on his deathbed, Yosef Lapid refused any treatment that would prolong his life and eventually starved to death. Like his father, Yair Lapid is hostile to the ultra-Orthodox establishment, although even on this trademark family issue, his tone is much more restrained. Yosef “Tommy Gun” Lapid was an Archie Bunker-like conservative; Yair Lapid is his business-oriented, politically-correct alter ego.

If figuring out Yair Lapid on social issues is a complicated task, making sense of his views on diplomatic and regional politics, on human rights and democracy, is close to impossible. From his columns, it seems that Lapid is at the center of the secular consensus (some say that he is the center) – i.e. he supports in theory of the two-state solution; he is somewhat critical of the settlements and clearly hostile towards the “extreme” religious settlers, but he has no special affection for human rights organizations and he hasn’t showed unique interest in the current wave of anti-democratic legislation.

Lapid wrote a couple of times that Israel should have supported, rather than opposed, the Palestinian UN bid, but I don’t remember hearing a real out-of-the-box idea from him, one like Shaul Mofaz’s (Kadima) support for negotiations with Hamas. Lapid is not a rightwing hawk nor a dove; one more thing he inherited from his dad is a hatred of “the lefty media,” which he confessed again recently.

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Lapid updates his Facebook followers on the progress of his Knesset bid. Unlike pages of other Knesset members, Lapid’s wall is lively and exited. According to one of his latest messages, he hasn’t formed his party yet. He will probably skip the option of leading his father’s party – Shinui – which wasn’t able to pass the Knesset threshold in the last elections. There is little sense in forcing oneself to deal with the party’s dysfunctional machine, plus I would imagine that Lapid aims higher than the narrow appeal of Shinui, which will always be constrained by its free market, secular Ashkenazi image.

It is somewhat ironic that Lapid, the privileged son of the Israeli elite, would be one of the first to benefit from the summer’s social protest. Yet there is no doubt that the growing discontent in Israel’s middle class played a major part in his decision to enter politics now. As I have written here in the past, the J14 demonstrations – also known as the tent protests – were, more than anything, a show of middle-class disappointment with elected Knesset members, and especially with Kadima.

While Israel’s right is filled with would-be leaders and Knesset backbenchers who compete for attention by introducing racist bills or conducting bizarre public stunts, and while the left has no voters or public appeal whatsoever, the amorphous promised land of the moderate center is up for grabs. Shelly Yachimovitch, the surprise winner of the Labor primaries, was the first to take a bite, and Lapid might be the one to deal Kadima its coup-de-grace.

The man who is likely to benefit the most from this process is one Benjamin Netanyahu. Lapid can draw votes from all of Netanyahu’s potential challengers – including Avigdor Lieberman – but he is not likely to hurt the Likud too much. The result will be a fragmented Knesset, in which the Likud is a single big party and four or five others – Lapid, Labor, Lieberman, Kadima and maybe Shas – are competing for a place in the coalition. Since Netanyahu will only need between two and three of those parties, and since they won’t be able to form an alternative coalition due to a lack of a central, agreed-upon, leading force, they won’t have any bargaining position. It will be Bibi or nothing.

Early polls suggest that this is the most likely scenario. There were three polls conducted right after Lapid’s announcement – by the dailies Maariv and Yedioth, and by Channel 10. The results varied, but the general picture was the same: Likud was the only party to pass the 20-seat threshold, polling between 27 and 30 of the 120 Knesset seats (Likud has 27 MKs now). Lapid had 11-16 seats, Kadima 13-15 (28 now), Labor 12-18, Israel Beitenu 14-15 and Shas 9-11. In such a picture, the old division into two competing blocs – left-center and right-religious – becomes meaningless.

On a deeper level, Lapid’s entry into politics could be seen as representing a new stage in the Israeli culture war, one in which the dominant social group – secular middle class – has left behind the hope to lead the political system and is settling for a sectarian representation of its interests, spread between several parties. Except in the case of an unexpected event such as war or a deep economical crisis, we are likely to be left with Netanyahu as prime minister; or with a fragmented system in which nobody can really govern. Yair Lapid therefore is not the answer to Israel’s existential crisis – more than anything, he is a representation of the problem.


Netanyahu was the one to stop Israeli-Palestinian talks

Posted: August 20th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: The Left, The Right, the US and us | Tags: , , , | Comments Off

The Israeli media is reporting a high-level effort to resume negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians was brought to an end a couple of weeks ago at the Benjamin Netanyahu’s orders. The prime minister, meanwhile, continues to claim he has no partner.

Coming up to September and the UN bid by the Palestinian Authority, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu claims that the Palestinians refuse to negotiate with his government, and therefore urges the world to oppose their diplomatic moves, “in the interest of peace.”

Many echo this talking point: It’s being voiced no not only by advocates for the Israeli right in America (here, here, here, and here) but also by critics of the current Israeli government, sources in the Obama administration and even an editorial in the New York Times.

I intend to write a separate post on the way Israel is manipulating the world’s public opinion by using the term “peace” when it actually means maintaining the status quo; I also have my doubts on the UN bid and the false notion of “Palestinian statehood” when in reality the occupation only deepens—a better idea might be to dismantle the PA altogether—but it is important to note that even on this very issue of negotiations, the Israeli prime minister and the people speaking in his name are far from telling the whole truth.

As various media outlets in Israel have revealed that in recent weeks, Israeli president Shimon Peres has had a secret negotiating channel with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. According to a report in the daily Maariv, Peres—who has  often acted as an unofficial envoy for the government, given the rivalry between Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and the latter’s poor image in the world—has met with Abbas four times, discussing various details regarding the resumption of formal negotiations between the two parties. In-between these meetings, Peres also had a one-on-one with president Obama, which could be indicative of the importance attributed to these talks.

Netanyahu was aware of Peres’s moves, and according to the Israeli president’s closer circles, approved them. Yet a couple of weeks ago, Netanyahu surprisingly called off a meeting between Peres and Abu-Mazen, effectively closing the secret channel.

According to Maariv, the Palestinian president was already on his way to Amman, where the meeting was supposed to take place, when an aide to Peres notified him over the phone that the meeting was cancelled at the order of the Israeli PM. According  to Netanyahu’s associates, this wasn’t a good time for an understanding with the Palestinians, given the political circumstances in Israel, Ben Caspit reported.

According to Maariv, President Peres is now “completely exasperated” with Netanyahu.

My guess is that Netanyahu felt that Peres was getting closer to some understanding—anything—with Abbas, and this was against his goal of prolonging negotiations without offering concessions, as a way to get the international pressure off his back while keeping the Israeli consensus behind him (at least on this issue). In my opinion, there was little to no hope that that these talks would have led to anything, but still, it’s important to note that as soon as there was the slightest whiff of progress, even that informal channel became way too much for the Israeli prime minister.


US Mideast policy: Well on its way to total irrelevance

Posted: August 10th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off

By following Jerusalem’s lead regarding the Palestinian UN bid, the United State is diminishing its own position in the region, and actually proving that the Palestinians have nothing to hope for in negotiations with Israel

A few months ago, there was still speculation in Jerusalem that the White House is behind the new wave of diplomatic pressure from the EU. Some even wondered whether the administration is secretly supporting the Palestinian UN bid, hoping that this would finally get Israel to take a step or two towards the Palestinians, possibly even freeze settlement construction, so that negotiations could resume.

Nobody thinks so now. The administration has clearly decided to throw its entire weight behind Jerusalem and against the Palestinian move. Washington is threatening both in public and in private that the UN bid would seriously harm American relations with Ramallah, and might even bring to an end the financial aid for the Palestinian Authority. As usual, the US congress—which seems crazier than the Knesset, impossible as this is to imagine—is threatening to stop all financial aid to the PA, and there are even talks of withdrawing funds from the UN itself if its members dare to vote in the Palestinian favor.

Punishing the entire world for seeking to end the occupation! It seems that American foreign policy was taken hostage by the Likud. Current political circumstances in Washington could be blamed, but the facts are pretty clear. One could find in the Israeli mainstream media, and even in the Israeli administration, those who are inclined to support the Palestinian UN bid, yet America seems to be speaking in one voice against it.

Even the New York Times, whose editorial was at times very critical of recent Israeli policies, warned the Palestinians of the possible consequences of their UN move.

The best way, likely the only way, to head off this debacle is with the start of serious negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. The two sides haven’t even been in the same room together since September 2010.

(…)

Arab leaders haven’t given the Israelis any incentive to compromise. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, seemed to give up on diplomacy when Mr. Obama could not deliver a promised settlement freeze. We see no sign that he has thought even one step beyond the U.N. vote.

It’s been twenty years—since the term of George H W Bush—that the United States has allowed Israel to continue its settlement activities. While Palestinian “unilateralism” consists of turning to the international community, with the blessing and support of most of the world, Israel is engaging every day in the real unilateral activities, ones that change the reality on the ground in ways that would make Palestine, if such a state is ever to be born, no more then a tiny Bantustan (just this week Israel has approved a couple more projects that would make a compromise in Jerusalem impossible).

While the destructive Israeli policy is answered with fable condemnations from Washington – yesterday’s statements hardly made it to the papers – the Palestinians are threatened with very concrete punishments, including a move that would leave thousands of Palestinian Authority employees without means to support their families (one could guess how happy they would be to continue doing Israel’s policing work in the West Bank). To sum it up, when the US blocks a Security Council resolution condemning the settlements, and in the same year, vetoes Palestinian statehood, it’s clear that regardless of the rhetoric coming out of Washington, American policy in the Middle East is similar to that of Israel’s expansionist right.

The New York Times editorial did get something right though:

If the Palestinians want full U.N. membership, they have to win the backing of the Security Council. The United States will undoubtedly veto any resolution, and that will further isolate both Israel and Washington.

It’s not really important whether US Middle East policy is the result of the mess on Capitol Hill or whether the administration really believes in what it is doing (I imagine Dennis Ross does). In both cases, the result will be the same: Washington becoming less and less relevant in the region’s geo-political game. I even guess that Russia and China recognize that, and that’s another reason for them to support the Palestinian bid.

The irony is that all the “punishments” America inflicts on the Palestinians will just speed up this process: funds means influence, and once the United States stop supporting the PA, there are two options: either the Authority collapses, or it survives on alternative sources, in Europe or the Arab world (the latter is less likely, given the current economic and political situation). In both cases, America is out of the game.

The last few months have proved one more thing: Abbas is right in refusing to negotiate with Israel under such conditions. With Washington as a broker, what could he expect from such talks? He’ll be lucky to keep his shirt before leaving the negotiation table.


Following the Obama-Netanyahu meeting

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

Even as the two leaders reveal their differences, the White House continues to oppose both the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation and the Palestinian Authority’s moves at the UN – without getting anything from Jerusalem in return

Daily papers are not printed in Israel on Saturdays – weekend editions are distributed on Fridays, and the political commentary pieces go to press on Thursday afternoons. U.S. President Barack Obama gave his speech on the Middle East on Thursday evening, and throughout the week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s people insisted, both on and off the record, that the speech not be too hard on Jerusalem. The new national security advisor, Yaakov Amidror, actually denied a story on Yedioth Ahronoth reporting his knowledge that President Obama would mention the pre-1967 borders in his remarks, claiming that “the only correct thing in this piece was my and the former NSA’s name.”

Well, Obama did mention borders, and Netanyahu made some harsh comments on Thursday night, declaring that he “expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004.” So it happened that while the newspapers’ weekend political sections and op-ed pages reflected a somewhat smooth ride for Netanyahu in Washington, the front pages told the story of a new rift between the American president and the Israeli prime minister.

The confrontation couldn’t have been clearer after the White House meeting between the two leaders. Netanyahu even went so far as declaring his opposition to the president’s positions to his face – before lecturing him on Jewish history and Middle East politics. There wasn’t even an attempt made to disguise their differences and mutual mistrust.

Netanyahu’s problem is not so much with the White House, which already made it clear that it would not support a Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence. In recent weeks, Israel launched a diplomatic counter attack, aimed at bringing as many European countries as possible to vote against the Palestinian initiative at the United Nations in September. But when the U.S. administration publicly confronts Netanyahu, more countries are likely to go a step further and take diplomatic initiatives that support the Palestinians. In the past, anonymous proxies to Netanyahu told the Israeli press that they suspect the White House is behind some such moves on the part of the Europeans. Similar theories are now likely to reemerge, and perhaps we will even see a return to the rhetoric of “Obama as Pharaoh,” which was sounded by government ministers in the months after the elections.

Netanyahu’s harsh response to the president – both in his Thursday statement and in his comments after the White House meeting – suggests that he intends to maximize the political capital such a confrontation might bring him with his base. So far, the diplomatic deadlock and the growing isolation of Israel have not hurt Netanyahu with the public, and according to recent polls, if elections were held today, their results would be pretty similar to the previous ones. If, on the other hand, the prime minister were to embark on a serious peace initiative, his coalition is likely to collapse. Netanyahu knows that, and he is unlikely to agree to any concessions before November 2013, when new elections are scheduled. The problem is that even those elections could result in the same coalition and political pattern.

I must admit that the logic behind the U.S. administration’s move is not entirely clear to me. There is no hope of launching meaningful negotiations anytime soon. Even if the president can somehow get Netanyahu and Abbas into the same room – a very unlikely scenario, given the political circumstances on both sides and the proximity of elections – one can say with some certainty that nothing would come of it.

At the same time, the White House opposes both the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation and the Palestinian Authority’s moves at the UN, and might even to do some work behind the scenes in support of Israel’s positions on these issues – without getting anything from Jerusalem in return. In fact, a substantial opposition to the Palestinian UN effort is likely to strengthen Netanyahu at home, and could even secure his re-election. Does the administration hope that by confronting both sides we might achieve a breakthrough before September? I find it hard to believe. PM Netanyahu made it clear he will never allow a real Palestinian state, so it’s time to look for new paths to end the occupation.

The solution, I believe, lies the in recognition of the Palestinians’ right to oppose the occupation through diplomacy, as well as in support of growing non-violent protests and in respect for their political choices. This road might take longer to achieve results, but the alternative could be a recipe for the renewal of violence, once the current path leads to its inevitable dead end.


American-Israeli bluffs and the success of palestinian unilateralism

Posted: April 26th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Right, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

President Abbas has told Newsweek he is disappointed with Obama, but the American President has actually done a nice job of revealing the American double-standards with regards to Israel. Meanwhile, Jerusalem’s hawks are suggesting that in response to a Palestinian declaration of independence, Israel should annex the West Bank. Not such a bad idea

First Lady Michelle Obama, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas & President Barack Obama (photo: Lawrence Jackson/United States Government Work)

Newsweek has an interesting interview with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. It’s titled “The Wrath of Abbas,” and in it Abu-Mazen shares with Dan Ephron his frustration and disappointment over the US administration’s recent moves, and most notably, the attempt to block the Palestinian diplomatic effort at the UN.

The US has vetoed a Security Council resolution demanding Israel would stop all settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and in recent weeks the administration has stepped up his rhetoric against the attempt to get UN recognition for a Palestinian state. Instead, the US is demanding that the Palestinians return to direct negotiations with Israel.

The heart of the matter for Abbas is the way the US backed down from its demand to freeze construction in the settlement as a precondition to negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

… He [Abbas] told me bluntly that Obama had led him on, and then let him down by failing to keep pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a moratorium on settlement building in the West Bank last year. “It was Obama who suggested a full settlement freeze,” Abbas explained. “I said OK, I accept. We both went up the tree. After that, he came down with a ladder and he removed the ladder and said to me, jump. Three times he did it.”

Naturally, Abbas couldn’t agree to negotiate with Israel as construction in the settlements goes on – not after Washington itself put forward a demand to stop such activities. This is probably what John Kerry and other foreign policy veterans referred to when they claimed that the administration “has wasted 1.5 years.” But I am not so sure time was in fact wasted.

American administrations have been demanding Israel to stop building its settlements – and protesting when Jerusalem ignored them – for decades. All President Barack Obama did was try to actually uphold the stated policy – one that was shared by Democrats and Republicans alike. The result was a major crisis between Jerusalem and Washington, which hurt the President even in his own party.

In other words, the demand to freeze the settlements revealed that all previous demands and condemnations were no more than lip service, and that in fact over the years all administrations shared a support for unilateral Israeli activities in the West Bank and Gaza. This is why veterans of the peace process like Dennis Ross and John Kerry might claim it was a failed policy – because it called their bluff – even if that wasn’t what the President intended to do.

The problem was not Obama’s demands from Israel, but rather the fact that he backed down from them — “came down from the tree,” as Abbas put it — because of his political problems back home. Netanyahu was able to manipulate Washington in his favor, and the administration is now back to the old game: advocating direct negotiations and “monitoring” Israel’s actions on the ground, which is the code word for turning a blind eye.

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All this is not enough for the hawks in Israel, who hate Obama with such a passion that they suspect he is behind the recent European moves and even the Palestinian unilateral effort. Ironically, a one-on-one with Israeli Benjamin Netanyahu would have probably resulted with the same headline as Newsweek’s interview with Abu-Mazen (except for the different name in the title, of course).

Meanwhile, the administration is floating the idea of publishing “Obama’s parameters” for a two state solution – ones that are likely to be rejected by both sides, as they are based on the 67′ borders (which Jerusalem doesn’t accept) and exempt Israel from its responsibility for the refugees problem, which is a non-starter for the Palestinians. Still, putting forward guidelines for a solution is not a bad idea, as long as the Americans don’t actually expect Netanyahu to negotiate on them in good faith.

There is zero chance that the Israeli Prime Minister will deliver any kind of solution. Netanyahu will not evacuate settlements; at best, he will create the false impression of agreeing to do it in a far away future, hoping that some turn of events will rescue him from the need to keep up his promises. It’s not just Netanyahu’s character and upbringing that pushes him to the right, but also the hawkish coalition he has built, the hard-line advisors he has surrounded himself with (the latest being the recently-appointed National Security Council Chairman Yaakov Amidror), the messages he is sending the Israeli public, his connection to the neo-cons in Washington, and the threat from Avigdor Lieberman in the coming elections. In short, all signs point in the same direction: Netanyahu is playing on time.

Recently, some Israeli hawks have come up with a new idea: Answering a Palestinian declaration of independence with annexing the West Bank and canceling the Oslo accords (didn’t we do the second part at least a dozen times in the past?). It is unfortunate that this idea has very little hope of materializing. As even the settlers know, the Palestinian Authority and the “disputed” status of the West Bank is this government’s greatest—and perhaps only—diplomatic asset. I don’t suppose the Knesset members who initiated this idea meant that Israel should make the Palestinians equal citizens — those rightwing fanatics want the land, not the people — but annexing the territories will be the first step on a one way road that leads to the one-state solution. And as I wrote in the past, this is an option that should stay on the table.


PM Netanyahu is cornered, and the US shouldn’t save him

Posted: April 14th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Right, the US and us | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

Benjamin Netanyahu (photo: The Jewish Agency for Israe)

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is cornered. Netanyahu is looking for a diplomatic initiative that would save him from a UN recognition of a Palestinian state, followed by a declaration of independence, in the coming fall. What a couple of years of pressure from an American president didn’t do, Palestinian unilateralism did.

The Israeli Prime Minister has no hope of winning a majority at the UN’s general assembly, yet he still wishes to get some of the western Europeans counties on his side, possibly also Russia. But most of the European leaders don’t trust him personally, and doubt his ability or desire to take real action that would end 44 years of occupation. Caught between the international pressure and his rightwing partners—which he himself brought into the coalition—Netanyahu seems to be moving in circles. He told the German Chancellor he would present a diplomatic initiative in a major speech, then, when speculations on the content of his plan began, his proxies told the Israeli media that Netanyahu never promised any new declarations.

Now Netanyahu is at it again: reports of a new offer are leaked to local papers, Shimon Peres is sent to the White House carrying diplomatic messages, and a new venue is chosen for the historic announcement: the US congress, where Netanyahu enjoys more respect and support than in the Israeli Knesset.

But even a dozen standing ovations for the Israeli Prime Minister on the Hill won’t hide the fact that he has nothing to say. According to Barak Ravid’s report in Harretz, Netanyahu’s “diplomatic initiative” consists of the re-deployment of some army units in the West Bank, without removing a single settlement; a small scale version of the Oslo accord – the same document that Netanyahu made his career opposing. Perhaps it’s time for him to send some flowers to Rabin’s grave.

It should be said again: there is absolutely no hope that Netanyahu will deliver on the Palestinian issue. He avoided any opportunity to generate some concrete moves in the important first two years of his term. He is now at the hands of his rightwing political partners, and most notably, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. He has surrounded himself with rightwing advisors, the latest addition being Yaakov Amidror, the recently appointed national security advisor. There are even talks that Netanyahu is close again to Uri Elitzur, his former chief of staff who became a passionate advocate of the One-State Solution. And beside, the elections are only a couple of years ahead. Netanyahu won’t initiate a move that could backfire exactly when Israelis go to the polls.

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There is also some talk of an American initiative. Senator John Kerry suggested this week that the US could soon embark on yet another effort to renew negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, perhaps even present its own peace initiative. Speaking to a gathering in Washington of leaders from the Muslim world, Kerry said

“I suspect that it’s very possible that President Obama will even step out ahead of that and will possibly– I say possibly–make his own contribution to where he thinks the process ought to go in the meantime. Conceivably, that can come together in a responsible effort that produces a transition here,” Kerry said. “I think we can get to borders and the fundamental issues fairly quickly and its conceivable that between now and September we will do that.”

Many liberals think that a US peace plan is the way to go. Shortly after a visit to Israel The New Yorker editor, David Remnick, called for Obama to “speak clearly and firmly,” on the issue, meaning to present his own peace plan for a final settlement between Israelis and Palestinians.

For a long time, this has also been the dominant view in the Israeli Left: That one day the US will “rescue” us by presenting Jerusalem with an offer that it can’t refuse. But if the past two years have taught us something, it’s that even an administration that is more sympathetic to the Palestinians is unable or unwilling to push Israeli out of the West Bank.

The hopes that president Obama will travel to Jerusalem to present a bold plan, and by the sheer power of his words will create a political change in Israel—perhaps even bring the left back to power—shows a troubling lack of understanding of Israeli culture and politics. If anything, such a visit would make Netanyahu stronger, by presenting him as a man who brought Obama to Jerusalem on his own terms.

UPDATE: Yedioth Ahronoth daily reported yesterday that the Administration is about to present guidelines for a peace effort, very similar to the Clinton parameters.  According to Yedioth, this will be done before Netanyahu’s speech in Washington.

The administration should recognize the limits of its power. Everybody knows that “Israel is an internal political question in the US,” but that’s only half the problem. Confronting Israel is extremely costly on political currency, while getting Israelis and Palestinians talking or even signing an agreement is not that a big political achievement for a president. Israel can make life miserable for Obama, but it cannot make him more popular.

Another round of negotiations brokered by the US is bound to lead to the same failure we witnessed in previous talks and summits. At a certain point both parties will disagree on something. The US won’t be able to get concessions of Israel, so it will twist the Palestinian’s arms. The Palestinians will have to choose between a solution that won’t meet their basic needs, and leaving the talks, and being blamed for missing another great opportunity. Nothing good will come out of either.

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So, what’s the solution? From a US perspective, it’s very simple: Stay out of the way, and let others take the lead. European leaders are not facing the unique political difficulties an American president has to overcome when dealing with Israel. The international community can apply effective pressure on Jerusalem, and such pressure can change the political dynamic here. Netanyahu’s recent troubles at home may suggest that in a way, it’s already happening.


Jennifer Rubin comes up with the neo-con argument for one-state solution

Posted: February 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: racism, The Right, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments »

The Washington Post’s conservative blogger visited the West Bank and returned home convinced Israel should keep it. Many on the left would agree, though not for reasons that would please Rubin

For some time now, settler leadership has been undertaking a PR campaign, designed to improve the way that Jews living in the West bank are presented in the media, and to fight attempts to boycott or isolate them. As part of this effort, Israeli and international celebrities, politician and journalists are taken to tours between holy sites and flourishing settlements in the West Bank. Their goal is to show that settlers are “ordinary Israelis” rather than the violent fanatics you sometimes get to see on TV.

This VIP treatment was recently given to the Washington Post’s Jenifer Rubin, who visited Israel a couple weeks ago for the Herzelia Conference. Rubin visited Ariel, passed by Nablus and stopped at a local winery. Tremendously impressed, she shared her experiences with her readers.

…What I saw surprised me. Even well-informed consumers of international media imagine that the West Bank is crowded, dangerous and replete with roadblocks and officious Israeli security forces. So when one leaves Jerusalem, crosses the Green Line — a cement wall and a checkpoint (not unlike the set-up for an agent at a U.S. border) — and travels up and down the highways of Samaria (the portion of the West Bank extending north), you realize how little non-Israelis know about the Jews who live in territory that is the focal point of so much international attention.

The media terminology doesn’t comport with one’s direct observations. “Settlements” are not hovels tended by goat herders. Settlers are not uniformly religious. The Palestinians who demand the right of return are generally the descendants of those who left Israel proper in 1948; the region is still sparsely populated and was even more so in 1967.

Naturally, Rubin wasn’t taken by her hosts from the Yesha Council (the settlers’ representative body) to Palestinian towns or villages, and the only non-Jews she met were two workers in a Jewish-owned factory. She praises the Israeli landlord for the salary he pays his Arab workers, and engages in a short conversation with the Palestinians, in which she tried to expose them as Hamas-sympathizers, and ends up declaring that “at least for now, economic cooperation has not inspired political realism.” Oh, those ungrateful Arabs.

Rubin is a radical neo-con, so it’s not surprising that her trip to the West Bank reads like a journey to the segregated south, hosted by a hospitable Klan member. Traveling on the Jewish-only highways, Rubin portrays a picture of a pleasant co-existence; she spots a Palestinian in a grocery store and concludes that the boycott attempts goes against the will of ordinary Palestinians. Obviously, she knows nothing about the military courts, the arrests of children and the tortures, the severe limits on traveling from and to the West Bank or the limited access of Palestinians to Jerusalem. At one point, Rubin claims that 95 percent of the Palestinians have no interaction with the IDF. It’s not clear whether it’s her ignorance that fails her, or if she knows the truth – Palestinians encounter soldiers daily, at checkpoints, during nightly raids, in Jewish Hebron and more – but prefers to engage in propaganda.

All this was not that interesting, if it wasn’t for the the political sub-text of Rubin’s post. Even if she doesn’t say it in so many words, it’s obvious that Rubin accepts the settlers’ narrative, according to which (a) the West Bank is the heart of the land of Israel, part of Israeli life and of Jewish history and that (b) for security reasons Israel cannot leave the West Bank. The Zionist-Liberal line was always that Israel prefers not to rule over the Palestinians, but is forced to do so because of the effect of extremist – settlers and Palestinians – on the political dynamic. Rubin presents a different narrative: The West Bank belongs to Israel, but it’s actually not that bad for Palestinians as well.

We are left with the unpleasant issues of equal rights. There are over 2 million Palestinians living in the same territory as the settlers, subject to military control, and with no political rights. Even after Oslo and the establishing of the Palestinian Authority, Palestinians can’t travel freely; they are tried in military courts and are subject to the decisions of the regional military commanders. Ben-Dror Yemini, a conservative rightwing columnist for Maariv and the Jerusalem Post, calls it Apartheid (though he blames the Palestinians for it). So who are we to argue?

Much like Rubin, I am not happy with the demonization of the settlers by the media. The occupation is an Israeli project, initiated and executed by government agencies. Blaming it on the settlers, like most liberals do, is making life way too easy. But if the territories are indeed part of Israel, as the settlers’ leaders claim, then the only possible solution would be along the lines of “one person, one vote.” This is one issue the rightwing neo-cons refuse to deal with, and when they do – they come up with the craziest ideas.

A year ago, I interviewed a group of rightwing people who were experimenting with these ideas; among them were former Defense Minister Moshe Arens, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and former Chief of Staff for PM Netanyahu, Uri Elizur. It’s no surprise: One cannot think of another sustainable solution that wouldn’t include the evacuation of most settlements. If Jenifer Rubin’s political sympathies truly lie with the settlers, she should be honest enough to extract the full meaning of her views, that Israel should apply its laws on the entire West Bank population rather than just the Jews, and become a bi-national state.


Condi Rice on the Naqba: “Bad things happen to people all the time”

Posted: January 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, the US and us | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments »

Like the Wikileaks documents, the Palestine Papers are interesting not just because of their revelations (some of these scoops were known before), but also, and perhaps even mostly, because of the tone and style of statesmen behind closed doors.

This nugget is from the Guardian:

PA leaders repeatedly threatened to abandon attempts to negotiate a two-state solution in favour of a one-state option. At the same meeting, Erekat declared that if the settlement of the West Bank continued, “we will announce the one state and the struggle for equality in the state of Israel”.

But the documents show US officials unmoved by such claims. Why were the Palestinians “always in a chapter of a Greek tragedy”, secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, asked at a meeting with Erekat in Washington in the autumn of 2009.

Her predecessor, Rice, had been even more dismissive. In July 2008 during talks with Palestinian leaders over compensation for refugees who fled or were forced from their homes when Israel was established in 1948, she said: “Bad things happen to people all around the world all the time.”


The Palestine Papers: An end to the myth of Israel’s generosity

Posted: January 24th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , | 10 Comments »

Instead of going through the commentary on the recently released “Palestine Papers,” I suggest readers start by checking out some of the documents themselves. Even for those suspicious of the “generous Israeli offer vs. Arab rejectionism” narrative of the 2008 talks as I was, some of the documents are quite shocking.

Take, for example, this meeting, in which the Palestinian side learns that the Israeli negotiators wouldn’t agree to use 1967 borders even as a starting point (h/t Matt Duss):

Udi Dekel (Israel):     As you know, our guiding principles are UNSC Res. 242, the need for boundaries that can provide security for Israel, and we’re talking about the situation on the ground, as per Pres. Bush’s letter.

Samih al-Abed (Palestinian):      Do you mean the situation as it was then, or now?

UD:     Reality now… But we’re not going to argue.  We can’t change reality on the ground.  We don’t see the 1967 border as a reference, first because we don’t even know exactly where the line is.

SA:      We have all the maps that were signed by you.

UD:     But that wasn’t exactly the line on the ground.

SA:      If not the 1967 line, then what is your reference?

UD:     We said already, the situation on the ground.

And here Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni insists on annexing the settlement of Ariel – which lies some 15 miles to the east of the Israeli border, deep in the West Bank:

Livni: The idea behind our desire to annex Ariel settlement was not to get more water but because thousands of people live there. We want to have an answer for those who have lived there for forty years.

Future borders will be complicated but clear. I have seen in Yugoslavia how areas can be connected. The matter is not simply giving a passport to settlers.

Abu Ala: Having Ariel under our control means also that the water basin will be under our control.

Livni: We have said that even if we agreed to have Ariel under Israeli control, we have to find a solution to the water issue.

Abu Ala: We find this hard to swallow.

Rice:  Let us put Maale Adumim and Ariel aside. I am not trying to solve them here.

Or the now-famous Yerushalyim quote, in which Palestinian negotiator Dr. Sael Erakat used the Hebrew name when referring to Jerusalem:

Erekat: Israelis want the two-state solution but they don’t trust. They want it more than you think, sometimes more than Palestinians. What is in that paper gives them the biggest Yerushalaim in Jewish history, symbolic number of refugees return, demilitarised state… what more can I give?

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The obvious result of the massive leak of documents would be a blow to the Palestinian Authority’s credibility, and most notably, to the public image of president Mahmoud Abbas and chief negotiator Saeb Erakat.

The documents, published by Al Jazeera and the Guardian, reveal the extent of concessions offered by the Palestinian leadership at those talks, and expose the PLO leaders to charges of betrayal of the Palestinian cause – not so much because of the offers themselves, but more due to the tone used by the Palestinian negotiators (Erekat calling PM Sharon “our friend,” using the Hebrew name for Jerusalem, and more), and due to their cooperation with Israel in the persecution of Hamas activists. It’s not clear yet whether the PA leadership can survive this crisis.

Evaluating the effect of the Palestine Papers on the Israeli side is even harder.

Prime Minister Netanyahu will probably not suffer any damage on the home front, at least in the short term. Netanyahu might even use the papers to claim that his government’s construction projects in occupied East Jerusalem pose no threat to the peace process, since the Palestinians have already agreed to give up most of the Jewish neighborhoods in this part of the city.

The Israeli government would also benefit from a renewal of the internal war on the Palestinian side. For years, Israel has tried (and for the most part, succeeded) to break Palestinian society into sub-groups with different political interests and agendas. When those groups fight each other, the Palestinian cause suffers.

Yet from a wider perspective, the release of the Palestinian offers during the 2008 talks serves as proof that Israel in fact had a partner for peace on the Palestinian side. Actually, the question from now on will be whether Israel itself is a partner for an agreement. Furthermore, after the steps Palestinian and Israeli negotiators took towards each other in previous rounds of talks, the current Israeli offers, such as a temporary state on half of the West Bank’s territory, will appear cynical and unrealistic.

For years, Israel has used the peace process as a way to hold back international pressure on the Palestinian issue. It will be harder to do so from now on.  This will be Netanyahu’s greatest problem.

As far as the Israeli public is concerned, opposition leader Tzipi Livni comes out fine from the papers. Unlike the Palestinian negotiators, Livni can’t be accused of double talk. She presented the same hardline positions both in public and in private. Yet Livni will soon try to position herself as an alternative for the right-wing government of Netanyahu, which had Israel isolated in the world and damaged relations with the US. Given her attitude during the 2008 talks, how could Livni convince the Israeli public and the international community that she can succeed in negotiating a deal with the Palestinians?

More than anything, it’s the very notion that Israelis and Palestinians can reach an agreement on the two-state solution that suffered another tremendous blow (some people in the US administration apparently gave up on this even before the papers were released). Many people believe that Israel went as far as it could in the offers that were handed in 2008 to the Palestinians; now they may think that the Palestinians did the same, and yet the distance between the two parties remains too big. It seems that Israeli leaders are simply unable to deliver the minimum required to solve the Palestinian problem. No wonder that one of the first Israeli politicians to comment on the papers was Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, which said that the documents proved a final agreement impossible to achieve.

Even for those who don’t subscribe to Lieberman’s ideas, it’s clear that a new approach is needed. Will it be the unilateralism president Abbas is promoting, the mounting international pressure on Israel, the “nation building” effort by PM Salam Fayyad, or even another Palestinian uprising that changes the political dynamic? Only time will tell.


Following the storm: Netanyahu is at the mercy of Lieberman

Posted: January 18th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Left, The Right, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Ehud Barak has ended his days as an independent politician, the peace process is officially over, and the fate of Netanyahu’s government is now at the hands of Israel Beitenu’s leader, Avigdor Lieberman. A few notes following the political earthquake at the Knesset

1. Ehud Barak. The former leader of Labor effectively joined the Likud today. He did register a new party called Atzmaut (Hebrew for “independence”) but nobody seriously thinks that Barak and the four backbenchers who left Labor with him would run on their own in the next elections. Barak is not a good campaigner, and even if he was, his public image is in an all-time low. Most pundits estimate that Barak already has a promise from Netnayhu to continue serving as Defense Minister if the Likud wins elections again. Whether or not it’s true, this is the end of the road for Ehud Barak as an independent politician; from now on, his political fate is at the hands of Netanyahu.

2. Binyamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu is seen by some as the day’s winner, but in fact, all he did was cut his losses. Netanyahu needed Labor in his government to balance its rightwing elements and most notably, Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu. Recently, the PM reached the conclusion that Labor won’t last in his coalition much longer, so he decided to keep a minimum of loyal supporters and not lose the entire party. Instead of the 13 seats Labor held (out of which 8-9 were loyal to the coalition), Netanyahu was left with five. Not enough to match Lieberman’s 15, but still, better than nothing.

Netanyahu will enjoy a more stable coalition now. Together with Barak and his 5 Knesset Members, he has 66 MKs behind him, and four more members of the radical rightwing Ihud Leumi party that could be made part of the government in case of political troubles. As long as Lieberman and his 15 votes are with him, Netanyahu is safe.

3. Avigdor Lieberman is now the strongest politician in Israel. He holds what was the traditional position of the Orthodox parties: The block between the coalition and the opposition. Lieberman knows that, and he will make Netanyahu’s life miserable. Eventually, he might even bring the government down in a maneuver that should have more Likud votes go his way in the next elections. Polls have him approaching 20 seats, but Lieberman wants more. The wild card is the General Prosecutor’s decision whether to press charges against Lieberman, expected to be given in a few weeks. Lieberman, it seems, has already launched his counter-attack, claiming in a weekend interview to Yedioth Ahronoth that he is the victim of political persecution. Even if Lieberman is forced to resign, the fate of the government would remain in his hands.

4. Labor might split again, with some members deserting to Meretz or forming a new political party. Anyway, Kadima will continue to be the strong center-left force in the Knesset, with one or two more parties to its left.

5. The peace process is dead. In case anyone had any doubts, the day’s events made it clear that from now on, this government won’t be able to take even the tiniest step towards a peace settlement with the Palestinians. Netanyahu has used his political credit: The slightest indication that he is willing to consider concessions, and the rightwing elements in his party would have the government fall. The PM has no room to maneuver.

To renew direct negotiations the Kadima-Left block would need to come closer to 60 seats in the next elections (it has 50 now). It could happen if international pressure on Israel continues, and if the Obama Administration reveals Netanyahu’s refusal to negotiate in good faith with the Palestinians. This type of pressure could be effective, much in the way the confrontation with George Bush’s administration hurt PM Yitzhak Shamir in 1992′s elections and paved the way to Oslo.