Those who follow me online have observed that I don’t usually respond to my critics. I confess: I have a little fan club that hangs out in the Comments section and on my Facebook page, cursing my ancestry and generally whooping it up, and they seem to be having so much fun that I hate to spoil it. Besides, as Rabbi Tarfon used to say, life’s too short and there’s too much to do (Pirkei Avot 2:20). Usually, I figure the facts will speak for themselves.
Lately, though, I’ve started noticing a weird phenomenon: critics attacking me for holding strange, dangerous or anti-Israel opinions when all I’ve done is quote mainstream Israeli defense doctrine or, on occasion, simply report major stories in the Israeli Hebrew press that haven’t made it into the American media.
On Friday afternoon, for example, Commentary editor John Podhoretz tweeted a snarky dismissal of my latest weekly column, headlined “Who Leaked Israel’s Top-Secret Briefing About Reoccupying Gaza?” My column notes that Israel’s attorney general has been asked formally to open a criminal investigation a security leak that the IDF considers extremely dangerous, and that Prime Minister Netanyahu is the leading suspect. John’s observation:
This is what is known as deranged wishful thinking on the part of anti-Bibi liberals. http://t.co/Z6XMWO9HVY— John Podhoretz (@jpodhoretz) August 22, 2014
Now, there are several possibilities here. Perhaps he only read the headline and blurb, or perhaps the first few paragraphs, and therefore didn’t realize, as my column carefully noted, that this is a news story that’s been all over the Israeli press, liberal (Haaretz) and conservative (Maariv) alike, and that Israel’s attorney general Yehuda Weinstein has been formally asked to open a criminal investigation by Labor Party Knesset whip Eitan Cabel.
It’s possible that John followed up by reading the English Haaretz story, which pins the leak on one of Bibi’s opponents, but couldn’t read the Maariv story, which is in Hebrew and notes that virtually everyone else who’s examined the evidence thinks Bibi did it. Then again, to be fair, my weekly columns in the Forward Forum (as opposed to my blog posts) generally don’t contain links to source material. So he’d have to search online for the actual quotes, using the sourcing information that I did provide in print. To tell the truth, though, I have a sneaking suspicion that he didn’t bother reading the column at all, but merely read the headline, decided it was nuts and decided to vent. This, then, raises the age-old question, Why Can’t Johnny Read?.
More inexplicable is the lengthy critique by John’s Commentary colleague, my friend (for real) Jonathan Tobin, of my previous week’s column, “What Happens in Israel Doesn’t Stay in Israel.” Jonathan wrote a blog post on August 20, titled “Israel Doesn’t Cause Anti-Semitism,” in which he carefully deconstructs my argument that Israeli behavior toward the Palestinians is partly responsible for the growing wave of anti-Semitism among Muslims in Europe.
I know he read the column he’s criticizing, because he quotes from it and takes on its arguments one by one. Here’s his most telling point:
The determination that the Israeli infantry officer thought to have been captured is in fact dead has changed the trajectory of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, Operation Protective Edge, which now appears to be winding down.
Military officers were quoted by Walla News and Haaretz late Saturday night as saying that IDF engineers will be finished within a day with the demolition of the 31 Hamas attack tunnels that have been identified leading into Israel. Numerous Israeli and Palestinian news outlets report that troops have begun withdrawing from the populated areas of the Gaza Strip to a staging area along the border fence, where they will remain until the Israeli government decides its next steps. The government said it will continue air strikes against rocket launchers and other offensive targets.
Even before Friday’s abortive cease-fire, the question of how much longer Israel should continue the operation was becoming a political football in Jerusalem last week. Senior military officers told reporters that the mission they were assigned was nearly done and that they were waiting for the government to decide whether to push on or pull back. Cabinet ministers on the right replied that it was up to the military to decide whether the country was safe or not.
The question appeared to become moot Friday morning after a Givati infantry brigade officer, Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, 23, was reported to have been snatched by Hamas gunmen during an ambush near the city of Rafah and spirited away into a tunnel. Troops closed off Rafah and began a house-to-house search for the missing officer. That led to expectations of a prolonged dragnet like the one conducted in the search for the three kidnapped yeshiva students in the West Bank in June.
On Saturday evening, however, the army’s personnel chief and chief rabbi reported that they had determined that Goldin was dead, relying on “medical, halachic and other considerations” based on “evidence from the battlefield.”
That reopened the political debate over whether Operation Protective Edge was nearing its end or approaching a new stage, and what would constitute victory. Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke to the press (Hebrew, English) at IDF headquarters Saturday night and essentially punted: He indicated that the army had done a fine job in taking care of the tunnels, but said that operations would continue as needed.
From the “If You’ve Only Got Time To Read One Thing” Dept. Actually, I’ve got three items to recommend, each of which casts invaluable light on what’s going on right now in Gaza. In a moment I’ll rank them in order of importance, but first, a comment on what they have in common. The three are from — in no particular order (I’ll get to that later) — reporter Patrick Kingsley in the left-wing British daily The Guardian; conservative-leaning Israeli political reporter Haviv Rettig-Gur in the right-of-center Israeli news site Times of Israel (he’s formerly of the Jerusalem Post); and liberal-leaning Middle East affairs analyst Zvi Barel in Haaretz.
Interestingly, they all end up in pretty much the same place: Hamas is increasingly isolated, refusing to accept the Egyptian call for an unconditional cease-fire; it keeps on bombarding Israel because it’s desperate for something, anything, that can be presented as a win for all the trouble it’s caused; and consequently, Hamas is receiving (and deserving) most of the blame — from Europe and even the Arab League — for the current suffering of the Palestinians under its rule in Gaza. Its only remaining friends are Turkey and Qatar.
Now to the individual items on my list. First up, Haviv Rettig-Gur’s piece in Times of Israel, a must-read. It’s really two analyses woven together, presented in an unemotional, straightforward and quite convincing argument.
In the first place he looks at the way that both Israel and Hamas use contradictory claims of their own strength and their own weakness — strength in order to deter the enemy, weakness in order to win sympathy abroad. It’s not the most original argument in the world, but he presents it extremely well, and it’s important coming from him.
He proceeds from there to expand on Hamas’s victimhood mentality in order explore its mistaken use of post-colonial theory in service of the Palestinian cause. In Hamas thinking, he writes, the Palestinian fight against Israel is like the Algerian fight against the French in the 1950s. Therefore the enormous suffering that Hamas’s “resistance” causes to the Palestinian people is worth it, as was the unspeakable suffering of the Algerians, because it ends in victory. The weakness of the post-colonialism approach as an anti-Israel strategy, Haviv writes, is that Hamas fails to grasp Israel’s self-understanding as a nation on its own soil rather than a colonial invader.
French police have arrested four people suspected of recruiting would-be jihadist fighters in Paris and southern France, apparently for training and combat in the Syrian civil war, the British edition of the International Business Times reported today.
The arrests were announced by French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve. They come a day after the announcement on Sunday that French police had arrested a suspect in the May 24 terrorist shootings at the Jewish Museum of Brussels in Belgium.
The suspect in the Brussels attack, a French-born Muslim named Mehdi Nemmouche, is alleged to have received training and combat experience in Syria with a militant anti-Assad insurgent force, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
Nemmouche’s arrest has touched off fears among European, American and Israeli security officials that the Syrian civil war might be breeding a new generation of young Islamist radicals with Western roots — and Western citizenship — who could return home prepared to carry out new terrorist attacks. Intelligence sources told Haaretz military analyst Amos Harel that an estimated 1,200 European and North American Muslims are fighting with militant groups in Syria at any given time.
Caroline Glick / Wikimedia Commons
From the New Jersey Jewish News comes word that the campus Hillel at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, recently sponsored an appearance by a militant one-stater. The program was co-sponsored by, among others, two nearby Jewish federations including the state’s largest, the Jewish Federation of MetroWest (through its Jewish community relations committee).
You might think there’s a scandal brewing. But not likely. The one-stater in question is the fiery right-wing Israeli columnist Caroline Glick, senior contributing editor of the Jerusalem Post. Glick’s new book “The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East” calls for Israeli annexation of the West Bank, a position she’s advocated for years. She’s vehemently opposed to the two-state solution. Her March 11 talk was also cosponsored by the equally one-statist Zionist Organization of America. It was “supported” by the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, where Rutgers is located.
Whether Glick’s Rutgers appearance violates the much-discussed national Hillel guidelines governing campus programming is probably a matter of interpretation. Contrary to popular belief, the guidelines don’t actually say anything about potential speakers supporting a two-state solution. They say that Hillel “will not partner with, house, or host” organizations or speakers that “Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders.” Unlike, say, AIPAC, which “strongly supports a two-state solution,” Hillel has no opinion on the matter.
Some people might argue that annexing the West Bank would result in an Israel that is either not Jewish or not democratic, but Glick and most of her fellow Zionist one-staters don’t agree. Most tend to dismiss the demographic projections that show Jews becoming a minority. Others come up with theoretical Israeli constitutional arrangements that somehow add up to a state that’s Jewish in character and still democratic. Their claims might not seem plausible, but there’s nothing in the guidelines about plausibility.
Where Glick and others like her might run afoul of the guidelines is in a separate clause that bars speakers who “foster an atmosphere of incivility.” The guidelines don’t define “incivility,” so we’re left again with a matter of interpretation. But Glick devotes a huge proportion of her writing to tearing down those who disagree with her and branding them as enemies of Israel and the Jewish people. I haven’t done a statistical analysis, but it seems as though she spends more time attacking Jews she disagrees with—along with allies of Israel, beginning with President Obama and his secretary of state—than advancing her own ideas.
Hamas police on the Gaza-Egypt border, September 2013 / Getty Images
Ideology continues to trump security in the Netanyahu government’s approach to combating terrorism. As Hamas struggles to maintain its November 2012 cease-fire with Israel in the face of increasing rocket fire, mostly by al Qaeda-linked Salafi jihad factions, Israel responds by bombing Hamas facilities.
In addition to jihadis, the secular Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine has been responsible for a small proportion of the rocket fire. The front fired several rockets at the Negev from Gaza earlier in January, including two fired toward Ariel Sharon’s funeral January 13. Israel retaliated January 22 by assassinating a PFLP leader identified as responsible for the rockets, Ahmed Al-Za’anin.
The latest incident began late Thursday, when an unknown group fired a rocket that landed in field outside the Negev town of Netivot. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon declared Friday morning, as he has done repeatedly over the past year, that Israel considers Hamas responsible for all such attacks. The Israeli military retaliated later on Friday by bombing two terrorist installations, a rocket factory in the northern Gaza Strip and a weapons storage facility in the southern strip, that the army later confirmed were both Hamas facilities.
Hamas responded Saturday by withdrawing its rocket prevention units from the field. Initial Israeli responses interpreted the action as Hamas “giving a green light” to stepped up rocket attacks. But by Saturday night, as there had been no further rocket fire, Israeli sources began suggesting that the Hamas troop withdrawal was intended as a message to Israel to direct its fire toward those responsible, rather than punishing Hamas for actions it has been trying to prevent.
During the month of January some 20 rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza, equal the total for the entire preceding 11 months.
The developments come on the heels of a disturbing January 26 report that Prime Minister Netanyahu has been shaking up the hiring and promoting practices at the Shin Bet internal security service in order to create an agency that produces the intelligence he wants. The report, by Haaretz military analyst Amir Oren, says that as a result of the effort, the Shin Bet now has “three out of its four senior officials coming from a religious background and radiating sympathy for a worldview that opposes diplomatic compromise that would involve the evacuation of settlements.”
Oren claims that the shakeup follows Netanyahu’s frustration that he can’t get the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate (or MI) to produce the intelligence he needs to fend off Secretary of State John Kerry and justify an attack on Iran. Military Intelligence, like the rest of the military, insists on strict professionalism both in its assessments and in its personnel decisions, unlike the Shin Bet, which is under the prime minister’s personal supervision. Oren writes:
While Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies insist that Israel must maintain military control over the Jordan River in order to make sure that hostile forces don’t cross over and turn a Palestinian state into a forward base for attacks on Israel, Israel’s main security professionals continue to argue that Israel can accept other security arrangements that would meet Palestinian objections and still fulfill Israel’s needs. But we don’t often hear them explaining how Israel could maintain its security without control of the river.
Yesterday retired brigadier general Ephraim Sneh spelled it out in an op-ed article on Yediot Ahronot’s Ynet Hebrew news site. I’ve translated it into English, below. He argues that the monitoring and control provided by a full military deployment can be maintained today from afar by new technological developments, and that together with the strong security cooperation that currently exists between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, Israel can safely reduce its presence to a minimal level that would meet Palestinian objections.
Sneh was a leader of the Labor Party’s hawkish wing until he quit before the last elections to form his own party, Yisrael Hazaka, which failed to win a Knesset seat. He served in the past as minister of health and minister of transportation as well as two stints as deputy minister of defense. Before entering politics in 1987, he was a career soldier and served as commander of Israeli forces in Lebanon and military governor of the West Bank.
It’s worth noting that another former general, recently retired major general Gadi Shamni, has been arguing recently for a more gradual removal of Israeli troops from the river. In a recent Haaretz opinion essay he wrote that the handover of security control of the river crossings from Israeli to Palestinian security forces will take time, and a firm deadline can’t be set. It sounds on first read like an argument for Netanyahu’s position, but on closer examination it’s not very far from Sneh’s.
Shamni is a former chief of Central Command, as well as military secretary to prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak and most recently Israeli military attaché in Washington.
A New Approach to the Jordan Valley
Technology and Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian security cooperation make it possible to reduce to a minimum the need for an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley within the framework of a peace agreement.
By Ephraim Sneh
Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas told a visiting group of Knesset members on Thursday that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement will mean an end to Palestinian demands from Israel, and that Palestinians did not aim to return to “Haifa, Acre and Safed.” As the British Guardian newspaper reported:
In remarks possibly aimed at reassuring Israelis who believe a peace deal with the Palestinians will be followed by further claims, Abbas said: “You have a commitment from the Palestinian people, and also from the leadership, that if we are offered a just agreement, we will sign a peace deal that will put an end to the conflict and to future demands from the Palestinian side.”
He also said that the Palestinian state did not need a military capacity, but only “a strong police force.” He was speaking in Ramallah to the members of the Meretz Knesset caucus.
Abbas said critics had misunderstood his July 29 statement in Cairo that “in a final resolution” to the conflict there would not be “a single Israeli – civilian or soldier – on our lands.” Right-wing groups including the Zionist Organization of America and the Simon Wiesenthal Center jumped on the remark as evidence of anti-Semitism, and the Knesset’s anti-Semitism caucus discussed it at a meeting the following day. Abbas said his point had been that the Palestinian state would be established as a newly sovereign entity and would not agree to inherit prepositioned Israeli soldiers or settlers on its territory as relics of occupation.
This is not a new position. Abbas and other Palestinian leaders have said in the past that once their state is established, Jews would be welcome like anyone else to apply for residency or citizenship in a Palestinian state. They describe leaving settlements in place as risky because many settlers are committed to Israeli sovereignty over the territories and are considered likely to resist Palestinian rule. Still, Abbas told the Knesset members he would be prepared to discuss leaving individual settlements in place if Israel brought it up in negotiations.
Abbas’s remarks seem intended to dispel the Israeli right’s laundry list of reasons for believing the Palestinians are not prepared to make peace. Skeptics claim Abbas and his Fatah movement are not ready to declare a final end to the conflict, that they’re unwilling to give up future claims to Israeli territory, abandon the Palestinian refugees’ right of return to their former homes or accept limitations on sovereignty such as demilitarization. Abbas dismissed all those claims, one by one.
He further told the visitors, Haaretz on Friday, that he was “unhappy with the slow pace of the negotiations” and that there had been “no advances” in the first three rounds of talks, which were predictably devoted to presenting existing positions. But he voiced hope that the pace would pick up. According to Haaretz, he said:
Secretary of State John Kerry had promised that the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks would be kept confidential, so that the negotiators could exchange ideas without being subject to pressure from extremists on each side until a package of mutual concessions was ready that could show each side what it received in return for what it gave away.
But as Round Two took place Wednesday night in a secret location somewhere in Jerusalem with no Americans present, following the late-night release, at 1:00 a.m. Wednesday morning, of the first 26 Palestinian prisoners, the process is so secretive that it’s set off its own wave of speculation about the low level of shared trust, good will and faith in the outcome.
Avi Issacharoff, the former Maariv military analyst who now writes for the online Walla! News, writes (in Hebrew) that any possible pride either side might take in what should be a hopeful event is overshadowed on both sides by the humiliation of what they’ve already had to give away — for Israel’s Netanyahu, releasing prisoners with blood on their hands in the face of widespread popular outrage, and for Palestinian leader Abbas, resuming negotiations without an Israeli settlement freeze and in fact amid a much ballyhooed wave of new construction plans. Issacharoff writes:
What began as a gesture toward Palestinian Authority chairman Abu Mazen, in advance of the renewal of negotiations, became as the release date approached a serious headache for the Israel government, which had agreed to release murderers. But instead of standing before the cameras and explaining the logic of releasing “senior” terrorists in order to strengthen Abu Mazen, the Israeli side preferred to hide the action from public awareness.
In fact, according to Alex Fishman, the veteran Yediot Ahronot military analyst, writing at Yediot’s Ynet website, Netanyahu turned the supposed goodwill gesture of a prisoner release into another opportunity to humiliate Abbas by picking a list of low-level thugs to release, and then sending half of them to Gaza instead of to the West Bank where Abbas could have arranged a festive reception to reap the credit.
Whoever signed the list of released does not really believe in the peace process. What we are seeing here is a political maneuver of horse dealers exchanging some construction in the territories for a few prisoners, winking at any possible coalition. It’s not a diplomatic move, with leadership, with a backbone, one that is worth a dramatic and painful decision to free murderers.
It’s a cynical, tactic move aimed at achieving one thing: Buying time from the American administration or for the American administration. It may be part of a larger regional diplomatic move, but it’s more likely that this entire maneuver was created so that the Americans would not blame Israel for thwarting the Kerry initiative at the current stage…
Israel’s latest announcement of permits for 1,200 new housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has stirred a hornets’ nest of angry responses. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said it could undermine the negotiating process before it’s even started. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said America does “not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity” and had communicated its “concerns” to the Israeli government. And Haaretz diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid wrote in a scathing blog post today that Bibi Netanyahu still hasn’t decided whether he’s ready to “cross the Rubicon.”
The 1,200 units cleared for developers’ bids by the Housing Ministry are only one in a series of provocative moves in the last week. The Defense Ministry’s West Bank Civil Administration announced last week that 878 new units have received the second stage of clearance. And the cabinet voted August 4 to put 90 settlements, including four formerly illegal outposts, on the “national priority” list of 600 communities eligible for government grants, tax breaks and more. Haaretz’s Barak, quoting a “senior Israeli official close to the prime minister,” wrote that “on one hand,” Netanyahu
has stepped into the water and started marching toward the other bank. But on the other hand, he is looking back every few seconds, and for every step forward, he is allowing the current to push him back three steps.
Only the settler news service Arutz Sheva-Israel National News seems to have noticed that nothing actually happened. The new settlement announcements are just that—announcements, the service notes disapprovingly. Turning the talk into action requires a great many interim steps. Here’s how it breaks down:
Well, surprise, surprise. After months of hearing from all the wise pundits from left to right that Secretary of State Kerry was beyond his depth in Israeli-Palestinian peace-making, that he was “naïve and ham-handed” (מגושם in the original), “dumb” and “clueless,” it turns out they all got it wrong. Of course, they’re still a long way from a peace agreement. They haven’t even launched peace negotiations. But they’ve agreed to try, and that’s more than anyone thought possible just a week ago. It looks like Kerry gets the last laugh, at least for now.
How did everyone get it so wrong? Four main reasons, I think. First, a major epidemic of cynicism, reinforced by the fashionably jaded, world-weary pose so beloved of journalists. Second, wishful thinking by ideologues who oppose the idea of two states for two people and cling to the idea that it can’t happen. Third, a deep distrust of the two leaders, Netanyahu and Abbas, and of the political systems they lead.
Fourth, and perhaps most important, months and months of no news. It’s an old truism that if you want to bring two sides toward painful compromise, you have to keep the deal under wraps until it’s all done—otherwise each side can be accused of giving away the store and getting nothing in return until skeptics on both sides have nibbled it to pieces. But past rounds have been so leaky that everyone on the outside got used to hearing about every step as it happened. Consequently, the lack of incremental progress reports this time looked like a lack of progress. So when the deal was unwrapped, it took everyone by surprise.
But the image of Kerry as a clueless naïf blundering his way through the thicket isn’t the only myth that’s been exploded in the last two days. Here are a few others:
The race for chief rabbi of Israel has been getting ugly since the collapse of a proposed deal between Shas and Jewish Home to elect their respective favorites. The deal would have amended the Chief Rabbinate laws to permit a second term for the incumbent Sephardic chief rabbi, a Shas favorite, and eliminated the age limit to permit the election of a favorite of the hardline, pro-settler of Jewish Home. The deal collapsed over liberal support for a more moderate Ashkenazi contender, as well as opposition to anything that benefits Shas.
The leading candidate for Sephardic chief rabbi is now Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, chief rabbi of Safed and son of the late Mordechai Eliyahu, former chief rabbi and longtime spiritual mentor of the National Religious Party. The younger Eliyahu is currently the subject of furious behind-the-scenes politicking by liberals who want to stop his candidacy, led by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Labor Party lawmaker Eitan Cabel. The reason: a long record of extreme racism, including his notorious 2010 dictum forbidding the sale or rental of homes to Arabs.
Livni, whose Justice Ministry would be in charge of Chief Rabbi Eliyahu (since the Sephardic chief rabbi is the head of the rabbinical court system, which is under the Justice Ministry), met with Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein last month to look for legal ways to block Eliyahu. Weinstein was dubious about the legal grounds, according to Nahum Barnea in today’s Yediot Ahronot. Barnea quoted Livni as insisting: “This is intolerable. After all, we’re talking about the position of chief rabbi. What will his election do to Israel’s image abroad? He mustn’t be elected.”
Livni wanted to base legal action on an indictment issued against Eliyahu in 2002 on charges of racism after he called for the expulsion of the Arab population of Safed. Weinstein pointed out that the state attorney’s office dropped the charges in 2006 after Eliyahu agreed to apologize, which would undermine the legal grounds for blocking him now.
On Wednesday, however (presumably after Barnea had filed his Friday Supplement column), Haaretz reported that Weinstein had agreed to conduct a legal inquiry if Eliyahu’s name is formally put in nomination.
The Haaretz story linked above includes some of Eliyahu’s most controversial quotes. The Israel Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has put together a longer list of Eliyahu’s most objectionable public statements.
Barnea points out, however, that stopping Eliyahu could be a mixed blessing. His main competition, Barnea reports, is Rabbi Avraham Yosef, a son of the former Sephardic chief rabbi and current Shas party mentor Ovadia Yosef. Though less prominent in the press, Barnea says, Yosef could be considered even more racist—and misogynistic and anti-democratic, to boot—than Eliyahu. In part this is a reflection of their ideological backgrounds: Eliyahu comes from the religious Zionist movement and recognizes the legitimacy of the state and its institutions, while Yosef emerges from a Haredi worldview that’s much more ambivalent on the question. It’s said, though, that Avraham Yosef is considered something of an extremist even within his own family.
To make his case, Barnea put together a list of parallel statements by the two for comparison. Here’s my translation:
Haaretz reporter Barak Ravid writes that Secretary of State Kerry is arriving in Israel today amid “no signs” that he’s “nearing a breakthrough” toward peace talks. The funny thing is, it’s in the middle of an article that reports clear signs of a breakthrough. Specifically, he reports on a “senior Likud minister” telling him Netanyahu is ready to withdraw from more than 90% of the West Bank “if Israel’s security concerns are met.”
Those security concerns: demilitarization of the Palestinian state (which was accepted long ago) and a long-term Israeli military presence on the Jordan River — though not necessarily the whole Jordan Valley (a big Bibi concession) and not necessarily under Israeli sovereignty (another big Bibi concession).
An even bigger sign of progress came later on Thursday: a public declaration by Netanyahu, in a high-profile speech (at the annual Theodor Herzl memorial ceremony) that peace with the Palestinians is a must — even though it won’t stop defamation of Israel. Ending the international bad-mouthing and “delegitimization” of Israel is constantly thrown up by the right, with active cooperation from the center and center-left — as a test of whether a future peace is safe enough to justify Israeli withdrawal. Saying that the two — peace agreement and civil dialogue — aren’t the same and aren’t even necessarily interdependent is a big step toward a realistic opening negotiating position.
Speaking of intelligence leaks, Israel had one last week that speaks volumes about the prospects for Secretary of State Kerry’s Middle East peace mission. Consider how a June 4 classified briefing to the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee was described the next day in Maariv’s lead headline: “Shin Bet chief: Abu Mazen Doesn’t Believe in an Agreement with Us.” The subheading added some intriguing detail: “Knesset members who were present yesterday at the foreign affairs and defense committee claim: Yoram Cohen said that the Palestinians are not enthusiastic to resume negotiations with Netanyahu. Shin Bet: Not true.”
The leak so infuriated committee chair Avigdor Lieberman that he distributed a letter to committee members on Thursday vowing to end the practice of classified briefings, starting with an appearance tomorrow (Monday) by the prime minister. Lieberman said he had instituted the closed meetings this year after hearing from “some members” that meetings had come to resemble “headline reviews” with no real insight into the security services’ operations.
As Maariv explained in its next-day follow-up, Lieberman’s strictly classified meetings replaced a 20-year practice in which classified briefings by top security officials would be followed by a declassified press briefing by a committee spokesman. Leaks have been commonplace both before and after the rule change.
So what came out this week that so angered Lieberman? That Abu Mazen (a.k.a. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president) isn’t interested in peace? Lieberman has been saying that for years. No, the problem was just the opposite: What Cohen actually said was that the Palestinians didn’t think talks with Bibi would go anywhere, given his backtracking from understandings reached in previous negotiating rounds. Maariv’s headline didn’t match reporter Ze’ev Kam’s story. According to Kam,
the Shin Bet chief told the committee members that there is a continuous decline on the Palestinian side in faith that any positive diplomatic process in the region will occur between the sides. …
In his words, the opening negotiating position of the present government is not even close to what was discussed in earlier rounds with [former prime minister Ehud] Olmert, and therefore from Abu Mazen’s point of view he can’t gain anything from entering negotiations with Israel. … in his view, he can only lose, given the fact that in the past he was in a much better negotiating position.
Secretary of State Kerry may have crossed a few lines and trod on some toes in his speech to the American Jewish Committee in Washington on Monday. The first half-hour was filled with predictable declarations about his love for Israel, the urgency of peace and the beautiful view from Masada, but his ending was a zinger: a five-minute call for American Jews to weigh in as a community and “help shape the future of this process.”
Specifically, he said, “let your leaders and your neighbors alike know that you understand this will be a tough process with tough decisions, but that you’re ready to back the leaders who will make them… let them know that you stand behind negotiations that will lead to two states for two peoples living side-by-side in peace and security.”
It’s not entirely clear which leaders he had in mind. He might have been thinking of their senators and representatives or perhaps the White House and administration. On the other hand, given that he was addressing them as members of a distinct entity — the American Jewish community — it’s quite possible that he was thinking of the leaders of that community. It would make political sense, too, since that’s the group that’s most commonly described as frustrating administrations in their forays into Israeli-Arab peace-making.
[N]o one has a stronger voice in this than the American Jewish community. You can play a critical part in ensuring Israel’s long-term security. And as President Obama said in Jerusalem, leaders will take bold steps only if their people push them to. You can help shape the future of this process. And in the end, you can help Israel direct its destiny and be masters of its own fate, just as Prime Minister Meir dreamed that it would be.
So I ask you today, send the message that you are behind this hopeful vision of what can be. Let your leaders and your neighbors alike know that you understand this will be a tough process with tough decisions, but that you’re ready to back the leaders who make them. For your children, do this; for your grandchildren, do this; for Israeli children and Palestinian children and for Israel, let them know that you stand behind negotiations that will lead to two states for two peoples living side-by-side in peace and security, and that you are part of the great constituency for peace.
In addition to urging Jews to press their leaders, Kerry’s speech broke at least three other rules of standard etiquette governing public officials when addressing Jews:
Israel’s ministry of religious services, headed by economics minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, has created a new Jewish Identity Administration in an “effort to increase national awareness of Jewish identity,” says a report in Yeshiva World News. Haaretz says its job is to “instill Jewish values” in the general public. The administration will be headed by reserve Brig. Gen. Rabbi Avichai Rontzki, former chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces. Rontzki is stepping down as head of the yeshiva of Itamar, a settlement overlooking Nablus in Samaria-northern West Bank.
The new administration, authorized as part of the Jewish Home-Likud Beiteinu coalition agreement, will be modeled after the Jewish Awareness Unit created by Rontzki within the military chief rabbinate. Rontzki was picked for the job not only because of his political closeness to Bennett—Rontzki “helped him considerably during his party primary race,” says the religious news site Kipa—“but also because of his professional background, as someone who advanced the values of Jewish identity in the IDF during his service as military chief rabbi.”
Haaretz reacted to the news in an editorial yesterday accusing Bennett and Rontzki of trying to “force” religion on Israelis, who “don’t have an identity crisis” and “certainly don’t need Bennett and Rontzki to treat it for them.” Israel National News, the website of the settler radio station Arutz Sheva, replied with a quote from Rontzki that Haaretz’s criticism of the initiative “just shows how important it is.” Working mainly through the schools, Rontzki said, it will focus on dialogue between religious and secular youth and on deepening awareness of “the subject of the land of Israel” and the “central” importance of “our renewed settlement.”
Actually, that’s the point. Haaretz has the issue wrong: It’s not that Rontzki intends to coerce kids into praying, but rather that he’ll be using taxpayer shekels and class time to spread his ultra-nationalist notions of Israel and (or vs.) the world.
In fact, Rontzki and his military Jewish identity programs were the subject of a blistering report by Israel’s Comptroller General just a year ago, as I reported at the time. The accusations against him weren’t that he was trying to impose religious rules and rituals on soldiers, but that he was using the rabbinate, created to provide religious services to observant soldiers, as a vehicle to promote religious-nationalist, political values concerning the sacredness and indivisibility of the Land of Israel.
Fresh from her controversial April 3 paean to Palestinian stone-throwing, Haaretz’s Ramallah-based bad girl Amira Hass is making new waves with her Friday May 17 report about a group of “senior Fatah members” (the headline called them “senior officials”) who are calling for “the establishment of one democratic country in the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.”
The group reportedly gathered May 15 in El Bireh, outside Ramallah, to sign a document, “the culmination of two years of discussion,” that was titled “the popular movement project for one democratic state in historic Palestine.” It’s sparked a furor on the Internet, been tweeted hundreds of times and been posted to Facebook upwards of 2,200 times as of Saturday night, which is about 100 times the pace of the other top stories in Haaretz on Friday. It’s been posted to dozens of blogs, ranging from right-wing Jewish blogs that see it as proof of malign Palestinian intentions to left-wing Jewish, Arab and non-sectarian blogs that see it as a hopeful new beginning.
From all the fuss, you wouldn’t know that the “group of senior Fatah members” in question was a grand total of 22 individuals, of whom the most prominent were a former deputy prisoner affairs director, a former local district governor and an Israeli, Uri Davis, who now lives in Ramallah and describes himself as a Muslim. What’s more, the statement was issued four days after the actual Central Committee of Fatah met in Ramallah to endorse the Arab League’s call for land swaps and border modifications in an Israeli-Palestinian two-state peace agreement. An actual Fatah official told the Jerusalem Post after the committee meeting that the party maintains its “full commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the context of a two-state solution.”
Much more startling, though it’s gotten far less attention, was an endorsement of a single, binational state in Israel-Palestine with equal rights for Jews and Arabs published on May 12, the day before the Fatah Central Committee rejected the same idea, by—wait for it—Moshe Arens, the former three-time Israeli defense minister, former foreign minister (Bibi Netanyahu was his deputy minister) and certified grand old man of the Likud.
There must have been divine intervention at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Friday, when no one was killed or injured by the volley of police fire that surely must have been unleashed at the rioters who threw stones at Jewish worshipers that morning. If memory serves, that is what the police do when people throw stones at Jewish worshipers at the Wall.
Come to think of it, I haven’t seen any reporting of the police opening fire on stone-throwers in all the coverage of the violence at the Wall last Friday, when a mob of angry Orthodox Jews let loose with stones, chairs and other projectiles at non-Orthodox women holding their monthly Rosh Hodesh service in the women’s section.
Then again, press coverage of clashes between Israeli police and violent protesters is always spotty and one-sided, as pro-Israel media monitors regularly remind us. So I have no doubt that this was the case here, too.
There has been a great deal of discussion in the Israeli and international Jewish press in recent weeks about the lethal power of stones when thrown in hatred. (Here’s a pretty good sample.)
Prime Minister Netanyahu himself weighed in on the topic in an April 15 speech, declaring that “stones are deadly weapons.”
The furor over stone-throwing erupted after Haaretz writer Amira Hass, who lives in Ramallah and reports on Palestinian affairs, wrote an op-ed essay April 3 describing “throwing stones” as “the birthright and duty of anyone subject to foreign rule,” by which she meant Palestinians.
As the left-wing British daily The Guardian explained on April 6,
Haaretz reporter Anshel Pfeffer has a very important piece in the Friday paper that looks at the Gaza Flotilla incident and the yawning gap between Israeli and international perceptions of the affair — and then connects it to Peter Beinart’s “breathtaking” New York Review of Books essay, “The failure of the American Jewish establishment.”
In Israeli commentary on the raid, Pfeffer writes,
One sentence that was repeated over and over to justify the final outcome was: “And what if they had succeeded in killing one of our soldiers?” This is a rhetorical argument that is unanswerable in any discussion held in Israel. No matter how many combatants we have lost in all the wars, operations, accidents and other foul-ups, every time the radio announces the death of yet another an IDF soldier, something dies within every one of us.
That is a noble sentiment, a feeling of a society with a shared responsibility and destiny, but we have lost any other perspectives and are incapable of realizing that it is only we Israelis who feel this. We have hunkered down deep inside our collective bunker and have lost sight of any suffering or loss on the other side…