Forward Thinking

Abu Mazen's Son Says No to 2-State Solution

By Jane Eisner

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Mahmoud Abbas

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority who is known as Abu Mazen, met Sept. 23 with American Jewish leaders, at a dinner hosted by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. There were plenty of former ambassadors, members of Congress, diplomats and dignitaries — former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright identified herself as “also a former person” — and even some currently in office. Martin Indyk, the U.S. Special Envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, for instance. Not to forget Wolf Blitzer.

It was a friendly crowd. All but we journalists (who stayed decidedly neutral) went to great lengths to express admiration for Abbas’s attempts at negotiations and support for a two-state solution. Again and again, it was noted that a strong majority of Israelis and Palestinians favor this outcome.

But Abbas has a more difficult task of persuasion within his own family. One of his sons, it turns out, is not a believer.

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J Street's Breakthrough With Likud and Shas

By Nathan Guttman

J Street, the dovish pro-Israel lobby that was shunned in its early years by Israeli government officials, is now making another step toward the acceptance by Israeli politicians.

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Tzachi Hanegbi

This coming September, J Street will host, for the first time, a member of Knesset from the ruling Likud Party and a member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party at its annual conference in Washington.

Tzachi Hanegbi, a hardliner turned peace supporter, will be the first member of the Likud to participate in a J Street event. Hanegbi is the son of Geula Cohen who was a fighter in the Irgun underground organization operating before the establishment of the State of Israel and who later became a right-wing politician.

Hanegbi’s first steps in politics were as a pro-settlers activist and he was one a handful of Israelis who refused to evacuate the settlement of Yamit during the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai which was part of its peace agreement with Egypt.

He was also a vocal critic of the Peace Now movement during the 1980’s.

In the Knesset, Hanegbi was first elected in 1988 as part of the Likud Party, but in 2005 he broke off with other members led by Ariel Sharon to establish the more moderate Kadima party. Later Hanegbi returned to the Likud and has since spoken in favor of a two-state solution. Still, in interviews and statements Hanegbi has stressed the responsibility of the Palestinians for the lack of progress in peace negotiations.

Hanegbi’s participation at the J Street conference, a result of outreach efforts conducted by the lobby’s office in Israel, is viewed by organizers as a mark of success. It is a sign, said Jessica Rosenblum, the group’s director of media and communications, “of the growing acceptance of J Street and the growing recognition of the common purpose,” of advancing a two-state solution.

J Street’s founding in 2008 was initially met with a cold shoulder by the Israeli government. Officials refused to meet with the lobby’s activists and the Israeli embassy boycotted its events. Since, however, the group established working relations with the embassy and an Israel senior diplomat delivered a speech at last year’s conference gala dinner. Hanegbi’s participation will signal yet another step by J Street away from its lefty image and closer to the Israeli mainstream.

Another first at this year’s conference will be the participation of Yitzhak Vaknin of Shas at the event. Shas, a Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party has supported in the past Israeli-Palestinian negotiations but has since shifted to the right. Currently it is not a member of the Netanyahu governing coalition.

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Palestinians Want Vote on Peace Too — But How?

By Nathan Jeffay

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Peace talks are due to properly restart today, but what lies at the end of the road if negotiators are successful?

There has been much discussion of the Israeli cabinet’s decision on Sunday to advance legislation to ensure that any peace deal is subject to a referendum. If the legislation passes Knesset, a plebiscite won’t just be required by law — it will be enshrined in a “basic law,” which is the closest thing that Israel has to a constitution.

To some this is a triumph for democratic decision-making; to others it is a further obstacle to peace, unnecessary in a representative parliamentary democracy.

The Palestinian leadership is also promising a referendum is a peace deal is reached. This has generated less discussion, but actually raises a more basic question — can it actually run a referendum?

The Palestinians are deeply divided, with the Western-backed Palestinian Authority ruling in the West Bank while the hard-line Hamas is in power in the Gaza Strip. The West Bank leadership is conducting the talks, but when it talks of a referendum, it means a vote in both the West Bank and Gaza.

But will Hamas allow a vote on a peace process that it rejects on its turf? Given that it has so-far blocked even far less controversial polling, such as last year’s local elections from taking place in Gaza, there is strong reason to suspect that it won’t.

The division between the PA and Hamas has paralyzed Palestinian voting. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was elected for a four-year term in January 2005 — but due to the frictions new presidential elections have never been held.

One cannot help but fear a scenario where a draft peace deal is reached, and its signing is held hostage by the inability of the Palestinians to hold the promised referendum.

But one never knows — Hamas has given some indication in the past that it would not want to incur the international wrath that it would face from blocking a referendum, and would allow it to take place. If this happened, it would represent the tacit acceptance by Hamas of the peace process, which though difficult to envisage at this early stage, could come about.

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Is Arab (League) Glass Half Full?

By Nathan Jeffay

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Skeptics point out that all that happened yesterday was that Arab leaders acknowledged what everyone already knows — that if and when Israel makes a final peace agreement with the Palestinians, it won’t return exactly to 1967 borders.

This is true. When the Arab League indicated that it is updating its position from its Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, to accept some degree of land swapping so that Israel won’t have to return to 1967 borders, it was really just a matter of its leaders coming closer to earth and recognizing that the Green Line won’t become a border. The Palestinian Authority and the international community have long realized that Israel will cede land in its sovereign borders in return for holding on to parts of the West Bank.

In fact, when the so-called Palestine Papers were leaked in 2011, they showed that the Palestinian Authority had been prepared to deviate significantly from the 1967 lines, at least in Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, stating the obvious can be important. The road to peace is obstructed by taboos from both the Israeli and Palestinian side, and the breaking of each and every taboo is an important landmark. Only when key players publicly break a taboo can the discourse start to shift, closer to agreement. The fact that the Arab League has shown willingness to revise its “1967 lines” mantra, and inject some flexibility in to the take-it-or-leave-it Peace Initiative could, if capitalized upon, present an opportunity.

There is still a huge gulf that divides Israel and proponents of the Peace Initiative, with massive differences in important areas. But the latest development updates it from an offer frozen in its time to one that could potentially be revived and form the basis of talks.

One of the most interesting questions is how, if this leads somewhere, will Hamas react. Hamas’ ideology is uncompromising, and doesn’t lend itself to the idea of agreements. However, in the scenario that the Arab world, represented by the Arab League, moves forward, there could be significant pressure on Hamas not to stand in its way. Hamas has kept its reaction to the plan in check in the past, resisting the temptation to vote against it at an Arab League summit in 2007 and instead abstaining.

But there’s another less obvious factor that could prove relevant. It was Qatar that met with John Kerry and announced the openness to land swaps. Hamas is increasingly reliant on Qatar for donations and political credibility. In October the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, visited Gaza - giving the regime kudos by going there and promising $385 million, for building projects. This gives Qatar obvious leverage withHamas.

Yesterday’s development is by no meant a fast-track to a peace agreement, but it could simplify a still-difficult route.

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What Is Tzipi Livni Thinking?

By Nathan Jeffay

Given that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is hardly famed for his enthusiasm on the peace process, it’s interesting that his first signing for his new coalition is the party that ran the campaign with the strongest make-peace-with-the-Palestinians emphasis

Today, Netanyahu recruited the six-seat Tzipi Livni Party, and announced that the party’s leader Tzipi Livni, will become a “senior partner” in the government on this issue. She is widely expected to lead negotiations, and will also serve as Justice Minister.

One wonders what was going through Livni’s mind as she made the agreement. She spoke of her “strategic and moral imperative” to “become a part of any government that commits to bringing peace.”

Now, when did she come to that conclusion? This statement showed a huge change in her thinking since the 2009 election. She won that poll, returning her then-party Kadima to Knesset as the largest party, but flatly refused to form a unity government or any other kind of alliance with Netanyahu. Then, going in with Likud would have made her Prime Minister; now, it will make her a “senior partner” on the Palestinian issue and Justice Minister.

Why was sitting with Likud inconceivable in 2009, but an imperative now? Has her political philosophy changed? If so, how?

It’s worth wondering where Israel would be is she had come to this conclusion back in 2009 and served as Prime Minister, either alone or in some type of rotation with Netanyahu. Would she have continued the progress of her predecessor Ehud Olmert towards peace — maybe even closed a deal? Would Kadima still be a large party instead of the shriveled two-seat entity it is today? And could Livni possibly be, right now, starting her second term as Prime Minister?

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Will Obama Israel Trip Be Lapid Love-In?

By Nathan Jeffay

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Is Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to Israel going to turn into a Yair Lapid love-in?

The Israeli daily Yedioth Araronoth, suggested in its editorial yesterday that Obama decided to come because Netanyahu is currently weak — because of the staggering success of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. The administration is working on the premise that “Netanyahu won, but he really lost, and therefore, he will do what is demanded of him,” Yedioth estimated.

So, as a result of Lapid-the-centrist’s success “Obama is coming to press Netanyahu’s weak point after the Israeli people have had their say and partly disproved the American concern over an Israeli lurch to the right.”

For a further Yair Lapid-related aspect of the trip, some are suggesting that it will compel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to his Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party in his coalition. Take, for example, this Haaretz article which reports:

One [Israeli] source even argued that Obama’s visit, scheduled for late March, is so close on the heels of the Israeli election as to constitute “inappropriate interference” in local politics, and that it would pave the way for Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid into the Israeli coalition.

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Are Israeli Right-Wingers Hungry for Peace?

By Nathan Jeffay

A pair of new polls indicates that right-wing Israelis are surprisingly open to a peace deal with the Palestinians.

The polls laid out a two-state-solution scenario to Israelis and asked them if they would back it. Among voters of Likud-Beytenu, the right-wing coaltion that is expected to win the January election, in a Smith Institute poll some 58% of respondents said that they would while 34% wouldn’t; and in a Dahaf Institute poll 57% would and 25% wouldn’t. Among voters of the further-right Jewish Home party 47% said they would support it and 45% oppose for Smith, and for Dahaf 53% were for and 43% against.

Overall, presented with the two-state solution outline, some 68% of Israelis gave their support for Smith and 67% for Dahaf. Opposing the proposed solution for Smith and Dahaf respectively were 25% and 21%.

The pair of polls was commissioned by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, which is thought to be taken quite seriously by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other influential Israeli politicians.

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Nobel Prize a Reminder to Europe

By Liam Hoare

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Recognized for its contribution over the course of six decades “to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe”, the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last Friday. There has been the usual carping from the reliably reactionary elements in the American commentariat – “The once-significant award has become the self-esteem builder for undeserving underachievers, a sort of gold star for grown-ups”, states Jennifer Rubin. But one would be hard pressed to find a supranational institution which has done more to foster “fraternity between nations” than the EU and its predecessors.

The Nobel Committee was explicit in its intent when it awarded the Prize to the EU. With Europe “currently undergoing grave economic difficulties and considerable social unrest”, they wished for the continent’s leaders to recommit themselves to “the successful struggle for peace and reconciliation and for democracy and human rights”.

An excellent idea indeed, and to that end, it is necessary to recognise that while the peoples of Europe have never been closer – thanks to the absence of barriers on the movement of goods, services, capital, and people – the dual problems of racism and anti-Semitism which have long plagued Europe have not been entirely vanquished. In fact, in spite of our best efforts, during this period of austerity and turmoil, tensions between classes and communities have only increased, including incitements against European Jewry.

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