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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(…)

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

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

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

(…)

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

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

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

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


In a few hours, an entire village is destroyed

Posted: July 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, racism, The Right, The Settlements | Tags: , , , , , , , | 10 Comments »

Residents of the unrecognised village of Al Araquib construct burning barricades

A couple of days ago, when the news cycle was dominated by the story of the IDF helicopter crash in Romania, an entire village was destroyed in the Israeli southern desert.

El-Arakib, in the northern Negev, is one of more then 40 unrecognized Bedouin villages in the south of Israel. At down, hundreds of Israeli policemen and soldiers took the entire village – men, women and children – out of their houses, and let them watch in horror as the Bulldozers crashed their homes. the whole thing took just a few hours.

“The forces met only minor protest,” the Israeli media reported in the morning.

The unrecognized villages, many of them predate the establishing of Israel, are not receiving any services from the state: no water, no electricity, no transportation and no paved roads. Their children walk miles in the heat of the desert summer or in the freezing cold of the winter to get to school.

For decades, Israel is refusing to recognize the Bedouin claim for the land. A couple of years ago, an official inquiry committee, formed by the government and headed by a retired justice of the Supreme Court, recommended recognizing many of the villages and putting an end to the problem. The government buried this report, along with many other.

The Bedouins, once the proud natives of the south, are now the poorest population in Israel. Most of them used to serve in the IDF, but after the treatment they got from the state, many refuse army service these days. Crime rate in the Bedouin towns is on the rise, illiteracy and unemployment are the highest in Israel. Under such conditions, it is no surprise that the Islamic movement is getting stronger in the south. Nobody else would provide support, comfort and political empowerment for the local population. The Israeli response is to push the Bedouins harder.

A few years ago, the Israeli minister of infrastructure ordered the tiny fields of El-Arakib – out of which the locals barely make a living – be sprayed with poisonous chemicals from the air. This was the Israeli version of Agent Orange, used against our own citizens. The minister who sent the planes was Avigdor Lieberman. Today, he is the face Israel is showing the world.

On Monday night, when word of the evacuation came, some thirty Israeli activist rushed to the Negev, trying to stand by the village’s people. But there was nothing they could do against hundreds of soldiers and policemen.

This is from a report by one of the activists, posted the following day on Facebook:

Soldiers – facers covered – run into the village. Several residents and activists who were standing in their way are beaten, pushed back, thrown to the ground. A young woman pushes her way in, trips, falls onto the rocks, and cries out in pain. A soldiers stands over her, covered in black, face veiled, and laughs a laugh that I will never forget.

(…)

Bulldozers are razing the village now. They crush the tin shanties, uproot everything that stands in their path. The villagers watch, too tired even to shout. One of them cries out in pain when the bulldozer pulls the olive trees out of the ground. “Leave the trees, at least, what have they done wrong? We’ve been growing them for ten years now.” “You shouldn’t even have shade,” murmurs one of the policemen.

Here is a sad video of the events:

How is it that a government which claims to be unable to evacuate a single “illegal” outpost in the West Bank can bulldozer an entire village overnight? Social activist Gadi Elgazi has the answer: right now, anything not Jewish in Israel is under attack.

Why bring upon the people of el-Arakib this destruction? Just the day before the demolitions, the recent remarks of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding the proposed Loyalty Law were published. Netanyahu stated his position clearly:

“We are a nation state, which means that the overall sovereignty of the country is reserved for the Jewish people. [...] Today, an international campaign is being waged against the definition of Israel as a Jewish state. I do not want to leave things as is [without a revised loyalty oath, GA], because we are under attack on this matter. The significance of these attacks is that various elements are liable to demand their own national rights and the rights of a state within the state of Israel – in the Negev, for example, if it becomes a region without a Jewish majority. This happened in the Balkans and constitutes a real threat.” (My emphases; Netanyahu’s declaration was included in Haaretz Hebrew edition (26.7.2010), but not in the English one)

The words are clear: the state belongs to the Jews, not to all its citizens. Full civil equality of its citizens – individual and collective – constitutes a threat. Then the mirror effect: imagined aggression (“under attack”, “real threat”) justifies actual aggression. The Bedouin in the Negev are transformed into a “real threat,” because something might happen there; Netanyahu doesn’t say what but refers to the Balkans. There were several cases of ethnic cleansings in the Balkans. Proponents of ethnic cleansing often explain that they are merely defending themselves from a minority group, whose very existence is for them a threat.

What are the Bedouin accused of? How did their very existence become a “real threat”? The Negev, says Netanyahu, might become a “region without a Jewish majority.” This is truly a good one: you can move from region to the next throughout the country and discover that in a particular area within Israel, there isn’t a Jewish majority, for example between Kafr Qara’ and Umm el-Fahem, or between Sakhnin and ‘Arabe. Well, then don’t we have to do something against this threat? Yes, of course, and so we do! Think about the project of establishing the city of Harish in Wadi ‘Ara, not as a solution to the housing shortage with which the current residents of the area must contend, and not as part of development plans that will benefit all residents of the region, but rather as an attempt to use the housing shortage of the ultra-Orthodox as a tool against the Arab resident of the area – while at the same time preventing Arab citizens from developing and expanding their own communities. Just like the lookouts that were established in the North to surround and divide, to combat the “threat” of Arab communities in the Galilee.

This is an ongoing war, a war of attrition against part of citizenry of the country, a war whose arsenal includes prohibitions of construction and orders of demolition, and whose soldiers are building inspectors and the Green Patrol.

And while all of this is going on, demands are made upon Arab citizens to perform national service and to prove their loyalty to a state that is not loyal to them. Just a few weeks ago, near Shoket Junction in the Negev, in the context of everyday home demolitions, a Bedouin Soldiers Club was demolished. So what’s the message? Clearly: No service, whether military or civilian, will guarantee equal rights. The Druze of the Galilee [who perform military service] don’t exactly enjoy equality, do they?

More photos from the evacuation here. Information on the Bedouins and the problem of the unrecognized villages can be found here.


Netanyahu: Clinton administration was “extremely pro-Palestinian”, I stopped Oslo agreement

Posted: July 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Right, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off

A couple of months ago I discussed here the debate between Peter Beinart and Jeffrey Goldberg regarding Bibi and Oslo. As some readers might remember, Goldberg accused Beinart of fabricating facts in claiming that Netanyahu rejected the peace agreement.

Last Friday, channel 10 broadcast a homemade video of a visit by Netanyahu to a settler family in 2001, two years after his defeat to Ehud Barak. Netanyahu is seen answering the family’s questions, referring to the Clinton administration as “extremely pro-Palestinian” and boosting how he managed to stop the Oslo agreement – while publicly endorsing it – well before the second intifada broke.

This is from Richard Silverstein’s transcript of the video:

Woman:  The Oslo Accords are a disaster.

Netanyahu: Yes. You know that and I knew that…The people [nation] has to know…

What were the Oslo Accords? The Oslo Accords, which the Knesset signed, I was asked, before the elections: “Will you act according to them?” and I answered: “yes, subject to mutuality and limiting the retreats.” “But how do you intend to limit the retreats?” “I’ll give such interpretation to the Accords that will make it possible for me to stop this galloping to the ’67 [armistice] lines. How did we do it?

Narrator: The Oslo Accords stated at the time that Israel would gradually hand over territories to the Palestinians in three different pulses, unless the territories in question had settlements or military sites. This is where Netanyahu found a loophole.

Netanyahu: No one said what defined military sites. Defined military sites, I said, were security zones. As far as I’m concerned, the Jordan Valley is a defined military site.

Woman: Right [laughs]…The Beit She’an Valley.

Netanyahu: How can you tell. How can you tell? But then the question came up of just who would define what Defined Military Sites were. I received a letter – to my and to Arafat, at the same time – which said that Israel, and only Israel, would be the one to define what those are, the location of those military sites and their size. Now, they did not want to give me that letter, so I did not give the Hebron Agreement. I stopped the government meeting, I said: “I’m not signing.” Only when the letter came, in the course of the meeting, to my and to Arafat, only then did I sign the Hebron Agreement. Or rather, ratify it, it had already been signed. Why does this matter? Because at that moment I actually stopped the Oslo Accord.

I agree with Gidon Levy: this item should have gotten much more attention. One could only imagine how history could have looked if Netanyahu carried out Israel’s part in the peace agreement.


Netanyahu won’t deliver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest of this entry »


Diplomacy | Why won’t the Palestinians agree to direct negotiations with Israel?

Posted: July 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

One of the most repeated talking points of Israeli leaders these days is that by refusing direct negotiations, the Palestinian leadership is proving (again) that it doesn’t want peace. It is, Israelis say, another case of Arab Rejectionism.

Even members of the Israeli Left often wonder: if the Palestinian leadership really wants its own state, why not negotiate? What do they have to lose? After all, they can’t hope for a more sympathetic American administration, so why not take advantage of the current political circumstances, and try to gain something?

I’m not in the business of defending whatever the Palestinian Authority does (clearly an impossible task), but I do think that from his own perspective, Abu-Mazen is doing the right thing in refusing direct negotiations with the Israeli government (or at least postponing it as much as he can). The reason for this is the unbalanced nature of the diplomatic game.

By “unbalanced” I don’t mean that Israel is the strong side. Clearly, Israel has the upper hand from a military perspective, but this is not the important issue on this stage of negotiations. The unbalanced nature of the negotiations refers to the currency both sides are expected to exchange, and the moment in time in which they would exchange it.

It is pretty clear what does the Palestinian Authority want from Israel: land. Israel is expected to leave the territory it captured in 1967, give or take some minor changes. But what does Israel expect to get from the Palestinians? Most people will answer “security”. But that’s not true. Israel’s security will be put at risk by evacuating the land, and there is nothing the Palestinians can say or do that would eliminate this risk. Any kind of agreement Abu-Mazen signs won’t promise that in five, ten or twenty years the Palestinians won’t decide to attack Israel (or Israel the Palestinians, for that matter). The Peace we all hope for will depend on political circumstances and the way both leaderships conduct themselves in the years to come, not on documents they sign today.

The thing that Israel needs from the Palestinians is not security. It’s something even more important, and the one currency Israel was always short of: legitimacy. Legitimacy in the eyes of the international community, and legitimacy in the eyes of most of the Arab world. That what Israel lacks, and that’s what the Arabs have offered it in the 2002 Arab League peace initiative: full legitimacy in exchange for a full withdrawal. Back then Israel declined this offer, so the Palestinians kept hitting it where it hurts, by questioning Israel’s legitimacy in controlling the West bank or even its entire right to exist.

And here is the important part: Israel will gain some legitimacy from the first moment of negotiations, while the Palestinians will get the land only after an agreement is signed, and even this is not certain (Israel have never completed fulfilling its part in the Oslo agreement, for example). In other words, the Palestinians start paying when they enter the negotiating room, while Israelis only pay at the exit.

For an Israeli Prime Minister – given his own political considerations – it will be very tempting to stay in the room forever.

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Israel looking for strong women to handle next flotilla, a flash game on the Gaza blockade, and other stories

Posted: June 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I’m going on vacation until the end of June, so I probably won’t be blogging that much. Meanwhile, here are a few things worth checking out.

● Israeli pundits agree: the flotilla has won, Netanyahu governments (and I might add the Obama administration) lost. From now on, it’s all political damage control.

● Maariv: Concern in the American Administration over the age of two of the members of the Turkel committee, who was appointed by PM Netanyahu to look into the raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla.

● Ad in an Israeli newspaper: private contractor looking for women volunteers with “great physical strength and motivation” to help deal with the passengers of future flotillas (h/t Richard Silverstein).

238527_hezbollah-gaza-flotilla-women-wanted-ad

● More evidences of misuse of flotilla passengers’ credit cards (Hebrew)

“Safe Passage”: The flash game Gisha organization has created in order to inform the world of the measures Israel is taking as part of its separation policy between the Gaza strip and the West Bank.

The story of prisoner X: The man in Israel’s Ayalon prison, whose identity no one knows. Initial report on him was published on Ynet, only to be removed later from the site due to a government gag-order.

● Speaking of gag-orders, writer and Israeli Arab activist, Ameer Makhoul, who is charged with espionage, has written a public letter from his jail. The full charges against Makhoul were never made public, and his trail is being conducted behind close doors, with some of the “confidential material” not allowed to be viewed even by his own attorneys.

● We often here the argument of “Arab rejectionism”, meaning that Palestinian leaders rejected all the generous peace offers that were handed to them by Israeli leaders. But what about Israeli rejectionism? Why, asks Akiva Eldar in Haaretz, hasn’t Israel responded to the Arab peace initiative?


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

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

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

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

The Turkish TV even had some pictures of the list:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jerusalem: Municipal committee ratifies construction of neighborhood that caused Biden crisis

Posted: June 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Jerusalem’s municipal planning committee ratified today the plan to built 1,600 housing units in Ramat Shlomo neighborhood in the “eastern” part of the city (Ramat Shlomo is actually in north Jerusalem, but still in the part of the city which Israel occupied and unilaterally annexed in 1967).

Three months ago, the initial decision on the project caused a major crisis between Washington and Jerusalem. According to a report in Haaretz, the committee approved today the protocol of the meeting that dealt with Ramat Shlomo. This is a procedural act, which will enable the city council to move the project to its next stage.

Committee member Yair Gabay told Haaretz that Prime Minister Netanyahu prevented the protocol from being ratified on the committee’s last meeting, due to the visit of U.S. special envoy George Mitchell.


Flotilla | A probe that would get Netanyahu’s government off the hook

Posted: June 14th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

“[the] commission’s conclusions were pre-determined… members of the panel did give the facts a chance to confuse them.”

(Israel’s Foreing Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, on the Goldston’s commission’s report)

“Gaza flotilla probe will show the world Israel acted lawfully.”

(PM Benjamin Netanayhu talking at the start of the cabinet meeting which unanimous approved the probe).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced today the forming of an investigative commission into the raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla. The commission will include three Israelis and two foreign observers. The internationals won’t be bale to vote on decisions or view confidential material.

The three Israeli members were carefully chosen so that they would suit Netanyahu’s political needs. The Prime Minister wishes to keep the government intact, and not have Defense Minister Ehud Barak forced to resign. It shouldn’t be too hard with Supreme Court justice Jacob Turkel heading the committee. Turkel explained his views of on such probe in an interview to the IDF radio three weeks:

“I don’t like personal recommendations. The main thing is what stands before me. I don’t want any more failures, and whether a certain person is dismissed or not, or whether his role is frozen or not is of secondary importance.”

Two elderly gentlemen will serve under Turkel:  93 years old international law professor Shabtai Rosen, and 86 years old Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Horev, who has been know for his criticism on the army in the past, but will probably not put the political leadership in danger.

In order to take care of the international crisis, add some credibility to the committee and give the US something to justify backing it with, two international observers were added to the panel. The first is Lord David Trimble, a former leader of Northern Ireland’s Ulster Unionist party, a known supporter of Israel and a member of the recently launched “Friends of Israel” group. In 2007 Mr Trimble wrote a report for the Conservative Friends of Israel in the UK, explaining that the international community should oppose to negotiations with Hamas. You can read more on his appointment in NYT’s The Lede blog.

The second international observer is Canadian Brig. Gen. Ken Watkin, an expert on terrorism and on fighting none-governmental organizations. Terrorism experts usually back Israel.

This committee will probably not hear evidences from the passengers. It won’t be allowed to talk to IDF soldiers and officers, except for chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi. To gain knowledge of the events on the Mavi Marmara, it will have to rely on the army’s report – if they even let the two observers to see it. Its report will deal with the legal justifications for the siege on Gaza and with the legitimacy of the Israeli raid.

The US has welcomed the commission. The rest of the world is doubtful, which is not surprising. It’s interesting to note that the Obama Administration, who supposedly believes working with in international institutions, helped Israel bypass a UN resolution (or at least try to: we don’t know what will happen with the UNHRC planned commission).

I think the administration is simply looking to put the entire affair behind it, and go back to the diplomatic game with the Palestinian Authority. Maybe the White House hopes to get some concessions out of Netanyahu for getting him and his government off the hook. Otherwise, I can’t imagine that they really take this probe seriously, and I even guess that’s the reason they didn’t put an American observer on it – so they don’t be part of the report which will find that Israel, believe it or not, did act within its rights. But if there is something that both the US and Israel needed to understand from the past two weeks, it’s that you can’t ignore Gaza, isolate Hamas and hope the problem will just go away or sort itself somehow. In fact, both should have learned that after Cast Lead. There won’t be half a peace, just in the West Bank. And even the flotilla incident is far from being over.