Young Jews argue with pro-Palestinian supporters beside a banner calling for a Palestinian state
The prospect of a U.N. Security Council vote on parameters and a timeline for Israel-Palestinian negotiations, coming as it does in the lead-up to Israeli elections, is eliciting this tricky argument: “We can’t pressure Israel when Israelis are going to the polls, because it will only help the Right.”
That argument fits neatly into the list of memes that time and time again have been used to justify U.S. inaction in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Memes like: “We can’t press for peace with the region in upheaval.” “We can’t ask any Israeli prime minister to take action that could destabilize his government.” “This is a losing issue that will cost any president and his party dearly.”
All of these memes are grounded in two self-congratulatory, self-serving premises: that we really, truly are committed to achieving peace and a two-state solution; and that we really, truly would take consequential action to achieve these goals, but circumstances beyond our control prevent it.
These memes have the quality of “truthiness,” making intuitive sense to Americans who are sick of Middle East wars and foreign interventions. But truthiness is not the same as truth.
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?
William Schabas, chosen to chair the inquiry committee, a move compared by Israel to “inviting ISIS to organize religious tolerance week,” has strong Jewish roots.
His paternal grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Galicia in Central Europe who moved to New York at the turn of the 20th century. “I was not raised with any religion,” Schabas told the Forward, but he’d go on occasion with his father to synagogue. “I’m not a religious person but I’m very comfortable and proud of my Jewish ancestry, I’ts part of me,” he said. “I feel very good and positive about it.” Schabas also fondly recalls family meals at Jewish delicatessens.
Schabas is a member of the advisory board of the Rene Cassin organization, a London-based Jewish human rights group. His father, Ezra Schabas is a leading figure in the Canadian classical music scene. A clarinetist, conductor, music teacher and theorist, Ezra Schabas is a member of the Canadian Royal Conservatory and has won many musical awards. He was educated in New York, served in the U.S. army in World War II and later moved to Toronto.
Schabas doesn’t know the exact origin of his family’s name, but he is sure it comes from the Hebrew word Shabbat (shabbas in Yiddish.) It is an unusual name for Ashkenazi Jews, a fact that led one rabbi to suggest that the family may have Sephardic origins as well.
The goals of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) are laudatory: a non-partisan forum designed to promote the highest levels of human rights adherence by nations around the world. Unfortunately, the current council fails to perform its mission as it has descended into concerning itself more with local politics and decades old ideological conflicts. Due to the council’s disproportionate condemnation of Israeli policies, the body loses legitimacy to honestly judge human rights performance and weakens the stature of the United Nations around the world.
After an 18-month boycott, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ended his country’s boycott of the council by participating in the country’s annual review earlier this week. Haaretz reported that German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle sent a harsh letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanding Israel appear before the UNHRC or face “severe diplomatic damage.” The New York Times harshly criticized Israel for previously refusing to appear before the tribunal in an editorial saying, “it (Israel) unwisely set itself further apart with a decision to withhold cooperation from a United Nations Human Rights Council Review of its human rights practice.”
It is true that Israel has from an ideal human rights record. Netanyahu’s insistence on continuing to build settlements on the West Bank plays a destructive role to the peace process. Furthermore, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank must end and allow for the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Nonetheless, the council’s obsessive focus on Israel and the hypocrisy of its member states makes the legitimate criticism of Israel sound unwarranted.
In Iran’s vicious attack on Israel’s record, its U.N. representative called Israel the “regime” and refused to acknowledge the name Israel even when interrupted by the Israeli official asking him which regime he was discussing. If Iran is not willing to recognize another UN member state’s right to exist for political purposes, it should not sit on the UNHRC and judge Israel’s performance as Iran is clearly biased. The representative from the non-democratically elected Omani regime called for all Palestinian prisoners be released from Israeli jails. This is despite many of the Palestinian prisoners are incarcerated for engaging in brutal terror attacks killing Holocaust survivors, women, and children in cafés and buses.
No other country would ever be asked to release all of its prisoners, especially those who have committed such horrible atrocities. Possibly, the most absurd rebuke came from Syria who called for all “Syrian citizens” living in the Israeli Golan Heights to be permitted to visit their families in Syria. The hypocrisy of a nation whose leader has murdered tens of thousands of his own people and used chemical weapons on innocent civilians is unspeakable. Only at the U.N. would such a spectacle of such repressive regimes criticizing Israel be tolerated.
At the start of President Barack Obama’s presidency, he announced a “pivot towards Asia” after years of American military and political resources being bogged down in the Middle East.
Obama’s speech Tuesday at the United Nations General Assembly shows how clearly the pendulum has swung back. Although he referred to Iran, Syria Israel, and Palestine a combined 71 times, Obama only mentioned China once. He left out other Asian nations such as India, Japan, and North Korea altogether. This imbalance speaks volumes about Obama’s understanding that in the current era it is nearly impossible to avoid the volatile Middle East.
The speech also highlighted his abandonment of democratization and human rights as supreme values, replaced with a Henry Kissinger-style Realpolitik.
When addressing the Syrian crisis, Obama asked rhetorically how the United Nations and United States have handled this delicate affair. His underwhelming response: “We believe that as a starting point the international community must enforce the ban on chemical weapons.”
Gone was the rhetoric calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s immediate removal from power. The stated root for this policy is also illuminating, “I did so (supported intervention) because I believe it is in the national security interests of the United States and in the interest of the world.” His main focus is American security interests and global norms.
Obama continued by outlying his doctrine using American military power: if America’s allies in the region are attacked, oil flow disrupted, terrorist bases built, or weapons of mass destruction utilized. The president pointedly avoided promising that the U.S. would will use force to prevent genocide or to end a human rights massacre like in Syria. Translation: Obama is giving free rein to Assad to continue slaughtering his own people. Just don’t use chemical weapons or stop the flow of oil to Chicago or Los Angeles.
Congressional efforts to shut down the Palestinian delegation office in Washington have garnered only tepid support.
A letter, co-authored by the outgoing and incoming leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee from both parties and calling on the President to close the PLO office in Washington, has closed on Friday with only 239 signatures.
The letter came in response to the United Nations November 29 vote recognizing Palestine as a non-member observer state, a status strongly opposed by Israel and by the United States.
While not a bad number for a congressional effort, this figure is on the lower end of support for AIPAC-backed initiative. Letters supported by the pro-Israel lobby in recent years easily got more than 300 signatures.
The party breakdown shows clearly more support for the measure by Republicans, with 172 co-signers. Only 67 Democrats signed on.
Why the chilly reception to the anti-Palestinian measure?
The announcement, made by Laurent Fabius, France’s foreign minister, that his government will support the Palestinian Authority’s bid for “non-member observer status” at the United Nations next week is hardly news, but nevertheless newsworthy.
The news, of course, has been in the offing for quite some time. France’s Socialist Party, which has historically enjoyed closer ties with Israel than have the nation’s Gaullist and conservative parties, has long been an advocate for Palestinian statehood. In 1982, shortly after becoming president, François Mitterrand spoke to this very issue in a speech he gave before the Knesset. When he began his own run for the presidency last year, Mitterrand’s disciple François Hollande announced sixty campaign promises: the next to last was that he would support international recognition of a Palestinian state.
There was little surprise, as a result, when Fabius, during an exchange in the National Assembly, affirmed that France, one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, would “with coherence and lucidity” vote “oui” at the U.N. This desire for coherence applies not just to past commitments made by Hollande and the Socialists, but also public opinion: according to a recent poll published in the newspaper Le Figaro, nearly 80% of the French believe that Palestinians should have their own nation. As for lucidity, the bloodshed in Gaza, which tragically has burnished Hamas’ image while tarnishing Fatah’s, deeply concerns the Quai d’Orsay (France’s equivalent of our own Foggy Bottom). Mahmoud Abbas is the best hope for peace, they believe, but they fear this frail hope will collapse under the weight of recent events.
Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu once again avoided speaking to each other yesterday, as they have done for the past three years. Despite both claiming that they want to restart conflict-ending talks, there was little evidence of that in either leader’s speech to the United Nations’ General Assembly.
Abbas was on the attack from the outset. Speaking as the representative of an “angry people,” he leveled a familiar list of charges against Israel. Ethnic cleansing, settler violence, unlawful detention and the closure of the borders with Gaza all got a mention. Most were met with applause. So too, the call for Israel to be “condemned, punished and boycotted.” He noted that the Palestinian population is young and frustrated, hinting that violence could once again return. Yet, he claimed, Israeli policy and an aggressive brand of Israeli political discourse means that the Palestinian Authority, the guardian of Palestinian political and security relations with Israel, is under threat of collapse. There is only one way to understand this and only one conclusion to be drawn, he said. The Israeli government rejects a two-state solution.
Not so the Palestinians. Although time is running out, there is a chance — “maybe the last” — to return to talks. And he reassured the General Assembly that there is no need for marathon negotiations or to solve an “intractable riddle.” The solution already exists. All it needs is a return to the UN’s own terms of reference and the Arab Peace Initiative.
But even whilst calling for a “new approach,” Abbas actually drove peace efforts further up last year’s cul-de-sac. His announcement that he would be seeking a General Assembly resolution to grant non-member status to the Palestinians is anathema to Israel. It is also a pale echo of last year’s thwarted application for full UN membership. Abbas wants the support of the UN to draw the 1967 green line on the maps ahead of any negotiations, and for talks to then discuss changes to that line. Israel’s precondition for talks is that there are no preconditions, and thus rejects this approach. So, we can assume, will the next U.S. president.
In Take 2 of its push for unilateral statehood the Palestinian Authority has announced it will ask the United Nations to upgrade its status from “observer entity” to “observer state.”
“After the U.N. vote … Palestine will become a country under occupation. Israel will not be able to say that this is a disputed area,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat reasoned. “The terms of reference for any negotiations will be about withdrawal, not over what the Israelis say is legal or not legal.”
Israel has long been opposed to unilateral moves by the Palestinians, and soon after details of the latest plan became public condemned it. “The Palestinians committed themselves to resolving all outstanding issues in negotiations, and such a unilateral action would be viewed as a violation,” said Mark Regev, spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But is this the final word on the subject?
The foreign policy chief of the European Union, Catherine Ashton, is under furious attack for a speech she gave March 19, several hours after the deadly shootings at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse, in which she mentioned the Toulouse attack and deaths of Palestinian youths in Gaza in the same sentence.
First Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, called the supposed analogy “inappropriate.” Then others piled on: Defense Minister Ehud Barak called her words “outrageous.” Interior Minister Eli Yishai demanded she resign. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized her more indirectly, just before a meeting with French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, who had flown to Israel for the funerals of the Toulouse victims. The Anti-Defamation League expressed “outrage.” The American Jewish Committee expressed “profound dismay.” For a more detailed critique, here’s Middle East scholar (and my old high school chum) Barry Rubin, dissecting what’s wrong.
Actually, what’s wrong is the false notion that Ashton’s words were, as Barry puts it, “a statement” issued “in response to the Toulouse shooting.” They were nothing of the sort. As I write in my latest Forward column, she was delivering the keynote address at a U.N.-E.U. conference on the challenges facing Palestinian refugee youth. She concluded with a sad litany of unrelated tragedies around the world that clearly share nothing except that young people die. Here’s the video of the speech.
How did everyone get it so wrong?
Newt Gingrich’s December 9 Declaration of Palestinian Inventedness (“we’ve had an invented Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs”) caused a bit of a stir at the Saturday night GOP debate.
Both Mitt Romney and Ron Paul condemned the remark as, in Paul’s words, “just stirrin’ up trouble.” Interestingly, though, both agreed that Gingrich’s point was historically accurate. No one on stage disagreed.
Responding to the charge of troublemaking, Newt doubled down, adding some historical detail to show that the “Palestinian claim to a right of return is based on a historically false story.”
Somebody ought to have the courage to go all the way back to the 1921 League of Nations mandate for a Jewish homeland, point out the context in which Israel came into existence, and ‘Palestinian’ did not become a common term until after 1977.
Let’s take the professor at his word and go back to the League of Nations mandate. What do we find? First, that it’s from 1922, not 1921. Second, it’s not a “mandate for a Jewish homeland.” It is titled “Mandate for Palestine.” The difference is critical. The purpose of a mandate, as defined in the 1919 Covenant of the League of Nations, Article 22, was to govern territories formerly controlled by other states (mainly meaning the losers in World War I) and prepare them for independence. One of the conditions of the Palestine mandate was to help prepare a Jewish national home in Palestine (nothing about Palestine as a whole being a Jewish home). The mandate defines “all the inhabitants of Palestine, irrespective of race and religion,” as “citizens” (the mandate’s language) of Palestine, which in turn is defined in the league covenant as a state-in-the-making. In other words, from August 12, 1922, Palestine was a political entity in international law, not just a geographic one, and its inhabitants were legally defined — and universally described—as “Palestinians.” Some were known as Palestinian Jews, some as Palestinian Arabs. The term was in general use long before 1977.
Like Vladimir Putin, who can just don a wetsuit and emerge from a deep sea dive holding two sixth-century artifacts, there is apparently nothing Benjamin Netanyahu can’t do. Just read the seventh paragraph of this New York Times story, about the opening of the Metropolitan Museum’s new Islamic art galleries. It mentions a visit that the Israeli prime minister took to the museum last month while he was in town for the United Nations General Assembly.
Kudos to Netanyahu for being curious enough to go check out the collection, but he should probably withhold his opinions on, say, the dating of the objects. Please read, but don’t weep:
Last month, Haidar got a taste of public reaction when dignitaries in town for the U.N. General Assembly asked to see the new galleries. One of them was Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, who was a model guest, admiring the art and chuckling at a wooden panel from Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein. But he stopped short when Haidar showed him a 10th-century Muslim prayer mat that was found on the shores of Lake Tiberias. The date suggested a very early Muslim presence in what is now Israel. Netanyahu asked if it was really that old, Haidar recalled, and she assured him that the carpet had been scientifically dated. But he kept staring at it quizzically. “ ‘I don’t know,’ he finally said, ‘it just doesn’t look that old to me.’ ”
Apparently, all it took was a speech.
After Barack Obama’s address to the United Nations last week, in which he spent approximately two minutes telling the Israeli narrative in a way that satisfied certain Jewish ears (and, of course, opposing Palestinian statehood), he is suddenly in the good graces of the Israeli population for really the first time since his election. The man who once had an abysmal 4% approval rating, is now, according to a new Jerusalem Post poll thought by 54 percent of Jewish Israelis to have policies that are favorable to Israel, while 19 percent said they are pro-Palestinian. In the sad, zero-sum logic of the conflict, this means they like him.
But you didn’t need the polls. The whole tone of the way the mainstream Israeli media has covered Obama seems to have changed. Nahum Barnea, the country’s most respected columnist, mockingly called the president “Israel’s ambassador to the UN.”
And then there was the cover of Maariv’s weekend magazine. Enough said.
The Palestinians’ United Nations statehood ploy has drawn an array of responses around the world, from enthusiasm in Turkey to anxiety to Washington and panic in Jerusalem. And one prominent Israeli center-left politician, Isaac Herzog, proposes a counter-intuitive Israeli gambit of voting for the statehood bid—under certain conditions (as I’ll explain below).
Nothing, however, quite matches the sublime pragmatism of the American Jewish Committee. The organization, once known for its patrician reserve, sent out an e-mail fund-raising pitch today urging readers to click on a link to donate money and save Israel from imminent disaster.
With only hours left until the start of the UN debate and our critical, round-the-clock diplomatic marathon, I’m hoping you’ll help with a generous gift today.
How will a gift to AJC stop the apocalypse? Simple:
Our team here at AJC is gearing up for 70 face-to-face meetings with high-ranking diplomats in the next 10 days.
Our goal? Persuade countries to oppose Palestinian efforts to attain UN endorsement of a unilaterally declared state…
The Palestinian leadership, the letter explains,
has been charging relentlessly down this path. If they get their way, it could effectively end the peace process and instigate a new cycle of violence.
AJC is leading the effort in calling for cooler heads to prevail and for charting a course to peace.
We’re counting on you for your help. Please, don’t wait to make your gift.
A very different approach to empowering cooler heads came over the weekend from Isaac Herzog, a leader of the Israel Labor Party’s centrist wing. Writing on CNN.com’s Global Public Square blog , the former senior cabinet minister (in the Sharon, Olmert and Netanyahu governments, until Labor quit last January) offered the following proposal:
As we get closer to September 20 and the opening of the UN’s General Assembly, all the various voices of the American Jewish universe are beginning to state their opinion about whether the Palestinian push for UN recognition is a wise or foolish step. We’ve actually got an editorial, stating our own position, which will be on line shortly.
For the most part, there are few surprises. Most mainstream (read: center-right) Jewish organizations oppose the move. But I couldn’t really guess what card J Street was going to play. Well, according to a JTA report, they’ve also decided to take a stand against the Palestinian Authority and its September gamble. “We believe that everything J Street stands for and what we do needs to promote the two-state solution and not just two states,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the group’s director.
What they will not do, however, is support the efforts gaining steam to cut off funding to the Palestinian Authority as a result. Here’s Ben-Ami again: “What the Palestinians are doing is legal, even if we don’t agree with it, and we believe it is against Israel strategic interests and U.S. interests to cut funding to the Palestinians.”
This seems sensible. J Street does stand for negotiations, and so, despite their more sympathetic approach to the Palestinian side of the conflict, it would not be consistent for them to support unilateralism. The group wasn’t around in 2005, but I have a feeling that they might have also opposed the way that Ariel Sharon pulled out of Gaza without any attempt at negotiation.
On the other hand, they have the good sense to see what other American Jewish groups are apparently failing to see, that defunding the P.A. would be disastrous for everyone involved — Americans, Palestinians, and, yes, Israelis. It would probably undo Mohamed Abbas’s leadership and create further frustration and despair among the Palestinians. What would follow, we can’t know for sure, but it’s safe to assume it would not be good.
We recently ran a symposium on our op-ed pages gathering together various opinions on what will happen in September when the Palestinians ask the United Nations to recognize Palestine as a state. Even though there was quite a range of opinion — from condemnation to encouragement — I was surprised to find that the overall tone of all the contributions was gloomy. Even Maen Areikat, the PLO’s representative to the United States, characterized the move as a “last resort” — a far cry from the excitement I would expect to accompany the birth of one’s nation.
Now it seems even the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement, that international web of activists that works to advance the goals of a committee of Palestinian civil society organizations, sees no real positive gain from UN-approved statehood.
The BDS National Committee issued a statement earlier this week reiterating their position on the unilateral UN push. Basically it boils down to seeing it as a nice gesture, but hardly making a dent in achieving their goals (goals, I should add, that they always leave purposefully vague — a clear desire for a one-state solution, which they never state explicitly but hides just under the cover of asking Israel to fulfill its obligations under international law). The new statement actually makes this stance much more explicit. They are not satisfied with Palestinian statehood, since that would not take into the account all the Palestinians living outside the West Bank and Gaza. They should be allowed to return to their pre-1948 homes. This, of course, as everyone knows, means death by demography for the Jewish state.