(JTA) Reuven Rivlin just did the one thing Israel’s president — a largely ceremonial post — doesn’t usually do: He publicly, and vehemently, opposed a specific bill endorsed by the government and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Addressing a conference in Eilat, Rivlin lambasted the controversial Nation-State Law, advanced this week by Israel’s Cabinet and which seeks to enshrine Israel’s Jewish character in law.
Supporters of the law say it merely places the two sides of Israel’s “Jewish and democratic” character on equal footing and reinforces the state’s Jewishness against its enemies. But the law’s opponents say it gives primacy to Israel’s Jewish side. They point to the absence of the word “equality” in the bill and note that the bill fails to guarantee collective rights to Israel’s minorities.
Rivlin made clear which side of the debate he’s on.
“Ladies and gentlemen, such a hierarchical approach, which places Jewishness before democracy, misses the great significance of the [Israeli] Declaration of Independence, which combined the two elements together without separating them,” he said. “This is the beating heart of the State of Israel, a state established on two solid foundations: nationhood on the one hand and democracy on the other. The removal of one will bring the whole building down.”
It’s not surprising that Rivlin opposes the bill; he’s long been a crusader for democratic and minority rights. But it is surprising that he came out against the government so publicly. The president’s job is to welcome dignitaries, represent the state at such functions as funerals, and guide the formation of a new government following elections.
The president is not a political position, per se, and he’s not supposed to get involved in legislative battles. Rivlin himself stressed that point in an interview with the Times of Israel’s David Horovitz before he was elected in June. He was responding to a question about his opposition to a Palestinian state.
“I won’t intervene in Knesset decisions,” he told Horovitz.”The president is a bridge to enable debate, to reduce tensions, to alleviate frictions.”
So why did he intervene here? A source in the president’s office, who wished to remain anonymous, said Rivlin sees this bill as not just any piece of proposed legislation but fears it will affect the core nature of Israel’s democracy.
Israeli lawmakers have voted for a bill intended to prevent the free distribution of Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Hayom newspaper — a media outlet that is considered to be a virtual mouthpiece of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Adelson, the controversial founder and owner of the newspaper, made headlines last week when he said: “Israel isn’t going to be a democratic state — so what?” That comment triggered a new round of criticism on Adelson’s involvement in Israeli politics, and his role as Netanyahu’s de facto media patron.
“Mr Adelson is not here,” said opposition Labor party lawmaker Eitan Cabel said while celebrating the bill’s advancement. “However, his spirit is here in this plenary.”
But it wasn’t only Netanyahu’s political enemies who voted for a measure that — if it clears hurdles to final passage — could effectively silence Adelson.
Many members of his ruling coalition also voted for the measure. That was a sure sign of the increasing fragility of the government, especially coming just days after environment minister Amir Peretz quit in a huff over the budget.
So what allowed the bill to pass even though it takes aim at a prominent and highly public ally of Netanyahu?
The Ministerial Committee for Legislation usually decides the government position on each bill — and orders all governing coalition members to vote accordingly.
But this time, it took the step of granting ministers the freedom to vote as they please.
The results were eye-popping — and worrisome for Netanyahu.
The vote in favor of the bill was 43-23. Ten members of coalition party Yesh Atid voted in favor as did 12 out of 14 parliament members of Yisrael Beiteinu, the party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Now, the bill will move on to a Knesset committee. If the bill eventually passes, it would be more than a black eye for Netanyahu. Some insiders in his Likud Party say it could lead to the collapse of the coalition because of the infighting that it could spark.
Thinkstock / Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confronted quite a challenge when the Atlantic’s Jeff Goldberg quoted Obama administration officials calling him a “chickenshit.”
Israeli reporters, in turn, faced their own challenge: How to translate “chickenshit” into Hebrew.
Modern Hebrew is rich with phrases alluding to the Bible and rabbinic literature. Swear words, not so much. A 2004 song by Israeli hip-hop group Hadag Nachash says “Here, everyone speaks Hebrew/And curses in Russian, English and Arabic.”
So Israeli papers, reporting the anonymous comments Wednesday morning, had to settle on something less evocative than “chickenshit.” The consensus translation that emerged among major news sources was “pachdan,” or coward. Haaretz did a little better, using “pachdan aluv,” or “lowly coward.”
As any poultry farmer can attest, none of these are chickenshit. “Coward” lacks the crude, sandlot insult quality that “chickenshit” conveys. “Coward” is what you’d call someone before a duel. “Chickenshit” is what you’d call someone before a bar fight.
To compensate, Israeli news articles put the word, in English, in their articles, such that “chickenshit” is clearly visible in the opening paragraph, running counter to the Hebrew text.
A friend of mine suggested that Israeli reporters could have avoided all this by translating the phrase to Hebrew literally: “Hara shel tarnegolim.” Of course, that’s also not quite Hebrew: “Hara” is a swear word in Arabic.
“There is no asylum seeker problem in Israel.”
So said Netanyahu when, following his recent address to members of the Jewish Federations of North America in New York, one of the attendees raised the issue of African asylum-seekers.
“They are illegal job immigrants,” the Israeli prime minister said, adding: “Asylum seekers can come in like those from Syria — but not job seekers from Africa.”
There are a few problems with this.
First of all, while all of Syria’s other neighbors have welcomed thousands of Syrian refugees (Turkey and Lebanon each host over one million Syrian refugees), Israel has accepted none. Israel does welcome Syrians who’ve been injured in the ongoing civil war in the country and offer them top-notch medical treatment free of charge. Most patients are interested in returning, but even in cases when they are not, they are deported back to a country engulfed in war. Thus, the State opposed the petition filed to the High Court by a 17-year-old Syrian girl who was treated in Israel and wished to remain here. She was deported to Syria in early 2014.
But, more than that, there’s the fact that about 48,000 African migrants reside in Israel. The government insists that they are “illegal work infiltrators.” Is that true — or are they refugees who would face persecution if returned to their homelands?
(JTA) — That Jerusalem building approval blow-up between the Netanyahu and Obama governments? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and pro-Israel media watchdogs like Honest Reporting are pressing the storyline that Peace Now is at fault. Which is kind of like blaming routers for the bad news you posted on the Internet.
Let’s review: On Sept. 24 the Interior Ministry published in Kol Ha’Ir, a free Jerusalem weekly, an “Announcement of a project approval.” It refers to plans to allow the building of 2,355 to 2,561 units in Givat HaMatos, in the area of Jerusalem that Palestinians claim as a future capital. Its key phrase is high up: “Building approvals and permits: A project that is authorized to issue approvals and permits.”
The language is important because, although the plan was approved in 2012, the ad signals the go-ahead for building; its publication makes it harder to reverse the proposal. Sept. 24, as it happens, was also the eve of Rosh Hashanah.
On Oct. 1 — yesterday, and the day Netanyahu met with Obama — Peace Now and Terrestrial Jerusalem noted the announcement’s publication. The building permit became an issue in the talks between Obama and Netanyahu and resulted an an unusually sharp rebuke from the White House.
Benjamin Netanyahu, left; anti-ISIS fighter, right / Getty Images
Speaking at the General Assembly this week, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu repeated a refrain he has sounded for three decades (since his days as Israeli ambassador to the U.N.) — that all forms of terrorism are different sides of the same coin and have civilization as their target:
So when it comes to their ultimate goals, Hamas is ISIS and ISIS is Hamas. And what they share in common all militant Islamists share in common. Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Shabab in Somalia, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Al-Nusra in Syria, the Mahdi army in Iraq, and the Al-Qaida branches in Yemen, Libya, the Philippines, India and elsewhere.
The startling assortment of groups; the lumping of a Shiite movement (Hezbollah) with those that can treat Shi‘a as apostates; the linking of Israel’s enemies with those now targeted by the United States — all this is politically convenient. But is it accurate?
Settlements haven’t been in the news of late — and not simply because war pushed them off the media’s radar. They haven’t been in the news because since the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli yeshiva students back in June, there hasn’t been much settlement news to report.
True, already-approved settlement construction continued unabated (and there’s plenty of it). And settlers established several new illegal outposts. And tenders were awarded for new construction in the East Jerusalem settlement of Gilo. So clearly we’re not in the midst of a full-fledged settlement freeze. However, with respect to both the West Bank and East Jerusalem, there is undoubtedly a semi-freeze: no major new settlement plans promoted through planning committees, very few new approvals granted and then for only a tiny number of units, and no new tenders issued.
This is nothing like the 10-month “moratorium” Netanyahu grudgingly negotiated with then-U.S. envoy George Mitchell, during which all sorts of new settlement planning and approvals continued apace, and previously-approved construction went ahead without restraint. And it’s nothing like the settlement “restraint” that Netanyahu disingenuously promised Secretary of State John Kerry in the context of the last U.S.-backed peace effort, which translated to a huge spike in settlement approvals and announcements.
To be clear, a lull in new settlement approvals and announcements under Netanyahu isn’t unprecedented. However, coming on the heels of the collapse of even the pretense of peace talks and Israel’s condemnation of Abbas for forming a reconciliation government approved by Hamas, one would have expected Netanyahu to open the floodgates. Instead, he adopted a policy that, if adopted months earlier, could have given peace talks a chance to survive and even succeed. Why? The most likely explanation is that Netanyahu calculated that at a time when he wanted the world to see the Israel-Palestinian conflict in the most black-and-white terms possible — a peace-seeking democratic nation fighting an irredeemably evil terrorist enemy — he was better off keeping settlements out of the news. And so he did.
In his press conference yesterday on the Gaza operation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was open and honest about at least one thing: the outcome. He noted that it was “too early” to tell if long-term quiet had been achieved. This was inevitable, given the vague nature of “quiet” as a goal for a military campaign. Indeed, it is too early to tell for sure what long-term effects the war will have on Israel, on Hamas, on the Palestinian Authority, and on the prospects for peace talks.
But four things stand out for the immediate future. First, it is clear that Israel has won the war. Much of Hamas’s military capabilities have been degraded or used up, its regional allies are few and far between (and themselves bereft of much regional influence), and none of its efforts to achieve a tactical victory over Israel succeeded. In addition, the United States and many European governments are now talking about demilitarizing Gaza (essentially, disarming Hamas and the smaller jihadist groups) as part of a longer-term process to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All of these tilt the balance of power in Israel’s favor.
Second, there is no military solution to the “Hamas problem” or, for that matter, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more broadly. But there will be a return to the status quo ante if a political framework is not established as part of the talks that follow from the ceasefire. In this sense, the seeds for Hamas’s rejuvenation have been planted alongside the seeds of its taming. If Israel can work constructively with the Palestinian Authority and the international community, it can bring the PA/Fatah to Gaza to improve the lives of Palestinians there while also tying Hamas down by not letting it rebuild its military capacity or its authority. However, for this work, Israel will have to accept that Hamas isn’t only here to stay, but must be accepted as a political actor — one that has a role to play in the political process.
Mahmoud Mansour and Morel Malka on their wedding day, August 17, 2014 / Haaretz
(Haaretz) — To disrupt a wedding celebration and spoil the joy of two young people joining their lives together, one needs a very good reason. Racism clearly does not qualify.
There’s an easy way for even the most tribal and anti-assimilationist Jew to grasp the utter unacceptability of the behavior of the controversial Israeli organization Lehava. The group put out a public call for demonstrators to disrupt the scheduled wedding party of a young Jaffa couple — Mahmoud Mansour, a Muslim man, and Morel Malka, a Jewish woman who converted to Islam for her marriage — telling them to bring signs and loudspeakers to register their disapproval.
All one needs to do is imagine how Jews around the world would react if something similar took place in Europe — let’s say, in Germany. What if a neo-Nazi group took to Facebook to assemble crowds to wave signs and scream slogans to disturb a party celebrating the union of a Jewish man and a bride who had converted to Judaism and send a message that their union is an “abomination?”
No matter what one’s personal opinion is on conversion or intermarriage, such ugliness is both vile and dangerous.
Luckily, there has been a silver lining to the unattractive cloud of the Lehava campaign to crash the party. The lining takes the form of the support of the wedding hall, which has resisted threats of boycotts if it allowed the celebration to take place undisturbed, as well the thousands of Israelis who have stood up publicly to defend Mahmoud and Morel’s right to pursue happiness. The couple itself has shown admirable steadfastness and unwillingness to bend to the threats and cancel their party.
But the brightest spark of light in the darkness showed up on the eve of the wedding in the form of a Facebook post by Israel’s president. Though clearly no fan of the union, President Reuven Rivlin deserves credit for speaking strongly against the racist attacks on the couple’s right to marry and celebrate, wishing them “health, comfort and happiness.”
(JTA) — President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are not the best of friends – that seems pretty clear by now.
But following reports during the Gaza conflict of cut-off phone calls, tough talk of “demands” and eavesdropping, it may be time for them to figure out a way back to steadier ground.
We asked an array of experts on the U.S.-Israel relationship what the two leaders must do to restore a relationship that both say is critical for their countries.
Deus ex machina: A crisis will bring us together
Aaron David Miller, a Middle East negotiator under Democratic and Republican presidents, remembers the last such breach between U.S. and Israeli leaders – when George H.W. Bush was president and Yitzhak Shamir was prime minister – and it was worse, he says. That is, until Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990.
“The only thing that will improve the relationship is the emergence of a joint project that affords both of the them the opportunity to get on the same page and succeeds and makes them look good,” said Miller, now a vice president at the Wilson Center. The first Persian Gulf War and the subsequent Madrid peace talks are “what saved the Bush-Shamir relationship.”
“You need a set circumstances that compels the United States and Israel to operate in a way that not just manages something but accomplishes something and makes them look good,” Miller said. “That’s the only thing that will do it – phone calls and warm statements won’t do it.”
Palestinians carry a boy following an Israeli military strike on the Gaza beach / Getty Images
In the current outburst of violence, perhaps the only pliable and docile actor is Israel’s center-left. Politically speaking, opposition leader Isaac Herzog might as well be cowering in a shelter. He toes Prime Minister Netanyahu’s line, supporting both the airstrikes and the ground invasion. True, he popped up to demand an exit strategy from the government, but he did so just as Hamas was rejecting a cease-fire — rendering his quibbles about an exit strategy weak and irrelevant. Centrist Minister of Finance Yair Lapid is even more accommodating, loosening the purse-strings for an indefinite war.
The trouble is that acquiescing to periodic escalations in Gaza makes mincemeat of the mainstream left’s supposed stance on the conflict. It’s a strategic disaster.
(JTA) — Apparently, Danny Danon went too far.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired Danon, a hawkish Likudnik who had been deputy defense minister, from his post after Danon slammed the Israeli Cabinet decision to endorse a proposed cease-fire with Hamas.
Danon had called the decision a “slap in the face to all the residents of Israel.”
Netanyahu issued this statement about Danon’s firing:
At a time when the Government of Israel and the IDF are in the midst of a military campaign against the terrorist organizations and is taking determined action to maintain the security of Israel’s citizens, it cannot be that the Deputy Defense Minister will sharply attack the leadership of the country regarding the campaign… In light of his remarks, which express a lack of confidence in the government and in the prime minister personally, it was expected that the Deputy Defense Minister would take responsibility for his actions and resign. Since he has not done so, I have decided… to dismiss him from his post.
There are two ways to interpret Danon’s dismissal (he remains a Knesset member from Likud, Netanyahu’s party). One is that Netanyahu had had enough of Danon’s right-wing agitation, considered him out of line with the values of the Israeli Cabinet and wanted to enforce the rule of maintaining unity during wartime.
The other is that Netanyahu views Danon as a threat on his right flank, and took advantage of this opportunity to oust him from the Cabinet.
The revenge killing of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khudair has shaken up even those who normally have little reason to question their preconceived notions about the Israel-Palestinian dispute.
Eli Valley takes an insightful graphic look at one (fictional) American Jew’s crisis of confidence.
SCROLL DOWN TO ENLARGE.
Eli Valley is finishing his first novel. His website is www.evcomics.com, and he tweets @elivalley
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman / Getty Images
Who was the winner in the Liberman-Netanyahu divorce?
The ruling party in Israel has just split, with Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman pulling his Yisrael Beytenu party out of its year-and-a-half-old alliance with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.
Liberman said he was leaving Bibi because the latter is too soft on Hamas in Gaza. Despite the fact that the new Gaza campaign began shortly afterwards, Liberman hasn’t changed his mind.
Liberman, in status and in the size of the party he heads, was the junior partner in the relationship. Yet he seems to have gained the most from it — and decided to take his gains and run.
In moments of national tension — Israelis know these all too well — one can expect a leader to measure every word on a scale that calms on one side and inflames on the other.
So what are we to make of Benjamin Netanyahu’s tweets on Monday as the country was preparing to bury and mourn its three murdered boys?
Vengeance for the blood of a small child, Satan has not yet created. Neither has vengeance for the blood of 3 pure youths who were on their>— PM of Israel (@IsraeliPM) June 30, 2014
way home to their parents who will not see them anymore. Hamas is responsible and Hamas will pay. May the memories of the 3 boys be blessed.— PM of Israel (@IsraeliPM) June 30, 2014
I am not drawing a direct causal link between what I think was ill advised language and the Facebook page where tens of thousands of Israelis cried for vengeance or the murder of Mohammed Abu Khudair, most likely an act of revenge. But I do think that a leader has a responsibility to set a tone and this was the wrong one.
I’ve floated this argument on Twitter, actually, and the response (mostly from Times of Israel writer Haviv Rettig Gur) has been, firstly, that in describing vengeance for a child’s murder Bibi was making a literary allusion to Chaim Nachman Bialik’s poem about the Kishniev massacre. Then came the argument that Bibi was actually using such dramatic rhetoric in order to compensate for a not-so-dramatic military response, and so this talk of vengeance represented a sort of de-escalation. And, lastly, Gur pointed out that this exchange was directed at Hamas and not at innocent 16-year-old Palestinian kids.
All of this is true, and yet I doubt that any of it was telegraphed through Netanyahu’s tweet. How many people got that it was Bialik? Understood that Bibi was offering tough words to make up for his decision to, say, avoid retaking Gaza? Or that he was even talking specifically about Hamas? No. What that tweet expressed was one word: Vengeance.
There are ways of channeling the pain and anger of a country without calling for vengeance, which in its classically biblical form is indeed an eye for an eye, a life for a life. Why not talk instead of justice, of tracking down the perpetrators and holding them to account for their crimes? Wouldn’t it have seemed more temperate, more responsible, to call for justice instead of vengeance?
If it sounds like I’m over-intellectualizing this, parsing hairs just at the moment that rocks are being thrown and missiles raining down, I would argue again that seemingly trivial word choices at moments when emotions are raw and people are looking for guidance about how to behave and what to feel are not at all inconsequential.
Still think I’m making too much of a tweet? I’d refer you to another moment when Bibi has been accused of drawing violent allusions that had very real world effects. See: Rabin, Yitzchak.
(Haaretz) — Like (almost) everyone else, I hope against hope for the safe return of the three kidnapped yeshiva students. One can only imagine their nightmarish ordeal as well as the agony and anguish of the father or mother whose child has disappeared under such bone-chilling circumstances.
But it is not only the immediate families that I am concerned about. In fact, the dignified and even inspiring public appearances of the worried parents leads one to pray that they will be able to cope with the worst, if it should come to that, God forbid. But Israel - or at least large parts of Israeli society - may not be so resilient: the killing of the three boys could push us closer to the edge that we’ve been long approaching.
I am not talking security here, though that too could deteriorate in the wake of what seems to be Israel’s strategy of achieving long held objectives under the guise of searching for the missing students. And I don’t think there is much cause for concern at this point about Israel’s international image, as the world’s attention is on the World Cup in Brazil and the disintegration of Iraq and, if there’s anything left, on the ongoing turbulence in the Ukraine.
I am less focused on the tangible and more on the emotional and psychological toll of the kidnapping on the Israeli psyche. No one can deny that Israeli society has grown more insular and less tolerant, especially over the last decade: prone to bouts of self-righteousness, blind to its own transgressions, allergic to dissenting points of view. The despicable crime committed by the terrorists who carried out the kidnapping could hasten this dangerous and ongoing process.
Newly elected Israeli President Reuven Rivlin with Benjamin Netanyahu / Getty Images
Is Reuven Rivlin’s ascendancy to the post of president good news for left-wing Israelis?
Progressives should cheer Rivlin’s election not because he supports equal rights for Israeli Arabs or because he wants to give Palestinians the vote in an Israeli-annexed West Bank, but because his new position in the limelight will help to clarify what should already be abundantly clear: that official Israel’s support for a two-state solution is a farce, and has been for a long time.
It’s true that as president of Israel Rivlin will hold a mostly ceremonial, symbolic position. But figureheads are important in their own way. They telegraph to the world what a country (putatively) stands for — its most cherished values and ideals. When Shimon Peres held the top spot, he made clear the value of the two-state solution. Rivlin, by contrast, will signal the exact opposite message: an undivided Greater Israel is, to him, the supreme and ultimate value.
Immediately upon being elected president, Rivlin swore he’d represent all Israelis — not just the right-wing annexationist Jew crew of which he is a part. But that kind of assurance is completely beside the point. Everyone knows what Rivlin really stands for: a State of Israel in which Palestinians get the right to vote, but give up on the dream of national self-determination in the form of a sovereign Palestinian state.
Since Israel’s last general election a year and a half ago, the country’s two most powerful party leaders have exhibited surprisingly good relations.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman united their parties, Likud and Yisrael Beytenu, before the election and have surprised observers by keeping them together and getting along relatively well. Netanyahu loyally kept the Foreign Minister post open for him until his legal troubles ended in November.
But all is no longer rosy in paradise. Netanyahu has angered Liberman by backing Likud’s Reuven Rivlin for president. Netanyahu made the move reluctantly, after failing to recruit a candidate he deemed more suitable. His coolness towards Rivlin even prompted him to take the highly unusual step of trying to bring a president from New York, namely Elie Wiesel.
While Rivlin is a staunch rightist, both Netanyahu and Liberman dislike him for various reasons, including his refusal to back certain measures aimed against Israel’s Arab minority. But Netanyahu gave in to pressures from within is party, while Liberman remains opposed — and is left angry at Netanyahu for breaking what he said was an agreement not to back Rivlin.
Under the surface of the Netanyahu-Liberman relationship, they are two men jostling for prominence and fighting for the title of king of the Israeli right. And if Liberman can get ahead by generating a crisis based on Netanyahu’s presidential choices, capitalizing on an accusation that he acted in bad faith, Israel may be in for some political turbulence.
Israeli Jewish youths fix a menorah in Jerusalem’s Muslim quarter / Getty Images
There’s a received wisdom that in Israel, everyone is polarizing, and that with a right-wing government and stalled peace process, Arab citizens are feeling increasingly antagonistic towards the state. But a new survey suggests that this isn’t the case.
There has been a rise in the percentage of Arabs who recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. In 2012, 47% of Arab citizens accepted this, but in 2013 — the figure just released — this rose to 53%.
For Benjamin Netanyahu, timing is a beautiful thing.
When Mahmoud Abbas announced the formation of a Fatah-Hamas unity government on Wednesday, Bibi knew he had it made. He pulled out of the peace talks on Thursday, doing the smartest possible thing at the smartest possible moment. Not the wise thing, not the morally right thing — but, strategically speaking, the smart thing. Here’s why.
1. Abbas gave Israel the perfect out, at the perfect moment
The deadline for U.S.-brokered peace talks — April 29 — was looming, and it really looked as if John Kerry’s endeavor was going to come to an end with a whimper. If that were to happen, Israel would come out looking pretty bad, what with the ongoing settlement building and merciless mocking of Kerry that have characterized its participation in the process.
But then, all of a sudden, Abbas announced something nobody was expecting: a unity accord with — Hamas! Hamas, the internationally recognized terrorist group! What could be easier to condemn? Could anyone have imagined a better excuse to call it quits? It was almost too good to be true.