Both states are sweating through major political corruption scandals reaching to the very highest ranks of government. In both cases, the central figure in the scandal saw his prospects take a dive this weekend when a former top aide, a woman confidante he’d thrown under bus, turned around and decided to testify against him. Both are erstwhile moderate white knights whose dreams of top office are probably now crushed because they forgot the oldest rule in the book — the one about a women scorned. Especially when she was your chief of staff.
One of them is former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert. The other is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
Olmert is awaiting the judge’s verdict next Monday in a real estate bribery case, the so-called Holyland Affair, dating back to his years as Jerusalem mayor in the 1990s. Acquittal, which seemed likely, would have cleared the way for him to try to regain the prime minister’s office, from which he resigned under a cloud of investigations in 2008. On Thursday, though, prosecutors reached a plea deal with Shula Zaken, Olmert’s longtime bureau chief and close confidante for 35 years, who was indicted with him. She agreed to testify against Olmert in return for a reduced sentence if the judge agrees to reopen proceedings.
Zaken had stood by Olmert through a string of bribery and corruption investigations and trials, refusing to testify against him and even claiming responsibility for bribes prosecutors blamed on Olmert. That all changed last October, though, when Olmert, during testimony, was asked if he thought Zaken was corrupt and suggested prosecutors ask her.
The other is New Jersey’s Republican governor, Chris Christie.
‘Arguably treasonous’? Former Israeli intelligence chiefs Meir Dagan of Mossad (left) and Yuval Diskin of Shin Bet / Wikimedia Commons
There seems be a growing realization on the pro-Israel right — in some corners of it, at least — that its notions of Israel’s security needs don’t have much support among Israel’s security professionals.
What the right calls standing firm on Israel’s bottom line, the generals call sabotaging the peace process. What the generals call basic Israeli security doctrine, the right calls left-wing, pro-Palestinian propaganda.
Reactions from the right to this realization have been pretty much what you’d expect from any self-respecting right-wing ideologue these days: indignant protests that the so-called experts don’t know what they’re talking about. In recent months a growing roster of conservative commentators in both Israel and America have accused the defense establishment as a group or its most prominent members of ignorance, stupidity, disloyalty and even “arguably treasonous” behavior.
This is a new and disturbing development. It’s enough to recall the response in September 2009 to the United Nations’ Goldstone Report, which accused Israeli troops of war crimes, to remember the onetime intensity of the taboo against questioning the integrity of Israel’s defense establishment. But that was before the political leadership of the Netanyahu era began spinning an ideologically-driven security agenda that was radically at odds with the longstanding doctrines of the defense and intelligence establishment, and the politicians discovered that they couldn’t get the generals and spymasters to tailor their assessments to fit the political winds.
The security establishment—former heads of the Mossad, Shin Bet, military intelligence and the IDF general staff—began aggressively speaking out around three years ago, some two years into the Netanyahu administration, once they began suspecting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline policies on Iran and the Palestinians weren’t tough bargaining positions so much as ideologically-driven recklessness.
In the first half of 2011, Netanyahu swept out the heads of all the main security branches, including the Mossad, the Shin Bet, the IDF and the national security council, all apparently because the incumbents had refused during internal deliberations to endorse an Israeli military strike against Iran. The months that followed saw a steady stream of public statements from ex-service heads, in speeches, interviews and op-eds, laying out their views on what Israel does and doesn’t need to be safe. Some were directly critical of the government’s policies; others criticized only by implication.
Ariel Sharon in Knesset, preparing his speech for opening of summer session, May 7, 2001 / Getty Images
Amid the outpouring of tributes to Ariel Sharon following his death, a few seem particularly noteworthy for their unexpected insights — some into the life and character of Sharon, others into the character of the writers.
Chemi Shalev writes in Haaretz about the first time he met Sharon, serendipitously bumping into him at Southern Command headquarters in Sinai one evening during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Chemi was a 20-year-old enlisted man. Sharon was already the legendary, notorious General Bulldozer. When Sharon saw young soldier Shalev gaping at him from a distance, he invited him over to share some food, cooked by his personal chef. Chemi was surprised by Sharon’s enormous personal charm, which seems to have contradicted the man’s fearsome reputation. Over the years, Chemi writes, it is Sharon’s gargantuan contradictions that stand out as the defining characteristics of the man. The piece is well worth reading in full.
Another story comes from the late David Twersky, who wrote in the New York Sun at the time of Sharon’s stroke in 2006 about the first time he had met the old general. It was in the early 1990s, about a decade after Sharon’s Lebanon War, in which David had served as a gunner in an artillery unit outside Beirut and come away with a profound disliking for Sharon. On this particular day Sharon was dropping by the Forward’s offices in New York to visit his old friend Seth Lipsky, our founding editor (and later editor of the Sun). David, then the paper’s Washington bureau chief, was summoned to New York to sit in. Like Chemi, David was struck by Sharon’s personal magnetism, and began to find that while he “remained critical of many of his policies,” the “rancor was gone.”
Now, though, with Sharon felled by a stroke, David wrote that he was “beside myself with sadness at the prospect that Mr. Sharon will no longer be leading Israel and full of trepidation over what will come next.” He saw in Sharon a rare ability for decisive leadership that made him “this generation’s David Ben Gurion.” Like BG, Sharon had the courage to stand up to his own comrades when it became necessary by “doing to the settler movement what Ben Gurion had done to the leftist Palmach militia, disbanding it in the interest of the state.” And when Sharon formed his Kadima party in 2005,
The Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea had only half in jest suggested that the new party be named Rashi (after the famous rabbinic commentator on the Bible and Talmud) as an acronym for Rak Sharon Yachol - Only Sharon Can.
Two more items that are particularly telling, both from Israeli settlers in the renewed Jewish quarter of Hebron. The authors are prominent leaders of that subsector of Israelis who benefited more than any other single segment of Israeli society from Sharon’s actions, namely West Bank settlers. One is from a Knesset member who wrote this weekend, after Sharon’s death, to express thanks to God that Sharon had been felled by a stroke before he could carry out any further withdrawals from settlements. The other is from a spokesman for the Hebron community who calls Sharon a “monster” and expresses confidence that he is damned to eternal suffering for his sins.
To understand why Shelly Yachimovich was booted out as head of the Israel Labor Party after just two years on the job, it helps to note that Labor has had a bad habit, ever since Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995, of changing leaders every time it holds a primary.
But this time was different. Previous primaries were held after a general election, and leaders were dumped because they’d lost. Yachimovich, by contrast, did fairly well in the 2013 Knesset elections. She nearly doubled the party’s Knesset share, from eight seats to 15. What she lost was the trust — indeed, the patience — of her colleagues and the party membership. This time it wasn’t about Labor, but about Yachimovich. Virtually every senior figure in the party complained bitterly of her high-handedness, her inability to work in a team, her refusal to share decision-making. The poison finally filtered down to the rank and file.
Labor’s new leader, Isaac “Buzhi” Herzog, steps into an unusual situation. He’s well liked by his colleagues and popular among the members in the party branches. He was effective as a government minister, particularly in his 2007-11 stint heading welfare and social services. As the son of ex-president Chaim Herzog, grandson of longtime chief rabbi (and namesake) Yitzhak Herzog and nephew of Abba Eban, he has a Kennedy-like aura of aristocracy, something like what Likud “princes” Bibi Netanyahu, Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, Tzipi Livni and Ehud Olmert all had. Unlike Likud, Labor has never chosen a “prince” before.
And, in stark contrast to Yachimovich, those who know Buzhi agree that he’s a genuinely nice guy, a rarity in Israeli politics. The question is whether he has it in him to capture the public’s trust as the leader of the troubled, threatened nation.
It’s been a week since Bar-Ilan 2, Benjamin Netanyahu’s jarringly hardline policy address October 6 at the university campus where he first endorsed Palestinian statehood in 2009. And so far there’s been almost no public reaction.
What little attention there’s been has gone mostly to his defiantly hardline statements on Iran. The important part has been largely overlooked: his decidedly downbeat statements on the Palestinian peace process . Both the Jerusalem Post on the right and Haaretz and the left saw the speech as backpedaling on the peace talks. Haaretz called it a “hawkish address in which he did everything except announce that he is reneging on his agreement in principle to Palestinian statehood,” while the Post said Netanyahu was “lowering expectations” while he “puts the onus of failed negotiations squarely on the Palestinians’ shoulders.” Haaretz’s Hebrew edition quoted a tweet by former Yesha Settlements Council chairman Danny Dayan calling it “perhaps Netanyahu’s best speech as prime minister.”
The prime minister dismissed the idea that the occupation and settlements were the “cause of the conflict,” noting that it had begun long before 1967 and ignoring any evolution in the Palestinian position. A major part of the speech was devoted to the World War II-era alliance between Nazi Germany and the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al-Husseini. (Here is the full text.)
“Unless the Palestinians recognize the Jewish state and give up on the right of return there will not be peace,” he said. Even then, “after generations of incitement we have no confidence that such recognition will percolate down to the Palestinian people. That is why we need extremely strong security arrangements and to go forward, but not blindly.”
But a week later, according to (Hebrew) Amir Tibon at Walla News, the speech is beginning to raise concern among some on the right who note that Bibi made no mention of Jerusalem as Israel’s “eternally undivided” capital. In fact, Tibon writes, “sources close to Netanyahu concede that since his reelection last February, Netanyahu has avoided speaking on the topic of Jerusalem.”
He’s had plenty of opportunities to do so, Tibon writes. The most obvious was in May, when the City of Jerusalem and the Ministry of Transportation dedicated a new interchange, named after his father, Benzion Netanyahu, out on Highway 443:
Bibi Netanyahu’s visit to the Obama White House this week gives us an opportunity to watch history unfold. Or unravel. It’s hard to tell. Maybe it’s like that old Palmach song said, Rabotai, ha-historia hozeret (“Folks, history repeats itself”).
On the eve of the summit, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs is beating up on President Obama for failing to reaffirm George W. Bush’s April 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon. Bush had written that it was “unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” The president was endorsing Israel’s goal of keeping the major West Bank settlement blocs as part of the outcome of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
In reality, Bush wasn’t saying anything the Palestinians themselves hadn’t said. Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas said as much just the other day in an on-the-record interview with Israeli reporters. As the Jerusalem Post put it in its version of the interview, “Abbas said that in principle, the Palestinians have agreed to alterations in the 1967 border, as long as it was done on a one-to-one ratio.” Incidentally, Abbas has embraced that position as far back as his 1995 talks with Israel’s then-deputy foreign minister Yossi Beilin.
Bush’s letter endorsed the idea of redrawing the border as a likely outcome of negotiations. The assumption was that the Palestinians could be expected to give Israel that reasonably desired outcome — as part of an agreement in which Israel gives the Palestinians an equally reasonably desired outcome.
So what’s JINSA’s beef?
In broad terms, JINSA is taking up a line that’s being touted by various voices on the Israeli right as the back-and-forth heats up: that Israel should receive its key demand on settlements before the actual negotiations begin. That way Israel can sit down and start negotiating from there. In other words, give me what I want in advance, and then we can sit down and discuss who’s willing to give up what.
In effect, the Israeli right doesn’t want Israel to have negotiate its relations with its neighbors on its own. It wants America to impose a solution. Of course JINSA wouldn’t put it that way.
The corruption trial of former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert took an unexpected turn today (Thursday, 6/24) when the chief judge of the Jerusalem district court assailed the prosecution for submitting what appeared to be misleading and possibly false documentation.
Olmert’s defense team had written to Israel’s attorney general the day before and called for a criminal investigation into what they alleged was witness tampering and obstruction of justice by the prosecution. The accusation is based on a document that the prosecution had described as a transcript of pretrial preparatory interviews with a witness, Hadar Saltzman of Rishontours. Olmert is accused of using the travel agency as a conduit for double-billing overseas travel expenses when addressing Jewish groups. The trial judge had dismissed the defense’s complaint, but the chief judge, Musia Arad, stepped in this afternoon and slammed the prosecution for paraphrasing and in some cases apparently omitting what was supposed to be Saltzman’s actual testimony. The defense says what she told prosecutors during her extensive pretrial preparation did not match what she initially told police investigators. The prosecutors basically say the dog ate their homework.
So what? Here’s so what: This could turn out to be the latest in a string of cases that have been brought against Olmert in the past decade and fallen apart under scrutiny. The accumulation of allegations forced him to resign as prime minister in August 2008, in the midst of what were described as serious negotiations with the Palestinian leadership to reach a final peace agreement. The negotiations continued while then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni tried to form an alternative coalition to replace Olmert but keep his Kadima in power. But according to Livni, when she gave up her coalition talks in late October 2008 and called for new elections, she and the Palestinians agreed to suspend the talks until a new government was formed. What they got was Bibi. Unless Livni is lying, it’s quite plausible that if Olmert hadn’t been forced from office, the talks could have been brought to completion.
Here’s a 2008 British news report on the suspension of the peace talks following the failure of Livni’s coalition talks. Here’s a Wall Street Journal interview with Livni from this past January describing the progress she and the Palestinians were making before they suspended the talks. Here’s another one in Foreign Policy this past March. She said the same thing more explicitly in an op-ed piece that appeared in the Yediot Ahronot Friday supplement a couple of months ago (it wasn’t on line, and I can’t find my copy) — namely that the talks did not fall apart, but were merely suspended until Israel got a stable government that could negotiate authoritatively.