J.J. Goldberg

On Elvis' Yahrzeit, His Not So Secret Jewish History

By J.J. Goldberg


Tablet magazine has a charming podcast (originally broadcast on Santa Monica public radio station KCRW-FM, they note) of Memphis native Harold Fruchter, son of the late Rabbi Alfred Fruchter, reminiscing about his family’s relationship with Elvis Presley. Elvis lived downstairs from the Fruchters as a teenager, befriended them and occasionally served as their Shabbos goy. Elvis’s and Harold’s mothers were friendly and Mrs. Fruchter sometimes helped the impoverished Presleys with the grocery bills. Fruchter says he once heard that Elvis had made a donation to a Jewish organization to honor the Fruchters, and he found that most gratifying.

It’s a lovely piece, and quite appropriate to the time of year. Elvis died on August 16, 1977, which means his yahrzeit would be the 2nd of Elul. That fell this year on Thursday, August 28. But why would the Hebrew date of Elvis Presley’s death be of any significance? Ah — therein lies a tale. The fact is that Elvis Presley was himself Jewish, at least halachically. And as you’re about to find out, he was quite proud of that fact.

This isn’t the first time that various Fruchters have told the story of their family’s relationship with Elvis. It’s an incomplete narrative, because it appears they weren’t aware that Elvis was himself Jewish. If they’d known, it seems highly unlikely the rabbi would have let him serve as Shabbos goy. It would have amounted to suborning chilul Shabbos.

I found out about Elvis’s Jewish background the first time (of many) that I visited Memphis, back in the mid-1990s. I was there to speak at the Memphis Jewish Community Center. Heading into town from the airport center director Barrie Weiser described their recently completed building renovation. In his animated description he mentioned the fact that they’d had to demolish a room donated to the center decades earlier by Elvis Presley. The plaque, dedicating the room, so Barrie recalled, to Elvis’s mother, who had some sort of Jewish background, had been retired to a storeroom.

Barrie went on to tell me that Elvis was a life member of the JCC, largely because he found it convenient to come there after midnight and play racquetball. Elvis being a major donor, the caretaker didn’t mind opening the place after hours for him. (It didn’t hurt that he was the King of Rock ’n’ Roll, I thought to myself.)

The next day I went on my first pilgrimage to Graceland. I was in for a series of shocks. First, there was nothing convenient about it. It was way across Memphis from the JCC. Elvis played racquetball at the JCC because he wanted to be at the JCC. Something mysterious was behind this.

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With All Due Respect, Can't My Critics Read?

By J.J. Goldberg


Those who follow me online have observed that I don’t usually respond to my critics. I confess: I have a little fan club that hangs out in the Comments section and on my Facebook page, cursing my ancestry and generally whooping it up, and they seem to be having so much fun that I hate to spoil it. Besides, as Rabbi Tarfon used to say, life’s too short and there’s too much to do (Pirkei Avot 2:20). Usually, I figure the facts will speak for themselves.

Lately, though, I’ve started noticing a weird phenomenon: critics attacking me for holding strange, dangerous or anti-Israel opinions when all I’ve done is quote mainstream Israeli defense doctrine or, on occasion, simply report major stories in the Israeli Hebrew press that haven’t made it into the American media.

On Friday afternoon, for example, Commentary editor John Podhoretz tweeted a snarky dismissal of my latest weekly column, headlined “Who Leaked Israel’s Top-Secret Briefing About Reoccupying Gaza?” My column notes that Israel’s attorney general has been asked formally to open a criminal investigation a security leak that the IDF considers extremely dangerous, and that Prime Minister Netanyahu is the leading suspect. John’s observation:

Now, there are several possibilities here. Perhaps he only read the headline and blurb, or perhaps the first few paragraphs, and therefore didn’t realize, as my column carefully noted, that this is a news story that’s been all over the Israeli press, liberal (Haaretz) and conservative (Maariv) alike, and that Israel’s attorney general Yehuda Weinstein has been formally asked to open a criminal investigation by Labor Party Knesset whip Eitan Cabel.

It’s possible that John followed up by reading the English Haaretz story, which pins the leak on one of Bibi’s opponents, but couldn’t read the Maariv story, which is in Hebrew and notes that virtually everyone else who’s examined the evidence thinks Bibi did it. Then again, to be fair, my weekly columns in the Forward Forum (as opposed to my blog posts) generally don’t contain links to source material. So he’d have to search online for the actual quotes, using the sourcing information that I did provide print. To tell the truth, though, I have a sneaking suspicion that he didn’t bother reading the column at all, but merely read the headline, decided it was nuts and decided to vent. This, then, raises the age-old question, Why Can’t Johnny Read?.

More inexplicable is the lengthy critique by John’s Commentary colleague, my friend (for real) Jonathan Tobin, of my previous week’s column, “What Happens in Israel Doesn’t Stay in Israel.” Jonathan wrote a blog post on August 20, titled “Israel Doesn’t Cause Anti-Semitism,” in which he carefully deconstructs my argument that Israeli behavior toward the Palestinians is partly responsible for the growing wave of anti-Semitism among Muslims in Europe.

I know he read the column he’s criticizing, because he quotes from it and takes on its arguments one by one. Here’s his most telling point:

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An Israeli Novelist's Cry for Peace. A Rabbi's Reply

By J.J. Goldberg


Wikimedia Commons
Rabbi Yuval Sherlow

Novelist David Grossman spoke Saturday night at a peace rally at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, sponsored by the Peace Now movement and the Meretz and Hadash parties, among others. It was attended by an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 people, which the left considered an impressive show of force and the right mocked as a failure. Grossman’s speech, an eloquent cri de coeur of Israel’s increasingly isolated antiwar left, was reprinted in Hebrew on Sunday on Ynet.co.il, the Hebrew-language website of Yediot Ahronot. (Thanks to Gary Brenner for urging me to translate it.)

Also appearing Sunday on Ynet was a reply to Grossman by Rabbi Yuval Sherlow, dean of the Hesder yeshiva of Petah Tikvah. Sherlow is one of the most liberal voices in Israeli Orthodoxy. He’s spoken out bravely within his community in favor of tolerance of gays, greater recognition of non-Orthodox Judaism — including Reform conversion — and open, sympathetic dialogue between right and left. In this “Letter to David Grossman” he warmly chides the novelist for preaching to the converted (no, not that kind) and failing to find a language that can bridge the gap dividing left and right. Remarkably, he concedes many of Grossman’s sharpest critiques, but insists that Grossman fails to acknowledge “the other sides of the coin” — the still-vital humanity within the Israeli public, the implacability often facing Israel from its enemies — and so alienates a large audience that Sherlow wishes the novelist could reach.

They’re both well worth reading for their insight into the current mood in Israel. The translations are mine, and as usual are as literal as I can make them. Let me know if you spot mistakes.

David Grossman: ‘We Are Collaborators of Despair’

You are many. We are many, many more than we thought, than we believed.

I stood here in this square two days ago, at the demonstration in support of the residents of the south. I stood here at the demonstration in support of the residents of the south the day before yesterday. I wanted to be with them, to listen to them as they told of their hard lives. There were many speakers here, and most of them spoke fitting, heartfelt words, and they all said basically the same thing: It can’t go on like this.

I listened to them, and to others who bitterly said things like “Let the IDF win” and “Let the IDF mow them down” and “The time has come to eliminate Hamas,” and I thought, these are sophisticated, experienced people, the sort who know that in the current circumstances this wish of theirs won’t come true, and everything that’s happened in this war testifies to that. But nobody is showing them another way or offering hope for a better future, and there’s nothing left for them but to shout over and over in ever-growing despair, like so many of us: Let the IDF win.

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Cairo Truce Hopes Fading As Sides Stiffen Terms

By J.J. Goldberg


Indications are mounting that the indirect Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire talks in Cairo could be heading for failure, possibly resulting in renewed fighting when the current 5-day truce expires Monday night.

Early reports were that the two sides were close to agreement on an Egyptian compromise proposal for a long-term cease-fire. On Friday and Saturday, however, declarations on both sides indicated that positions were hardening as fierce internal divisions emerged, pulling the leaderships on both sides away from the center. The Palestinian side appears to be stymied by the refusal of the organization’s Qatar-based political secretary, Khaled Meshaal, and the head of its military wing, Mohammed Deif, to go along with the compromise proposals laid out by the Egyptians and mostly accepted by both delegations.

On the Israeli side, meanwhile, chaos appears to be reigning. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who rode a wave of popularity during the military operation, has been facing a tsunami of criticism over the past week from the left, the right, the residents of Gaza-adjacent communities and his top coalition ministers. Two of his senior coalition partners, foreign minister Avigdor Liberman of the Yisrael Beiteinu party and economics minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, have repeatedly attacked the prime minister’s management of the Gaza conflict from the right, demanding a continuing assault until Gaza has been taken over and Hamas disarmed or dismantled. Broad circles on the right accuse him of giving away the store (i.e. lifting the blockade) in return for “nothing” (i.e. Hamas-Jihad agreement not to shoot, bombard or tunnel).

The other coalition partners, justice minister Tzipi Livni of Hatnuah and finance minister Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, have been pressing Netanyahu from the left, demanding that he seek to end the fighting by convening an international Middle East peace conference in cooperation with the Arab League. The goal of the conference would be to negotiate an agreement for an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Netanyahu hasn’t said no to either minister, by some accounts because he’ll need their votes in the cabinet for the limited cease-fire he’s aiming to obtain in Cairo.

Livni and Bennett have also attacked the Cairo cease-fire negotiations on principle, saying the process amounts to Israel negotiating with Hamas despite its international status as a terrorist organization and effectively gives the Islamist group diplomatic legitimacy. Both also complain that the Egyptian proposal for a long-term cease-fire, by guaranteeing Gaza’s border, would constrain Israel’s ability to reply to terrorist actions from Gaza while failing to prevent Hamas and other terrorist groups from rearming and mounting attacks.

Under the Egyptian proposal, the Palestinian factions in Gaza, principally Hamas and Islamic Jihad, would agree to refrain from all attacks on Israel by land, air and sea, and to refrain from digging tunnels into Israeli territory.

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Israel, Hamas Near Long-Term Deal on These Terms

By J.J. Goldberg


Israel and the Palestinians are said to be near agreement on the terms for a long-term cease-fire for Gaza, following a day of talks in Cairo under Egyptian mediation. The Israeli team was reported by Yediot Ahronot’s Ynet news site to be heading back to Israel this evening to present the tentative agreements to Israel’s security cabinet.

The 11-member Palestinian delegation includes five representatives of Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, including Azzam al-Ahmed, the delegation head, and delegation spokesman Qais Abd el-Karim of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine; four representatives of Hamas, including deputy political secretary Moussa Abu Marzouk; and two representatives of Islamic Jihad. The Israeli delegation includes Shin Bet director Yoram Cohen; Defense Ministry political-diplomatic director Amos Gilad; coordinator of government activities in the territories Maj. Gen. Yoav “Pauly” Mordechai; director of the IDF planning directorate Maj. Gen. Nimrod Sheffer; and Yitzhak Molcho, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s personal lawyer.

Following are the terms of the emerging agreement, as reported on Israel’s Mako-Channel 2 News by veteran Arab affairs commentator Ehud Yaari and reporter Udi Segal:

Demanded by Israel:

  • A complete halt to firing and hostile action from Gaza.

  • Israeli control of border crossings to be opened between Gaza and Israel in the framework of the agreement.

  • Payment of money and any other cash transfers to public workers in Gaza will be carried out only via the Palestinian Authority.

Demanded by Palestinian negotiators:

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Liberman Shuffle Leaves Bibi with No Knesset Edge

By J.J. Goldberg


In a scarcely noticed series of political maneuvers, Bibi Netanyahu’s Likud party lost its primacy as the largest party in the Knesset last Wednesday. It’s now equal in size to Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party at 19 seats each. Moreover, don’t be surprised if the prime minister finds himself dropping to 18 in the fall. I don’t know how, but I’ll bet Avigdor Liberman does.

The shift came when Liberman, foreign minister and head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, appointed Likud lawmaker Carmel Shama-Hacohen to become Israel’s ambassador to the Paris headquarters of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) as well as UNESCO and the Council of Europe.

Shama-Hacohen was confirmed by the cabinet and sworn in as ambassador by newly elected state president Reuven Rivlin on Tuesday, August 5. The following day, August 6, the last day of the Knesset’s summer session, he was replaced in the Knesset by the next candidate on the 2013 Likud-Beiteinu joint Knesset slate, Yisrael Beiteinu veteran Alex Miller, a longtime Liberman ally.

Netanyahu’s Likud and Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu had joined forces in a joint list for the January 2013 election and formed a joint caucus in the Knesset that was sworn in the next month. Of the 31 Knesset seats they won in the balloting, 20 were held by Likud candidates and 11 by Yisrael Beiteinu.

The two parties retained separate organizations, however. Liberman ended the partnership this past July, claiming that he could not support Netanyahu’s too-moderate response to Hamas rocket fire. He kept his party in the governing coalition, however, and retained his post as foreign minister.

Reducing Likud to parity with Yesh Atid could create serious strains in Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Under the 2013 coalition agreement, Likud-Beiteinu got 13 of the 23 ministerships in the cabinet, though it had 31 of 68 seats in the coalition, on the principle that the governing party must control a majority of the government’s ruling institutions. Following last month’s Netanyahu-Liberman split, Likud had 8 ministers and Yisrael Beiteinu had 5. Of the three junior partners, Yesh Atid had 19 Knesset seats and 5 ministers; Jewish Home had 12 seats and 3 ministers; and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah had 6 seats and 2 ministers.

The Shama shuffle means that Likud now has 8 ministers for its 19 seats while Yesh Atid has 5 for its 19. Yisrael Beiteinu has 5 ministers for its 12 seats while Jewish Home has 3 for its 12.

The all-important security cabinet is even more lopsided: Likud-Beiteinu had 5 of the 8 seats while the other 3 parties had 1 each. Now Likud has 3 to Yesh Atid’s 1 and Yisrael Beiteinu has 2 seats to Jewish Home’s 1.

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Palestinians Ease Truce Terms as Livni Airs New Peace Bid

By J.J. Goldberg


Conflicting reports from the Egyptian-Palestinian negotiations in Cairo: The Israeli news site Mako-News10 reported Saturday evening that the factions comprising the Palestinian cease-fire negotiating team — the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Islamic Jihad — had made some significant concessions on their demands for renewing the Gaza cease-fire. They agreed to permit Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority forces take over the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing from Gaza into Egypt, something Hamas had flatly opposed until now. And they agreed to defer to a later date discussion of the Hamas demand for a seaport in Gaza. The report is based on a “Palestinian source close to the negotiations” who was quoted by Agence France Presse.

On the other hand, the Jerusalem Post reported early Sunday morning local time that the Palestinian negotiators were preparing to leave Cairo and would not negotiate further unless Israel agreed to return to the talks. Israel has insisted it won’t return to the talks unless rocket fire from Gaza is halted.

The Post’s full account doesn’t quite match its headline and lead. The threat to quit Cairo turns out to be Hamas’s chief negotiator, Cairo-based deputy political secretary Moussa Abu Marzouk, saying that the three Palestinian factions would make their decision after consulting with each other on Sunday morning. Several Hamas officials, some in Cairo, some not, are quoted as threatening to leave Cairo and resume full-scale attacks on Israel unless their demands are met. Also quoted is the chairman of the joint Palestinian delegation, Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmed, who said flatly on Friday that the Palestinians would not leave Cairo until an agreement is reached. At the very end the Post story reports the factions’ concessions on Rafah and the seaport.

In Jerusalem, meanwhile, Israeli justice minister Tzipi Livni on Friday gave Prime Minister Netanyahu a draft of a proposal she plans to submit to the security cabinet this coming week to end the conflict in Gaza and resume peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. (Details at News1 in Hebrew and Jerusalem Post in English.)

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New Fights Loom as Israel Slows Gaza Fire

By J.J. Goldberg


The determination that the Israeli infantry officer thought to have been captured is in fact dead has changed the trajectory of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, Operation Protective Edge, which now appears to be winding down.

Military officers were quoted by Walla News and Haaretz late Saturday night as saying that IDF engineers will be finished within a day with the demolition of the 31 Hamas attack tunnels that have been identified leading into Israel. Numerous Israeli and Palestinian news outlets report that troops have begun withdrawing from the populated areas of the Gaza Strip to a staging area along the border fence, where they will remain until the Israeli government decides its next steps. The government said it will continue air strikes against rocket launchers and other offensive targets.

Even before Friday’s abortive cease-fire, the question of how much longer Israel should continue the operation was becoming a political football in Jerusalem last week. Senior military officers told reporters that the mission they were assigned was nearly done and that they were waiting for the government to decide whether to push on or pull back. Cabinet ministers on the right replied that it was up to the military to decide whether the country was safe or not.

The question appeared to become moot Friday morning after a Givati infantry brigade officer, Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, 23, was reported to have been snatched by Hamas gunmen during an ambush near the city of Rafah and spirited away into a tunnel. Troops closed off Rafah and began a house-to-house search for the missing officer. That led to expectations of a prolonged dragnet like the one conducted in the search for the three kidnapped yeshiva students in the West Bank in June.

On Saturday evening, however, the army’s personnel chief and chief rabbi reported that they had determined that Goldin was dead, relying on “medical, halachic and other considerations” based on “evidence from the battlefield.”

That reopened the political debate over whether Operation Protective Edge was nearing its end or approaching a new stage, and what would constitute victory. Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke to the press (Hebrew, English) at IDF headquarters Saturday night and essentially punted: He indicated that the army had done a fine job in taking care of the tunnels, but said that operations would continue as needed.

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An IDF Reservist on Life at the (Protective) Edge

By J.J. Goldberg


This was posted this morning at Haaretz in Hebrew by Niv Shtendel, an Israeli blogger, filmmaker, author, film and television critic for Haaretz and Maariv. It describes his experience of — and impressions of — Operation Protective Edge as a middle-aged reservist called up to the front. My translation, so any mistakes are mine alone. (Hat tip to Chemi Shalev for posting it on Facebook.)

26 things I learned in 26 days on the Gaza border

By Niv Shtendel

1.) Does anybody remember that this operation began a week and a day after Operation Brothers’ Keeper ended with the finding of the bodies of the three kidnapped boys? Does anybody remember that this operation was born against a background of a violent, vengeful atmosphere that ruled the streets to the point of loss of control? Does anybody remember that the original goal was stopping rocket fire on Israel, not eliminating the tunnel threat? In this sense, Protective Edge resembles the Second Lebanon War, not a war of strategy. A war of emotions that was just looking for the right timing to erupt.

2.) On the other hand, if we had to launch a military operation just to be rid of Danny Danon, it was worth it.

3.) Four Shabbat dinners in a row that I missed. Four Shabbatot. That hasn’t happened to me since my compulsory service.

4.) It doesn’t matter how hard you think you have it — there’s always someone who has it harder. If you’re a 25-year-old reservist who’s missing university exams, look at the 40-year-old reservist who’s left a wife and five kids at home. If you’re a soldier sleeping in a public shelter without a mattress, take a look at the soldier who just crossed the fence back into Israel for five hours of rest. That’s how it is: There’s a hierarchy to suffering, and reality has proportions.

5.) The face of war in the modern age: You’re sitting with two communications devices next to your ears and getting your information from the social website Rotter.net.

6.) Anyone who’s never heard the whistle of a mortar shell doesn’t know what death sounds like when it’s out looking for you.

7.) It’s hard to overstate the benefit of Iron Dome. The ability to carry on normal life under a constant threat of missile fire is almost incomprehensible. Sometimes even defensive weaponry can be game-changing weaponry.

8.) Tunneling in the north [from Lebanon] isn’t a question of “whether.” It’s a question of “where.”

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Prayers for the State of Israel. Yes, Now, on Tisha B'Av

By J.J. Goldberg


I get the impression that a lot of folks are feeling lost and helpless right now as we watch the tragedy unfolding in Israel and Gaza. Especially with Tisha b’Av approaching, people are looking for some way to express what they’re feeling in a manner that joins them with others in a community of spirit, of longing and grief and hope. I gather, too, that many of us are tired of the rancor that divides us when what we really want is to feel the bond of kinship that transcends political differences.

For what it’s worth, my own feeling is that the best way to reach across that empty space and fold myself into the spirit of the Jewish community, transcending the rancor and reaching back over the generations, is by prayer. Not the close-your-eyes-and-listen-to-the-universe sort of prayer — not that there’s anything wrong with that if it works for you — but I’m talking about reciting Hebrew prayers as Jews are reciting them around the world and have been for years. When we speak together in unison, we become joined in spirit in a way that transcends differences of the moment. (Yes, even gigantic moral differences can be transcended. If we let them.)

Right now I’m thinking about the Prayer for the State of Israel. Basically the one composed in 1949 by the chief rabbis of Israel, Yitzhak Halevi Herzog (yup, grandfather of) and Ben-Zion Uziel, though some say it was composed for them by the future Nobel laureate author Shmuel Yosef Agnon. The original been adapted and rewritten dozens of times to express the feelings and beliefs of our diverse communities around the world, which is in itself a very honored tradition in Jewish prayer (that’s why even in Orthodoxy there are Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Hasidic and other prayerbooks). The Union for Reform Judaism has a nice selection of prayers for Israel on its website (find it here). Conservative congregations traditionally recite just the first two paragraphs. A favorite among Reconstructionists and other progressives is based on the one developed by Congregation Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem (here), which elegantly gets around patriarchal language.

My own absolute favorite, though, happens to be the one used in my own minyan, which comes from Rabbi Ben-Zion Bokser’s 1983 prayerbook. To my mind it finds a beautiful middle ground between the triumphalism of the chief rabbis’ original and the universalism of many newer versions:



Prayer for the State of Israel

Our father in heaven, rock and redeemer of Israel, bless the State of Israel, [that it may be] the first flowering of our redemption. Guard over it with your lovingkindness, envelop it in your peace, and cast your light and truth upon its leaders, ministers and advisers, and bolster them with good counsel before you.

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Bibi Snubs Right Wing, Aims for Gaza Ceasefire

By J.J. Goldberg


Israeli news media are reporting a growing tension between the country’s political and military leaders over how far to pursue the campaign in Gaza. On Tuesday morning a “senior military officer” held an off-the-record briefing for a group of reporters (reports in Ynet, Walla) and lodged what the reporters termed “veiled criticism” of the political leadership, charging it with indecision. The officer said the army had completed the tasks assigned to it and that the political echelon now had to decide whether to go deeper into Gaza or to begin withdrawing.

On Wednesday an unidentified cabinet minister fired back at the army, saying that the cabinet had approved every suggestion the army had made. The minister was quoted saying “it was the army that maneuvered us into the situation we’re in now.”

The problem seems to be that the cabinet is deadlocked between pro-cease-fire and smash-Hamas factions, and the IDF is losing patience with the government’s inability to give it clear instructions. It’s a mark of how clueless the ministers are that one of them — evidently from the hard-line faction — can say with a straight face that it’s up to the army to come up with Israel’s goals. After all, we’ve approved everything they’ve asked for. What do they want from us, a policy? C’mon — this is Israel.

The background to the dispute is a complex dilemma that faces Israel right now, which reporters have taken to routinely calling the “plonter” or tangled mess. That may be the name by which this operation is remembered.

Further complicating matters, the pro-cease-fire faction, which reportedly includes Prime Minister Netanyahu, is hobbled by the fact that Israel is nowhere near getting a cease-fire on terms acceptable to it. Israel wants a cease-fire that permits it to continue demolishing the tunnels and further leads to a demilitarization of Gaza. Hamas has flatly rejected disarming.

Anyway, getting a cease-fire requires getting Hamas to stop firing its rockets, but Hamas refuses to agree unless it is brought formally into the negotiating process and asked directly. By that it hopes to gain a degree of international recognition and legitimacy that neither Israel nor Egypt is willing to grant it. Egypt currently envisions Hamas as participating in a Palestinian delegation that is headed by and formally represents the Palestinian Authority. Hamas is angling for its own separate delegation.

The problem of getting Hamas to buy into a cease-fire negotiation seems to have been at the heart of John Kerry’s dustup with the Israeli cabinet last weekend. Kerry was trying to get around the problem of getting Hamas’s consent without engaging it directly by talking to Qatar and Turkey, who speak for Hamas.

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Gaza Tunnels: How They Work, What Israel Knew

By J.J. Goldberg


In my last post I promised to translate Alex Fishman’s Friday column in Yediot Ahronot discussing Hamas’s tunnels. Here it is.

He briefly traces Israel’s growing awareness of the problem over more than a decade. He reaches much the same conclusion as Nahum Barnea: “…the fact is that everyone saw, everyone knew, everyone understood, and yet the test of results ended in failure…”

There’s a lively debate right now in the Hebrew press over whether or not Israel realized the full extent of the threat. That is, given that the threat’s existence was long known, is there any truth to the claim that Israel was “surprised”? I’ve got some links below to follow the debate if your Hebrew is up to it. It can’t be understated how misleading the English-language reporting on the topic has been; more on that below, after the translation.

Both Barnea and Fishman conclude, as my translations show, that the IDF and government knew enough to grasp the full dimensions of the threat, if not the details of every tunnel, long before this operation. Whether or not they’re right will be determined soon enough, as Harel writes. I generally read Barnea and Fishman first because they’re commonly described as the best informed, best connected and smartest in the field in Israel — Barnea in political analysis, Fishman in reporting from inside the mind of the military. Unfortunately, Yediot doesn’t publish on line — its Ynet site is a fully separate publication — and doesn’t translate its print material into English. My translations are as literal as I can make them.

I’ve often heard friends and readers in the last few weeks expressing bewilderment that the IDF had such a hard time finding technology to locate tunnels or detect excavation in real time. Fishman wrote about that a few weeks ago. His basic thrust was that normal sensor equipment is only effective down to about 10 meters, and Hamas attack tunnels are around 25 meters down. And the sophisticated equipment used for oil and gas exploration is too sensitive for concrete structures just 25 meters down — they’re looking for tiny signals from miles down, and closer to the surface they tend to go off whenever a truck goes by.

Anyway, here’s Fishman:

Damaging the National Project

On Wednesday this week the defense minister returned to the Gaza Strip to examine the destruction of the tunnels. When he was at the headquarters of the division in charge of cleaning out Seja’iyeh, fire opened up from the windows of Wafa Hospital, whose patients had been evacuated at the beginning of the week after Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories directly approached the hospital director and asked him to leave. Since then the place had been officially converted into a forward position of the Izz a-Din al-Qassem Brigades.

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Israel's Latest Fib: 'Gaza Tunnels Were Surprise'

By J.J. Goldberg


Nahum Barnea, commonly described as Israel’s most respected political journalist, has spent much of the past two weeks with the troops in Gaza and talking to general command in Tel Aviv. His weekly column in today’s Yediot Ahronot weekend supplement, which I have translated below, happens to say some of the things I’ve been writing over the past few weeks, so a bit of what you’ll read might sound familiar. But his sources are better than mine, better than anyone’s in fact, and he brings you up to date.

But the third section of his column is something new: He says Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has known for a long time about the network of tunnels under Gaza and the threat they pose, but he punted because he had other things on his agenda. Now he’s shockedshocked! — to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza!

The first section of Barnea’s column echoes my most recent column about Israel’s search for an elusive exit strategy. His second section recapitulates, in telegraphic form, a part of the chain of misadventures leading to unintended war that I described a few weeks ago (“How Politics and Lies Triggered an Unintended War in Gaza”). He doesn’t address the early events described in my article — the government putting out misleading messages about “operating under the assumption that the boys are alive” when it was pretty clear they were dead and placing the gag order over the evidence — because it’s ancient history and pretty much common knowledge among those who follow the news in Israel. (For those still wondering about my sources on that, I can cite a few of the early reports that said the same thing, here, here, here and, regarding the Hebron branch of Hamas acting as a rogue player, here.)

Anyway, Barnea is already moving on to the latest — um, questionable assertion, namely that Israel was surprised (find the claim here and here) by the tunnels, or the extent of the tunnels, and therefore had to ratchet up its Protective Edge campaign unexpectedly at the last minute. Barnea argues, in the third section of this article, that the government had a very clear picture of the tunnels and their extent a long time ago but decided not to act on them because it had other things on its plate. He’s pretty scathing about the current “gap between rhetoric and reality,” as he puts it. Worth a read.

Elsewhere in the Friday supplement, Yediot’s indispensable military analyst Alex Fishman writes that the army began facing the Gaza tunnel problem as early as 2001, and the government’s failure to act on them was the topic of a report by the government comptroller in 2007. I’ll try to translate Fishman’s report in a later blog post. Other sources report that pressure is already building in Israel (see here and here, for example) for a postwar commmission of inquiry into the failure to act earlier on the tunnels.

Barnea concludes, as I did this week, with the argument that Protective Edge strengthens rather than weakens the argument for a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority. Unlike me, he sees signs that Netanyahu is thinking the same thing.

Here’s Barnea, starting with the exit-strategy question:

How Do We Get Out of This

The cabinet [i.e. the 8-member security cabinet], which convened Wednesday for one of its nighttime discussions, was waiting for the utterances of one man, Khaled Meshaal. Meshaal, the head of the political bureau of Hamas, upgraded his position this week. The fate of the cease-fire that so many players are hoping for is in his hands. John Kerry, the foreign minister of the world’s mightiest superpower, used his connections in Qatar to placate him; Kerry believed he was doing this on behalf of the Israeli government and with its blessing. Abu Mazen tried. Turkey tried.

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As Gaza Toll Rises, So Will Pressure on Israel

By J.J. Goldberg


Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel. Sometime around noon the wind shifted and the tide began to roll out, and Israel started to lose international sympathy for its Operation Protective Edge in Gaza.

Up until Sunday morning Israel had a pretty clear field, owing to a combination of factors. For one thing, the optics. As long as Israel was responding to Hamas rockets with air strikes against Hamas targets, it looked to most observers like a fair fight. Israel’s opponents claimed there was no equivalence given the lopsided death toll. Israel’s supporters claimed the opposite: there was no equivalence because Hamas was aiming at civilians, while Israel was just trying to stop the rockets. In practice, it was a wash.

Even after Israel’s ground troops entered Gaza on Thursday night, July 17, the action looked reasonably measured to most outsiders. Hamas’ network of cross-border tunnels had ceased to be a theoretical problem that morning, when a squad of terrorists emerged on the Israeli side, prepared to attack a kibbutz. Israel sent in troops for what was announced as a limited operation along the border fence to destroy the tunnels. There were no international complaints. Lots of noisy street demonstrations, but hardly a peep from the world’s governments.

It didn’t hurt Israel’s case that the same Thursday saw 298 passengers killed when a Malaysian Airlines passenger was jet shot down over Ukraine, apparently by pro-Russian rebels, and 270 Syrians — soldiers, security guards and civilians — murdered execution-style by ISIS militants who had taken over a natural gas field. Gaza was just one of the world’s killing fields as the weekend approached.

Most important, Israel was facing an enemy, Hamas, that was almost universally despised. Egypt, always central to Israel-Hamas mediation, had been pouring contempt on Hamas throughout the crisis. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas had loudly condemned attacks on Israel during the crisis, once at a June 18 meeting of Islamic foreign ministers in Saudi Arabia and again when Hamas started bombarding Israel. When Egypt’s July 14 cease-fire proposal was accepted by Israel and rejected by Hamas, the Islamist organization’s support was reduced to rogue-state Iran, Islamist Turkey and the emirate of Qatar.

Qatar launched its own cease-fire initiative, which included the preconditions Hamas had demanded — freeing prisoners, opening borders, putting the Gaza-Egypt border under international supervision — but nobody endorsed it. The Arab League, led by Saudi Arabia, lined up formally behind Egypt — and by implication, Israel. The Jewish state had never had more sympathy in the Arab world for its defense needs.

What happened next was something that’s happened over and over in Israel’s military operations in recent years: The government overestimated the depth of its international support and decided to broaden the scope of the operation. On Saturday night the ground campaign was expanded beyond the surgical operation that had been promised against tunnels near the fence. It became a major assault on a densely populated neighborhood of Gaza City, Sheja’iya. The neighborhood houses some of Hamas’ tunnel entries and rocket launchers. It also houses tens of thousands of civilian families.

By evening the shelling and ground fighting had killed more than 80 Palestinians, including an estimated 60 civilians. The expanded fighting also began taking a serious toll on the Israeli side: 13 soldiers killed.

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3 Takes on the Hamas Endgame

By J.J. Goldberg


From the “If You’ve Only Got Time To Read One Thing” Dept. Actually, I’ve got three items to recommend, each of which casts invaluable light on what’s going on right now in Gaza. In a moment I’ll rank them in order of importance, but first, a comment on what they have in common. The three are from — in no particular order (I’ll get to that later) — reporter Patrick Kingsley in the left-wing British daily The Guardian; conservative-leaning Israeli political reporter Haviv Rettig-Gur in the right-of-center Israeli news site Times of Israel (he’s formerly of the Jerusalem Post); and liberal-leaning Middle East affairs analyst Zvi Barel in Haaretz.

Interestingly, they all end up in pretty much the same place: Hamas is increasingly isolated, refusing to accept the Egyptian call for an unconditional cease-fire; it keeps on bombarding Israel because it’s desperate for something, anything, that can be presented as a win for all the trouble it’s caused; and consequently, Hamas is receiving (and deserving) most of the blame — from Europe and even the Arab League — for the current suffering of the Palestinians under its rule in Gaza. Its only remaining friends are Turkey and Qatar.

Now to the individual items on my list. First up, Haviv Rettig-Gur’s piece in Times of Israel, a must-read. It’s really two analyses woven together, presented in an unemotional, straightforward and quite convincing argument.

In the first place he looks at the way that both Israel and Hamas use contradictory claims of their own strength and their own weakness — strength in order to deter the enemy, weakness in order to win sympathy abroad. It’s not the most original argument in the world, but he presents it extremely well, and it’s important coming from him.

He proceeds from there to expand on Hamas’s victimhood mentality in order explore its mistaken use of post-colonial theory in service of the Palestinian cause. In Hamas thinking, he writes, the Palestinian fight against Israel is like the Algerian fight against the French in the 1950s. Therefore the enormous suffering that Hamas’s “resistance” causes to the Palestinian people is worth it, as was the unspeakable suffering of the Algerians, because it ends in victory. The weakness of the post-colonialism approach as an anti-Israel strategy, Haviv writes, is that Hamas fails to grasp Israel’s self-understanding as a nation on its own soil rather than a colonial invader.

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WATCH: PLO Envoy Calls Hamas Rockets 'Crimes Against Humanity'

By J.J. Goldberg


Here’s a remarkable bit of television — official Palestinian Authority TV, to be specific — in which the Palestinian delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva tells an interviewer that Hamas’s rocket fire from Gaza is a crime against humanity. Plain and simple, no hedging. In Arabic (with English subtitles). Watch it below.

The envoy, Ibrahim Khreisheh, is replying to a question from anchorwoman Nisrin Nasir about the prospects of bringing charges against Israel before the International Criminal Court for its aerial attacks in Gaza. His answer: I’m not running for office, so I’ll give an unpopular but honest answer: It would backfire. Rockets aimed at Israeli civilians are crimes against humanity. Every rocket, individually, whether or not it hits anybody.

He says Israel’s bombardment also constitutes a crime against humanity. A few minutes later, however, he says that Palestinians in Gaza are reporting getting warnings from Israel to clear out before an airstrike. That means, he says, that any fatalities resulting from the airstrikes are accidental, not criminal.

Here’s the video:

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Is This Best Defense Israel Can Muster?

By J.J. Goldberg

Getty Images

Israel’s consul for public affairs in New York, Gil Lainer, has offered a spirited reply to my June 10 column, “How Politics and Lies Triggered an Unintended War In Gaza.” As a devout Zionist, I’m glad to see a strong, cogent defense of the state of Israel. Unfortunately, as Groucho Marx once put it, this wasn’t it.

Much of the consul’s riposte seems to be based, strangely, on the assumption that facts need not follow one from the other in order to constitute an argument as long as they sound similar. Thus the undisputed fact that Hamas favors conflict with Israel must somehow prove that Hamas wanted this conflict this month. The fact that Islam-motivated terrorist organizations fired rockets from Hamas-ruled territory can somehow mean that Hamas as good as fired those rockets. The fact that Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal praised the kidnapping of the three yeshiva students after the fact must mean that Hamas ordered the crime. Sorry, but things don’t work that way.

Prime Minister Netanyahu promised early on to show proof that Hamas was responsible for the kidnappings, but the proof never came and the promise was quickly forgotten. Instead we have Meshaal’s ravings. Well, Meshaal did indeed praise the kidnapping afterward, but he also said he had no information about it. Other Hamas leaders, including Sami Abu Zuhri and Osama Hamdan, stated flatly that Hamas had not ordered it. Hamas is never shy about acknowledging its actions. Why are we so eager to believe every damning word that comes out of their mouths but to dismiss as lies anything that might be deemed exculpatory?

Other assertions are even stranger. Supposedly I claimed that “Hamas does not desire conflict with Israel” (which I didn’t — I said it didn’t desire this conflict right now) because I’m “unaware of who has been launching rockets at Israel for years.” The consul then proceeds to identify who’s been doing it: the very groups that I blamed. I called them “smaller jihadi groups.” He calls them “Islamic terror groups that, whether they call themselves Hamas or not, espouse the same hatred and are committed to the destruction of the State of Israel.” That is, not Hamas, but they might as well be because they sound the same.

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How the Gaza War Started — and How It Can End

By J.J. Goldberg


The Forward has my latest column on how Israel and Hamas stumbled through a series of accidents and misunderstandings into a war nobody wanted. Because it’s written for print (unlike this blog) it has limits on length, and even though the paper generously lets me run way over my limit every week, there are inevitably things left out that need to be said. Permit me to add.

First, the current blowup began with a kidnap-murder of three Israeli teenagers, two of them 16-year-olds who just finished 11th grade. As the father of a son who is the exact same age — and is in Jerusalem right now on a summer program — I can just begin to guess at the feelings. But I can only begin to guess.

Second, the Israeli government suppressed the fact that the boys were dead, as it knew on Day 2, with the apparent motive of dismantling the Hamas infrastructure in the West Bank. The prolonged, fabricated uncertainty had the collateral effect of inflaming Jewish emotions in Israel and the Diaspora, and the tension may well have intensified the resulting anger after the bodies were found. On the other hand, it also provided cover for Israel to round up and dismantle, with barely a shot fired, a network operating in territory it controls that openly preaches destroying Israel and murdering its citizens. I don’t know that such a roundup is a bad thing.

Moreover, if it allows for a new Fatah-Hamas unity government with Hamas in a seriously weakened position, and a PA that can openly embrace the Quartet conditions and peace process with greater authority — including the ability to speak for and deliver Gaza — then it just might be something even hardcore doves can celebrate.

Third, regarding the current mutual bombardment. Here’s where the series of accidents and misunderstandings kicked in. When Israel began rounding up Hamas-West Bank, amid declarations from Bibi that Hamas “will pay,” the Hamas leadership in Gaza went underground and began gearing up for a renewed Gaza war that they feared — incorrectly, I believe — that Israel was planning. Going underground meant abandoning their earnest-but-not-always-competent enforcement of the 2012 cease-fire. The result was a sudden, drastic increase in rocket fire from PRC, Islamic Jihad and the Qaeda-style jihadis to its right. Israel responded with several aerial attacks on rocket crews.

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Why Avigdor Liberman Dumped Bibi

By J.J. Goldberg

Avigdor Liberman at Likud-Beiteinu campaign rally, December 2012 / Getty Images


Israeli Foreign Avigdor Liberman announced today that he was pulling his Yisrael Beiteinu party out of its electoral alliance with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud. The two combined forces in a joint electoral slate in advance of last year’s Knesset elections, but never merged the two parties into a single organization.

Liberman isn’t taking his party out of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, he told a press conference this morning. Nor is he quitting his job as foreign minister. Still, the split of the erstwhile Likud-Beiteinu alliance into two separate Knesset caucuses leaves Netanyahu in a precarious position, commanding just 20 lawmakers in his 68-member coalition.

Liberman’s split with Netanyahu comes after days of increasingly harsh squabbling over policy toward Hamas. Liberman has repeatedly called for the government to step up its attacks on Hamas, including a reoccupation of Gaza on the scale of Operaiton Defensive Shield in 2002. On Saturday, appearing in the southern city of Sderot, he slammed as “unthinkable” and “a serious mistake” Netanyahu’s offer to Hamas of a restored cease-fire, or “quiet in return for quiet.”

The dispute reached a climax at the weekly Sunday cabinet meeting, where Netanyahu and Liberman traded insults while ministers on the right lined up with Liberman and Netanyahu’s strongest support came from his usual critics to his left, including Yair Lapid, Tzipi Livni and environment minister (and onetime Labor Party chief) Amir Peretz.

Netanyahu now heads a coalition of five parties in which his own Likud, nominally the governing party, holds a plurality only by the narrowest margin. Of the coalition’s 68 lawmakers (in the 120-member Knesset), 20 belong to the Likud, 19 to finance minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, 12 to economy minister Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, 11 to Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and 6 to justice minister Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah.

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More From Spy Chiefs: Palestine Conflict, Not Iran, Is Our Top Threat

By J.J. Goldberg


Yesterday I posted my translation of a Facebook post by Yuval Diskin, the former director of Israel’s Shin Bet internal security agency. He wrote that Israel’s security is threatened by a growing anger and frustration among the Palestinian public — and that the frustration is due in large measure to Israeli government policies. Among those policies: dismissing the Palestinians as a peace partner, ignoring their economic woes and continuing to build settlements on land the Palestinians claim as their future state.

Today Haaretz published two articles in English that elaborate on that thought. One is a new piece by Diskin, outlining what he describes as an achievable path to an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, via a four-way peace arrangement between Israel, the Palestinians, Jordan and Egypt.

The other is an account of a briefing by Mossad director Tamir Pardo, the current director of the Mossad intelligence agency, given on Thursday to a group of Israeli businessmen. As reported by Haaretz diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid, Pardo told the gathering that the “biggest threat to Israel’s security is the conflict with the Palestinians and not Iran’s nuclear program.”

According to an attendee at the briefing, Pardo listed the most dangerous threats to Israel’s security as the “Palestinian issue” and the rise of the so-called Islamic State (formerly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) as a destabilizing terror base in the region. Pardo reportedly declined to include the Iranian nuclear project in his catalogue of most serious threats to Israel’s security or survival.

This isn’t the first time Pardo has downplayed the Iranian nuclear threat, in seeming contradiction to the views of his boss, Prime Minister Netanyahu. In December 2011 he said in a speech to an annual gathering of Israeli ambassadors that it was a “mistake” to describe Iran as an “existential threat” to Israel.

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