J.J. Goldberg

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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Kidnap Plotter Indicted: Still Looks Like 'Lone Cell'

By J.J. Goldberg


An Israeli military court handed down an indictment Thursday morning against a member of Hamas’ Hebron branch, Hussam Qawasmeh, charging him with helping to plan the June 12 kidnapping of three Israeli yeshiva students near Kfar Etzion in the West Bank.

The document, as described in Israeli news reports, spells out a detailed, almost day-by-day account of the crime’s planning, execution and aftermath. The most thorough account, published in the conservative daily Maariv (here, Hebrew only), summarizes the plot from the hatching of the idea by the still-at-large kidnapper Marwan Qawasmeh and his pitching it in April 2014 to his brother Hussam, to Hussam’s raising money from another brother, the Gaza-based Mahmoud, and purchasing of weapons, vehicles and stolen Israeli license plates, to the kidnapping itself, the panicked murder of the victims, disposal of the bodies and evidence, the escape of some suspects and capture of others.

What it doesn’t offer is any evidence that the leadership of Hamas — or anyone else outside the Qawasmeh family, which controls the organization’s notoriously undisciplined and incompetent Hebron branch — had any knowledge of the crime before or after its commission. On the contrary, the indictment strengthens the argument I laid out in July that the kidnapping was a Qawasmeh family production from start to finish. (Read about the Qawasmehs and their chaotic relationship to Hamas in this article by scholar Shlomi Eldar in the liberal-leaning Al-Monitor, or this largely identical account in Hebrew by reporter Assaf Gabor in Maariv.)

A second Maariv article on the indicment names a total of 11 suspects accused of involvement in various stages of the crime. Eight are Qawasmeh brothers and cousins: Marwan and Hussam; Arafat and Ahmed, who allegedly helped hide the kidnappers; and Hashem, Hassan and Jamil, who allegedly helped Hussam try (unsuccessfully) to escape. Two more are members of the Abu-Eisheh family, cousins of the Qawasmehs: Amar Abu-Eisheh, the second suspected kidnapper, who is still at large, and Noah, who allegedly sold Hussam the kidnap and getaway cars. Only one non-family member is accused of involvement: Adnan Zaro, who allegedly sold Hussam the kidnap weapons, two pistols and two M-16 assault rifles.

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With All Due Respect, Can't My Critics Read?

By J.J. Goldberg


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:

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:

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Gaza Tunnels: How They Work, What Israel Knew

By J.J. Goldberg


In my last post I promised to translate Alex Fishman’s Friday column in Yediot Ahronot discussing Hamas’s tunnels. Here it is.

He briefly traces Israel’s growing awareness of the problem over more than a decade. He reaches much the same conclusion as Nahum Barnea: “…the fact is that everyone saw, everyone knew, everyone understood, and yet the test of results ended in failure…”

There’s a lively debate right now in the Hebrew press over whether or not Israel realized the full extent of the threat. That is, given that the threat’s existence was long known, is there any truth to the claim that Israel was “surprised”? I’ve got some links below to follow the debate if your Hebrew is up to it. It can’t be understated how misleading the English-language reporting on the topic has been; more on that below, after the translation.

Both Barnea and Fishman conclude, as my translations show, that the IDF and government knew enough to grasp the full dimensions of the threat, if not the details of every tunnel, long before this operation. Whether or not they’re right will be determined soon enough, as Harel writes. I generally read Barnea and Fishman first because they’re commonly described as the best informed, best connected and smartest in the field in Israel — Barnea in political analysis, Fishman in reporting from inside the mind of the military. Unfortunately, Yediot doesn’t publish on line — its Ynet site is a fully separate publication — and doesn’t translate its print material into English. My translations are as literal as I can make them.

I’ve often heard friends and readers in the last few weeks expressing bewilderment that the IDF had such a hard time finding technology to locate tunnels or detect excavation in real time. Fishman wrote about that a few weeks ago. His basic thrust was that normal sensor equipment is only effective down to about 10 meters, and Hamas attack tunnels are around 25 meters down. And the sophisticated equipment used for oil and gas exploration is too sensitive for concrete structures just 25 meters down — they’re looking for tiny signals from miles down, and closer to the surface they tend to go off whenever a truck goes by.

Anyway, here’s Fishman:

Damaging the National Project

On Wednesday this week the defense minister returned to the Gaza Strip to examine the destruction of the tunnels. When he was at the headquarters of the division in charge of cleaning out Seja’iyeh, fire opened up from the windows of Wafa Hospital, whose patients had been evacuated at the beginning of the week after Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories directly approached the hospital director and asked him to leave. Since then the place had been officially converted into a forward position of the Izz a-Din al-Qassem Brigades.

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WATCH: PLO Envoy Calls Hamas Rockets 'Crimes Against Humanity'

By J.J. Goldberg


Here’s a remarkable bit of television — official Palestinian Authority TV, to be specific — in which the Palestinian delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva tells an interviewer that Hamas’s rocket fire from Gaza is a crime against humanity. Plain and simple, no hedging. In Arabic (with English subtitles). Watch it below.

The envoy, Ibrahim Khreisheh, is replying to a question from anchorwoman Nisrin Nasir about the prospects of bringing charges against Israel before the International Criminal Court for its aerial attacks in Gaza. His answer: I’m not running for office, so I’ll give an unpopular but honest answer: It would backfire. Rockets aimed at Israeli civilians are crimes against humanity. Every rocket, individually, whether or not it hits anybody.

He says Israel’s bombardment also constitutes a crime against humanity. A few minutes later, however, he says that Palestinians in Gaza are reporting getting warnings from Israel to clear out before an airstrike. That means, he says, that any fatalities resulting from the airstrikes are accidental, not criminal.

Here’s the video:

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On Bob Dylan's Birthday, 4 Israeli Artists Reminisce

By J.J. Goldberg

In honor of Bob Dylan’s 73rd birthday on Saturday (May 24), Maariv asked four Israeli singer-songwriters — Eran Tzur, Sun Tailor, Dan Toren and Uzi Ramirez — to write about the “defining moment” in Dylan’s influence on them personally “as musicians, artists and listeners.” Each brief contribution is accompanied by a musical clip that the artist chose to accompany his words (yes, they’re all “he”).

The article is here (Hebrew only). I’ve translated some excerpts, which I’m posting along with the clips they picked and links to a few selected clips by the contributors themselves. (The above photo, by the way, was taken by his ex-wife Sara in Jerusalem, where they were celebrating their son’s bar mitzvah at the Kotel. It appears on the inner sleeve of his Infidels album.)

Maariv’s Ohad Ezrati, introducing and describing the project, writes:

Besides his being one of the great musicians of all time, Dylan has established himself as a symbol of freedom and equality, of independent creativity and thinking outside established frameworks.

Eran Tzur

Hear Eran Tzur sing his “Hu veHi” (“He and She”).

In the summer of 1998 I was headed out for a long vacation on tropical island in southern Thailand and I took along Dylan’s new album Time Out of Mind, which had come out a year earlier.

I’d been on a long timeout from Dylan, and this captured me all over again. I remember trying to write under his influence. I came up with a song, “Blues for the North,” that follows the blues chord pattern of his “Highlands,” which closes the album.

Bob Dylan sings “Highlands”:

Sun Tailor (Arnon Naor)

(Hear Sun Tailor sing his hits “Fay” and “I’ll Make My Way Home.”

“You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” The first time I heard it was on a train from Cambridge to London. I fell in love with it. It put words to what I was feeling then, in real time.

Dylan speaks of a love that comes to him after years of disappointment and longing, and he’s deep within a beautiful tale and yet finds himself thinking about the heartbreak that’s coming soon.

It’s amazing how it’s possible to write a song about love in the present that suddenly becomes a song of mourning for the future, and make it all sound so right and real.

Sun Tailor sings Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”:

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India's New Chief Sees Israel as Ally on Terror

By J.J. Goldberg

Israeli leaders are celebrating the upset victory in Indian elections of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, whose leader, the reputedly anti-Muslim Narendra Modi, wants closer ties with Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emphasized economic ties on Sunday when he told his cabinet about his Friday phone conversation with the Indian prime minister-elect. The Israeli leader called Modi to congratulate him. Reports in both the Times of Israel and India’s Economic Times quoted Netanyahu telling the cabinet that Modi wants “to deepen and develop economic ties with the state of Israel.” The Times of Israel reported in detail on massive Israeli investment in the economy of India’s Gujarat state in the 13 years since Modi became its chief minister.

But in-depth analyses in two conservative dailies, Israel’s Maariv and the New York-based International Business Times, both describe a deeper reason for the two leaders’ shared enthusiasm: a belief on both sides that they share a common enemy in radical Islamist terrorism.

India’s 1.3 billion population, though roughly 154 times the size of Israel’s 8.2 million, bears a striking demographic similarity. It’s about 80% Hindu. Its 176 million Muslims, the world’s second-largest Muslim community after Indonesia’s, make up about 14.4% of the population. Christians make up just under 3%. Israel is 75% Jewish, 16% Muslim and just under 3% Christian.

British rule in India ended in 1947 with the partition of the country into two states, majority-Hindu India and majority-Muslim Pakistan. The partition was accompanied by massive bloodshed and has left ongoing bitterness.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is commonly described as Hindu-nationalist, favoring a stronger identification of the Indian state and nation with the majority Hindu religious tradition, from which India gets its name. The party opposes the strictly secularist ideology of founder Mahatma Gandhi’s Congress Party which ruled India for 61 of its 67 years of independence. BJP includes openly anti-Muslim elements, and Modi himself has a checkered past in Hindu-Muslim relations. His Gujarat state was wracked by deadly anti-Muslim rioting that left more than 1,000 dead in 2002, shortly after he became chief minister. His alleged role in the rioting led to his being banned from the United States until recently.

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U.S. Sharply Boosts Aid to Syria Rebels: Report

America is reportedly stepping up its commitment to the Syrian rebels with new injections of money, upgraded weapons and intelligence coordination, according to several respected Arab news sources, the Abu Dhabi-based The National and the Jordanian-based Ammon News.

The moves are said to include supply of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, which Saudi Arabia has been eager to supply but Washington has opposed. Ammon News reported Tuesday that the shoulder missiles will come from Jordan and Turkey and that Washington continues to oppose the supply.

According to The National, a secret operations command center has been set up at Jordanian intelligence headquarters in Amman to work with the rebels, staffed by military officials—military intelligence officers, according to Maariv—from 14 countries including the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and various European states. Jordan denied that the center exists. But Washington Post foreign affairs pundit David Ignatius reported this week that intelligence officials from most of the countries named by The National met in Washington a week ago to discuss Syria strategy.

Israel is watching the shifts nervously, Maariv reported, partly because of a decision by the moderate Free Syrian Army to shift its main forces from northern Syria, where they face stiff competition from jihadi militias, to the south, close to Israel. The shift southward, it’s feared, could tempt jihadi forces to move southward following the fighting, putting Israel in danger from Al Qaeda-linked terrorism.

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How Israel's Politics vs. Security Rift Aids Jihadis

By J.J. Goldberg

Hamas fighters testing a Gaza-made M-75 long-range missile, November 2013 / Getty Images

Maariv’s Eli Bardenstein offered a stunningly clear and disturbing report (in Hebrew, my translation below) on Friday that illustrates the vexing complications introduced into the triangular Jerusalem-Cairo-Gaza relationship by political turmoil in all three places. It makes a very useful companion piece to today’s front-page New York Times report by Jodi Rudoren on Israeli jitters over instability on its eastern front.

In both cases, as Bardenstein notes and Rudoren sort of hints, the Netanyahu government is ignoring the intelligence supplied by its own security establishment, which shows jihadi organizations making life difficult for both Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south. The jihadis are creating turmoil, launching pinprick attacks on Israel that violate cease-fire agreements between Israel and Hezbollah and Hamas respectively. Hamas and Hezbollah are both besieged — Hamas by the new, anti-Islamist Egyptian military government, Hezbollah by jihadi spillover from the Syrian civil war (as well as political blowback from the Rafiq Hariri murder trial now underway in The Hague) — and are finding it increasingly difficult to enforce their respective cease-fires with Israel. Israel — meaning principally defense minister Moshe Yaalon — chooses to ignore the intelligence, blame Hamas and Hezbollah and launch military responses that only further weaken Hamas and Hezbollah and strengthen the jihadis.

I’ve translated Bardenstein’s piece below, but here’s the gist: Israel is alarmed at the unraveling of the November 2012 Pillar of Defense cease-fire “understandings” and the increasing rocket fire from Gaza — 17 rockets fired in January alone as of Friday (and more since then). It wants Egypt, which acts as mediator between Israel and Hamas, to pressure Hamas to stop the rocket fire. But Egypt has lost influence over Hamas since the military deposed the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi last July. The military government’s approach is not to work with Hamas as Morsi did but to crack down on it.

Hamas, in turn, complains that the Egyptian crackdown — particularly the mass destruction of smuggling tunnels, which squeezes the Gaza economy — weakens Hamas rule and reduces its ability to control the jihadi organizations that are doing the firing. And both Cairo and Hamas complain that Israel has been making the situation worse by Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon’s insistence on responding to every single rocket launching, no matter how ineffectual, with aerial bombardment.

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Funny: Bibi Rips MK's Bill To Micromanage His Talks

By J.J. Goldberg

Benjamin Netanyahu with Likud ministers at weekly cabinet meeting, Sunday, January 12, 2014. From left: Gilad Erdan (communications); Yuval Steinitz (intelligence); Netanyahu; cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit; Gideon Saar (interior) / Getty Images

When should the legislature intrude on the executive branch’s authority to conduct foreign policy by seeking to dictate the terms of sensitive negotiations? Good question, but don’t ask Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His answer seems to depend on who’s doing the negotiating and who’s doing the micromanaging. And he’s not even embarrassed by the .

Netanyahu was said to be angered by a bill that would require prior Knesset approval before his government can enter any negotiations over the future status of Jerusalem or Palestinian refugees. So Maariv’s Zeev Kam reported on Thursday.

Netanyahu reportedly lit into the bill, proposed by Likud hard-liner Miri Regev, at last Sunday’s weekly meeting of Likud-Beiteinu ministers, shortly before the weekly full cabinet meeting. “He appeared particularly angry when the topic came up,” several participants told Kam:

“Nobody should preach to us about Jerusalem,” Netanyahu said when discussing the proposed legislation and Knesset member Regev. Netanyahu went on to emphasize to the ministers that conducting negotiations is the government’s responsibility.

”Private member bills like these damage the government’s functioning,” Netanyahu emphasized.

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Kerry, 'Sobered' by Bibi's Map, 'Will Present Plan'

By J.J. Goldberg

Getty Images
Netanyahu addresses Nov. 3 Cabinet meeting (In middle: Yaakov Amidror)

A day before Secretary of State John Kerry’s expected arrival in Israel to further peace talks, Israeli news media are reporting that Kerry has begun preparing an American peace plan to present to the parties in January as a basis for negotiations, if there isn’t progress by then. It will reportedly be based on the pre-1967 armistice lines with land swaps, and will be linked to the Arab Peace Initiative.

Zahava Gal-On, head of the left-wing Meretz party, made the claim in a public statement Monday morning, saying she heard it during meetings with American, Palestinian and Arab officials in recent days. Several news organizations confirmed it with unnamed sources later in the day.

The daily tabloid Maariv reported, quoting a source “close to the negotiations,” that Kerry formulated his plan after his seven-hour meeting in Rome with Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu October 23 “sobered him up” to the realization (מעין התפכחות) that Netanyahu “had his own considerations” and that a permanent peace agreement “wasn’t attainable as he had thought.”

According to The Hill newspaper in Washington, Kerry told reporters in Saudi Arabia he “categorically” denied the “rumors” and that there was no plan other than face-to-face negotiations “at this point in time.” A State Department spokeswoman later called it “wild speculation.”

Netanyahu responded to the reports in remarks to the Likud Knesset caucus later in the day, saying Israel would look at any proposal raised in negotiations but “but we won’t accept any external dictates and no pressure will help.”

The daily Israel Hayom, considered a strong supporter of Netanyahu, reported that Kerry and Netanyahu drew maps for each other in Rome, and that Netanyahu’s map:

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Democracy's Creative Tensions? Take That Back!

By J.J. Goldberg

Wikimedia Commons
Ofer Shelah

Our old friend Ofer Shelah, former Maariv military and sports reporter, former Forward Israel correspondent and currently Yesh Atid Knesset caucus whip, has come out against the phenomenon of “nationality laws” that seek to define the relationship between Israel’s Jewish and democratic qualities or assign preferential standing in law to one over the other (usually favoring the Jewish side).

As Shelah wrote on his Facebook page on Friday, the law is superfluous (מיותר), and laws that are superfluous are laws that shouldn’t be enacted.

… I prefer the fascinating duality (שניות) inherent in the term “Jewish and democratic state” over any attempt to define the components in the dry language of law.

The wonderful thing about this concept is that it’s clear to all of us, to anyone who reads those three charged words with open eyes, that there is a certain contradiction (סתירה) implicit in it. But it’s no less clear what it says. In this matter, it seems to me that the brightest light is to be found in the gray area.

To a certain degree it can be said that Israel’s 65 years have been a walk along this narrow line, with the wonderful democratic strength that’s possible precisely because we never stopped to define it precisely. Our legal system, freedom of speech and political vitality, all these are alive and kicking and impressive to anyone who watches us from outside precisely because we live this dialectic every day, without a law that presumes to define exactly what the great mix of identities living here is made of.

Or, as the Jerusalem Post summed it up, in a Saturday news article by Knesset correspondent Lahav Harkov, “Shelah: ‘Jewish and democratic state’ an oxymoron.” Harkov writes:

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How Israel Sold EU on Banning Half of Hezbollah

By J.J. Goldberg

Getty Images
Remains of Israeli victims of Hezbollah terror attack in Bulgaria are returned home, July 20, 2012

The European Union’s decision to slap the terrorist label on Hezbollah’s military wing, but not on its political wing, has been getting decidedly mixed reviews from Israel and the Jewish community. The American Jewish Committee said it “welcomes” the move as a “significant step forward in recognizing the true nature of Hezbollah,” even though AJC shares the U.S.-Canadian-Dutch view that Hezbollah is actually “a single organization.”

On the other hand, the Anti-Defamation League called it “a positive political statement, but a flawed counter-terrorism strategy,” since it “missed” the “high-value counter-terrorism target” of Hezbollah financing. B’nai Brith Canada went even further, saying the EU move gives “false legitimacy to Hezbollah’s supposedly non-violent wings,” which will “weaken international efforts to combat terror,” strengthen Iran and “cost more innocent lives.”

Yori Yanover wrote in the Jewish Press, citing a Reuters report, that the double-identity idea, “like most of the fun things coming out of the EU, is the brainchild of its foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.”

Awkwardly enough, it now appears that differentiating the military and political wings for separate treatment was actually proposed to the EU by Israel’s negotiators. So reports Eli Bardenstein, the usually well-informed diplomatic correspondent of the right-leaning Israeli daily Maariv, in a detailed backgrounder (in Hebrew) on the Israeli campaign to secure the European ban. Launched by then-foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, the year-long campaign was the work of a task force that was led by the Foreign Ministry and included Israel’s National Security Council and main intelligence agencies. The split-identity proposal, Bardenstein writes, was devised as a way to ease France’s fears of losing influence in Lebanon’s byzantine politics, which it feared would strengthen Hezbollah and reinforce Syria’s Assad regime.

The S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace published an English-language summary (PDF) of Bardenstein’s analysis. Here are the main points:

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Shin Bet Big: Bibi's Stand Keeps Abbas from Talks

By J.J. Goldberg

Getty Images
Shin Bet director Yoram Cohen

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.

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Right Rips Peres for Citing '67 Lines (P.S.: He Didn't)

By J.J. Goldberg

Getty Images
Peres: What’d I say?

A funny thing happened to Israeli figurehead president Shimon Peres on his way to the World Economic Forum. Scheduled to address a gathering of Middle Eastern political and business leaders at a Jordanian Dead Sea conference center on Sunday evening, the 89-year-old elder statesman came under furious attack from Likud cabinet ministers Sunday afternoon for reportedly intending to endorse Israeli withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders.

The funny thing is, he didn’t say it. What he did say was that the Palestinians should return to the negotiating table to settle their disputes with Israel. Even funnier, the attacks kept coming afterwards, undeterred.

Peres was the closing speaker at the three-day conference, preceded by Secretary of State John Kerry and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. Before his departure for Jordan, Maariv reported that Peres would declare (I’m translating from the Hebrew, as no English version has been published): “Israel wants peace. There is a clear majority among us that favors a diplomatic solution under the framework of two states for two peoples, along the 1967 lines, with agreed and equal border adjustments. Israel longs for peace.”

The Maariv report, by the respected, conservative-leaning journalist Shalom Yerushalmi, also said that Peres had discussed his speech earlier with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in accord with his plans. Yerushalmi noted that Peres’s audience at the King Hussein Convention Center would include the president of Libya, the prime minister of Iraq and senior ministers from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Turkey, the Gulf states and others. The report said Peres would endorse the Arab Peace Initiative and say to Abbas, “I am your partner and you are my partner. Let’s bring peace.”

Responding to the Maariv account, international relations minister Yuval Steinitz told reporters on his way into a Sunday afternoon cabinet meeting: “I didn’t know that Peres wants to be the government spokesman. Government decisions are decided by the cabinet.”

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