Pro-Russian activists rally March 1 in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk / Getty Images
The AIPAC conference may be opening at an awkward time for the lobby, as the Forward’s Nathan Guttman writes today. Beyond the fact that it’s still licking its wounds from the Iran sanctions imbroglio and has no clear message to rally around, it has to compete for attention—which is, after all, the point of bringing 14,000 people to Washington—from Oscars night and yet another winter storm.
But there could be an even bigger kink in the planning. As Chemi Shalev writes in Haaretz today, the explosion of Ukraine crisis vastly overshadows the Iran crisis that AIPAC wants to make the centerpiece of the conference. AIPAC was figuring to rev up the troops by invoking the Iranian nuclear threat. It apparently wants to avoid a direct confrontation with the administration over the issue, but it’s not planning on making nice either. Now the entire AIPAC agenda is probably off the front page.
On the other hand, the Ukraine eruption could work to the advantage of Israel’s prime minister, who meets President Obama at the White House on Monday. It’s sort of like a replay of the Monica Lewinsky crisis, which erupted just as Bibi was headed to the White House for a showdown with President Clinton in January 1998.
Senator Robert Menendez addresses AIPAC, March 2013 / Getty Images
When I wrote last week that Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu had instructed AIPAC to go stick its head in a noose — specifically, to pick another fight with the White House over Iran sanctions legislation, a scant 11 days after its bruised retreat from the last one — I wasn’t expecting the lobby to turn around on a dime and publicly assume the position just five days later on the Op-Ed Page of The New York Times, with the entire world looking on.
I mean, it’s no great surprise, at least not to the hard-core cynics among us, that when Israel’s prime minister tells the pro-Israel lobbying juggernaut to jump, the response from its H Street headquarters is “how high?” For all the power routinely imputed to the lobby in Washington, nobody seriously suggests that it wields much influence in Jerusalem. Not that they’ve ever tried. It’s more of what you might call a one-way street.
Usually, though, the process is conducted with a bit of class. AIPAC doesn’t advertise how its decisions are reached nor how closely, if at all, they’re coordinated with Jerusalem. Its public demeanor is that of a dignified American civic association with a deep interest in international affairs. Its decision-making is famously secretive; that’s part of its mystique. Senior officers almost never address the media, except from the dais of their annual Washington policy conference, where they have 10,000 cheering followers parked between themselves and the cameras.
Well, the next conference is in less than a week. They’re expecting 14,000 conferees. The prime minister himself will be the guest of honor. What was so urgent that it couldn’t wait a week and had to be said now, in the Times?
The signs suggest that the leadership wanted to head off a potential uprising at the conference next week from hardliners angered over what looked like a surrender to the White House on the Senate’s Menendez-Kirk Iran sanctions bill. That’s how the February 6 decision not to seek a vote on the bill has been interpreted in the mainstream media. The ideological press has been even harsher. Bill Kristol, writing the Weekly Standard, accused the lobby of making a “fetish of bipartisanship,” and suggested that its behavior might lead to “a nuclear Iran.” Ouch.
And, of course, that was the message in Bibi’s public spanking: Gentlemen, an about-face is in order.
Hence, the hasty Op-Ed piece. You can tell the authors were acting in haste and under duress from the piece itself; it’s full of holes.
‘Arguably treasonous’? Former Israeli intelligence chiefs Meir Dagan of Mossad (left) and Yuval Diskin of Shin Bet / Wikimedia Commons
There seems be a growing realization on the pro-Israel right — in some corners of it, at least — that its notions of Israel’s security needs don’t have much support among Israel’s security professionals.
What the right calls standing firm on Israel’s bottom line, the generals call sabotaging the peace process. What the generals call basic Israeli security doctrine, the right calls left-wing, pro-Palestinian propaganda.
Reactions from the right to this realization have been pretty much what you’d expect from any self-respecting right-wing ideologue these days: indignant protests that the so-called experts don’t know what they’re talking about. In recent months a growing roster of conservative commentators in both Israel and America have accused the defense establishment as a group or its most prominent members of ignorance, stupidity, disloyalty and even “arguably treasonous” behavior.
This is a new and disturbing development. It’s enough to recall the response in September 2009 to the United Nations’ Goldstone Report, which accused Israeli troops of war crimes, to remember the onetime intensity of the taboo against questioning the integrity of Israel’s defense establishment. But that was before the political leadership of the Netanyahu era began spinning an ideologically-driven security agenda that was radically at odds with the longstanding doctrines of the defense and intelligence establishment, and the politicians discovered that they couldn’t get the generals and spymasters to tailor their assessments to fit the political winds.
The security establishment—former heads of the Mossad, Shin Bet, military intelligence and the IDF general staff—began aggressively speaking out around three years ago, some two years into the Netanyahu administration, once they began suspecting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline policies on Iran and the Palestinians weren’t tough bargaining positions so much as ideologically-driven recklessness.
In the first half of 2011, Netanyahu swept out the heads of all the main security branches, including the Mossad, the Shin Bet, the IDF and the national security council, all apparently because the incumbents had refused during internal deliberations to endorse an Israeli military strike against Iran. The months that followed saw a steady stream of public statements from ex-service heads, in speeches, interviews and op-eds, laying out their views on what Israel does and doesn’t need to be safe. Some were directly critical of the government’s policies; others criticized only by implication.
Hamas police on the Gaza-Egypt border, September 2013 / Getty Images
Ideology continues to trump security in the Netanyahu government’s approach to combating terrorism. As Hamas struggles to maintain its November 2012 cease-fire with Israel in the face of increasing rocket fire, mostly by al Qaeda-linked Salafi jihad factions, Israel responds by bombing Hamas facilities.
In addition to jihadis, the secular Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine has been responsible for a small proportion of the rocket fire. The front fired several rockets at the Negev from Gaza earlier in January, including two fired toward Ariel Sharon’s funeral January 13. Israel retaliated January 22 by assassinating a PFLP leader identified as responsible for the rockets, Ahmed Al-Za’anin.
The latest incident began late Thursday, when an unknown group fired a rocket that landed in field outside the Negev town of Netivot. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon declared Friday morning, as he has done repeatedly over the past year, that Israel considers Hamas responsible for all such attacks. The Israeli military retaliated later on Friday by bombing two terrorist installations, a rocket factory in the northern Gaza Strip and a weapons storage facility in the southern strip, that the army later confirmed were both Hamas facilities.
Hamas responded Saturday by withdrawing its rocket prevention units from the field. Initial Israeli responses interpreted the action as Hamas “giving a green light” to stepped up rocket attacks. But by Saturday night, as there had been no further rocket fire, Israeli sources began suggesting that the Hamas troop withdrawal was intended as a message to Israel to direct its fire toward those responsible, rather than punishing Hamas for actions it has been trying to prevent.
During the month of January some 20 rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza, equal the total for the entire preceding 11 months.
The developments come on the heels of a disturbing January 26 report that Prime Minister Netanyahu has been shaking up the hiring and promoting practices at the Shin Bet internal security service in order to create an agency that produces the intelligence he wants. The report, by Haaretz military analyst Amir Oren, says that as a result of the effort, the Shin Bet now has “three out of its four senior officials coming from a religious background and radiating sympathy for a worldview that opposes diplomatic compromise that would involve the evacuation of settlements.”
Oren claims that the shakeup follows Netanyahu’s frustration that he can’t get the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate (or MI) to produce the intelligence he needs to fend off Secretary of State John Kerry and justify an attack on Iran. Military Intelligence, like the rest of the military, insists on strict professionalism both in its assessments and in its personnel decisions, unlike the Shin Bet, which is under the prime minister’s personal supervision. Oren writes:
While Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies insist that Israel must maintain military control over the Jordan River in order to make sure that hostile forces don’t cross over and turn a Palestinian state into a forward base for attacks on Israel, Israel’s main security professionals continue to argue that Israel can accept other security arrangements that would meet Palestinian objections and still fulfill Israel’s needs. But we don’t often hear them explaining how Israel could maintain its security without control of the river.
Yesterday retired brigadier general Ephraim Sneh spelled it out in an op-ed article on Yediot Ahronot’s Ynet Hebrew news site. I’ve translated it into English, below. He argues that the monitoring and control provided by a full military deployment can be maintained today from afar by new technological developments, and that together with the strong security cooperation that currently exists between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, Israel can safely reduce its presence to a minimal level that would meet Palestinian objections.
Sneh was a leader of the Labor Party’s hawkish wing until he quit before the last elections to form his own party, Yisrael Hazaka, which failed to win a Knesset seat. He served in the past as minister of health and minister of transportation as well as two stints as deputy minister of defense. Before entering politics in 1987, he was a career soldier and served as commander of Israeli forces in Lebanon and military governor of the West Bank.
It’s worth noting that another former general, recently retired major general Gadi Shamni, has been arguing recently for a more gradual removal of Israeli troops from the river. In a recent Haaretz opinion essay he wrote that the handover of security control of the river crossings from Israeli to Palestinian security forces will take time, and a firm deadline can’t be set. It sounds on first read like an argument for Netanyahu’s position, but on closer examination it’s not very far from Sneh’s.
Shamni is a former chief of Central Command, as well as military secretary to prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak and most recently Israeli military attaché in Washington.
A New Approach to the Jordan Valley
Technology and Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian security cooperation make it possible to reduce to a minimum the need for an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley within the framework of a peace agreement.
By Ephraim Sneh
Hamas fighters testing a Gaza-made M-75 long-range missile, November 2013 / Getty Images
Maariv’s Eli Bardenstein offered a stunningly clear and disturbing report (in Hebrew, my translation below) on Friday that illustrates the vexing complications introduced into the triangular Jerusalem-Cairo-Gaza relationship by political turmoil in all three places. It makes a very useful companion piece to today’s front-page New York Times report by Jodi Rudoren on Israeli jitters over instability on its eastern front.
In both cases, as Bardenstein notes and Rudoren sort of hints, the Netanyahu government is ignoring the intelligence supplied by its own security establishment, which shows jihadi organizations making life difficult for both Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south. The jihadis are creating turmoil, launching pinprick attacks on Israel that violate cease-fire agreements between Israel and Hezbollah and Hamas respectively. Hamas and Hezbollah are both besieged — Hamas by the new, anti-Islamist Egyptian military government, Hezbollah by jihadi spillover from the Syrian civil war (as well as political blowback from the Rafiq Hariri murder trial now underway in The Hague) — and are finding it increasingly difficult to enforce their respective cease-fires with Israel. Israel — meaning principally defense minister Moshe Yaalon — chooses to ignore the intelligence, blame Hamas and Hezbollah and launch military responses that only further weaken Hamas and Hezbollah and strengthen the jihadis.
I’ve translated Bardenstein’s piece below, but here’s the gist: Israel is alarmed at the unraveling of the November 2012 Pillar of Defense cease-fire “understandings” and the increasing rocket fire from Gaza — 17 rockets fired in January alone as of Friday (and more since then). It wants Egypt, which acts as mediator between Israel and Hamas, to pressure Hamas to stop the rocket fire. But Egypt has lost influence over Hamas since the military deposed the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi last July. The military government’s approach is not to work with Hamas as Morsi did but to crack down on it.
Hamas, in turn, complains that the Egyptian crackdown — particularly the mass destruction of smuggling tunnels, which squeezes the Gaza economy — weakens Hamas rule and reduces its ability to control the jihadi organizations that are doing the firing. And both Cairo and Hamas complain that Israel has been making the situation worse by Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon’s insistence on responding to every single rocket launching, no matter how ineffectual, with aerial bombardment.
Benjamin Netanyahu with Likud ministers at weekly cabinet meeting, Sunday, January 12, 2014. From left: Gilad Erdan (communications); Yuval Steinitz (intelligence); Netanyahu; cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit; Gideon Saar (interior) / Getty Images
When should the legislature intrude on the executive branch’s authority to conduct foreign policy by seeking to dictate the terms of sensitive negotiations? Good question, but don’t ask Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His answer seems to depend on who’s doing the negotiating and who’s doing the micromanaging. And he’s not even embarrassed by the .
Netanyahu was said to be angered by a bill that would require prior Knesset approval before his government can enter any negotiations over the future status of Jerusalem or Palestinian refugees. So Maariv’s Zeev Kam reported on Thursday.
Netanyahu reportedly lit into the bill, proposed by Likud hard-liner Miri Regev, at last Sunday’s weekly meeting of Likud-Beiteinu ministers, shortly before the weekly full cabinet meeting. “He appeared particularly angry when the topic came up,” several participants told Kam:
“Nobody should preach to us about Jerusalem,” Netanyahu said when discussing the proposed legislation and Knesset member Regev. Netanyahu went on to emphasize to the ministers that conducting negotiations is the government’s responsibility.
”Private member bills like these damage the government’s functioning,” Netanyahu emphasized.
Ariel Sharon in Knesset, preparing his speech for opening of summer session, May 7, 2001 / Getty Images
Amid the outpouring of tributes to Ariel Sharon following his death, a few seem particularly noteworthy for their unexpected insights — some into the life and character of Sharon, others into the character of the writers.
Chemi Shalev writes in Haaretz about the first time he met Sharon, serendipitously bumping into him at Southern Command headquarters in Sinai one evening during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Chemi was a 20-year-old enlisted man. Sharon was already the legendary, notorious General Bulldozer. When Sharon saw young soldier Shalev gaping at him from a distance, he invited him over to share some food, cooked by his personal chef. Chemi was surprised by Sharon’s enormous personal charm, which seems to have contradicted the man’s fearsome reputation. Over the years, Chemi writes, it is Sharon’s gargantuan contradictions that stand out as the defining characteristics of the man. The piece is well worth reading in full.
Another story comes from the late David Twersky, who wrote in the New York Sun at the time of Sharon’s stroke in 2006 about the first time he had met the old general. It was in the early 1990s, about a decade after Sharon’s Lebanon War, in which David had served as a gunner in an artillery unit outside Beirut and come away with a profound disliking for Sharon. On this particular day Sharon was dropping by the Forward’s offices in New York to visit his old friend Seth Lipsky, our founding editor (and later editor of the Sun). David, then the paper’s Washington bureau chief, was summoned to New York to sit in. Like Chemi, David was struck by Sharon’s personal magnetism, and began to find that while he “remained critical of many of his policies,” the “rancor was gone.”
Now, though, with Sharon felled by a stroke, David wrote that he was “beside myself with sadness at the prospect that Mr. Sharon will no longer be leading Israel and full of trepidation over what will come next.” He saw in Sharon a rare ability for decisive leadership that made him “this generation’s David Ben Gurion.” Like BG, Sharon had the courage to stand up to his own comrades when it became necessary by “doing to the settler movement what Ben Gurion had done to the leftist Palmach militia, disbanding it in the interest of the state.” And when Sharon formed his Kadima party in 2005,
The Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea had only half in jest suggested that the new party be named Rashi (after the famous rabbinic commentator on the Bible and Talmud) as an acronym for Rak Sharon Yachol - Only Sharon Can.
Two more items that are particularly telling, both from Israeli settlers in the renewed Jewish quarter of Hebron. The authors are prominent leaders of that subsector of Israelis who benefited more than any other single segment of Israeli society from Sharon’s actions, namely West Bank settlers. One is from a Knesset member who wrote this weekend, after Sharon’s death, to express thanks to God that Sharon had been felled by a stroke before he could carry out any further withdrawals from settlements. The other is from a spokesman for the Hebron community who calls Sharon a “monster” and expresses confidence that he is damned to eternal suffering for his sins.
Israel’s peace-pact rejectionists, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon (Wikimedia Commons)
Benjamin Netanyahu is looking more and more these days like he’s preparing to take on the pessimists and nay-sayers and prove them wrong.
For most of the past year the cynics have been insisting that neither Netanyahu nor Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas believes anything will come of Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative — but that they’re both playing along with Kerry in hopes of avoiding be blamed when the whole thing collapses. It’s sort of like musical chairs — whoever ends up looking worse when the music stops will bear the brunt of very considerable European economic anger, and likely U.S. anger as well.
Lately, though, it looks like Bibi has given up trying and is now opting for Plan B: telling Europe, America and the rest of the world to go to hell. On a practical level, he seems to be doing everything he can to short-circuit the talks, blame or no blame. Most blatantly, he’s reported by aides to be planning an announcement of new housing construction in West Bank settlements, up to 2,000 units worth, in conjunction with this week’s Palestinian prisoner release. This despite Palestinian threats to walk and European threats to blame Israel and retaliate if that happens. Bibi spends a good deal of time and effort decrying those international moves to delegitimize Israel, which include some highly alarming European sanctions, but he shows little interest in blunting international delegitimization by nodding toward norms the rest of the world considers legitimate.
From the Palestinian viewpoint, the prisoner release was intended as a way for Israel to demonstrate a good faith commitment to mutual recognition — effectively acknowledging the other side’s fighters as combatants — but the new construction cancels it out by implying an unwillingness to end the occupation. Those close to Netanyahu say the new construction announcements accompanying each prisoner release — this week’s is the third since the peace talks began — are necessary to keep his right flank on board while he moves forward.
If construction were Bibi’s only negative signal, the sop-to-the-right argument might make sense. But it’s just one in a series. There is, to begin with, the fact that his two most senior ministers, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, have both stated repeatedly, in the most public manner imaginable, that they believe the peace talks have no chance of success and that Abbas is the problem and is no partner for peace. One of the main Israeli criticisms of Abbas, ironically, is that he frequently and his aides regularly accuse the Netanyahu government of actions that sabotage peace.
President Obama and Haim Saban, Washington, D.C., December 7 / Getty Images
Tempers are wearing thin both in Washington and Jerusalem over continuing disagreements on the Iran nuclear talks and the U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. And the situation wasn’t helped by last weekend’s Saban Forum in Washington. The three-day forum, sponsored by the Brookings Institution, featured talks by President Obama, Prime Minister Netanyahu, Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, all taking the opportunity to stick fingers in each others’ eyes.
Both Obama, who spoke Saturday afternoon (video, transcript), and Kerry, who spoke Saturday evening (video, transcript), strongly defended the agreement with Iran signed November 24. And both took digs at Netanyahu’s sharp criticisms of the agreement, Obama in a jesting, almost mocking tone, Kerry in sharper tones. Kerry went through the agreement point by point, occasionally raising his voice in anger as he noted concessions won from Iran that reflected what Netanyahu had been calling for.
Obama, by contrast, had a smile on his face through most of his 47-minute dialogue with forum backer Haim Saban. He drew frequent audience laughter, sometimes at Netanyahu’s expense, as when he referred to Netanyahu’s demand that Iran give up all enrichment capabilities. Reaching an agreement that sharply limited and monitored Iran’s enrichment capabilities is far preferable to not reaching an agreement and seeing Iran continue its progress toward a bomb, he said. In order to reach an agreement, he said, Iran would have to be:
Now, you’ll hear arguments, including potentially from the prime minister, that say we can’t accept any enrichment on Iranian soil. Period. Full stop. End of conversation. And this takes me back to the point I made earlier. One can envision an ideal world in which Iran said, we’ll destroy every element and facility and you name it, it’s all gone. I can envision a world in which Congress passed every one of my bills that I put forward. I mean, there are a lot of things that I can envision that would be wonderful.
And both American leaders argued strongly for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement that meets Palestinian as well as Israel needs. At the same time, they indicated clearly that the agreement would be in stages, with full Palestinian statehood coming only at the end, after Israeli security concerns have been satisfied. Palestinians have rejected a staged settlement up to now.
We’ve noted before that the assessments of Israel’s security needs we hear from Israel’s elected leadership, starting with the prime minister, are not always identical — to put in mildly — to the assessments the leadership gets from its own intelligence and security professionals. On the surface, that dissonance appears to be recurring in spades today as Israeli leaders react to the interim Iranian nuclear agreement signed last night in Geneva. But things this time aren’t entirely what they seem.
Prime Minister Netanyahu is calling the deal a “historic mistake” and promises that Israel “won’t be bound by it.” Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman says the result of the deal is that the regional nuclear arms race has now begun.
By contrast, the word from the intelligence community, both publicly and in private conversations, is that the deal is “a pretty good one as far as it goes,” as several sources told me independently. This isn’t an agreement over the fate of Iran’s nuclear program, and doesn’t pretend to be. Rather, it’s an agreement to begin negotiating in earnest over the program, with (mostly) verifiable guarantees that Iran won’t use the interim period to continue galloping toward a bomb.
This is something Tehran has never agreed to before, and it comes at a manageable cost—minor, easily reversible measures relaxing the economic sanctions. The real test, therefore, is what comes out of those negotiations.
One key question Israel’s security establishment is asking itself right now is how wisely Netanyahu is behaving as he protests the agreement.
To understand why Shelly Yachimovich was booted out as head of the Israel Labor Party after just two years on the job, it helps to note that Labor has had a bad habit, ever since Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995, of changing leaders every time it holds a primary.
But this time was different. Previous primaries were held after a general election, and leaders were dumped because they’d lost. Yachimovich, by contrast, did fairly well in the 2013 Knesset elections. She nearly doubled the party’s Knesset share, from eight seats to 15. What she lost was the trust — indeed, the patience — of her colleagues and the party membership. This time it wasn’t about Labor, but about Yachimovich. Virtually every senior figure in the party complained bitterly of her high-handedness, her inability to work in a team, her refusal to share decision-making. The poison finally filtered down to the rank and file.
Labor’s new leader, Isaac “Buzhi” Herzog, steps into an unusual situation. He’s well liked by his colleagues and popular among the members in the party branches. He was effective as a government minister, particularly in his 2007-11 stint heading welfare and social services. As the son of ex-president Chaim Herzog, grandson of longtime chief rabbi (and namesake) Yitzhak Herzog and nephew of Abba Eban, he has a Kennedy-like aura of aristocracy, something like what Likud “princes” Bibi Netanyahu, Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, Tzipi Livni and Ehud Olmert all had. Unlike Likud, Labor has never chosen a “prince” before.
And, in stark contrast to Yachimovich, those who know Buzhi agree that he’s a genuinely nice guy, a rarity in Israeli politics. The question is whether he has it in him to capture the public’s trust as the leader of the troubled, threatened nation.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed some 1,500 leaders of the top North American Jewish philanthropies to Jerusalem for their annual assembly with an angry denunciation of the Iranian nuclear negotiations that their government is leading in Geneva.
In a rambling, repetitive, hour-long speech that was by turns impassioned, sarcastic and bitter, Netanyahu attacked the deal that he said had been reached between Iran and the six Western powers that are negotiating over Iran’s nuclear program. He said the international community had imposed crippling sanctions on Iran in order to force an end to its uranium enrichment, a surrender of its enriched nuclear material and dismantling its centrifuges, but “now there is a deal” that eases the sanctions in return for virtually no Iranian concessions.
“Iran does not give up anything,” he said. “None of the demands that the Security Council adopted are met.”
The Sunday evening speech came a day after the negotiators in Geneva announced that no deal had been reached and the talks had been suspended after coming to an impasse. It was Netanyahu’s third major appearance of the day in which he denounced the nuclear negotiations, though in his earlier appearances—an interview on CBS News “Face the Nation” and remarks at his weekly Cabinet meeting—he acknowledged more clearly that a deal had in fact not been reached.
He has been denouncing the direction of the Geneva negotiations in extreme terms several times a day for the better part of a week. The campaign began just in time to greet Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest visit, his sixth visit to the region since taking office, to push Israeli-Palestinian negotiations forward. The Kerry visit came at a moment of crisis, as the secretary of state appeared to have been caught by surprise by Netanyahu’s hardline stance on the Palestinian issue when the two met in Rome in mid-October. Kerry came to Israel last week prepared to push hard for new flexibility. Netanyahu’s pushback on both issues, Iran and Palestine, is said to be causing severe strain in relations between the two countries.
Netanyahu repeatedly described the Iran deal in present-tense terms, though it had collapsed very publicly just the day before. His speech was framed to give the effect of depicting the allies’ proposal as a done deal and exaggerating its imbalance, saying Iran was giving away “nothing” when in fact it is called on to destroy its most highly fissile material, stop certain enrichment and idle its fastest centrifuges. His evident intention was to get Jewish activists to put pressure on Washington to harden its terms in advance of renewed talks later in the month.
Washington’s challenge, by contrast, is to pursue a strategy that can maximize pressure on Iran while minimizing the odds that the extraordinary coalition President Obama has carefully assembled, which includes China and Russia along with the traditional Western European allies, will collapse.
Faced with front-page news reports that countered his exaggerated message, Netanyahu implied that he was giving inside information: “What is being offered now—and I am being constantly updated in detail—is a deal in which Iran retains all of that capacity” (to prepare bomb-making materials).
Jerusalem is having an unusually mild fall. November began amid sunny skies, temperatures in the high 60s, light breezes and just the slightest hint of feathery drizzle to announce that after a bone-dry October, the rainy season was finally about to return.
Diaspora Jews are returning too. No, not the waves of immigration that generations of Israelis have been impatiently waiting for. These are the pro-Israel charities and advocacy organizations that gather periodically to review their work, pump up their spirits and sort out their differences. There’s a host of interlocking and overlapping boards, councils and delegate assemblies that meet in various parts of the world at various times of year. This week, in what’s apparently intended as a show of force at a time when Israel’s leadership feels it needs it, they’re coming to town at once for a rolling series of seminars, committee meetings, pep rallies and gala dinners, punctuated by walking tours and hokey musical performances.
Most Israelis hardly notice. It’s keeping Israel’s senior leaders busy, though. President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and various cabinet ministers have been hopping from hotel to convention center and back, delivering mostly the same speeches to mostly the same faces in slightly different formats. Peres talks again and again about the miracle of Israel’s growth and her love of peace. Netanyahu talks about the threats to which Israel will never surrender. Most eloquent is Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, who talks about the challenges of the Jewish future, the meaning of courage and his days in a Soviet prison, though with his thickly Russian-accented English nobody is ever sure exactly what he’s saying.
First, there’s the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. That’s the big one. It meets in a different city every November, usually in America but once every decade or so in Jerusalem. It starts on Sunday afternoon. It usually draws thousands of delegates from across North America, though it’s being whispered around town in worried tones that attendance numbers are down this year.
Then there’s the annual Assembly of the Jewish Agency, the Jerusalem-based social service body that gets most of its money from the federations. Its governing bodies are split roughly half-and-half between the federation donors who raise the money and Israeli politicians and bureaucrats who spend it. The agency Assembly started on Friday and ends Sunday night, when the federation Assembly begins. The agency’s smaller board of governors convenes after the federation Assembly ends next week. For the senior leaders in the System, as this network of organizations is known—people like Sharansky, board chairman James Tisch and key local federation leaders and Israeli agency department heads—that’s a week and a half of solid, mind-numbing meetings.
Israeli politics were turned upside down this week by the surprise acquittal on Wednesday of Avigdor Lieberman, the blunt-talking, Arab-bashing, Soviet-born former foreign minister and head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party. He had been charged with fraud, witness tampering and breach of trust for allegedly promoting a crony to an ambassadorship. The promotion was allegedly in exchange for leaked information about an ongoing police investigation into Lieberman’s business affairs.
The verdict ends one of Israel’s longest running political dramas. Police began investigating Lieberman in 1999 on suspicion of operating dummy companies in Cyprus and elsewhere, nominally headed by his daughter and driver among others, that allegedly funneled millions of dollars in illegal cash to him from European tycoons seeking favors. In the meantime, Lieberman’s star kept rising as the voice of Russian-speaking Israelis and scourge of Arabs, leftists and human rights activists.
The latest stage of the drama began in 2011 when attorney general Yehuda Weinstein decided not to indict him on the main charges of bribery and illegal cash, claiming insufficient evidence. Instead he filed the lesser charges of fraud and breach of trust related to the ambassadorship. The indictment was issued in December 2012, forcing Lieberman to step down as foreign minister. His Yisrael Beiteinu movement, one of Israel’s largest political forces, was left leaderless, with nobody approaching his stature as a potential successor. Prime Minister Netanyahu left the foreign minister’s post open pending the verdict at Lieberman’s insistence, nominally holding it himself but effectively leaving the ministry and diplomatic corps in limbo. A guilty verdict would have ended Lieberman’s political career and set off a free-for-all as individuals and parties tried to coopt his followers, fill the leadership vacuum on the secular right and pick up Lieberman’s ultra-nationalist, minority-bashing banner.
Now that the case is closed, Lieberman is expected to return to the foreign ministry on Monday, November 11. That will set off a scramble all its own. The Cabinet currently includes 22 ministers, two more than the 20-minister to which Netanyahu agreed last February at the insistence of good-government advocate Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party. Speculation for weeks has been that Lapid would insist on forcing one minister to be fired, a daunting political dilemma for the prime minister.
This week, however, Lapid is said to have agreed tentatively to let the Cabinet expand to 23 ministers. But there are two conditions: First, coopt his Yesh Atid ally, Science Minister Yaakov Peri, a former director of the Shin Bet security service, to the seven-member inner security cabinet. Second, put Yesh Atid Knesset whip Ofer Shelah, a former military reporter (and onetime Forward correspondent) in Lieberman’s place as chair of the powerful Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee. Both conditions would put Netanyahu in a tough spot, though.
A day before Secretary of State John Kerry’s expected arrival in Israel to further peace talks, Israeli news media are reporting that Kerry has begun preparing an American peace plan to present to the parties in January as a basis for negotiations, if there isn’t progress by then. It will reportedly be based on the pre-1967 armistice lines with land swaps, and will be linked to the Arab Peace Initiative.
Zahava Gal-On, head of the left-wing Meretz party, made the claim in a public statement Monday morning, saying she heard it during meetings with American, Palestinian and Arab officials in recent days. Several news organizations confirmed it with unnamed sources later in the day.
The daily tabloid Maariv reported, quoting a source “close to the negotiations,” that Kerry formulated his plan after his seven-hour meeting in Rome with Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu October 23 “sobered him up” to the realization (מעין התפכחות) that Netanyahu “had his own considerations” and that a permanent peace agreement “wasn’t attainable as he had thought.”
According to The Hill newspaper in Washington, Kerry told reporters in Saudi Arabia he “categorically” denied the “rumors” and that there was no plan other than face-to-face negotiations “at this point in time.” A State Department spokeswoman later called it “wild speculation.”
Netanyahu responded to the reports in remarks to the Likud Knesset caucus later in the day, saying Israel would look at any proposal raised in negotiations but “but we won’t accept any external dictates and no pressure will help.”
The daily Israel Hayom, considered a strong supporter of Netanyahu, reported that Kerry and Netanyahu drew maps for each other in Rome, and that Netanyahu’s map:
Tensions within Israel’s governing coalition are reaching a boiling point over the impending release of 26 more prisoners, part of the agreement between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Secretary of State Kerry that paved the way for renewal of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. The cabinet is expected to vote on the latest release, the second in the package, today (Sunday).
Knesset member (and retired major-general) Elazar Stern, an Orthodox Jew in Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party, was spat on by a 17-year-old youth while leaving synagogue on Saturday. The settler-backed Arutz Sheva-Israel National News reports that the incident was in response to a speech Stern gave criticizing firebrand settler leader Rabbi Dov Lior. But Livni’s number 2, Environment Minister (and former Labor Party defense minister) Amir Peretz said in several radio interviews that the incident was part of an incipient wave of incitement against Livni by settler leaders who oppose the peace negotiations. Leaders of the pro-settler Jewish Home party are accusing Livni of pushing the prisoner release “just so she can continue talking to Saeb Erekat,” as Housing Minister Uri Ariel of Jewish Home wrote on his Facebook page.
The irony, veteran reporter Ben Caspit reports this morning in the Jerusalem Post’s Hebrew-language SofShavua (Weekend) is that it was Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett who forced the prisoner release on Netanyahu. Caspit writes that Netanyahu told his coalition partners in July, just before Kerry announced the renewal of talks, that Israel had to choose either a prisoner release, a nine-month settlement construction freeze or an agreement that talks would be based on the pre-1967 lines with border adjustments. While Livni favored the freeze and Yair Lapid favored the 1967 lines, Bennett threatened to quit the coalition if either of those were chosen and forced Netanyahu to accept the prisoner release.
Caspit’s article is a bombshell (hat tip to Chemi Shalev for posting it on his Facebook page) and worth reading in full. So I’ve taken the liberty of translating it:
Bennett Forced the Prisoner Release—And Now Declares Open Season on Livni
It’s been a week since Bar-Ilan 2, Benjamin Netanyahu’s jarringly hardline policy address October 6 at the university campus where he first endorsed Palestinian statehood in 2009. And so far there’s been almost no public reaction.
What little attention there’s been has gone mostly to his defiantly hardline statements on Iran. The important part has been largely overlooked: his decidedly downbeat statements on the Palestinian peace process . Both the Jerusalem Post on the right and Haaretz and the left saw the speech as backpedaling on the peace talks. Haaretz called it a “hawkish address in which he did everything except announce that he is reneging on his agreement in principle to Palestinian statehood,” while the Post said Netanyahu was “lowering expectations” while he “puts the onus of failed negotiations squarely on the Palestinians’ shoulders.” Haaretz’s Hebrew edition quoted a tweet by former Yesha Settlements Council chairman Danny Dayan calling it “perhaps Netanyahu’s best speech as prime minister.”
The prime minister dismissed the idea that the occupation and settlements were the “cause of the conflict,” noting that it had begun long before 1967 and ignoring any evolution in the Palestinian position. A major part of the speech was devoted to the World War II-era alliance between Nazi Germany and the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al-Husseini. (Here is the full text.)
“Unless the Palestinians recognize the Jewish state and give up on the right of return there will not be peace,” he said. Even then, “after generations of incitement we have no confidence that such recognition will percolate down to the Palestinian people. That is why we need extremely strong security arrangements and to go forward, but not blindly.”
But a week later, according to (Hebrew) Amir Tibon at Walla News, the speech is beginning to raise concern among some on the right who note that Bibi made no mention of Jerusalem as Israel’s “eternally undivided” capital. In fact, Tibon writes, “sources close to Netanyahu concede that since his reelection last February, Netanyahu has avoided speaking on the topic of Jerusalem.”
He’s had plenty of opportunities to do so, Tibon writes. The most obvious was in May, when the City of Jerusalem and the Ministry of Transportation dedicated a new interchange, named after his father, Benzion Netanyahu, out on Highway 443:
With the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations operating under a tightly sealed cone of silence imposed by Secretary of State John Kerry, Middle East policy junkies have developed an elaborate guessing game that takes the form of a will-he-or-won’t-he dissection of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intentions.
The idea is to examine what’s known about Netanyahu’s past, his psychological makeup, his current actions and his relationship with the rest of his Likud party, and then to guess whether he’s likely to embrace a two-state peace agreement that’s broad enough for the Palestinian side to buy into—assuming that they’re serious about making a deal as well. For aficionados of the game, the end point is to decide whether Bibi Is Ready to Cross the Rubicon.
The Rubicon was all the rage in the hallways of the Washington Convention Center during the J Street conference this week. Given that it’s J Street, one might have supposed going in that the popular answer would be No, that Bibi isn’t ready to cross. But that wasn’t the case. Talking to Knesset members, Israeli and American policy wonks and journalists, the betting was more or less even. And if you listened closely, what it really came down to was a sort of Israeli version of the Hastert Rule.
I refer, of course, to the rule imposed on the Republican majority in the House of Representatives by former House speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, under which a bill normally didn’t come to the floor unless it was backed by a majority of the majority. That is, a bill had to have the backing of a majority of the Republican caucus. Only in extraordinary circumstances would the speaker let a bill come be passed by a minority of the Republicans joined by a large number of Democrats. The Israeli equivalent is the rule that the prime minister doesn’t bring a bill to the Knesset unless it’s first approved by a majority of his Cabinet and of his own party.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas met with a group of prominent American Jews in New York Monday evening for a dialogue over a dinner of trout and saffron rice. Also on the menu were servings of hope, flattery, mutual frustration and a just soupcon of evident peace-process exhaustion and perhaps a hint of unstated despair.
Abbas, in New York to address the United Nations General Assembly, seemed intent on driving home his views on peace, which Palestinians claim are frequently misrepresented by Israelis. He repeatedly condemned the recent murders of Israeli soldiers in the West Bank, declared himself committed to a “two-state solution” with Israel and “the state of Palestine” living “side by side in security and peace,” and he insisted that “70% of Palestinians” share that goal.
And, in a seeming rebuke to persistent Israeli and Western skepticism, he stated several times that his goal in negotiations is a “comprehensive agreement with Israel that will end the conflict and end further claims” by the two sides against one another. Pro-Israel analysts commonly claim that the Palestinian leader has no intention of agreeing to a final end to the conflict and cannot agree to sign a deal ending all further claims against Israel.
The 30-odd Americans in attendance, mostly liberal activists, peppered him with questions about how he planned to convince Israelis of his sincerity, at times seemingly wanting to be convinced themselves. Of 13 guests who were called on to ask questions, no fewer than six asked him bluntly to use the U.N. pulpit to reach out to Israelis, to let Israelis “hear words of hope from you,” to “dispel the pessimism” plaguing the diplomatic process and “make clear that you are a partner for peace.”
Abbas’s replies to each were variations on “no”: “I don’t think the Israelis need to be convinced that two states are good for them—they want their state and we want our state.” And: “My speech will be addressed to the Palestinian people and the Israeli people at the same time, but when we talk we don’t have double language.” And, after being asked the same question a sixth time: “It’s not my job alone to dispel pessimism — we both have to work, both me and Mr. Netanyahu.”
To numerous guests chatting among themselves afterward, the most notable feature of the dinner was who wasn’t there. The Abbas dinner has become something of an annual September ritual when the Palestinian leader comes to address the General Assembly. It’s organized each year by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, which is named for the Slim-Fast diet food mogul who founded it and is headed by former Florida Rep. Robert Wexler. In past years guests have included heads of the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, Conference of Presidents, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the main synagogue unions and others.