J.J. Goldberg

Watch: Obama on Bibi, Palestinians, Reevaluation

By J.J. Goldberg

President Obama used his March 24 press conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani as an opportunity for a lengthy discussion of his plans to reevaluate America’s approach to Israeli-Palestinian relations.

It runs 10 minutes, from 34:10 to 44:54. He starts off by inviting a question from Associated Press White House reporter Josh Lederman. Below the video is my transcription of the bulk of Obama’s remarks.


Prime Minister Netanyahu in the run-up to the election stated that a Palestinian state would not occur while he was prime minister, and I took him at his word that that’s what he meant. And I think that a lot of voters inside Israel understood him to be saying that fairly unequivocally.

Afterwards he put forward that he didn’t say “never,” but that there would be a series of conditions in which a Palestinian state could potentially be created. But of course the conditions were such that they would be impossible to meet anytime soon.

So even if you accepted, I think, the corrective of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s in subsequent days, there still does not appear to be a prospect of a meaningful framework established that would lead to a Palestinian state even if there were a whole range of conditions and security requirements that might be phased in over a long period of time, which was always the presumption.

I don’t think anybody ever envisioned in any peace agreement, certainly not one that Prime Minister Netanyahu would agree to, or the Israeli people would agree to, that overnight you would suddenly have a Palestinian state next to Jerusalem and that Israel would not have a whole range of security conditions that had to be met and that it would be phased in over a long period of time.

So the issue has never been do you create a Palestinian state overnight. The question is do you create a process and a framework that gives the Palestinians hope, the possibility that down the road they have a secure state of their own standing side by side with a secure, fully recognized Jewish state of Israel.

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Israeli Left Splits on Tactics at J Street Conference

By J.J. Goldberg

J Street / Facebook

Speaking at a press conference on the margins of the J Street national convention today, a group of left-wing Knesset members split over the role they’d like American Jews to play in American diplomacy, particularly at the United Nations.

Responding to a reporter’s question, Zionist Union lawmakers Yoel Hasson and Ksenia Svetlova said they opposed a UN resolution on a Palestinian state. “We all support a two-state solution,” Hasson said, “but the UN is not the place for it. The only way is for Obama to be active, to talk to the Palestinians, to talk to Netanyahu. And the Arab states in the region can play an important role.”

By contrast, Tamar Zandberg of Meretz welcomed the prospect of a UN resolution as a way of helping Israelis and Palestinians come together around a joint framework. “A UN resolution is something Israel should support,” Zandberg said. “How can you support a two-state solution inside [Israel] but oppose it outside?”

Zandberg said she was pleased with the election results, because “the right-wing victory is clear.”

In a clear dig at Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, she added: “The most dangerous phenomenon we saw last time was parties running as left-wing, winning votes from the left and then taking them into a right-wing government. This time all the left is in opposition. It’s much clearer and more unified.”

Zandberg said she was happily surprised by what she found at the J Street conference. “I came to this conference three days after the election and was sure I would find depression and sadness. I was surprised to find energy. I met people who said they decided to come here after seeing the election because they wanted to feel the energy.”

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Trouble Ahead for Bibi. Plus: Why Herzog Lost

By J.J. Goldberg

In the end it wasn’t even close. Pre-election polls had Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud trailing the Zionist Union of Yitzhak Herzog and Tzipi Livni by four Knesset seats, nearly 4% of the popular vote. Analysts around the world were falling over each other to write Bibi’s political obituary. Then came election day. Exit polls found he’d amazingly closed the gap. With the two parties effectively tied, Netanyahu suddenly appeared far better positioned than Herzog to form the next coalition.

When the actual vote-count ended, it was a Netanyahu landslide. He’d left his challenger gasping in the dust, winning 30 Knesset seats to Herzog’s 24. He’s now poised to shape Israel’s next government more or less as he chooses. The only question, it seems, is whether he’ll choose a narrow coalition of the right or a broad unity government with Herzog.

So it seems. In fact, though, his situation is devilishly complicated. En route to his come-from-behind victory he left a trail of bad blood that will haunt him for months. His last-minute outcry to save Israel from the votes of its Arab citizens arguably won him the election. But it opened a deep rift in society that will take a long time to heal. He presides over a society wounded by his own hand.

The immediate damage of Netanyahu’s the-Arabs-are-coming slur mustn’t be underestimated. It infuriated Israel’s Jewish liberals and moderates along with non-Jewish minorities. It reverberated worldwide, evoking shock and revulsion even among Israel’s admirers. It will deepen rifts within the American Jewish community. It will be cited endlessly by Israel’s enemies as evidence in their ongoing campaign to demonize and isolate Israel as a racist, apartheid state. Worst of all, this is one bit of evidence they won’t be making up.

Nor was the slur an isolated incident. It came just a day after Netanyahu’s cynical declaration that he won’t allow a Palestinian state as long as he’s prime minister. Put together, the two bombshell statements make him look more than ever like a far-right extremist. They’ll increase tensions with Western capitals at a time when healing is badly needed.

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Vote Seen Too Close to Call, Herzog 'Very Worried'

By J.J. Goldberg

Ben Caspit at Maariv reports that internal polls of the two main parties show the race too close to call, Herzog camp “deeply worried.” Race might be too close to call for 4 p.m. exit polls to be particularly meaningful. Last minute surge of right-wing voters from Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and Eli Yishai’s Yahad back to the Likud may be doing the trick, leaving serious doubt whether Lieberman and Yahad will cross the threshold and make it into the Knesset.

On one hand, if those two disappear, it could make it easier for Herzog to form a coalition from the parties that are actually represented in the Knesset. On the other hand, the narrow gap might make it harder for him to get the president’s nod to take the first shot at negotiating for a coalition, given Bibi’s advantage in party recommendations. Remember, Herzog will need Shas and Kahlon to form a government. Shas might be available for a Herzog coalition, but in stage one (recommendations to the president) Deri promised to recommend Bibi.

So it’s really anybody’s game right now, and we may not know anything until the soldiers’ votes are all counted a week from now. And in the final analysis, it may prove true that all votes are counted equally, but the only vote that will really count will be Moshe Kahlon’s.

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Bibi Bops Buji or Bye-Bye Bibi?

By J.J. Goldberg

From David Letterman’s Monday night monologue, a news update explaining where things stand in the Israeli election. It works best if you read it out loud:

As Israelis go to the polls this week, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu trails significantly behind Isaac “Buji” Herzog. This is a reversal of last week, when Bibi bested Buji. But after Bibi’s baffling Boehner boo-boo and a week of bubbly Buji embracing babies and bubbies, Buji bounced, beating Bibi badly. So will it be Bibi over Buji or Buji over Bibi at the ballotbox? We’ll know by bedtime if it’s Bibi beating Buji or bye-bye Bibi.

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The 'Perfect Storm' That's Hitting Bibi's Campaign

By J.J. Goldberg

Rabbi Daniel Gordis, a popular, American-born voice of Israel’s center-right, writes in Bloomberg View that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection campaign, deemed a sure thing just days ago, has run into a “perfect storm” from which it may not recover.

“It has been a steep and precipitous fall since those glory moments on the podium before the U.S. Congress,” Gordis wrote. “Netanyahu is clearly in trouble.”

In-depth polling conducted internally in recent days by the Likud as well as its Labor-led “Zionist Camp” opposition shows the same thing. Likud’s own poll analysts are predicting as few as 18 seats in the 120-member Knesset. Zionist Camp internal polling shows it leading Likud 27-21.

Gordis cites three major crises that have suddenly hammered the campaign in the last few days. One is a series of slashing attacks on Netanyahu’s leadership by the widely admired former Mossad director Meir Dagan, culminating in an emotional speech by Dagan before a massive anti-Netanyahu rally Saturday night in Tel Aviv.

Second is a hotly protested Likud television commercial that was released March 4 and quickly withdrawn the next day, but not before causing enormous damage. The ad depicted a mock therapy group of public nuisances hurt by Netanyahu’s policies, including civil servants no longer able to ignore the public and a Hamas terrorist unable to carry out attacks. Airport and port workers, traditionally Likud voters, complained that the ad likened them to Hamas terrorists and vowed not to vote for the party. Gordis notes that while Netanyahu apologized for the ad, his close ally, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, claimed Netanyahu hadn’t known about the ad — despite the fact that the prime minister appeared on camera to deliver the closing pitch on the same set where the therapy group was meeting. (Watch the ad here.)

The third crisis is the publication last Friday of a leaked document apparently indicating that Netanyahu had secretly agreed to peace negotiations based on the 1967 lines, along with a return of some refugees and a Palestinian foothold in Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley, all positions the prime minister has repeatedly rejected in public. Compounding the damage caused by the document itself among Likud supporters on the right was the inept, panicky response of Netanyahu’s campaign, which first called the document fake, then denied he had agreed to the positions in the document, then claimed he now repudiated his endorsement of the two-state solution in his famous 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech. Finally, late Sunday night, he repudiated the repudiation of two states.

“Whatever the outcome,” Gordis writes,

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Why Bibi Nixed Two-State Solution

By J.J. Goldberg

Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party were backpedaling furiously this weekend to dispel an unwelcome image of diplomatic flexibility, after a negotiating document surfaced in which the Israeli prime minister appeared to offer sweeping concessions to the Palestinians on 1967 borders, return of refugees, Palestinian presence in the Jordan Valley and some undefined Palestinian claim in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu and the Likud issued a series of statements variously calling the purported document either a fake or a genuine American draft that Netanyahu’s adviser had helped to draft, even though the prime minister flatly rejected its contents. In a final effort to distance himself from the concessions, he announced on Sunday that he no longer endorsed Palestinian statehood.

While Netanyahu was trying to distance himself from that document, however, Israel’s Channel 10 Television on Sunday evening reported on yet another document offering similarly sweeping concessions in Netanyahu’s name. This second document was a letter reportedly given to Quartet negotiator Tony Blair by Netanyahu’s then-adviser Ron Dermer, currently Israeli ambassador in Washington, expressing willingness to accept the “consensus of the international community” and withdraw from all the territories Israel captured in 1967, with some land swaps. Channel 10 investigative reporter Raviv Drucker reported the Dermer letter but gave no indication of its date. (Dermer has denied offering any withdrawals.)

Forgotten amid the furor, meanwhile, is the July 2014 New Republic account of the failed Kerry peace talks, by reporters Amir Tibon and Ben Birnbaum. In January 2014, they reported, the secretary of state got a written agreement from Netanyahu that the “new secure and recognized border between Israel and Palestine will be negotiated based on the 1967 lines with mutual agreed swaps.”

In all, then, there are now reports of three separate documents in which Netanyahu or his close aides appear to accept the creation of a Palestinian state along the pre-1967 armistice lines or their equivalent in area. This would seem to weaken the claims from the left that Netanyahu is incapable of making the concessions needed to reach peace with the Palestinians. Coming just over a week before Israel’s parliamentary elections, though, they pose far greater danger to Netanyahu, whose campaign for reelection is based on his image as an uncompromising opponent of Israeli concessions.

The weekend furor began with front-page report by political commentator Nahum Barnea in Friday’s Yediot Ahronot (English version here). It described a document dated August 2013, purportedly summing up a series of negotiations in London between a close adviser to Netanyahu and a confidante of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

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WATCH: Jon Stewart on Bibi and 'Angry Jews'

By J.J. Goldberg

You might have missed these two essential video clips commenting on the week’s news. Fear not — here they are. One features Jon Stewart and Aasif Mandvi on the debate surrounding Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit and its impact on the print newspaper industry. The other, erudite meteorological comment on the horrid weather socking us as March comes in like a lion, from the late, great John Belushi.

First, the Daily Show on Bibi ads. It’s a follow-up to Stewart’s Wednesday commentary on the Israeli prime minister’s State of the Jewish Nation address to Congress. The Forward posted the main bit (here), in which Stewart comments on the reception Congress gave the Bibster. (If you can’t find it, here’s a link to the full-length version of Stewart’s commentary on the speech, courtesy of Comedy Central.)

The part you missed, though, came after the commercial break. Stewart went to senior print analyst Aasif Mandvi, who explained how the prime minister’s visit may have saved the print newspaper industry: by getting Jews to buy competing full-page ads to have their say on Netanyahu, Obama, U.S.-Israel relations and genocide.

Mandvi: Think about it, Jon. What would you have said a week ago if I had asked you what it would take to save the publishing industry?

Stewart: Oh, I would have said it would take a — a comet knocking out the Internet, or newspapers printed on chocolate. You know, that sort of thing?

Mandvi: Good ideas, but not as good as angry Jews!

Stewart: Really one of the better iPhone games I’ve played…

Watch the whole thing:

Second is a meteorological update on the nasty weather that doesn’t seem to go away. To explain the complexities, I offer the comment on Saturday Night Live by Weekend Update chief meteorologist John Belushi of blessed memory, reminding us that March doesn’t always come in like a lion and go out like a lamb. For example, he reports, in the Maldive islands, “March comes in like a wildebeest and goes out like ant — a tiny little ant…” But I don’t do it justice. This you’ve got to see:

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Probing Mrs. Netanyahu's Bottle Deposits

By J.J. Goldberg

Two days after Israel’s election season opened officially with the registration of party lists on Thursday, the campaign is already just about the dirtiest in memory. Various parties are suing to have the Central Elections Commission disallow the names of certain rival parties or bar individual candidates from running. And accusations of financial misdoing are flying right and left.

Lawmakers from the ruling Likud party have vowed to release a report on Sunday accusing main opposition party, the Labor-Livni alliance known as the Zionist Camp, of receiving illegal campaign donations from “leftist” foreign sources “aiming to overthrow the regime.” The accusation involves the so-called V-15 project (for Victory 2015), led by an American campaign consultant who has worked in the past for President Obama.

At the same time, the State Comptroller (equivalent to a national inspector general) said he has completed a long-awaited report on allegations of financial abuse in the management of the prime minister’s official residence, but won’t say when he’ll release it. Press accounts have reported allegations by former household of inflated spending, including some 4,200 shekels ($1,000) per month on alcohol, and diverting official funds for personal use by the prime minister and his family. But nobody knows what the State Comptroller has documented in his 18-month investigation, and he’s given no indication whether or not he’ll release the report before the election. Lawyers for the Netanyahus say releasing the report could unfairly influence the voters. Critics say withholding it could permit the reelection of a felon.

Tzipi Livni, who was Netanyahu’s justice minister until two months ago, called Saturday morning for the state attorney general to open a criminal investigation of the prime minister on suspicion of larceny. But right now the criminal justice system is looking particularly hard at the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu. Last June the daily Yediot Ahronot reported that she had ordered a set of garden furniture for the official residence in Jerusalem that was identical to an old set at their private residence in Caesarea, and then swapped the sets, moving the old furniture to Jerusalem and the new, government-funded purchase to Caesarea. The investigation of the claim, reportedly made by the former manager of the prime minister’s residence, was taken over by the State Comptroller’s office and has been under lock and key. Last week, however, new reports surfaced that the first lady had been ordering staff at the official residence to collect used bottles, return them to the supermarket for deposit and then keeping the money, said to total thousands of shekels, all of it government property. Haaretz reported yesterday that the allegations against Sara Netanyahu have been separated from the ones against her husband and the attorney general today ordered a criminal investigation into Mrs. Netanyahu’s alleged actions.

Yisrael Hayom reports that residence driver Victor Saraga signed an affidavit yesterday testifying that he took the bottles to the supermarket (after other staff reportedly refused) and put the deposit money into the official residence petty cash account.

The Latest Polls: Likud and its main rival, the Labor-Livni alliance known as the Zionst Camp, continue to run neck and neck. Of the two most recent polls, released on Friday, one by Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet had the two tied at 26 Knesset seats each (out of 120 total), while the other by Walla News had Likud up by one. (You can see all the polls here.)

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Knesset Briefs: Kahanist on Board, Bennett's Soccer Foul & More

By J.J. Goldberg

The final deadline passed this afternoon for Israel’s political parties to register for the March 17 Knesset elections. Several last-minute decisions will substantially affect the map in the weeks ahead:

Kahanism Redux: Eli Yishai, the former Shas party chairman who quit in December and formed his own religious-right party, Yahad-Ha’am Itanu (“Together - The People Are With Us”) has joined forces with the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Strength”) party of Baruch Marzel and Michael Ben-Ari. Polls have consistently shown that neither of them would pass the vote threshold and enter the Knesset separately, but together they would get the required minimum 3.25% of the popular vote, which translates to 4 Knesset seats. Accordingly, it now looks like Baruch Marzel, onetime spokesman for Meir Kahane’s Kach party, who inherited the party leadership after Kahane was assassinated in 1991 and today is arguably the most militant leader on the far right of the settler movement, will enter the Knesset in March.

Yishai had tried earlier to join forces with Tekuma, the right wing, settler-dominated wing of the Jewish Home bloc led by housing minister Uri Ariel. But that fell through after Yishai’s spiritual mentor, Rabbi Moshe Mazuz, forbade the placing of women on the party list. Ariel continued to support the Yishai alliance, but lost a vote in the Tekuma leadership.

Yishai was appointed head of Shas in 1999 by the party’s spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, after party founder Arye Deri was convicted of graft. When Deri entered prison in September 2000, Yishai began moving the party from Deri’s dovish, pro-Labor and moderately social-democratic policies toward his own arch-conservative views.

Among other things Yishai pulled out of Ehud Barak’s coalition in December 2000, leaving Barak with a minority government and ultimately torpedoing the Camp David negotiations that had resumed informally in August in Jerusalem. The talks resumed officially in December in Washington and then in January at Taba, but Barak had lost his majority and called for new elections, which he lost to Ariel Sharon (thanks in large part to the outbreak of the Second Intifada the previous October). From then on Shas was considered a staunchly hawkish party, firmly allied to the Likud. In 2012, though, after Deri had finished his 7-year post-prison cooling off period, Ovadia put Deri back in command, of a 3-member party troika – himself, Yishai and centrist Ariel Attias. Deri managed to give the No. 4 slot to his ally Yitzhak Cohen, who called right after the January 2013 elections for Israel to endorse the Arab Peace Initiative. Trench warfare between Deri and Yishai has been a constant ever since.

Benny Begin’s Back: Prime Minister Netanyahu took a big step toward blunting the far-right and anti-democratic image of his Likud party by recruiting Binyamin Begin, the onetime senior statesman and son of the former prime minister. Begin was named to the No. 11 slot on the party slate, a spot that’s reserved for personal appointees of the party chairman, outside the primary system.

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Labor Tops Likud in Polls, But Coalition Still Elusive

By J.J. Goldberg

With two months to go before Israelis go to the polls, the Labor Party opened a statistically significant lead over Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud for the first time since its mid-December alliance with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah.

Of six polls released last Thursday and Friday, January 15 and 16, one — also the largest poll, with 830 respondents — showed Labor winning 24 seats to Likud’s 20 in the 120-member Knesset, while another showed Labor leading 25 seats to 22. The remaining four polls showed Labor ahead by one or two seats, the gap that’s separated the two parties as they’ve scrabbled for the lead over the past five weeks. (All the latest polls can be found here.)

Most observers called Labor’s new lead a post-primary bump, following the January 13 party vote that boosted women and popular young social activists to the top of the slate. At the same time, Netanyahu might be suffering from the bad publicity he got from his clumsily planned and executed trip to Paris for the post-Charlie Hebdo solidarity demonstration.

The polls don’t change the fact that the Likud still holds an advantage in the bargaining to form a coalition that will follow the election. The Likud has a natural ally to its right in Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, which has been polling consistently in third place with about 16 seats. Labor’s equivalent to its left is Meretz, which is polling at 5 or 6 seats. Thus Likud begins the post-election coalition bargaining with a solid 38 to 40 seats lined up, while Labor begins with about 30.

Labor’s coalition-building disadvantage could potentially be closed by Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, which left the Netanyahu coalition on particularly bitter terms in December and is widely considered unlikely to go back into a new Likud-led government after the election. Netanyahu himself vowed December 23 that he wouldn’t give Lapid a ministry in a new government. All this suggests that Yesh Atid will likely be in the Labor camp when the post-election bargaining begins.

Lapid will drop considerably from the 19 seats he won in the 2013 elections, but his fall doesn’t seem likely to be as severe as once feared. He was polling in single digits through much of December. Polls last week showed him winning from a low of 7 to as many as 12 seats.

Lapid is a double-edged sword for Labor, though. If the current poll numbers hold up — and with slight variations they’ve been remarkably stable for a month — then any conceivable Labor-led coalition will have to include the Haredi parties, Shas and Torah Judaism.

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Secret Israeli Report Sees Rift With Europe Growing

By J.J. Goldberg

A classified Israeli foreign ministry document, leaked to the daily Yediot Ahronot, warns that 2015 will see Israel’s standing on the world stage steadily deteriorating. It predicts “worsening drift in Europe toward Palestinian positions, more parliaments recognizing the State of Palestine, fear of sanctions and labeling merchandise [to separate settlement products from tariff-free Israel-proper products] and no certainty that the United States will continue after Israel’s March elections to protect Israel with its veto.”

The document is said to be a summary of an interministerial assessment roundtable convened by foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, and is signed by foreign ministry deputy director-general Gilead Cohen. It was circulated to Israel’s ambassadors around the world, Yediot reported.

In addition to labeling settlement products and parliamentary votes to recognize Palestine, the foreign ministry document warns of European nations halting the supply of replacement parts for Israeli equipment and demanding compensation for damage caused by Israel to European projects in the territories.

“The Europeans are creating a clear link between political and economic relations, and in this context it should be remembered that Europe is Israel’s main trading partner.”

European diplomats and politicians increasingly view Israel as responsible for the failure of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, claiming that Israel sets unreasonable conditions for a peace agreement in order to continue deepening its hold on the West Bank.

The tensions surrounding Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to Paris this week are an outgrowth of that growing gulf of suspicion. As Haaretz diplomatic correspondents Barak Ravid and Asher Schechter both reported, French president Francois Hollande initially asked Netanyahu not to come to Paris for the Sunday solidarity rally, because he wanted to avoid injecting the divisive Israeli-Palestinian issue into the rally’s theme of national and Europe-wide unity and solidarity.

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Lessons of Paris — and War on Terror

By J.J. Goldberg

When you’re at war, it’s not enough simply to pick up a gun and start shooting. The other side will be doing the same thing. Of course you want to be tough and show you won’t be bullied. The trouble is, so do they. To succeed in war, you need to know certain things.

You need to know your enemy: Who are they? What are their resources? What are they after and what will make them stand down? How deep is their bench?

You need to know your weaponry: What have you got? What can and can’t it do? How long will it last? What are its possible risks and side-effects?

You need to know your strategy and end-game: How do you want things to end up? What would victory look like? What’s the most you can realistically hope to get? What’s the minimum you’d settle for?

You need to know your tactics: What can you do with your available resources to move you toward your end-game? Among your various options (there’s always more than one), which will move you closer and faster to your goals? What are the risks of each? What risks are acceptable? Knowing all that, what’s your next step, and the next three steps after that?

There’s still plenty we don’t know about the terrorist drama in Paris this week, but there are several things we can learn from it already.

The first has to do with the so-called war on terror. We can drop the “so-called.” There is a war going on.

The second has to do with understanding the enemy. During the early stages, there was a lot of media speculation about whether or not the Charlie Hebdo killers were connected to “a group like” Al Qaeda or ISIS. Question: Are Al Qaeda and ISIS really that similar?

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a point, in his Wednesday night sympathy message to the French people, of linking those two jihadist organizations to the terrorist organizations confronting Israel on its southern and northern borders, the point being that France and Israel are battling the same threat, namely the “terrorist fanatics of Hamas, Hezbollah, the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.” He said “radical Islamic terrorism knows no bounds, and therefore the struggle which must know no borders.” Question: Is it really a single struggle?

The answer to both questions is no. Islamism is a broad term that denotes an ideology aimed at bringing the Muslim religion into political power. It has several variants with sharply different goals, strategies and tactics. Jihadism is one of those variants.

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Playing Game of Chicken Over ICC 'War Crimes'

By J.J. Goldberg

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas may have opened the door to his government’s joining the International Criminal Court on New Year’s Eve when he signed the Rome Statute, the 2002 treaty that created the court. But that doesn’t make the Palestinian Authority — or the State of Palestine, as the United Nations now calls it — a member of the court. Not yet, anyway.

The road from signing the treaty to hauling Israelis before the court on war crimes charges — the road from Rome to The Hague, as Ynet’s Elior Levy put it — is still long and complicated. Abbas has flexed some muscles and shown his people some moxie, but he hasn’t yet declared judicial war on Israel, and it’s not entirely clear that he can — or even that he wants to.

What he’s been doing, it appears, is building, slowly, step by step, a legal-diplomatic edifice that may eventually make that possible. But he still has some hurdles to cross. And there are still opportunities for Jerusalem and Washington to stop the process. His end goal is not getting Israelis thrown in jail, but getting them out of his people’s lives.

If Abbas’s State of Palestine were to be accepted as member-state of the court, it would be entitled to bring charges of war crimes perpetrated against it. At first glance Israel might not seem to be vulnerable, because the rules of the court only apply to countries that are members. Israel is not a member. However, the court specifically allows member-states to bring charges over crimes committed on their territory, even if the alleged perpetrator wasn’t a member-state.

The whole tactic of going to the court carries high risks for Abbas and his allies. He heads up a government that includes the terrorist Hamas, with its long record of intentional, bloody attacks on civilians that unambiguously constitute war crimes. Palestinian leaders might find themselves more vulnerable to prosecution than Israelis.

What could Israel be charged with? The obvious charges involve the large-scale death and property destruction wreaked on Gaza during the three wars against Hamas over the past six years. There are disputes about the proportion of civilians among the dead, but no one questions that there were a lot of them. But it’s not at all clear that those deaths, horrific as they are, would be indictable as war crimes.

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Palestinian U.N. Bid Fails by 1 Vote. Was That the Plan?

By J.J. Goldberg

The Palestinian effort to have the U.N. Security Council set a deadline for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank failed to win the necessary nine votes for approval this afternoon. Palestinian spokesmen had spoken confidently before the vote of winning nine or even 10 votes. But two nations whose support they said they expected, Nigeria and South Korea, ended up abstaining. In the end eight nations voted for the resolution, two voted no and five abstained.

The outcome ended up confirming what some Palestinian and Israeli spokesmen had said weeks ago: that the resolution would fall short if it came up for a vote in 2014. Palestinian chief peace negotiator Saeb Erekat had warned in a December 15 interview with an Arabic-language Israeli radio station that the resolution didn’t have nine votes.

Jordan, which holds the Arab group’s seat on the Security Council, was said to be pushing for a delay in the vote until next week, when five new members take their seats, including fiercely anti-Israel Malaysia, which will take the Asia-Pacific seat currently held by South Korea. But the Palestinians insisted on holding the vote before the New Year’s holiday.

Jordan submitted the resolution to the Security Council Monday night, over furious objections from Israel and an American hint of a veto.

The resolution called for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement within a year and full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank by the end of 2017. The full text appears after the jump.

France tried in mid-December to put together an alternative draft resolution that eased some of the terms that most alarmed Jerusalem and Washington, in hopes of securing U.S. backing and perhaps getting unanimous council support. Palestinian officials were said to be reluctantly supporting the French effort. Just before Christmas, though, the Palestinians let it be known that they would submit their own draft, and that instead of softening the language they were hardening it even further.

That evidently made it easier for Washington to peel away enough support to yield today’s result: instead of nine supporters the resolution won eight, with two voting against and five abstaining.

The Palestinian tactics mystified Israeli and American diplomats and prompted speculation that the Palestinians were intending to lose the vote. It was thought that they wanted to put on a show of toughness to counter rising anger on the Palestinian street and increasing pressure from Hamas, but they didn’t want to anger Washington by forcing it to cast a veto at a time when it needs Arab support against ISIS.

Intriguingly, during the council discussion following the vote Palestinian U.N. delegate Riyad Mansour delivered a long, detailed, furious denunciation of Israel behavior and repeatedly criticized the council for failing to act on its “responsibility” to intervene. But he ended, incongruously, by thanking by name the five council members whose terms end tomorrow for their service: Rwanda, Australia, South Korea, Luxembourg and Argentina. Three of the five abstained (Rwanda and South Korea) or voted no (Australia) and thus provided the margin for the resolution’s narrow defeat.

Think of it this way: The council’s 15 members include the five permanent members — U.S., U.K., France, Russia and China — and 10 non-permanent members. Five of those 10 joined the council in January 2013 and leave tomorrow while rhe other five (Chad, Chile, Jordan, Lithuania, Nigeria) joined in January 2014 and serve for another year.

Of the seven no’s and abstentions that blocked the Palestinian resolution, two came from the five permanent members, two from the class of 2014 and three from the class of 2013 that leaves tomorrow. In other words, it was the class of 2013 that provided Washington and Jerusalem their margin of victory. And that was the group that Mansour chose to salute in closing his speech.

And if you’re wondering, no — none of the other speakers saluted the departing class of 2013. Only Mansour.

Here is today’s roll call:

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Labor Quakes As Scandal Shakes Lieberman Party

By J.J. Goldberg

All bets are off regarding the outcome of Israel’s March elections, thanks to a massive corruption investigation involving senior figures in Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. See the details here.

Early signs suggest it could cripple his political career, even though he hasn’t been implicated. And it might badly hurt the chances of the Labor-Livni alliance to lead the next government.

More than two dozen people were arrested on Wednesday on suspicion of involvement in a huge bribery and kickback scheme. They include a deputy cabinet minister, a former cabinet minister, top party officials and numerous current and former local government heads and non-profit managers. Allegations include demanding and paying kickbacks in return for government budgets and contracts as well as hiring relatives of government and party officials.

The top suspect, Knesset member Faina Kirschenbaum, is deputy interior minister, secretary-general of the party organization and one of Lieberman’s closest confidantes. One of the allegations is that the Beef Cattle Growers’ Association gave her daughter Ranit a job in return for certain considerations.

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Spies Spar in Shin Bet-Mossad Turf War

By J.J. Goldberg

Tensions continue to mount between Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security agency and the country’s other two intelligence services, the Mossad foreign intelligence agency and the military intelligence directorate of the Israel Defense Forces. So reports military correspondent Amir Rapoport in the Friday edition of the center-right daily Maariv.

It’s a messy tangle, even by the byzantine standards of Israeli security politics. In part it reflects Israel’s uncertain status in Gaza, having withdrawn its troops from the territory without ever handing over the keys to any other recognized sovereign. Partly, too, it’s the latest battleground in the Likud’s continuing effort to move Israel’s intelligence agencies to the right.

The details: The Shin Bet and military intelligence have been sharply at odds since last summer over the still-unresolved question of whether the Hamas leadership in Gaza intended to instigate the summer war with Israel, as the Shin Bet claims, or the two sides stumbled into an unintended war through a series of misunderstandings, as military intelligence maintains (and as I wrote in July). The disagreement reportedly erupted into a shouting match at a Cabinet meeting shortly after the August cease-fire and has yet to be resolved.

Now, Rapoport, writes, there’s a growing dispute between the Shin Bet and the Mossad over responsibility for intelligence gather in Gaza. Under Israeli law the Shin Bet is responsible for intelligence gathering and interdiction against terrorism within Israel and territories under its control, while the Mossad is responsible for intelligence and interdiction in foreign countries.

Gaza is a gray area. Israel withdrew its troops and civilian settlements from the territory in 2005 but didn’t hand it over to a foreign sovereignty. Israel maintains in public statements that it’s no longer responsible for Gaza, but most of the international community doesn’t recognize the abdication, nor is any such decision known to have been taken formally by any Israel legal body.

It’s against that legal background that the Mossad-Shin Bet dispute arises. The Shin Bet has continued operating in Gaza uninterrupted. According to Rapoport, it was decided (he doesn’t say by whom) after the withdrawal to leave the territory under the aegis of the Shin Bet “in light of the close connection between what happens in the Gaza Strip and the territories of Judea and Samaria, which are under Israeli control and within the operational responsibility of the Shin Bet.”

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

By J.J. Goldberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bibi's $40M Settlement Giveaway Blocked

By J.J. Goldberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Netanyahu Might Lose Election. Here's How.

By J.J. Goldberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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