J.J. Goldberg

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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UPDATE: Bibi Fires Lapid, Livni — Elections Coming

By J.J. Goldberg


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is Bibi Stalling Pick of IDF Chief to Promote Rightist?

By J.J. Goldberg


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

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

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

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

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

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3 Ex-Security Chiefs Slam Bibi for Caving to Right

By J.J. Goldberg


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shin Bet Chief: Mahmoud Abbas Isn't Inciting Terror

By J.J. Goldberg


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

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

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

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

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

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

By J.J. Goldberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bibi's Cabinet Rattled as Key Livni Ally Quits

By J.J. Goldberg


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By J.J. Goldberg


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

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

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

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

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

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

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When Israel's Chickens Come Home to Poop

By J.J. Goldberg


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By J.J. Goldberg


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

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

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

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

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

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Is Israel Abandoning Push for Two States?

By J.J. Goldberg


In a potentially explosive report, veteran Yediot Ahronot defense commentator Ron Ben-Yishai writes on Ynet that Israel is headed toward a new confrontation with the United States and its allies in the wake of this summer’s Operation Protective Edge. The Americans and Europeans insist that Israel must strive for a two-state solution with the Palestinians, arguing that it’s unacceptable for Israel to wreak destruction on Gaza every few years, leaving them to pay for its repeated reconstruction. They also claim that renewing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks will help them to mobilize the Arab world to join the fight against ISIS and other extremist groups, Ben-Yishai writes.

Israel, Ben-Yishai writes, is reaching the opposite conclusion. In what he calls “a dramatic reversal,” Israeli officials say that at a time of extreme instability in the Middle East, it would be suicidal for Israel to consider allowing full sovereignty in most of Judea and Samaria, even if the territory is demilitarized. Even renewing negotiations over a peace agreement is unacceptable, the Israeli officials say, because such talks would lead to deadlock, frustration and unrest on the Palestinian street. Moreover, Israeli officials express doubt that the moderate Arab states need “an incentive” on the Palestinian front to motivate them to fight the jihadists, who threaten their own regimes.

Ben-Yishai writes that Israel now seeks to “manage” the conflict with the Palestinians rather than try to “solve” it. Toward the goal of maintaining calm in Gaza as well as the West Bank, he writes,

Israel is even willing to pay a serious price for this to happen and thus — without much fanfare –— Israel waived its objection to internal Palestinian reconciliation and the formation of the Palestinian unity government between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.

Israel will also work to improve economic conditions in the West Bank and Gaza and ease restrictions on movement between the two territories, Ben-Yishai writes. In fact:

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