Border protests: Refugees reclaim their place in the debate

Posted: June 7th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , | 5 Comments »

It’s unclear how many protesters were killed yesterday near the Syrian border. Reports range from eight – in the Israeli media – to more than 20, according to Syrian Television. According to Israeli sources, at least some of the protesters were killed from mines near the fence. Millions of landmines are buried in the ground of the Golan Heights.

The Syrian government has a vested interest in diverting attention from the daily killing of dozens of citizens by Assad’s regime to the confrontation near the border. Israel, on the other hand, wants to minimize the reported number of casualties – so the numbers from both sides should be taken a grain of salt.

Many people pointed to the hypocrisy of Damascus in blaming Israel for the killings while engaging in the ongoing murder of its own citizens. Such claims, however justified, do not exempt Israelis from the need examine the events and their moral and political implications. The Israeli leadership makes it sound as though the shooting of protesters couldn’t have been avoided, but there are many other ways to stop unarmed people – and those should have been at least tried. The “danger” of a few people entering Israel (only to be deported immediately) is not as serious as the lost of so many lives.

There are two points to be made here. First, Israel claims that it has the right – just like any other country – to defend its borders. But the fact is that Israel doesn’t have a mutually recognized border with Syria. The international border passes in the Hula Valley; the Golan Heights were occupied when Israel launched an attack on Syria in 1967.

The land conquered in the Six Day War was unilaterally annexed to Israel in 1981. Later, several governments in Jerusalem refused offers by Damascus to return the land in exchange for a peace agreement, asking instead to negotiate a new international border. No country, including the United States, has recognized Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan, which means that technically, as far as international law is concerned, the protesters crossed no border.

That doesn’t mean that Israel needs to allow free movement through the armistice line. But it does mean that as long as we don’t reach a solution that is mutually agreed upon and recognized by the international community – a presently impossible scenario due to events in Syria – Israel is likely to face more challenges to its control over the occupied territory.

Even more important is an effort to solve the refugee problem. For years, Israeli decision makers have simply denied this issue, claiming that the responsibility for the creation of the problem lies with the refugees themselves and the Arab world, due to the rejection of the 1947 partition offer (UN resolution 181) and the departure of Jews from Arab countries (even though it was mostly voluntarily). To use a phrase by Dahlia Shaham, Israeli leaders have once again replaced policy and end goals with justifications. They were aided by the Palestinian Authority’s tendency to focus the attention on the West bank and Gaza, and almost leave the Palestinian diaspora out of the political agenda. Now, for the first time since the Oslo agreement, the Refugees claim their place in the debate.

Israelis and their supporters need to understand that the refugee issue will not disappear. Apart from assuming responsibility for its creation – or at least, for a share in its creation – Israel must strive to reach a political solution to the issue of the Palestinian refugees, one that the refugees themselves will take part in.

Yesterday, when the dramatic events near the Syrian border unfolded, I went with a history-obsessed friend to visit the remains of Abu-Shusha, a Palestinian village near Kibbutz Gezer, some 25 minutes from Tel Aviv. We drove back and forth in the dirt road between the Kibbutz’s fields, walked on foot up and down the hill between the newly-planted olive and fig trees, but could hardly spot a trace of the community of more than a thousand Palestinians who once lived there. Later, as we drove back, my friend vowed to return there soon and continue the search. “Things don’t just disappear,” he told me.

Nor do people.


Read more on these issues:

Why Jews need to talk about the Nakba

How Nakba villages sunk into Israeli landscape

Jeffrey Goldberg’s Iran piece: an Israeli perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goldberg writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet he got Jeffrey Goldberg convinced.

Prof. David Phillips tries to prove settlements are legal, but ultimately leads to the question of Apartheid

Posted: December 7th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Right, The Settlements | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »
West Bank Archipelago

West Bank Archipelago

The neo-con Jewish magazine Commentary features an article by law professor David Phillips, under the title The Illegal-Settlements Myth. Basically, it argues against the commonly accepted view, that the Israeli settlements in the West Bank violate international law, and most notably, the 4th Geneva Convention.

Article 49 of the 4th Geneva Convention forbids an occupying force from transferring his own population to the occupied territory. Prof. Phillips claim that (a) it is not clear whether the West Bank can be seen as “occupied land”, and (b) “transfer” only refers to the active, even forceful, move of civilians, which is not the case with the settlements.

I’m not a big fan of legalism when it comes to international relations. I think that legal debates, more often than not, tend to miss the point, and I believe the tendency of lawyers to cherry pick the cases that suit their claim can be very harmful when it comes to questions of power and justice, as most issues in international politics are. A good example of legalistic cherry-picking was Lawrence Siskinds attack on the Goldstone report which I wrote about a few weeks ago.

Prof. Phillips’ article – which has been since quoted by several bloggers and referred to in the Examiner – is even worse: it presents a new reading of the Forth Geneva Convention, but then it fails to follow through with its own logic. I will try to show here how. I won’t however go into the historical “facts” Prof. Phillips presents – many of them debatable at best – except when it is necessary to make my point. Here is such a case:

Phillips’ theory is based on the unique position of the West Bank as “unallocated territory,” i.e. land that was never recognized as belonging to a sovereign state. While describing the historical development that led to this state of affairs, Prof. Phillips casually notes that:

Over the course of the years to come, there was little dispute about Egypt’s sovereign right to the Sinai, and it was eventually returned after Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat broke the Arab consensus and made peace with Israel. Though the rulers of Syria have, to date, preferred the continuance of belligerency to a similar decision to end the conflict, the question of their right to the return of the Golan in the event of peace seems to hinge more on the nature of the regime in Damascus than any dispute about the provenance of Syria’s title to the land.

Really? “The rulers of Syria have, to date, preferred the continuance of belligerency?” If there is something which is not disputed, it’s the fact that since the mid 90′s, the Syrians have been offering peace in exchange for full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan – a deal that no Israeli PM was willing to accept. They are offering it right now by the way, but like his predecessors, PM Netanyahu promised, just before the elections, that Israel will not leave the Golan.

But even if you don’t believe all this, how could a legal scholar such as Prof. Phillips miss the simple fact that Israel annexed the occupied Golan in December 1981? So much for the “provenance of Syria’s title to the land.” Was it his rush to blame everything on Arab rejectionism that led him to state that “the question of their right to the return of the Golan in the event of peace seems to hinge more on the nature of the regime in Damascus?”

Than Prof. Phillips gets to his main point, the ownerless statues of the West bank. He notes that since the 80′s, settlements haven’t been built on private Arab land:

After the Elon Moreh case [a famous Supreme Court ruling from 1979], all Israeli settlements legally authorized by the Israeli Military Administration (a category that, by definition, excludes “illegal outposts” constructed without prior authorization or subsequent acceptance) have been constructed either on lands that Israel characterizes as state-owned or “public” or, in a small minority of cases, on land purchased by Jews from Arabs after 1967.

Later he adds that:

Even settlement opponents concede that many settlements closest to Palestinian population areas, on the central mountain range of the West Bank, were built without government permission and often contrary to governmental policy; their continued existence forced the government to recognize the settlement as an existing fact. Given this history, it is questionable to claim that Israel “transferred” those settlers.

This is where I’m starting to get confused. If the settlements are “legally authorized”, and properly built on public land, how come they are, at the same time, “without permission” and “contrary to governmental policy?” could the settlers have colonized the West Bank only on locations authorized by the state to begin with, and at the same time, act against its policy?

The answer is: they couldn’t. Read the rest of this entry »

Israeli media: Netanyahu to announce partial settlemets freeze, diplomatic plan

Posted: November 23rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Right, The Settlements | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off

netanyahu_bibiRecent reports in the Israeli media suggest Benjamin Netanyahu is about to present a diplomatic initiative, probably accompanied by a partial, time limited, settlement freeze. It is unclear whether this plan is coordinated with the US administration and the European Union.

UPDATE: 30 minutes after I posted this item, Haaretz’s headline declared Netanyahu about to bring limited settlement freeze before cabinet.

PM Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak seem to be thinking that the diplomatic standstill is beginning to cause them damage, both on domestic and on international level. Barak is standing the real risk of a split in Labor, if the government won’t come up with some sort of an initiative soon, while Netanyahu is worried from other plans being put before the public by rival politicians. But the real threat for both Barak and Netanyahu is the two contradictory ideas the Palestinians are discussing: a unilateral declaration of independence and the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority.

According to Yossi Beilin, Netanyahu will soon announce a settlement freeze which will not include existing projects, the so-called “settlements blocks” and East Jerusalem. Then he will invite the Palestinians to renew the negotiations. UPDATE: Alex Fishman reports in Yedioth that the IDF is already preparing for construction freeze.

Maariv’s Ben Caspit reveled last week that Barak and President Peres are working on a way to make the two sides come to the table. According to this new idea, both Israel and the Palestinians will receive official letters from the US administration addressing their main concerns. Israel will get a paper acknowledging the Jewish nature of the state and a promise that the Palestinian state will be de-militarized; the Palestinians will be promised that the negotiations will be limited in time and that the territory they will get at the end will equal in its size to the West bank and Gaza.

According to Netanyahu’s idea, by the end of a certain time frame, the Palestinians will be able to declare independence on temporary borders (roughly the territory they hold now), and a time table for a permanent deal will be set.

Haaretz reports that Uzi Arad, the head of the Israeli National Security Council and the top advisor for Benjamin Netanyahu, said today that the government hopes to resume negotiations with the Palestinians “within the next few weeks”, and that a move forward with the Palestinians is more important right now than the Syrian front (Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazy is said to be pushing for an agreement with Syria, and there are many indications that the Syrians are more than ready to reach a deal. On the other hand, no Israeli leader is willing to commit to a complete withdrawal from the Golan Heights). Read the rest of this entry »

Sorry, our deputy FM is a fool as well

Posted: May 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Right, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off

If you thought foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman was doing Israel some damage, listen to his deputy, former ambassador in Washington, Danny Ayalon:

In response to Bashar Assad’s statement according to which Syria was keen to resume Middle East peace talks just as soon as it had someone it could deal with on the Israeli side, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon (Yisrael Beiteinu) said the Syrian president was “lying”.

“He does not want peace. For peace he would have to offer normalization and openness, and this may result in the collapse of his regime [...] Assad does not want to open Syria to the rest of the world because he is a tyrant.”

As I wrote before, even if you agree with Mr. Ayalon’s view of the Syrian leadership, these kind of statements are not very smart, as they portray Israel as the arrogant side who refuses compromise. And since we rule out the Syrian channel, the pressure to present some sort of progress on the Palestinian front will only intensify (which is not such a bad thing).

Read the rest of this entry »

How Israel is Drifting away from the World

Posted: April 12th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: elections, the US and us, this is personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments »

If you get your news about Israel from Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post – or worse, from the NYT or the LA times – it will probably be hard for you to appreciate how disconnected the Israeli public is right now with the rest of the world. While it seems that everyone else is in some sort of diplomatic frenzy – whether as a reaction to the stagnation of the Bush years, as a result of the economical crisis, or for whatever other reason – Israelis live in some kind of a bubble, where only remote echoes of the current moves are heard.

It is true that the most of the public never cares much for international news, and not only in Israel. But I am not talking about events in China or even Darfur. Israelis don’t think about the West Bank anymore, let alone the peace signals from Syria. With the possible exception of national security issues – such as everything that has to do with Iran – we couldn’t care less about the regions’ problems.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Bush Doctrine

Posted: December 1st, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, the US and us | Tags: , , , | Comments Off

Last week, Ehud Olmert paid his last visit to Washington as Prime Minister. There he met another unpopular politician on his last days in office – President George W. Bush.

The meeting itself was unimportant – unless both leaders discussed a surprise attack on Iran, which seems very unlikely – but it did reveal something about the president’s views, and the damage he is leaving behind him.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Problem with Barak

Posted: November 2nd, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: The Left | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Colonel Yaakov Vilian had one of the most sensitive jobs in the Israeli administration: until a year ago, he was the intelligence officer of the Prime Minister’s office. Every day he had to prepare a resume of the most important information gathered by the IDF and the other security services, including the Mossad and the Shabak, report it to the PM, and be prepared to answer any question. To Ariel Sharon he even read the daily briefing out loud sometimes.

Vilian was considered a very professional and non-partisan officer. That’s why he was able to serve under four different PMs, from the right and the left alike. This weekend he gave Ben Caspit from Maariv his first interview ever, in which he revealed some very interesting inside information on Ehud Barak’s negotiations with the Palestinians and the Syrians during his short term in office (the second Intifada started after the failure of the Camp David talks between Barak and Arafat on the summer of 2000; the negotiations with Syria collapsed several months earlier). Here are some experts from this interview:

Q: Didn’t the Intelligence warn PM Ehud Barak from another round of violence in case the Camp David negotiations fail?

A: “They did. And there were memos written, but the head of state can decide do what he wants. That’s why he’s there. He has the right to ignore the intelligence. Maybe he thinks the intelligence units are unaware of all factors, that he can still make it. In his view, [going to] Camp David was a daring move, a leap forward, and one couldn’t tell which way it would turn. So he was warned that if he fails it will end in a clash, but in his mind he didn’t give up anything there, not an inch of land. By the way, it wasn’t only the intelligence that warned him. [Then ministers] Shimon Peres warned him, Haim Ramon warned him. Everyone did.”

Q: Did Yasser Arafat initiate the Intifada, or was he dragged into it?

A: “when the violence started, Barak sent me a note asking me just that. I wrote him my opinion… it could well have been that Arafat had lost control over the events. It could have been that even if he would have ordered to stop the violence, his people wouldn’t understand how to interpret this, if it’s for real or not. The Intifada fed itself. It moved on i’s own.”

Q: The Question is whether Arafat wanted it or not.

A: “I can’t say if Arafat planned for it to go on for years. He might have wanted something much shorter, but it got out of hand. I don’t know of any meeting between Arafat and his people in which he ordered them to start the Intifada. But I don’t know of any opposite order as well.”

In his famous 2002 interview to Bennie Morris in the “New York Review of Books”, Barak (who already left his office) rejected the notion that the Palestinians were dragged to Camp David, and that the talks were bound to failure. He also claimed that the level of violence on the Palestinian side was under Arafat’s complete control at all times. But as we learn now, Barak was warned that he is pushing the Palestinians into a corner, and that the outcome might be catastrophic.

In the months and years to follow Camp David, Barak continued insisting it was a bald move that “exposed Arafat’s true face.” He continue to claim so even now. I think Camp David also exposed some things about Ehud Barak, his style of decision making and his political philosophy.

On two matters it seems that Barak did do the right thing, at least in Colonel Vilian’s opinion:

The first is that contrary to what some of Barak advisors had said in the past, Vilian believes that there was no real opportunity to reach a peace agreement with Hafiz al-Assad when Israel and Syria met in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, on January 2000.

Assad the father was in no condition for a move like that at the time,” says Vilian. “He was shifting between Alzheimer and Parkinson, and suffered from dementia attacks, and Barak knew it. I wrote him a memo on the matter. Physically, Assad couldn’t have gone for such a move.”

Vilian also gives Barak credit for a correct reading of the situation on the matter of the withdrawal from South Lebanon:

He [Barak] was warned [by the intelligence] from something that eventually didn’t happen. He was told that if we were to leave Lebanon, the North of Israel will immediately turn into a war zone. He was warned that it will be a catastrophe. It didn’t happen. You got to give him credit for that.”

What’s the final score for Barak? It has been, and will be for some time, the big debate in the left wing in Israel. I think Barak has a tendency towards dangerous arrogance, that leads him believe strongly in unilateral acts (even when they are disguised as a bilateral process, like in Camp David). But some people, like Meretz’s Zehava Gal-On, think he is the only leader willing and able to take the bald steps necessary to move forward the peace train. This has yet to be proven.