J.J. Goldberg

Tracing Rebel Roots of a Woody Guthrie Hanukkah Song

By J.J. Goldberg

For those who’ve enjoyed my holiday musical meanderings over the years, I’ve got something a little different today: a journey through the history of one song. The tune will sound the same, but the words and messages change. Or, in a way, don’t change. You’ll see what I mean.

This is about one of Woody Guthrie’s Hanukkah songs, “The Many and the Few,” which retells the Hanukkah story in inimitable Woody fashion. The tune comes from an old Irish drinking song, “Old Rosin the Beau” (aka Resin the Bow, aka Roisin the Beau). It became a standard fiddle tune in the early 1800s in the Southern hillbilly culture that was Woody’s musical cradle. By 1860 the tune was familiar enough that the Hutchison Family Singers of New Hampshire could use it for an Abraham Lincoln presidential campaign song, “Lincoln and Liberty.” On the other hand, it was also used as a marching tune by a (possibly fictional) Confederate unit, known to some as Kelly’s Irish Brigade, that was active on the Kansas-Missouri front where John Brown got started before the war and where Jesse James continued the guerrilla war afterward.

Here’s Woody himself, singing “The Many and the Few.” (And here are the lyrics.)

The first version I ever heard, though, was an Irish rebel song from the very late 1800s, “The Men of the West,” sung by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. It tells of Wolfe Tone’s failed United Irishmen rising against the British in 1798. Inspired by the American and French revolutions, the 1798 rising came the closest and fell the most bloodily of all the Irish uprisings over the centuries. To my ear this song has some of the same feel as “The Many and the Few,” the big difference being that the Maccabees won and the United Irishmen lost. Then again, over the course of a century-plus of Maccabean-Hasmonean reign their victory turned sour, whereas the Irish defeat turned to victory just over a century later.

Here are the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem singing one of the great battle songs of freedom, “The Men of the West.” (And here are the lyrics.)

How did Oklahoma-born Woody Guthrie, the bard of the Dust Bowl, come to write a whole cycle of Hanukkah songs?

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Must-See TV: Warren Slams Bank Bailout Bill

By J.J. Goldberg

Elizabeth Warren on the Senate floor this evening, delivering one of the most powerful congressional speeches I’ve ever heard, attacking the provision in the omnibus government spending bill that amends the Dodd-Frank banking reform bill to restore the promise of taxpayer bailouts to big banks that lose money on crazy derivative gambling. “On Wednesday I spoke to Democrats who are against bailouts. On Thursday I spoke to Republicans who say they’re against bailouts and asked them to vote their beliefs. Today I’m talking about a third group that has tremendous power in Washington, Citigroup.”

I admit, Dodd-Frank wasn’t perfect. It should have broken you into pieces.

Sen. Warren in Historic Blast vs. Banks. Video to Come

By J.J. Goldberg

Getty Images
Sen. Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren just delivered a slashing speech on the Senate floor about the Dodd-Frank rollback provision in the omnibus spending bill. She went through a list of Citigroup alumni holding top positions in the current administration, laid out the imperative for preventing the big banks from making the same crazy derivatives gambles that blew up in everyone’s faces six years ago. The provision would ease regulation of derivatives and promise future taxpayer bailouts for banks that lose big on derivatives bets.

She talked about the millions who lost their homes and jobs and are now about to have their tax dollars put on the line to bail out the banks again the next time these gambles explode. She quoted Teddy Roosevelt on breaking up the big trusts because they had too much power — not too much economic power but too much political power. And she asked how we got to the point where the big banks could now sneak through such a crazy provision, something that overwhelming majorities on both sides are opposed to, and attach it to a bill that we need simply to keep our government operating.

The American people didn’t elect us to stand up for Citigroup. They elected us to stand up for all the people.

One of the most stirring Senate speeches in memory. I’ll post the video as soon as it’s available.

She is cosponsoring an amendment with Republican Senator David Vitter of Louisiana to strip the provision from the bill. Not clear that Majority Leader Harry Reid will allow a vote on the amendment. Reid “filled the tree” — that is, shut off further amendments, at least for tonight. Some senators hope they’ll have another chance to raise the amendment tomorrow. President Obama is going all out for passage of the bill as is.

How Bibi Might Win: Link to Bennett's Settler Party

By J.J. Goldberg

As Israel’s March 17 snap election date approaches, the electoral map continues to change faster than Taylor Swift’s outfits.

The ink hasn’t even dried on the merger between Tzipi Livni and Labor’s Yitzhak Herzog that vaults them to first place in the polls, but the Likud’s reply is already in the works. According to a new poll released today by the Midgam organization, a merger between the Likud and Naftali Bennett’s settler-backed Jewish Home party would win them 33 seats in the 120-member Knesset.

That’s fewer than the 38 seats they’ll win if they run separately, according to current polls. But it also might be Bibi’s one path to a second term, giving him a prohibitive lead over the 24 seats predicted for the merged Labor-Livni List, or LLL, as I’m calling it. (LLL is also the yodeling mock-laugh perfected by the late David Twersky.)

On the other hand, Jewish Home might not end up offering the dowry that’s now on the table. The leader of its far-right faction, housing minister Uri Ariel, whose semi-Kahanist Tekuma party holds four of Jewish Home’s 12 current seats, is threatening to bolt. Running alone, he just might fall short of Knesset membership and disappear after the election.

But Ariel might have a new partner waiting in the wings: Eli Yishai, former chairman of Shas. Since being demoted to No. 2 after the 2012 return of founding party chair Arye Deri, Yishai has become increasingly alienated. Deri is firmly left-of-center both on the Palestinian issue — he favors a two-state solution — and on economics, where he leans social-democratic. Yishai is on the far right on both issues. Party sources are quoted (in the left-leaning Haaretz, the center-right Maariv and the right-wing Yisrael Hayom, among others) as saying Yishai is on the verge of leaving Shas and either setting up a competing Sephardic-Haredi party or joining forces with Uri Ariel.

A Yishai-led Haredi party would damage both Shas and Likud, though the damage might be slight. A joint Yishai-Ariel list, however, could badly hurt Likud, Shas and Jewish Home alike.

Answers are expected next Monday, when last-ditch reconciliation meetings are scheduled for both rifts — Bennett-Ariel and Deri-Yishai.

There’s turbulence as well at the center of the map, where three popular figures — Avigdor Lieberman, Yair Lapid and Moshe Kahlon — are watching their popularity slowly fade.

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Must-Watch TV: Obama on 'The Colbert Report'

By J.J. Goldberg

Watch the Leader of the Free World make fun of himself, his critics, Fox News and lots more in a hilarious “Colbert Report” appearance.

In the following clip, Obama walks on the set “unexpectedly” (he was due to show up a few minutes later for widely advertised interview) and announces that he’s going to do Colbert’s job for him by reading his “The Word” segment. That’s a recurring segment in which the faux-conservative host gives a little speech while wry comments pop up on the screen next to him. Obama’s version is renamed “The Decree,” and begins: “I, Stephen Colbert, have never cared for our president.” Obama uses the opportunity to deliver a not-to-subtle pitch for ObamaCare, in the guise of a faux-conservative attack on it.

By the way, media-savvy types will notice a wry reference to Colbert’s upcoming move to CBS to take over from David Letterman as host of “The Late Show.”

A sample:

Let’s face it, even if Republicans somehow did repeal it, they’d have to replace it with their own healthcare plan (“Fracking the Elderly?”), and once they touch it, they own it. Then if anything goes wrong, suddenly everyone will be complaining about Mitch McConnell-Care (“Walk-It-Off.gov”).

Here it is, courtesy of Comedy Central:

Bibi's $40M Settlement Giveaway Blocked

By J.J. Goldberg

Hours before Israel’s Knesset voted Monday evening to disperse and head to elections, Prime Minister Netanyahu asked the finance committee to approve an “emergency” grant to settlements in the West Bank of some 160 million shekels ($40 million).

Netanyahu was acting in his capacity as acting finance minister, following his firing last week of incumbent finance minister Yair Lapid.

The allocation request was blocked in committee by the ranking representative of the opposition Shas party on the committee, Yitzhak Cohen. Cohen is an outspoken peace advocate and a close ally of Shas leader Arye Deri.

A revote on the settlements grant was then rescheduled for Tuesday by committee chair Nissan Slomiansky of Naftali Bennett’s settler-backed Jewish Home party.

On Monday evening, following the committee’s rejection of the settlements grant, the Finance Ministry submitted a request to the committee for a $38 million allocation to the Shas school network, Ma’ayan HaTorah.

Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid, condemned the school funding request as an attempt to buy Shas’s votes for the settlement grant. Yesh Atid asked the Knesset legal adviser to investigate, but was turned down.

Cohen of Shas countered that the school allocation was merely an installment of a routine allocation to Shas schools, contained within the 2014 state budget approved by the Knesset months ago. He said it would not affect Shas’s votes on the settlements grant.

The Finance Ministry confirmed Cohen’s account of the allocation request. However, the prime minister’s office said it was unaware of a previous approval for the allocation.

The settlements request included 95 million shekels ($24 million) in direct grants to settlements for security and other needs, plus 70 million shekels ($18 million) for operating costs of the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization.

The Settlement Division is a nominally independent body, attached to the non-profit WZO but funded by the government, that carries out most of the contracting work for settlement construction and expansion in the territories. Its status as a stand-alone section of an international non-profit organization is a little-known but important part of the reason why the settlement movement is frequently able to operate outside the normal constraints of Israeli law.

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Netanyahu Might Lose Election. Here's How.

By J.J. Goldberg

If the pre-election polls out of Israel teach us anything, it’s about the strength and weakness of pre-election polls.

The strength is that they’re a pretty accurate reflection of what people are thinking. The proof of this is that the flood of polls coming every day from just about every media outlet, right, left and center, and every polling organization regardless of technique, show pretty much the same thing.

The weakness is that they only show what would happen if the election were held today. They don’t tell you how unexpected events in the real world might influence voter opinion. The shift can be dramatic.

Exhibit A: Today’s Rafi Smith poll, published in Globes (the Hebrew original differs slightly from the English translation, so I’m going with the Hebrew). Unlike all the other polls (watch Jeremy’s Knesset Insider for a daily roundup), Globes asked not only how respondents would vote today, but also how they’d vote if Tzipi Livni ran on a joint list with Labor Party leader Yitzhak Herzog. Answer: It would change everything, putting Herzog in the lead. Incumbent prime minister Bibi Netanyahu would lose.

The polls have been showing consistently all week, since Netanyahu called on Tuesday for early elections, that if the vote were held today, the Likud would lead the pack and Bibi would get another term. Likud would get 22 to 24 seats in the 120-member Knesset (just over 1/6 of the total), followed by Naftali Bennett’s settler-backed Jewish Home party with 17 or 18. Labor would be a distant third with 13 (in some polls 14 or 15). Lapid would drop to 10 or 11 from his current 19,

As Jeremy points out, that would give the religious and right-wing parties 77 seats, versus 33 for the anti-annexation parties of the center, left and Arab blocs. (The current Knesset has the two blocs nearly even at 61 to 59.)

If Herzog and Livni joined forces, though, their combined slate would jump ahead to 24 seats, besting the Likud’s 22. That would give Herzog first crack at trying to assemble a coalition.

Sound far-fetched? The deal is believed likely to be sealed this weekend, when Herzog and Livni are together in Washington at the Saban Forum.

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UPDATE: Bibi Fires Lapid, Livni — Elections Coming

By J.J. Goldberg

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday fired the heads of the two center-left parties in his coalition, finance minister Yair Lapid and justice minister Tzipi Livni. He’s expected to address the media at 10:10 p.m. Israel time (3:10 Eastern) to discuss the political situation.

The dramatic event came less than a day after Netanyahu and Lapid had met Monday evening, ostensibly to patch up their differences. Sources in Lapid’s Yesh Atid party said Netanyahu had presented Lapid with a list of demands that were designed cause the talks to fail, allowing the prime minister to go to the public and point his finger at Lapid. Among them were support of the controversial Jewish Nation-State bill.

It now appears inevitable that Israel is heading to early general elections next spring. The current Knesset was elected in January 2013 for a statutory four-and-a-half year term that would end in June 2017.

Efforts have been underway from both right and left to woo the Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism into a government within the current Knesset, avoiding elections. Shas leader Arye Deri told a press conference today that he had been approached yesterday — he wouldn’t name names — to form “an alternative government without Netanyahu.” He said despite the economic burden of a new election, it was the only way out and he had rejected the proposal. He said Shas’s “iron-clad” conditions for joining any government were raising the minimum wage to 30 shekels an hour and ending the value added tax on basic commodities (such as milk and bread).

An alternative government with a more moderate policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could theoretically be formed within the current Knesset, with 65 of the house’s 120 seats, by including Lapid and Livni, Labor, Meretz, Kadima and the two Haredi parties. However, it would require a great deal of swallowing hard by Lapid and the Haredim, given the bad blood between them.

Ironically, current polls show that in new elections, Lapid and Shas would each lose nearly half their seats.

Netanyahu had reportedly presented Lapid with five conditions to continue the current coalition. According to Haaretz, they included: First, that Lapid back away from his signature housing bill, which would eliminate the value-added tax for first-time homebuyers. Second, that Yesh Atid support the so-called Jewish nation-state bill. Third, Lapid and his allies had to cease their attacks on government policies, including construction in East Jerusalem and deteriorating relations with the United States.

The fourth and fifth conditions involved releasing funds for the military that Lapid had been holding up. One is a 6 billion shekel ($1.53 billion) addition to the defense budget requested by the IDF. The other is a release of funds budgeted to move military installations to the Negev from their current locations on valuable real estate in the center of the country.

Netanyahu had told a meeting of his Likud Knesset faction that morning that the government couldn’t continue to function while ministers continually undermined it and attacked it from within.

Yesh Atid sources told Ynet that the meeting and subsequent statement were all a “show” put on by the prime minister in order to justify early elections that would benefit his own political standing while paralyzing the economy for months and costing the nation billions.

The latest opinion poll, published Sunday by Haaretz, showed that if elections were held today for a new Knesset, Likud would rise from 18 seats to 24 in the 120-member body, while Yesh Atid would drop from 19 seats to 11.

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Did ISIS Capture Jewish Woman Fighting for Kurds?

By J.J. Goldberg

Kurdish military sources in Kobani are telling Israeli media this evening that it’s “impossible” that Canadian-Israeli Gillian Rosenberg was captured by ISIS last week, as was reported on pro-ISIS social media today. They say she was in a different sector of the city from the Kurdish unit that suffered the ISIS attack where she and 10 others were supposedly captured.

The doubts about her capture were first reported late this afternoon by Walla! News (here, in Hebrew), which has been doing the most complete coverage of the alleged kidnapping. Then Mabat, the evening news broadcast of Israel Broadcasting’s Channel One, reported the doubts and broadcast audio of Kurdish sources expressing their doubts. Mabat is in Hebrew, but the Kurdish interviewees speak in English, starting at 1:36:

It should be simple enough to contact her unit and inquire about her whereabouts, but under the brutal, chaotic combat conditions in Syria, reaching a particular rebel unit could take a day or more.

Rosenberg, 31, flew to Amman November 2 and from there to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, where she joined the Kurdish militia YPG. From there she was moved to Kobani, the Kurdish Syrian city on the Turkish border that’s been the scene of fierce fighting for months. She’s been identified as the first Western woman to volunteer to fight with the rebels in the Syrian civil war.

She told Kol Israel Radio in a November 11 interview from Syrian territory that she contacted YPG on Facebook because she supported their cause and wanted to help. “They are our brothers,” she told Kol Israel’s Eran Cicurel. The full interview can be heard here. A fragment of it with English subtitles is included in this video of a November 13 i24 English-language Israeli news feature about her:

She was born in White Rock, British Columbia, a southern suburb of Vancouver near the U.S. border. The Canadian Jewish News reported that she graduated in 2001 from Maimonides Jewish High School, where she was class valedictorian. She studied aviation in Vancouver, then moved to Israel in 2006 and joined an IDF search-and-rescue unit.

In 2009 she turned herself in to the FBI for extradition and trial on charges that she’d participated in a Nigerian-based scam to bilk elderly Americans out of their savings. Victims were told they’d won a lottery, then instructed to send in an advance to cover the operating costs of the payout. She served about four years under a plea bargain and then was deported to Israel.

She’s said to be estranged from her parents, but her father discussed her warmly in an interview in early November on Israel Broadcasting’s English news show, after it was first reported that she’d joined the Kurdish YPG militia to fight ISIS:

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IDF Chief Rabbi: No Link to Temple Mount in Islam

By J.J. Goldberg

The chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, Brigadier General Rafi Peretz, said during a lecture to seminary students in early November that the Temple Mount has no legitimate religious significance in Islam and that Muslims “imagine” a religious bond to the site. When they pray, he said, they bow in the direction of Mecca “with their backsides to the Temple Mount.”

Wikimedia Commons
Brig. Gen. Rabbi Rafi Peretz

“There isn’t a single place in the Quran where the name Jerusalem appears,” he said. “There isn’t. Not once. You know what? Not even in a hint.”

Immediately afterwards, in response to a question from a student claiming that an Arab told him there is a reference to the prophet Muhammad’s dream of Jerusalem, he said the student doesn’t understand, but (13:35) “Arabs don’t understand either. Arabs imagine it. It’s amazing. You know what? Ninety percent of the Arabs don’t know what’s in the Quran. I guarantee it. We know better than them.”

“You’re saying that there is some dream. Correct. There is some commentator who explained something in the Quran through this dream. But it’s not the commentary of Rashi. It’s some legend that was appended.”

He added that the only spot on the Temple Mount to which holiness is ascribed in Islam is the Al Aqsa Mosque. (referring to the silver domed building at the southern end of the plateau). But he goes on to explain that this is based on a misreading of the Quran.

The November 3 lecture was recorded in full on video and posted to YouTube in a 52-minute clip, which was then linked on the religious website Kipa.co.il on November 26. You can see it after the jump (in Hebrew). His remarks about Islam and the Temple Mount begin at 13:15. Here is the Jerusalem Post account of the the event. Here is the Haaretz account.

The Quran contains a brief description in Sura 17 of Muhammad’s nighttime journey from the sacred house of worship (al-Masjid al-Haram, referring to the Ka’aba in Mecca) to “the farthest house of worship (al-Masjid al-Aqsa) whose surroundings we have blessed.”

The incident is elaborated in Islamic commentary, or Hadith, as an event in which Muhammad, in a dream-state, is met at the Ka’aba by the angel Gabriel and taken on the heavenly white horse Buraq to al-Aqsa, where he leads other prophets in prayer and then ascends to heaven.

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Who's 'Too Right Wing' for Sheldon Adelson?

By J.J. Goldberg

Two of the hottest stars in the Republican firmament, Ted Cruz of Texas and Sheldon Adelson of Nevada, tore through the skies this week in what’s traditionally considered America’s most solid Democratic stronghold, the New York Jewish community.

The resulting sound-and-light show probably doesn’t tell us a whole lot about the fates of the two visitors, but it provides a revealing glimpse at the changing landscape of New York Jewish politics.

The biggest headline to emerge from the whirlwind tour was that Adelson doesn’t plan on backing Cruz for president in 2016. After a Monday morning chat, Adelson concluded that Cruz is “too right-wing” and would be a longshot for the GOP nomination, a source close to Adelson told the New York Observer’s Ken Kurson.

Huh? Too right-wing for Sheldon? Well, yes. While he’s best known for his prodigious Republican campaign giving and his fierce opposition to unions and government regulation, he’s also an outspoken backer of abortion rights, gay rights and immigration amnesty. During the 2012 presidential campaign he was asked why he opposed Rick Santorum and replied, “because I’m pro-choice.”

Kurson’s Observer piece offers a fascinating roundup of Cruz’s two-day Big Apple blitz, which included a series of sitdowns with prominent Jewish donors and opinion-makers. Hosts and organizers of the meet-and-greets included real-estate and media mogul (and former Conference of Presidents chairman) Mortimer Zuckerman, “Kosher Sex” Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and hedge-fund legend (and former Forward vice-chairman) Michael Steinhardt. Kurson has a pretty stunning rundown of who showed up where to schmooze with Cruz, including Elie Wiesel, Open Orthodoxy champion Rabbi Avi Weiss and former UJA-Federation president Jerry Levin. Sic transit gloria mundi.

The highlight of the visit, though, was the Sunday night Justice Louis D. Brandeis Dinner of the Zionist Organization of America, a high-energy affair that annually fills the coffers — and highlights the growing clout — of the right-wing pro-Israel organization. Both the cash and the clout were well in evidence in the packed ballroom at New York’s Grand Hyatt Hotel, where 1,000 guests cheered the Texas Tea Party favorite with repeated standing ovations and chantts of “Run, Ted, Run,” according to accounts by those present.

Among those on hand to present or receive awards, besides Cruz and Adelson, were super-lawyer Alan Dershowitz, arch-conservative Christian Zionist pastor John Hagee, media and real-estate mogul Mortimer Zuckerman and the ZOA president himself, Morton Klein. Others in attendance included Boteach, Home Depot founder Bernard Marcus and Minnesota Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann.

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Is Bibi Stalling Pick of IDF Chief to Promote Rightist?

By J.J. Goldberg

More mystery and intrigue in the senior ranks of the Israel Defense Forces: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reported (Maariv, Haaretz) to be stalling the nomination of Israel’s next military chief of staff. His reasons are a topic of hot speculation, though the facts seem to speak for themselves.

By law the nomination of a new chief of staff is the job of the defense minister. He’s supposed to present his choice to the cabinet for approval three months before the incumbent’s term ends. That deadline was November 15. Since then, though, Netanyahu has twice asked for delays so he could interview the candidates, most recently last Friday. He’s now asked to meet with the defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, before a name is presented to the cabinet.

Yaalon has stated publicly that his preference is the current deputy chief of staff, Gadi Eizenkot, who is also the unanimous choice of the top generals who make up the General Staff. The other nominee is Yair Naveh, a former deputy chief of staff who retired two years ago.

Suspicions are running high within the senior military command, according reporter Noam Amir in the right-wing Maariv, that Netanyahu is deliberately trying to sideline Eizenkot despite his support from the IDF and the defense minister. Officers tell Amir that if Eizenkot isn’t appointed there will be an “earthquake.” Cohen in Haaretz reports speculation that Netanyahu is weighing in to avoid accusations later that he failed to pay attention, as some accused him of doing in 2010 and in a previous round in 1998.

Eizenkot is identified with the mainstream IDF defense doctrine that favors minimum necessary use of force and activist pursuit of diplomacy to settle disputes. Naveh is an Orthodox Jew and identified with the political right, though he’s clashed with the settler movement in the past over his refusal to disobey orders involving dismantling settlements, including the 2005 disengagement from Gaza.

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3 Ex-Security Chiefs Slam Bibi for Caving to Right

By J.J. Goldberg

Three of Israel’s most senior ex-defense officials came out last week, almost simultaneously, with blistering attacks on the security policies of the Netanyahu coalition. Appearing in separate forums, the three — former Mossad director Shabtai Shavit, former Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin and former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi — each charged that the government is endangering Israel’s future by allowing right-wing extremists to sabotage prospects for a two-state solution, putting the country on a path toward a single, binational state that will be plagued by continuing ethnic strife.

Two of the attacks appeared as op-ed essays in last Friday newspapers. One, by Diskin, appeared in the mass-circulation Yediot Ahronot. Titled “What lies ahead for Israel” (in English here), it argues that the current “Jerusalem intifada” is a “microcosm” of what awaits Israel if it does not resume serious peace negotiations with the Palestinian leadership. Diskin is particularly critical of the “inflammatory propaganda” and “brainwashing” that depicts Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas as an obstacle rather than a partner, when in fact, he writes, Abbas is strongly opposed to terrorism and maintains a “clear policy” of security cooperation with Israel.

The second, by Shavit, appeared in the liberal-leaning Haaretz. Titled “Blindness, Stupidity, Cause for Concern” (here, Hebrew only), it worries about the “haughtiness and arrogance” among “central factors in religious Zionism,”

together with more than a bit of the messianic thinking that rushes to turn the conflict into a holy war. If this has been, so far, a local political conflict that two small nations have been waging over a small and defined piece of territory, major forces in the religious Zionist movement are foolishly doing everything they can to turn it into the most horrific of wars, in which the entire Muslim world will stand against us.

I also see, to the same extent, detachment and lack of understanding of international processes and their significance for us. This right wing, in its blindness and stupidity, is pushing the nation of Israel into the dishonorable position of “the nation shall dwell alone and not be reckoned among the nations” (Numbers 23:9).

[Postscript: An English version appeared Monday morning under a different title: “Former Mossad chief: For the first time, I fear for the future of Zionism.” I’ve replaced some of my translations with Haaretz’s text.]

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Shin Bet Chief: Mahmoud Abbas Isn't Inciting Terror

By J.J. Goldberg

The director of Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security service, speaking in the wake of today’s massacre in a Jerusalem synagogue, told a Knesset committee that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas “is not interested in terrorism and is not leading [his people] to terrorism. Not even under the table.”

His remarks directly contradicted a string of statements (English) by Israeli leaders, from Prime Minister Netanyahu on down, accusing Abbas of “inciting” the attack by his calls to “defend Al-Aqsa.” Netanyahu called (Hebrew) the synagogue slaughter “the direct result of incitement led by Hamas and Abu Mazen, incitement that the international community is irresponsibly ignoring.”

The security chief, Yoram Cohen, was addressing a closed meeting of the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee. His remarks were described to reporters afterward by participants.

Cohen acknowledged that there were “factors within the Palestinian Authority” who interpret Abbas’s criticisms of Israel as “giving legitimization to terror.”

However, in describing the sequence of events that led to this morning’s bloodbath, he said the confrontations began after the July 2 murder of Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu-Khdeir. He said the tensions were exacerbated by Knesset discussions of a bill to permit Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, submitted last spring by Likud lawmaker Miri Regev, and by high-profile visits of politicians to the Temple Mount that are seen as supporting the legislation.

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IDF, Shin Bet in TV Brawl: Did Hamas Want a War?

By J.J. Goldberg

Israelis last week watched their defense establishment undergo its nastiest and arguably most dangerous meltdown in decades as the heads of two main branches, Benny Gantz of the Israel Defense Forces and Yoram Cohen of the Shin Bet security service, publicly traded insults and questioned each other’s integrity and professional competence.

The public dispute erupted last Tuesday, November 11. That evening the popular television newsmagazine Uvdah (“Fact”) aired a report in which senior Shin Bet officials, their faces and identities obscured, claimed the military had mishandled critical intelligence before last summer’s Gaza war. The officials said the Shin Bet had warned the army last January that Hamas was planning a July war, but the army failed to act. A military officer appeared on camera to deny that any such warning had been received.

The broadcast sparked a furious war of words between IDF chief of staff Gantz and Shin Bet director Cohen. On Wednesday morning Gantz wrote a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Hebrew text here) charging that officials of the secretive security service had “crossed all moral and ethical lines” by appearing in public and portraying the IDF as incompetent. He categorically denied that the military had received any warning of a planned war, whether in January or later. He also charged that the Shin Bet, “as an intelligence agency,” had set a “dangerous precedent” in permitting its personnel to appear and expose classified information and methods of operation.

After a three-way make-up meeting late Wednesday between Netanyahu, Gantz and Cohen, the Shin Bet Thursday morning issued a public “clarification,” itself a rare act, saying its agents had not really claimed to have warned of a July war (despite the fact that they’d been shown on camera saying just that). Later that day, however, Cohen backtracked and counterattacked (Isn’t that an Elton John song?). In an open letter to Shin Bet retirees (here) he said he stood by everything the agents had said on television and blamed the feud on Gantz. He claimed he’d “decided to cooperate” with the newsmagazine to “show the Shin Bet as a professional, relevant organization that made important contributions to the success of Operation Protective Edge.”

Superficially, the dispute centers on the mutual accusations themselves: On one hand, the Shin Bet’s claim that it warned the IDF of Hamas’ July war plan, but that the IDF mishandled or ignored it. On the other hand, IDF’s counter-claim that there was no such warning.

On a deeper level, the incident represents an escalation of a serious debate that’s been going on since August, over whether or not Hamas actually intended to launch a war. The IDF and its intelligence directorate continue to maintain, as they have since the war began (and as I reported in mid-July), that Hamas didn’t plan the war but stumbled into it through a jumble of miscalculations and miscommunication.

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Bibi's Cabinet Rattled as Key Livni Ally Quits

By J.J. Goldberg

The Netanyahu government’s most left-wing member, environmental defense minister Amir Peretz, quit the cabinet on Sunday and declared war on the prime minister, vowing to work for a new government committed to peace and economic justice. Peretz, a onetime Labor Party chairman and defense minister, is a member of Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party.

The move comes amid growing signs of internal weakness in Netanyahu’s coalition. Just a week earlier Netanyahu accepted the resignation of interior minister Gideon Saar, a popular Likud rising star who’s long been considered a possible successor to Netanyahu. He’s now expected to emerge as a rival.

And on Thursday Netanyahu came under an attack of unprecedented fury from a senior coalition ally, Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett. In a speech at Bar-Ilan University Bennett declared that a “government that hides behind concrete barricades has no right to exist.” Deriding static defense tools like the Iron Dome missile defense as well as the separation barrier, Bennett called for the government to respond to the current wave of Palestinian violence with a new “Operation Defensive Shield,” referring to the massive military assault against Palestinian population centers in 2002 that broke the back of the Second Intifada.

All three moves come against a backdrop of escalating Palestinian violence that’s stirring fears of a third intifada, and the growing likelihood of new elections next spring, two years ahead of schedule.

Of the three defections, Peretz’s is of the least immediate consequence to Netanyahu, but it could have the strongest long-term impact. Saar announced his resignation in September, saying he planned to take a break from politics to spend more time with his family. Rumors abound, though, that he’ll join forces before the next election with another former Likud up-and-comer, onetime social welfare minister Moshe Kahlon (kach-LONE), who retired from politics before the 2013 elections but announced plans this year to form a “new political framework.” Kahlon soared to stardom after winning the top spot after Bibi in the 2006 Likud primaries. Saar did the same thing in 2008.

Polls have shown Kahlon winning 10 to 11 Knesset seats, mostly at the expense of Shas — because of his Sephardic working-class background — and Yesh Atid, with its middle-class economic message. That’s not enough to challenge Netanyahu’s leadership, either in the Likud or with the electorate, but it would almost certainly make him a senior partner in any future Netanyahu coalition.

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IDF Generals' Letter: 'Embrace Saudi Plan'

By J.J. Goldberg

Here’s the complete text of the open letter to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from 100-plus retired generals, Mossad directors and national police commissioners. The translation was supplied by the Israel Policy Forum and appears on their website here. The Hebrew original, which was prepared as an advertisement in the Israeli press, is here (PDF).

Reading the complete text, two points emerge that I got wrong in yesterday’s blog post, in which I described the statement based on two Israeli press accounts. First, there are 103 signers, not 106 (as Mako-Channel 2 reported) or 105 (as Yediot Ahronot-Ynet reported). That’s two former Mossad directors and three national police commissioners (four of those five left the IDF with ranks of brigadier or major general) plus 98 other retired brigadier and major generals.

Second, the letter raises the Arab Peace Initiative directly and forcefully, not implicitly. It’s fair to say that the existence of the initiative (text here) is central to the generals’ argument: The Arab states have announced unanimously (with the Palestinian Authority included as a voting member) that they are willing to make full peace with the state of Israel and “consider the Arab-Israeli conflict ended” under certain circumstances, and that the circumstances can be negotiated. It may be that the gaps between Israel’s needs and their demands are too wide to be bridged. But why not find out?

Here’s the other question, directed to our readers: Many of you have responded to this and similar arguments by raising threats to Israel that you don’t think are taken seriously in this approach. My question: What do you know that these guys don’t? And if Israel’s generals are so dumb, how have they managed to keep Israel alive this long? Do you think they’ve won seven wars without understanding the nature of the threats they were facing down?

Here’s the letter:

To: The Prime Minister — Mr. Binyamin Netanyahu


Re: Political-regional outlook—two states for two peoples

Dear Prime Minister,

We, the undersigned, are IDF commanders and police officers in the reserves that have fought in Israel’s wars.

We know from experience the heavy and painful price exacted by these wars; we fought powerfully for the State in the hope that our children would live here in peace. But the reality is that we are again sending our children to the battlefields, watching them don uniforms and bulletproof vests to fight in Operation Protective Edge.

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106 IDF Ex-Generals, Spy Chiefs Urge New Peace Bid

By J.J. Goldberg

In what appears to be the largest-ever joint protest by senior Israeli security personnel, a group of 106 retired generals, Mossad directors and national police commissioners has signed a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging him to “initiate a diplomatic process” based on a regional framework for peace with the Palestinians.

Several of the signers told Israel’s Mako-Channel 2 News in interviews that Israel had the strength and the means to reach a two-state solution that “doesn’t entail a security risk,” but hadn’t managed to reach an agreement because of “weak leadership.”

“We’re on a steep slope toward an increasingly polarized society and moral decline, due to the need to keep millions of people under occupation on claims that are presented as security-related,” reserve Major General Eyal Ben-Reuven told Mako’s Roni Daniel. “I have no doubt that the prime minister seeks Israel’s welfare, but I think he suffers from some sort of political blindness that drives him to scare himself and us.”

The letter was initiated by a former Armored Corps commander, reserve Major General Amnon Reshef. He told Yediot Ahronot in an interview published Friday, and posted in English today on Yediot’s Ynetnews.com website, that he was “tired of a reality of rounds of fighting every few years instead of a genuine effort to adopt the Saudi initiative.”

He was referring to the Saudi-backed peace proposal that was adopted unanimously by the Arab League in 2002 (here is the full text) and later endorsed 56-0 by the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation, with Iran abstaining. It has since been repeatedly reaffirmed and its terms softened. As currently framed, it offers full peace, diplomatic recognition and “normal relations” between the Arab states and Israel in return for Israeli withdrawal to borders based on the pre-1967 armistice lines, with negotiated land swaps, and a “just” and mutually “agreed” compromise solution to the Palestinian refugee problem.

The generals’ call echoes a proposal for a regional peace conference that was floated during the Gaza war this summer by Israel’s science minister, Yaakov Peri, a member of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and a former director of the Shin Bet security service. It’s currently being advocated within the security cabinet by Lapid and justice minister Tzipi Livni.

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When Israel's Chickens Come Home to Poop

By J.J. Goldberg

The policies of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister are starting to bear an eerie resemblance to climate change: The critics all look like a bunch of whining scaremongers prophesying an implausibly apocalyptic ruination that’s sure to come in some fuzzily distant end-time. Even if it’s true, it’s too far away to worry about. That is, until one day the oceans overflow, and here we are.

Not that the arrival of payday alters anyone’s behavior.

In the case of Israel, the past week brought three headline events that look like important turning points in Israel’s growing international isolation. Two were genuine canaries in the coal mine, signals that we’re entering a new and sharply more perilous period for the Jewish state. The third was a farcical episode that doesn’t signal much of anything, except as an anecdotal mile-marker of how far we’ve slid down the slippery slope.

So which one made us sit up and take notice? Why, the third one, of course. The farce.

That would be ChickenshitGate, the international furor over an unnamed U.S. government official’s description of Benjamin Netanyahu as a bit of poultry-poop. It erupted Tuesday night, when the quote appeared online in an essay by journalist Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, “The Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations Is Officially Here.” Goldberg followed the “chickenshit” quote with a list he’s kept of other insults Washington officialdom has directed at Netanyahu in recent years (“recalcitrant,” “myopic,” reactionary,” “obtuse,” “blustering,” “pompous,” “Aspergery”) before proceeding to explain how and why relations between the two allies have gotten worse than ever.

When you think about it, “chickenshit” wasn’t really the worst insult on the list. Most of the others describe worse qualities than timidity. What caused the uproar over this latest entry was the locker room language. Apparently Israel’s leading defenders were, to quote from “Casablanca,” “shocked! — shocked!” — to find that Washington bureaucrats use dirty words when the microphones are off.

The shock was strangely lacking in self-awareness, given the fact that Israeli cabinet ministers had been directing an open stream of personal invective at Secretary of State John Kerry since January. It began with Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon calling Kerry “obsessive” and “messianic.” Yaalon got paid back in October with humiliating rejections of his requests for meetings during a Washington visit with Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden and National Security Adviser Susan Rice. And yet he still managed to find time while he was in Washington for one more insult, telling the Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth in an interview that the Obama administration’s Middle East policies were based on “ignorance” and “naivete.”

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Settlements, Snub Cause Latest U.S.-Israel Strain

By J.J. Goldberg

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is planning a massive new wave of construction in the West Bank, according to a report Sunday night on Israel’s Channel 2 News. It’s part of a deal to calm his restive allies in the settler-backed Jewish Home party. The Channel 2 report has since been confirmed independently by Haaretz, Walla News and other news outlets.

The plans reportedly include some 2,000 new homes, mostly but not all in the so-called settlement blocs that Israel expects to keep permanently. Also included are 12 new roads, infrastructure projects, a park, student housing and the legalization of several illegal settlement outposts. The deal also includes a renovation of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, a plan that’s likely to cause new flare-ups at the site, a constant flashpoint that’s holy to both Jews and Muslims.

The plans are to be finalized at a meeting Wednesday between Netanyahu, economics minister Naftali Bennett and housing minister Uri Ariel, both of Jewish Home, transportation minister Yisrael Katz of Likud and finance minister Yair Lapid. Haaretz reported that Netanyahu had not yet approved the 2,000 housing units, which he fears will increase tensions with Washington and Europe, and is trying to appease the rightists with the transportation and infrastructure projects. Lapid issued a statement following the Channel 2 report that he opposed construction outside the settlement blocs, and that the timing of the overall deal “will cause harm to Israel.” He said the plan “will lead to a serious crisis in Israel-U.S. relations and will harm Israel’s standing in the world.”

The decision comes at an explosive moment in U.S.-Israel relations. Just this past Friday analysts across the Israeli political spectrum were describing the relationship as having plunged to a historic low point in the wake of defense minister Moshe Yaalon’s visit to Washington last week. Shortly after departing Washington, Yaalon was dealt a humiliating slap when unnamed administration officials told Yediot Ahronot that the minister had been refused permission to meet with senior administration officials including Vice President Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and national security adviser Susan Rice.

The refusals come in apparent retaliation for a series of recent incidents in which Yaalon attacked administration policy and personally insulted Kerry.

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