It’s pure chance that Amir Tibon’s lengthy essay on “Netanyahu vs. the Generals” appeared just 10 days after the Brexit vote, but both demonstrate the same blind spot on the part of the so-called elites. After thousands of words describing the Israeli defense establishment’s years-long, no-holds-barred war against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Tibon’s verdict, shared by everyone he interviewed, is that Netanyahu has succeeded in curbing defense officials’ power to thwart his policies. Yet Tibon seems at a loss to explain why the widely loathed Netanyahu was able to defeat the most respected institution in Israel. In fact, the reason is the same one that produced the Brexit campaign’s victory: Experts, however respected, will never be able to persuade voters to disregard the lessons of their own lived experience.
As Tibon readily admits, the defense establishment consists “mostly of men who grew up in the strongholds of the left-leaning Israeli Labor Party” and hold dovish views. Thus they were understandably appalled by many of Netanyahu’s positions, such as that Israeli-Palestinian peace isn’t currently achievable, or that the Iranian nuclear deal was a disaster.
What is neither understandable nor acceptable, however, is that they then proceeded to flout one of the fundamental norms of democracy: Instead of respecting the elected government’s right to set policy, they sought to undermine Netanyahu’s policies in every conceivable way. For instance, at the very moment when Netanyahu’s government was lobbying Congress for stiffer sanctions on Iran, then-Mossad chief Tamir Pardo met with American senators and lobbied against new sanctions, claiming they would cause another Mideast war. His predecessor as Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, “had a direct communication channel with Obama’s first-term CIA director, Leon Panetta, over the head of Netanyahu,” Tibon wrote. While Tibon doesn’t specify what they discussed, Panetta himself, interviewed by Israel’s Channel 2 television in May, implied that Dagan was passing on information about the government’s internal debate over attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. In any normal democracy, both Pardo and Dagan would have been promptly fired for such insubordination–and Dagan might well have been investigated for espionage.
Nevertheless, for most Israelis, the top voting issue isn’t proper democratic norms, but security. And this, remarkably, is where defense officials really lost the Israeli public.
As Tibon acknowledges, the defense establishment overwhelmingly backed the Oslo Accords. But most Israelis consider Oslo a disaster since it led to a massive upsurge in terror. Palestinians killed more Israelis in 2000-04 alone than in the entire previous 53 years of Israel’s existence.
Tibon also acknowledges that defense officials overwhelmingly supported the disengagement from Gaza. But most Israelis think that, too, was a disaster: It led to thousands of rockets and mortars being fired at Israel from Gaza over the last decade, compared to zero from the Israeli-controlled West Bank.
Finally, as Tibon painstakingly documents, almost every single defense official who served under Netanyahu publicly challenged his position on the peace process. They argued that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal should be Israel’s top priority and that it was achievable if Netanyahu would just do it. But most Israelis disagree. They’ve seen the Palestinians reject repeated Israeli final-status offers over the past two decades; they’ve seen the upsurge in terror that followed every territorial cession to the Palestinians, the massive incitement perpetrated by our Palestinian “peace partners,” the consistent denial of any Jewish rights in the Land of Israel. And consequently, like Netanyahu, they have overwhelmingly concluded that peace isn’t currently achievable.
This disconnect between the defense establishment and ordinary Israelis was even more glaring in a riveting article that appeared in Haaretz just two days after Tibon’s piece ran in Politico. It consists largely of interviews with numerous former senior Israeli defense officials about Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences in Israel for the murder of five Israelis.
Almost without exception, these officials agreed on two things. First, although the court managed to convict him of only five murders, Barghouti was, in fact, the person in charge of Fatah’s armed wing throughout the second intifada, meaning he was actually responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israelis killed by Fatah members. And second, despite all the Israeli blood on his hands, he shouldn’t be in jail: Israel should never have arrested him to begin with; once it did so, it should have released him quickly; and having failed to do that, it should at least release him now, or very soon. Why? Because, these experts say, he’s the one who can deliver a Palestinian peace deal.
Needless to say, most Israelis don’t share this enthusiasm for releasing vicious killers. But even more importantly, they don’t buy the theory that a mass murderer is the key to making peace–because Israel already tried that theory 23 years ago, and it failed spectacularly. This, after all, was precisely the argument for signing the Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat: Only a leading anti-Israel terrorist had the credibility to make peace with Israel. Instead, it turned out that despite his glib talk of peace in English, what Arafat really wanted to do was what he had always done–kill more Israelis. And there’s no reason to think Barghouti is any different, because he, too, glibly talked peace during Oslo’s heyday, yet returned unhesitatingly to organizing mass murder just seven years later.
But too many defense officials seem to have learned nothing from the Arafat experiment, just as they have evidently learned nothing from the failures of Oslo, the disengagement, and all previous Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Faced with a conflict between reality and their preconceived political notions, they have overwhelmingly chosen the latter – proving that for all their “expertise,” they are no more than human.
And that is why, despite having enormous respect for the defense establishment’s expertise in the narrow field of counterterrorism, Israelis unhesitatingly side instead with the despised Netanyahu when it comes to broader political judgments like the prospects for peace or the wisdom of ceding more territory. Those judgments are based on hard experience, and no amount of “expert” advice will ever trump that.
Originally published in Commentary on July 8, 2016
The standard narrative about Israel these days goes like this: The current government is the most right-wing ever, the public is increasingly racist and anti-democratic, and the prime minister is either a right-wing zealot or a coward afraid to challenge his right-wing base. But the most remarkable part of this narrative is how durable it has proven despite all evidence to the contrary.
The latest such evidence comes from today’s Jerusalem Post report about a massive drop in construction in the settlements. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, housing starts in the settlements plummeted by 53 percent in the first quarter, compared to an 8.1 percent decline in housing starts nationwide. Needless to say, one would expect settlement construction to soar under Israel’s “most right-wing government ever” and a prime minister captive to his right-wing base. Yet in fact, as I’ve written before, the “right-wing” Benjamin Netanyahu has consistently built less in the settlements than any of his left-wing predecessors–a fact that never seems to disturb proponents of the “far-right extremist” narrative.
Even more noteworthy was a pair of reports in the left-wing daily Haaretz earlier this month about two unprecedented moves to boost equality for Israeli Arabs. The first report noted that the Council for Higher Education, chaired by Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the right-of-center Jewish Home party, is advancing plans for Israel’s first ever BA-granting college in an Arab town. Until now, the only institutes of higher education in Arab towns have been teacher’s colleges. But a tender to set up a BA-granting college closed on May 31, and the CHE is now reviewing the five bids it received. The winner is expected to be announced in another few months, and the new institution is slated to open next year. To help it succeed, the government has promised millions of shekels in start-up funds plus an annual budget of 20 to 40 million shekels (depending on enrollment).
The new institution is expected to significantly increase the number of Arabs, and especially Arab women, obtaining BAs, because many will now be able to live at home and commute to college. Not only will this eliminate the expense of renting apartments near campus, but it also solves the access problem for women from conservative Arab families who are barred by social norms from living away from home.
The second report described two moves to ease the housing shortage in Arab communities. First, a government planning committee decided to build a new neighborhood in the Arab city of Taibeh, which “will be one of the largest building plans in the Arab sector to have been approved for many years,” the report noted. Second, the Interior Ministry approved a decision to take land from the Jewish jurisdiction of Misgav and give it to the Arab town of Sakhnin. The report also noted that these decisions are merely the latest in “an increasing number” over the past year and a half intended “to accelerate development in the Arab sector, after many decades of neglect and inaction.”
Like the drop in settlement construction, these efforts on behalf of Israeli Arabs don’t exactly fit the narrative of a government and public mired in right-wing extremism. Indeed, they contradict it so blatantly that even Haaretz reporter Nimrod Bousso couldn’t ignore it. “One cannot help but wonder why this change is finally taking place under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the man who never seems to miss a chance to demonstrate hostility toward the group that makes up a fifth of Israel’s population … and whose government has a significant number of members with nationalist views,” he wrote in his news story on the Taibeh and Sakhnin decisions.
The answer, of course, is that the narrative is simply wrong on every count. Diplomatically speaking, as I’ve noted before, this government is actually one of the more left-wing in Israel’s history: Though Netanyahu doesn’t consider a two-state solution achievable right now, he does accept the idea in principle; in contrast, during Israel’s first 45 years of existence, all governments from both left and right considered a Palestinian state anathema. And Netanyahu’s policy of restraining settlement construction – which, contrary to his “cowardly” image, he has maintained despite considerable opposition from parts of his base – is consistent with his stated commitment to a two-state solution.
Moreover, as the examples above show, his past three governments have actually been among the most progressive in Israel’s history in terms of their practical efforts to improve Arab integration. And unlike his settlement policy, his efforts to advance Arab equality have sparked no significant opposition from either his cabinet or his electorate, even though Israeli Arabs overwhelmingly vote for his political opponents. The reason is simple: Any government which considers Israeli-Palestinian peace unachievable in the foreseeable future has no choice but to invest in Israel’s internal development, in order to ensure that the country is strong enough to survive without peace. And improving Arab integration is crucial to the country’s internal development because Israeli Arabs, currently underrepresented in both higher education and the work force, represent one of the main potential sources of future economic growth.
But proponents of the “far-right-extremism” narrative seem utterly impervious to the facts. So they can only scratch their heads in puzzlement over why Israel’s “most right-wing government ever” is precisely the one that’s taking far-reaching steps to improve the lot of Israeli Arabs.
Originally published in Commentary on June 20, 2016
That Israelis are still arguing over the soldier who shot a wounded terrorist in Hebron three weeks ago isn’t surprising; the very rarity of the case naturally makes it the talk of the country. What is surprising, however, is how many left-wing pundits have used comparisons to the famous Bus 300 affair of 1984 to accuse today’s Israel of moral degeneration (two examples here and here). For by any reasonable standard, what this comparison actually shows is how much higher Israel’s moral standards have become over the last 32 years.
The Bus 300 affair began when Palestinian terrorists hijacked a civilian bus, Bus 300, and threatened to kill all the passengers. Israeli troops eventually stormed the bus, killing two terrorists and capturing two others. The Shin Bet security service then took the bound, captured terrorists to an isolated spot and killed them. It subsequently claimed all the terrorists were killed when the bus was stormed, but that claim was disproven a few days later when an Israeli daily published a front-page picture of one captured terrorist being taken off the bus, clearly very much alive. Thus ended Act I; we’ll get to Act II later.
Last month’s incident in Hebron, in which the soldier killed a terrorist who was already lying on the ground wounded, has some obvious similarities. But consider the differences:
First, in the Bus 300 affair, the extrajudicial execution was perpetrated by the highest ranks of the defense establishment: It was ordered by then-Shin Bet chief Avshalom Shalom – who would later be lionized by leftists for denouncing Israel’s presence in the West Bank in the documentary film “The Gatekeepers”– and carried out by the agency’s then-chief of operations, Ehud Yatom. In contrast, the Hebron shooting was the private initiative of a single, relatively low-ranking conscript, a sergeant.
Second, the defense establishment did its best to cover up the Bus 300 killings, and they would probably have succeeded absent that newspaper photo. In contrast, according to every media account of the Hebron incident thus far, the ranking officer on the scene reported the shooting up the chain of command less than 10 minutes after it happened, and his superiors promptly decided to open a Military Police investigation. That decision was made even before B’Tselem published its famous video of the incident.
Third, after the Bus 300 photo was published, the Shin Bet tried to frame an innocent man for the killing. That man, army officer Yitzhak Mordechai, stood trial but was ultimately acquitted. As far as we know, nothing remotely comparable happened in the Hebron case.
But the contrast becomes even starker when we consider Act II of the Bus 300 affair. It opened two years later when three senior Shin Bet officers told then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres that Shalom had ordered the killings. Peres – who also later became a leftist icon (and Nobel Peace Prize laureate) for his role in the Oslo Accords – not only refused to order an investigation but kicked the three out of the Shin Bet. They subsequently took their information to then-Attorney General Yitzhak Zamir, who did order a criminal investigation. But the government told him to drop it, and when he refused, he, too, was kicked out of office.
In the Hebron shooting, by contrast, not only has no one been fired for pursuing a criminal investigation but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, both from the center-right Likud party, publicly demanded a full and thorough probe. That probe is currently underway, and an indictment is expected shortly.
But the crowning glory of the Bus 300 affair occurred soon after Zamir’s dismissal, when then-President Chaim Herzog – like Peres, a member of the left-leaning Labor Party (which his son, Isaac Herzog, currently heads) – forestalled any further attempts at investigation by issuing a preemptive pardon to Shalom and four other Shin Bet officers. This is the only preemptive pardon in Israel’s history; usually, pardons are granted only after someone has been indicted and convicted. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court upheld it, so nobody ever stood trial for the killings except the innocent man who was framed.
In contrast, barring some unexpected development, the Hebron shooter almost certainly will stand trial, most likely for manslaughter.
So how can anyone comparing these two incidents possibly see evidence of moral deterioration? It boils down to one claim: The Israeli public was “shocked” by the Bus 300 affair, whereas the Hebron shooter enjoys strong public support. That claim, however, ignores two important facts.
First is the fact that social media didn’t exist in 1984; if it had, it would have shown plenty of anti-Arab racism then, too. This isn’t mere speculation; 1984 is the year Meir Kahane’s subsequently banned Kach Party first entered the Knesset, and his supporters used to chant racist slogans in the streets.
The more important fact, however, is that most of the Hebron shooter’s support stems not from anti-Arab racism, but from three elements that didn’t exist in the Bus 300 case.
First, whereas the Bus 300 terrorists were already bound and harmless, the Hebron terrorist was still unbound and free to move his hands. Since wounded terrorists in similar situations have used that freedom to kill – for instance, by detonating explosive vests – many Israelis felt the soldier might well have been justified in opening fire if, as he claims, he saw a suspicious hand movement.
Second, the initial evidence against the soldier – before testimony had been taken from his comrades – consisted mainly of Palestinian video footage disseminated by B’Tselem. Since it’s hardly unknown for Palestinian videos to be edited in ways that distort the truth (for instance, by showing a soldier’s response to some Palestinian action but not the action itself, thereby making the response seem unprovoked), many Israelis were unwilling to condemn the soldier based solely on the video.
Third, many Israelis felt the soldier was badly wronged when Defense Minister Ya’alon and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot did immediately condemn him, without awaiting an investigation of the facts. And frankly, any self-respecting liberal ought to agree. Since Ya’alon and Eisenkot are the people who must approve every senior officer’s promotion, this constituted gross interference in the course of justice. Military prosecutors have already decided they can’t win a murder conviction, but with their bosses having publicly declared the incident a crime, they might well feel compelled to charge the soldier with something even if they would otherwise deem an indictment unwarranted.
In short, the different public reactions stemmed from serious substantive differences in the cases rather than from any major change in Israelis’ moral values. In contrast, the establishment’s behavior reflected a real change in moral values – and that change was entirely positive.
Three decades ago, an extrajudicial murder was ordered by the highest levels of the defense establishment, covered up by the highest levels of government and ultimately never investigated or prosecuted. Last month, a manslaughter (at most) was committed by a low-level soldier acting alone and immediately investigated by the military itself, with full support from the highest levels of government.
How any sane person can call that evidence of moral degeneration is beyond me. But then, as I’ve shown before, claims of Israel’s moral deterioration rarely hold up well under scrutiny.
Originally published in Commentary on April 13, 2016
The Israeli media were virtually unanimous yesterday in headlining a new Pew survey of Israeli opinion. All highlighted the finding that nearly half of Israeli Jews support expelling Arabs. The only reporter who thought to ask an expert what this figure really means was Haaretz’s Ofer Aderet. But to understand the expert’s answer, one other fact is helpful: Just a day before Pew published its survey, two of the Knesset’s three Arab parties publicly condemned the Gulf Cooperation Council for declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization, on the grounds that this declaration might benefit the country in whose parliament they serve.
Aderet queried Professor Sammy Smooha about the Pew finding because he’s Israel’s leading expert in Jewish-Arab relations, having tracked the subject since 2003 through a series of comprehensive annual polls. Smooha said Pew’s results disagreed with his own polls, which consistently found that about three-quarters of Israeli Jews support coexistence with Arabs. He offered two explanations for this divergence.
First, the Pew question was vague and confusing. Respondents were asked simply whether they agreed or disagreed that “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel.” That’s easy to answer if you believe that Arabs should either always be expelled or never be expelled. But what if, like many Israelis, you believe the answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no?
Many center-rightists, for instance, favor expelling Arabs who openly support terror or seek to undermine Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, but not other Arabs. Many center-leftists believe East Jerusalem Arabs (most of whom are permanent Israeli residents but not citizens) should be forced to become part of the Palestinian Authority whether they want to or not, but not other Arabs. Thus for these respondents, the answer would depend on whether they interpreted the word “Arabs” in Pew’s question to mean “all Arabs” or “some Arabs.”
Smooha argued that most respondents who agreed with the statement interpreted it as meaning “some Arabs,” because if you read it to mean expelling all Arabs, the idea “is unrealistic and unfeasible.” Indeed, no Israeli party advocates expelling all Arabs, and very few individuals do; even diehard anti-Arab racists tend to make exceptions for the Druze, for instance.
His interpretation is reinforced by looking at voting patterns. According to Pew, rightist and religious Jews overwhelmingly support expelling Arabs. But the only right-wing party that actually advocates expelling sizable numbers of Arabs – Yisrael Beiteinu, which wants to swap certain Arab towns for the major settlement blocs under a final-status deal with the Palestinians – won a mere six seats in the last Knesset elections; the other rightist and religious parties, which advocate no such thing, won a combined 51.
In contrast, Pew found little support for expelling Arabs on the left. Yet the leading center-left faction – Zionist Union, with 24 seats – is also the one Israeli faction that advocates expelling large numbers of Arabs right now, as opposed to under some distant final-status agreement: The Labor Party, which accounts for most of Zionist Union’s seats, recently adopted a plan to unilaterally hand East Jerusalem over to the PA, thereby removing hundreds of thousands of Arabs from Israel.
In short, Pew’s results don’t fit actual voting patterns at all unless you conclude that most center-leftists interpreted its question as meaning “all Arabs,” and therefore disagreed, while most rightists interpreted it as meaning “some Arabs,” and therefore agreed.
This brings us to Smooha’s second explanation: He believes Pew’s finding primarily “reflects alienation and disgust with the Arabs more than it attests to agreement to grant legitimacy to the government to expel them.” In other words, many Israelis chose to interpret the question as meaning “some Arabs” – a position they could support – because they wanted to demonstrate their “alienation and disgust.”
But why would Israeli Jews want to do that? And why would they want to expel “some Arabs” to begin with? First, because they’re sick and tired of hearing Israeli Arab leaders openly support anti-Israel terror. And second, they’re sick and tired of ordinary Arabs – the ones who claim to support coexistence, and who I believe in many cases genuinely do – not only refusing to disavow these leaders, but reelecting them to the Knesset year after year.
The Hezbollah controversy, which broke after Pew’s survey was conducted, is a perfect example. Hezbollah has killed thousands of Israelis and tens of thousands of non-Israeli Arabs. Yet the Balad and Hadash parties both condemned the GCC for declaring it a terrorist organization, because Balad thought the decision “serves Israel and its allies in the region” and harms “anyone acting against Israeli aggression,” while Hadash thought it serves Israel’s interests, helps maintain the “Israel occupation” and “proves that Gulf states are totally loyal to neo-colonialist and Zionist forces, the enemies of Arabs.”
All this was too much even for the far-left Haaretz, which usually defends Arab MKs’ every outrage. In a blistering editorial, it pointed out that Hezbollah attacks also kill many Israeli Arabs (most of whom live in the north, which is Hezbollah’s primary target) and demanded, “Could it be that the representatives of the Balad and Hadash parties are willing to accept this, just as long as Jews are killed too?” It then lambasted “the absence of diplomatic logic” in claiming that Hezbollah fights the “Israeli occupation” when it actually does no such thing, being too busy dominating Lebanon and helping to slaughter hundreds of thousands of Syrians.
Finally, it wrote, these parties, “with their own hands … are crushing Israeli Arabs’ struggle for equal rights and recognition of their unique status in the Jewish state” by lending support to the claim “that Israeli Arabs are enemies of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.” Memo to Arab MKs: When even Haaretz won’t support you, you’ve really lost every last Israeli Jew.
I’ve explained before why Israeli Arabs keep reelecting these parties despite claiming that they don’t reflect the voters’ priorities. But however justified the explanation, the combination of ever more outrageous behavior by Arab MKs and the growing “alienation and disgust” reflected by the Pew poll clearly creates a combustible situation. And at some point, if a new and different Israeli Arab leadership doesn’t emerge, it’s liable to explode.
Yet rather than helping to cultivate such a new leadership, both American Jews and Israeli leftists have been enthusiastically supporting the very Israeli Arabs who are doing the most to destroy coexistence. Hadash chairman Ayman Odeh, for instance – who condemned the GCC for declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization, but won’t condemn Palestinian knife attacks because “I don’t think it’s my place to tell the people how to resist” – was feted by Jewish groups when he visited America last year.
Thus, it’s high time for Arabs and Jews alike to realize that supporting arsonists like Odeh is no way to foster coexistence. Otherwise, the “alienation and disgust” reflected in the Pew poll will only keep growing.
Originally published in Commentary on March 9, 2016
The global firestorm that has erupted over Israel’s “NGO transparency bill” can’t be understood without knowing one crucial fact: Israel’s leading left-wing “nongovernmental” organizations are actually wholly-owned subsidiaries of the European Union and its member states. This fact, which was incontrovertibly demonstrated by a new NGO Monitor study, explains both why the bill is so important and why it is so fiercely opposed by the organizations themselves and their European funders.
As I noted in Tuesday’s post, the study examined the financial reports filed with Israel’s registrar of nonprofit organizations by 27 prominent organizations from 2010-2014. The groups include B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence, Adalah, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and many others actively engaged in trying to tarnish Israel’s name overseas. Overall, these groups raised more than 261 million shekels during those years; at current exchange rates, that comes to $66 million.
Of this total, fully 65 percent – some $43 million – came either directly or indirectly from foreign governments, primarily European ones. Foreign governments provided 20 of the 27 groups with over 50 percent of their funding, and three groups (Yesh Din, Terrestrial Jerusalem and Emek Shaveh) received over 90 percent of their funding from foreign governments. The largest donor was the EU, followed by Norway and Germany.
Moreover, this high level of European funding is absolutely unique, as demonstrated by a previous NGO Monitor report analyzing the years 2007-2010. That report found that the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights spends more on promoting “democracy and human rights” in “Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories” than in every other country of the Mideast combined. Indeed, the EIDHR spends more in Israel alone – excluding all the grants given jointly to “Israel and the OPT” – than it does in every other Mideast country, every Asian and Pacific country, all but one African country and all but one American and Caribbean country; grants to “Israel and the OPT” together exceed those to every other country worldwide, by a very large margin.
The “transparency bill” would require any NGO that gets more than 50 percent of its funding from foreign governments to state this clearly on any report or publication it issues, and also in any written or oral contacts with public officials. The government-sponsored version would not require representatives of these groups to wear special nametags in the Knesset; that idea was raised in a private member’s bill, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said it won’t be in the final legislation.
The bill’s supporters say it is similar to America’s Foreign Agents Registration Act. The U.S. Embassy in Israel disputes this, insisting that FARA applies only when groups engage in activities “at the order, request, or under the direction or control, of a foreign principal – not simply by receiving contributions from such an entity.” That claim, however, is patently false.
FARA’s actual text says a foreign agent need not be directly controlled by a foreign principal; he can also be acting “under the direction or control” of a third party “whose activities are … financed, or subsidized in whole or in major part by a foreign principal.” In other words, he could be employed by a local NGO financed “in whole or in major part” by a foreign government. Moreover, FARA says explicitly that no formal contractual relationship between the agent and the foreign principal is necessary.
Thus receiving substantial contributions from a foreign entity actually could be enough in itself to make someone a foreign agent, as long as he also engages in one of four actions specified by the law, of which the relevant one in Israel’s case is the first: engaging “within the United States in political activities for or in the interests of such foreign principal.”
The EU and its member states make no secret of the fact that getting Israel out of the West Bank is one of their top foreign policy goals. That contradicts the Israeli government’s position, which opposes further territorial withdrawals under the current circumstances.
The 20 NGOs in question similarly make no secret of the fact that getting Israel out of the West Bank is a top policy goal. B’Tselem, for instance, unambiguously titled one of its fundraising appeals “Help End the Occupation: Support B’Tselem.” Yehuda Shaul, the foreign relations director for Breaking the Silence, explicitly defined the organization in a 2014 article as “Israeli veterans who work toward ending the Israeli occupation.” And so forth.
In other words, these organizations are conducting political activity in Israel aimed at pressuring the elected government to adopt a key European policy goal, all while being financed “in major part” by European governments. That’s precisely the situation FARA’s provisions are meant to cover, and for good reason: When certain donors provide more than half an NGO’s funding, no explicit contract is needed to ensure the NGO’s compliance with its donors’ wishes; the threat of losing funding is sufficient.
But lest there be any doubt, even the explicit contractual relationship sometimes exists. Just this month, for instance, an EU-sponsored organization gave B’Tselem €30,000 to lobby the Knesset against the NGO transparency bill, which the EU openly opposes. In other words, it paid B’Tselem to lobby the Knesset to enact the EU’s preferred policies.
There’s also no doubt that these European donors are hostile to Israel. Norway – the largest individual government donor – is remarkably honest about this; its Foreign Ministry says explicitly, for instance, that it funds UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, because it is “a guarantor that the rights of Palestine refugees, including the right to return, are not forgotten.” The “right of return,” needless to say, is Palestinian code for eliminating the Jewish state demographically by flooding it with millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees.
But the rest of Europe isn’t much more subtle. For instance, the EU recently adopted discriminatory labeling requirements that apply only to “Israeli-occupied” territory, but not to territory occupied by any other country. It gives higher priority to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than it does to other conflicts that are not only far bloodier, but have swamped it with an unprecedented refugee crisis. And the funding it pours into Israeli NGOs – more, as noted, than it gives the rest of the Mideast combined – isn’t because it thinks a 67-year-old democracy actually needs more help with democracy promotion than the world’s dozens of dictatorships; it’s because this money isn’t aimed at promoting “democracy and human rights” at all, but at subverting the policies of Israel’s democratically elected government.
By now, I doubt there’s anyone in Israel who doesn’t know these NGOs are wholly-owned subsidiaries of European governments; indeed, the main reason they conduct so much of their activity overseas these days is that they have little credibility left in Israel. But abroad, these groups are still viewed as Israeli organizations representing an authentic Israeli perspective, and they also benefit from the NGO “halo effect.”
That is why the transparency bill is so critical, and also why both the organizations and European governments are fighting so hard to kill it: Once these groups are required to state openly, on everything they do, that they’re primarily funded by European governments, it will be possible to expose them for what they really are – not independent Israeli NGOs with Israel’s best interests at heart, but agents of a hostile foreign power that is obsessed by Israel, discriminates against it and wishes it nothing but ill.
Originally published in Commentary on January 22, 2016
Ever since an arson attack apparently perpetrated by Jewish extremists killed three members of a Palestinian family last July, the left has used it to launch a sweeping assault on religious Zionists in general and religious settlers in particular. The perpetrators weren’t mere “wild weeds,” leftists asserted, but a product of systematic racism and incitement in the religious community. And as long as the perpetrators remained unknown, this claim was hard to refute: Without knowing who they were, it was impossible to know their motives. But with the suspects having finally been indicted this week, it’s now clear this assertion is bunk. Nor is that my verdict alone: It’s the verdict of none other than the reporter covering the case for the far-left daily Haaretz – a paper that can’t be accused of any sympathy for either settlers or the religious community.
Last week, when reporters already knew who the suspects were but the rest of us were still in the dark due to a gag order, Haaretz ran a front-page analysis by settlement reporter Chaim Levinson titled “Jewish Terror Doesn’t Happen Because of Radical Rabbis, but in Spite of Them.” It’s worth reading in full, but here’s the gist:
Today’s Jewish terror doesn’t happen because of the rabbis. It is a protest against the rabbis, staged by young Jewish extremists … They regard the rabbis as too moderate and willing to compromise. They consider rabbis Dov Lior and Yitzchak Ginsburgh – whose names are whispered in the television studios as the arch-terrorists of our generation – as moderates because they don’t back violence.
The problem with the Jewish extremists of today is not the places they study, but the fact that they don’t study. If they were students in Lior’s much-maligned Nir Yeshiva in Kiryat Arba instead of wandering the hilltops of the West Bank, probably they wouldn’t have gone out and set fire to a family home in the dark of night.
The proof is crystal clear: None of Lior’s students are involved in the current terror activities. If he were to teach this, his students would probably follow his teachings. But that is not his way…
Yosef Haim Ben-David, who burned Mohammed Abu Khdeir to death in July 2014, did not grow up in the religious Zionist movement. Nor did the minor who stabbed several Palestinians in Dimona last October. Neither did Shlomo Pinto, who mistakenly stabbed a Jewish man in Kiryat Ata that same month.
Ginsburgh and Lior’s students, who imbibe their racism with gusto, may share their worldview but understand that burning and killing Arabs is not the way.
This week, after the gag order was finally lifted, Levinson published a profile of the main suspect, Amiram Ben-Uliel. And the profile proves his point. Ben-Uliel actually is the son of a mainstream religious Zionist rabbi and grew up in a settlement. But he dropped out of school as a teenager, left his family’s home, and largely severed contact with them. In fact, he largely severed contact with the entire mainstream religious community, as evidenced by what I personally consider the profile’s most telling detail: When he married a fellow extremist two years ago, the only guests at the wedding were the couple’s parents.
That might not sound shocking to American ears, since private weddings aren’t unheard of in America. But Orthodox Jewish weddings are massive community affairs. Guest lists typically number in the hundreds, and it’s considered a mitzvah to attend and help the bride and groom rejoice. Nor does community involvement end there: A traditional Orthodox wedding is followed by seven nights of parties, the sheva brachot, at which the newlyweds are the guests of honor. Each is typically hosted by a different relative or friend, and each must include at least one guest who didn’t attend the wedding or any of the earlier parties.
In short, in Jewish tradition, weddings aren’t private affairs; they are communal events deliberately designed to welcome the young couple into the community. Thus, by having a private wedding, Ben-Uliel and his bride were explicitly and pointedly turning their backs on their community and its religious traditions.
Other alleged members of this hardcore radical group have similar profiles. Mordechai Meyer, for instance, also grew up in a mainstream religious home in a mainstream settlement. But like Ben-Uliel, he dropped out of school and abandoned his family home as a teenager.
Indeed, these radicals are the antithesis of mainstream religious Zionists and settlers, who view the Israeli state as “the beginning of the flowering of our redemption” (to quote the prayer for the state), and therefore as something to be cherished. The radicals, in contrast, view the Israeli state as “The Kingdom of Evil” – the title of a tract written by one, Moshe Orbach, which details their methodology: using terror to sow such chaos and create such deep internal rifts that it will eventually destroy the state, clearing the way for them to build a religious kingdom in its stead. It’s the methodology embraced by every terrorist organization in history. But it has nothing to do with either the tactics or the goals of mainstream religious Zionism.
In fact, “inciting rabbis” have never had anything to do with Jewish terror. As Levinson correctly noted, this “is a cliché that took root in the 1990s after the assassination of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.” What he didn’t note is that it was wrong then, too. Michael Ben-Yair, the attorney general at the time, investigated the matter thoroughly and concluded that assassin Yigal Amir wasn’t influenced by any rabbi or by any broader “climate of incitement.” And like Haaretz, Ben-Yair can hardly be suspected of rightist sympathies; he’s a radical leftist who accuses Israel of “apartheid” and urged the European Union to recognize a Palestinian state even without an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty.
As Levinson aptly concluded, “The way to deal with terror is to stop terrorist activity. Investigating rabbis might make Meretz chairwoman MK Zehava Galon happy, but it is not connected to today’s reality.”
Yet unjustly smearing an entire community isn’t simply irrelevant; it’s downright counterproductive. The only thing it will ever achieve is to further deepen Israel’s internal divides. And that’s exactly the outcome the Jewish terrorists are seeking.
Originally published in Commentary on January 7, 2016
I admit to getting a kick out of seeing anti-Semites inadvertently help the very Jewish state they dream of destroying. And it happens more often than you might think, as was driven home by three very different news reports this week.
The first is that some 8,000 French Jews moved to Israel this year, topping last year’s all-time high of 7,000. Immigration is always good for Israel. Not only does each group of immigrants bring its own ideas and strengths that contribute to making Israel a better place, but the country simply needs a critical mass of people to survive as a Jewish state in an Arab region. Indeed, had it not been for the millions of Jews who immigrated since 1948, Israel might not have survived.
Most immigrants to Israel are Zionists; they genuinely care about the Jewish state. But even so, most of them wouldn’t have left comfortable lives elsewhere had there not been a push factor as well as a pull factor; that’s why most American Zionists still don’t come. And usually, anti-Semitism has been part of that push factor, just as it is for French Jews today.
So thank you, anti-Semites, for turning a country of 800,000 people into one eight million strong. It would never have happened without your help.
The second news item was the announcement of a planned trilateral summit between the leaders of Israel, Greece, and Cyprus. For most of its history, Israel’s relationships with Greece and Cyprus were chilly; in contrast, it had close ties with their longtime enemy, Turkey. It was only when Turkey, under the leadership of the virulently anti-Semitic Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, turned against Israel that a rapprochement with Greece and Cyprus began, since all three countries now had a common enemy.
In other times, this might have seemed a poor strategic bargain. Greece and Cyprus have weaker militaries than Turkey, offer smaller economic markets, and don’t provide diplomatic entrée to the Muslim world. But in a month where the West has just given Iran a pass on two major violations of its shiny new nuclear deal – failing to come clean on its past nuclear work and conducting a banned missile test – it’s a godsend.
Why? Because Iran now knows for certain that it can cheat its way to nuclear weapons with impunity, which means Israel will someday face a choice between bombing Iran or letting Iran get the bomb. But bombing will be harder than it would have been before the nuclear deal because the deal gave Russia a green light to finally supply Iran with its advanced S-300 aerial defense system. And Israel lacks experience with the S-300; the allies its air force traditionally trained with, including Turkey, mainly use American weapons platforms.
But Cyprus, which has long had close ties with Russia, bought an S-300 back in 1997, which it later transferred to Greece. And since Israel, Greece, and Cyprus are now friends that conduct joint military exercises, Greece reportedly let the Israel Air Force practice against its S-300 this spring to devise ways of defeating it.
So thank you, Erdogan, for enabling the IAF to get the training it will need if it ever has to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. It wouldn’t have happened without your help.
Finally, there’s the annual UN Human Development Index, which was published this week. Israel ranked 18th on this index, which is based on income, education and life expectancy; that puts it above both the EU average and the OECD average, and also above several individual countries (like France, Belgium, and Austria) that have higher per capita incomes, have been around much longer, and haven’t been at war for the last seven decades. Inter alia, Israel has the world’s second-lowest infant mortality rate (though since Belarus ranked first, I admit to wondering about the veracity of some of the UN’s data); it ranks fourth in life satisfaction; and it has the highest fertility rate of any country in the “Very High Human Development” category (2.9 births per woman), compared to fertility rates below replacement rate in every EU country, and even in America.
What do any of these statistics have to do with anti-Semitism? Two things. First, Israel has benefited tremendously from the generosity of overseas Jewry; in particular, many of its hospitals and universities were built with help from abroad. All these donors were obviously motivated by Zionism; they wanted to contribute to building the Jewish state. But the fact that Israel’s very existence has been under threat since its inception served as an additional spur. Helping fellow Jews in a very powerful Jewish impulse, and even today, overseas donations to Israel spike whenever there’s a war. In other words, had it not been for the constant threats, the Diaspora Jewish generosity that has helped Israel grow and thrive so impressively might not have reached the proportions that it did.
Second, precisely because of those constant threats, Israel simply couldn’t afford mediocrity in certain areas. To fight wars against enemies who were vastly numerically superior, for instance, it needed the very best military technology, and its investment in weapons development ultimately spurred a civilian high-tech boom. Similarly, for decades it was unable to import agricultural produce from its neighbors, so it had to be able to grow food despite having very little water; hence, innovations like drip irrigation and wastewater recycling (in which Israel is the undisputed world leader) were born.
In short, without the constant hostility, Israel probably wouldn’t have come as far and as fast as it has since 1948. So thank you, anti-Semites, for spurring Israel to become a pretty amazing place to live. We couldn’t have done it without your help.
Originally published in Commentary on December 17, 2015
The fact that several perpetrators of Friday’s terror attacks in Paris were French citizens ought to pose a serious logical dilemma for all those liberals who blame terrorism on Western behavior. After all, it has become accepted wisdom on the left that Israel severely oppresses its own Arab citizens. But if terror is truly a response to oppression and Israel truly treats its Arab citizens worse than other Western countries do, how do you explain that while French Muslims have repeatedly committed terror attacks against their own country, Israeli Arab involvement in anti-Israel terror is negligible? In the latest wave of anti-Israel attacks, for instance, only two out of almost 100 perpetrators were Arab citizens of Israel – and one was a woman with a history of suicide attempts who was apparently just trying to achieve her own death by brandishing a knife in a crowded bus station and ignoring police orders to drop it.
Fortunately for liberals’ cognitive dissonance, there’s no need to reconcile these seemingly irreconcilable axioms, because both of them are nonsense. I debunked the theory that terror stems from “relative deprivation” last week. And the accepted wisdom about how Israel treats its Arab citizens can be debunked simply by examining some of the findings of the Israel Democracy Index, a sweeping annual survey whose 2015 edition was released last week.
Unsurprisingly, the IDI didn’t show that Israel has become the first country in history to eliminate discrimination or racist attitudes; both still exist, just as they do in every other Western country. Indeed, a majority of Jewish respondents readily acknowledged that Israeli Arabs still face discrimination, which is clearly a necessary step toward reducing it.
Nevertheless, an overwhelming majority of Arab respondents evinced no desire to live anywhere but Israel when asked the following question: “If you had the opportunity to become a citizen of the United States or any other Western country, would you prefer to move there or to remain in Israel?” Fully 83.4 percent said they would rather remain in Israel – virtually identical to the proportion among Israeli Jews (84.5 percent). That strongly implies that Israeli Arabs don’t consider their situation to be too bad; if they did, more would express interest in emigrating.
This conclusion was confirmed by a question asking how respondents viewed their personal situation. Almost two-thirds of Israeli Arabs – 65.1 percent – characterized their personal situation as “good” or “very good.” That’s lower than the Jewish rate (76.5 percent), but hardly consonant with liberal claims of severe oppression.
Attitudes toward state institutions were also noteworthy. Arabs and Jews expressed virtually identical levels of trust in two key law enforcement agencies, the police, and the Supreme Court. Even more surprising, Arabs outpolled Jews – often by large margins – in their level of trust for many other state institutions, including the Knesset, the media, political parties, the National Insurance Institute, and the health maintenance organizations. Only three institutions – the army, the executive branch, and the state president – won higher levels of trust from Jews than Arabs.
Needless to say, if Israeli Arabs were really suffering severe oppression and discrimination, one would expect them to have much lower levels of trust in state institutions than Jews do. The fact that this isn’t the case indicates that Arabs, on the whole, don’t see themselves as getting a raw deal from the state.
Nevertheless, one question ought to set off alarm bells among anyone who supports a Jewish state where minorities live with equal rights. That question asked whether respondents agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “Most Arab citizens of Israel have not reconciled themselves to the state’s existence, and support its destruction.”
Though majorities of both Jews and Arabs disagreed, almost a quarter of Arab respondents deemed this statement true. That indicates that while “most Arab citizens” is almost certainly an exaggeration, a non-negligible minority of Israeli Arabs do indeed support Israel’s destruction. One could dismiss the fact that a large minority of Jewish respondents also deemed the statement true as mere prejudice since many Jews have little firsthand acquaintance with Arabs. But Arab respondents are presumably reporting the attitudes they actually hear among their own circles. This supposition is reinforced by the fact that the proportion of Arabs who agreed with the statement was more than twice as high among those who voted for the Joint Arab List – a party that refuses even to condemn anti-Israel terror – as it was among those who voted for Zionist parties, and who therefore presumably inhabit more integrationist circles.
There are two lessons here for liberals concerned over the situation of Israel’s Arab citizens. First, that situation is much better than you think. But second, if you want it to continue improving, it’s time to stop supporting “authentic” Arab voices like JAL, which oppose integration, and instead start supporting those who truly favor being part of the Jewish state.
Originally published in Commentary on November 17, 2015
It’s hard to find any silver lining in a situation where Palestinians are perpetrating multiple stabbing attacks against Jews every day, and most of the “international community” is siding with the perpetrators. Yet this dismal situation may finally have produced something Israel desperately needs: An Israeli Arab political leader who represents his community’s sane majority. The 65 percent who are proud to be Israeli, the 55 percent who identify with the Israeli flag, the ones who genuinely want to live in peace with their Jewish neighbors.
For decades, Israeli Arab leadership at the national level has been an unmitigated disaster. The community’s current Knesset members, elected on a joint ticket called the Joint Arab List, span the gamut from the “moderate” Ayman Odeh to the “firebrand” Hanin Zoabi, to borrow the media’s favorite misnomers. The former merely refuses to condemn Palestinian terror, saying, “I cannot tell the nation how to struggle … I do not put red lines on the Arab Palestinian nation.” The latter may face criminal investigation for actively inciting it, having allegedly told a Hamas publication that the current terror needs more “national support,” because “If individual attacks continue without national support, they will be extinguished within the next several days, and therefore hundreds of thousands are needed to start a real intifada.” In between are MKs who spew a wide variety of anti-Israel libels; my personal favorite was Ahmed Tibi’s 2014 op-ed in The Hill claiming that Israeli Arabs are subject to Jim Crow treatment – signed, without a trace of irony, by his then-title of deputy speaker of the Knesset.
Clearly, this is terrible for Jewish-Arab relations, and the Arab community suffers doubly: Not only do their MKs spend most of their time and effort promoting such libels rather than trying to solve their community’s real problems, the antagonism they generate among the Jewish majority actively hinders solutions. First, it’s hard to lobby the government for, say, better bus service while simultaneously accusing it of apartheid and genocide. Even worse, such rhetoric encourages many Jews to view all Israeli Arabs as enemies to be shunned: After all, Israeli Arabs have overwhelmingly voted to reelect these same MKs for decades, giving this conclusion an obvious logic.
But in recent years, this logic has increasingly been contradicted by other polling data, like the figures I cited in the first paragraph. Particularly telling was a poll published in February regarding Arab attitudes toward their own MKs. It showed that 70 percent wanted their MKs to focus on their own community’s socioeconomic problems instead of the Palestinian cause. Additionally, 61 percent wanted their MKs to join the government, where they would have more influence over such issues, and almost half that figure favored joining regardless of who became prime minister (the Joint Arab List, by contrast, vowed before the election not to join any government). Unsurprisingly, therefore, almost half the respondents weren’t happy with their own MKs.
So why do they keep reelecting them? It’s classic minority identity politics. Whereas the well-integrated Druze vote for, and serve as MKs from, parties across the political spectrum, Israeli Arab integration is still nascent. Consequently, however much they loathe their own MKs, most Arabs don’t feel comfortable voting for a non-Arab party; they’re skeptical that Jews could understand or really care about their community’s special problems.
What’s desperately needed, therefore, is home-grown Arab leadership that not only wants to represent the sane Arab majority and advance its integration, but also has the guts and the political power to take on the existing Arab parties. And despite a growing cadre of local leaders who indeed favor coexistence over confrontation, none had been willing to publicly challenge the national leadership – until Nazareth Mayor Ali Salem erupted on the stage this week.
Last March, Salem ousted Nazareth’s long-time mayor in a landslide, winning 61.5 percent of the vote in an election with record turnout of 83.8 percent. The former mayor, a Christian, belonged to the abovementioned Ayman Odeh’s party and toed its anti-Israel line. Salem, a Muslim, also began his political career in that party, but later quit in disgust and ran for mayor as an independent. The fact that he was both willing and able to challenge the Arab political establishment proved a harbinger of things to come.
This week, when Odeh visited Nazareth, Salem confronted his inflammatory behavior head-on – and on live TV. “Get out of here! Go back to Haifa, and stop destroying our city,” Salem yelled. “Jews don’t come here anymore because of you! … You’re burning the world down. … Shut up and get out!”
When Odeh, embarrassed, demanded that the television crew stop filming, Salem promptly demanded the opposite; he wanted his remarks to be widely heard. And lest there be any doubt, he gave several follow-up interviews reiterating his views.
“I blame the [Israeli Arab] leaders,” he told Army Radio. “They are destroying our future, they are destroying coexistence. We need to find a way to live together. We cannot fight like this. We are damaging ourselves.”
And in a conversation with reporters, he explained, “It infuriates me that Arab politicians come here, incite violence, and leave us to clean up their mess … We invest a great deal in coexistence and tourism. We want to develop our city. I want peace and quiet. … We used to have thousands of Jews and tourists visit Nazareth over the weekends. They don’t visit anymore. This seriously hurts our image and our livelihood, and we won’t allow it.”
Other prominent Arab Israelis are also speaking out. Television presenter Lucy Aharish, for instance, gave a must-see interview with Channel 2 television in which she demolished the idea that the terror had any conceivable justification and accused Israeli Arab political and religious leaders of fanning the flames: “You are inciting thousands of young people to go the streets. You are destroying their future with your own hands!” She and other Israeli Arab notables have also signed a petition denouncing terror and promoting coexistence.
But a real turnabout in Jewish-Arab relations will require a different Israeli Arab political leadership. And Salem offers hope that such a leadership might finally be emerging.
Originally published in Commentary on October 16, 2015
In the long-term absence of peace with the Palestinians, better to cease pursuing the unattainable and adopt policies that can strengthen the country at home and abroad
Note: After Mosaic published my essay “The Two-State Solution Is in Stalemate. Here’s What Israel Can Do to Prevail” in early September, the magazine invited two people to respond to it, Elliott Abrams and Amnon Lord. The piece below is my response to their responses.
Many thanks to Elliott Abrams and Amnon Lord for their thoughtful responses to my essay. Drawing on his own extensive experience, Abrams aptly highlights how the endless pursuit of an unattainable Israel-Palestinian agreement entails costs for the United States as well as for Israel, and also how the chaos currently sweeping the Middle East underlines the importance of preserving the region’s one remaining island of stability—and the folly of embarking on yet another destabilizing grand experiment. Lord, for his part, correctly emphasizes the need to maintain Israeli morale and “the national sense of justice and self-confidence,” a crucial addition to my own list of what Israel must do on the home front. He also reminds us of the hopeful significance of Israel’s burgeoning relations with both Asia and “moderate” Arab states.
Lord points out that Israel’s own early history, before and after the state’s establishment, was characterized by strategies somewhat akin to the “cold war” model I propose in my essay. I agree, and I’d be delighted to see someone draw up a Hebrew-language version of such a strategy for Israel along the same lines, with examples drawn primarily from the country’s own Zionist experience. As Lord suggests, such an exercise, by providing a needed corrective to the course adhered to by Israel’s government in recent decades, might help persuade today’s Israelis that a change is actually feasible.
There is, however, one major issue on which I must respectfully disagree with Elliott Abrams: his insistence that, even though a two-state solution is currently unachievable, nevertheless, for the sake of keeping its Western allies happy, Israel must appear to be striving for that goal. There is no question that abandoning the fiction of an imminent solution will exact a price. But if that price is indeed, as Abrams fears, so high that Israel cannot afford to pay it, then, in my view, Israel has already lost.
My reason is simple: If there’s one thing the 22 years since the signing of the Oslo Accords have proved, it’s that there’s no way to persuade the world Israel is genuinely striving for peace in a situation where peace keeps failing to materialize. There’s very little Israel hasn’t tried over those years: generous final-status offers, unilateral withdrawals, settlement freezes, and prisoner releases. Yet none of this has produced more than a momentary blip in the world’s “blame Israel first” reflex.
A brief recap: after Prime Minister Ehud Barak made a far-reaching final-status offer in 2000, Yasir Arafat not only refused even to make a counteroffer but responded by launching the bloody terrorist war known as the second intifada. Yet it was Israel, not the Palestinians, whose international standing suffered a precipitous slide, as exemplified by the infamous poll in which Europeans deemed Israel the greatest threat to world peace. And though the Clinton administration publicly blamed Arafat for the talks’ breakdown, its own subsequently published plan demanded additional concessions from Israel, thereby implying that Israel, rather than Palestinian intransigence, was the real obstacle to progress.
Similarly, after Ariel Sharon unilaterally evacuated all of Gaza plus four West Bank settlements in 2005, and the Palestinians responded by bombarding southern Israel with thousands of rockets from Gaza, the world didn’t blame the Palestinians for abusing ceded territory in this way; it blamed Israel for defending itself. In the UN vote on the infamous Goldstone report, whose allegations of Israeli misconduct during the first Gaza war were subsequently repudiated even by its lead author, only eight European countries supported Israel. Each later Gaza war further intensified anti-Israel sentiment, anti-Israel boycott efforts, and anti-Israel lawfare.
In 2008, when Ehud Olmert made a final-status offer even more generous than Barak’s, Mahmoud Abbas didn’t even bother responding. Yet the international community not only gave Abbas a pass, but condemned Olmert’s successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, for refusing to keep the offer on the table.
Then, in 2009, Netanyahu agreed to an unprecedented ten-month settlement freeze; for the first nine months, Abbas refused to negotiate, and in the tenth month he walked away after a high-profile White House meeting. Four years later, Netanyahu released dozens of Palestinian killers just to get Abbas to negotiate; in the ensuing talks, Netanyahu, as even chief U.S. negotiator Martin Indyk later admitted, showed so much flexibility that he was in “the zone of a possible agreement,”while Abbas rejected every proposal put forward by John Kerry and Barack Obama. Yet in these cases, too, the world, including the Obama administration, still blamed Israel.
In short, the past two decades have proved that no Israeli effort is ever enough to buy more than a fleeting moment of international credit—a a conclusion unsurprisingly reached by more than three-quarters of Israeli Jews. And Israel is rapidly running out of gestures it can afford to make. To repeat its disastrous Gaza experiment in the West Bank, for instance, would bring Hamas rockets in easy range of the country’s major population centers and main international airport. Nor could any Israeli premier offer more than Olmert did; indeed, many Israelis think Olmert offered too much.
Not only has this constant effort to appease world opinion not worked; it has actually worsened Israel’s international standing, as I have explained in detail elsewhere. That’s because, inter alia, such efforts merely feed the perception that Israel must be the guilty party. Otherwise, why is it always the one offering new concessions?
Persuading the world of Israel’s desire for peace is thus a demonstrated impossibility. But consider: no other country in the world is judged solely on its peacemaking. Nobody thinks that India should be a pariah because of its unresolved, decades-old conflict with Pakistan; instead, India is admired for its democracy, its pluralism, and its economic dynamism, and is considered a net asset to the international community. Nor does anyone think South Korea should be declared a pariah because of its unresolved, decades-old conflict with North Korea; it, too, is widely admired. Granted, both India and South Korea face repugnant enemies, but so does Israel: Palestinians have a horrendous record on terrorism, corruption, human rights, and rejection of peace.
As I wrote in Mosaic, the fact that Israel alone of all the nations is judged in these terms represents a colossal failure by successive Israeli governments, whose behavior has nurtured the idea that peace, rather than Israel’s many accomplishments, is the proper yardstick for judgment. It is also a colossal failure on the part of Diaspora Jews, especially Americans, who perversely insist on holding Israel to higher standards than they would ever hold their own countries, and who thereby give cover for everyone else to do the same. In a survey of Diaspora Jewish opinion published by the Jewish People’s Policy Institute earlier this year, over a third of respondents said that when waging war, Israel must follow a higher standard of moral conduct than do other Western countries. But no real-world nation could possibly meet the unrealistic standards so often demanded of Israel, and especially the sky-high bar set for proving its commitment to peace. Thus, trying to measure up to these standards will never be a viable option; the only viable option is to try and change the yardstick. And the only way to do this, as I contended, is by emphasizing Israel’s numerous achievements, thereby giving the world—and especially Diaspora Jews—reasons to admire and defend Israel despite its inability to achieve the unachievable.
This point was driven home to me when I lectured at Limmud UK last December. After a session devoted entirely to Israel’s accomplishments in various fields, the first question from the audience went roughly as follows: “I don’t really have a question; I just wanted to say ‘thank you.’ All the news we hear from Israel is so depressing, and it was so encouraging to hear all the good things you told us!” Others made similar comments. I didn’t feed them any illusions about the peace process; I simply gave them other reasons to be proud of Israel—for which they clearly hungered.
Consequently, I must thank Amnon Lord for providing readers with one more such reason. As he astutely comments, the current global refugee crisis would look completely different if a single Middle Eastern or North African country were willing and able to do today for its fellow Arabs and Muslims what Israel did for Jewish refugees in the 1940s and 1950s.
Finally, I’d like to address a question that neither Elliott Abrams nor Amnon Lord raised, but that other readers have: how could I write an entire essay on Israeli strategy toward the Palestinians without once mentioning the settlements? Shouldn’t they be a crucial consideration in formulating any such strategy?
Clearly, any Israeli government must adopt a policy on this issue. But for reasons I’ll explain shortly, I deliberately focused on policies that would be valid regardless of what ultimate solution to the Palestinian conflict one hopes to see, and that therefore could and should be adopted by any conceivable Israeli government.
Settlement policy, by contrast, necessitates choosing an endgame, since any government will obviously want to build mainly in areas it hopes to keep in the event of a final resolution. Within those areas, however, failing to build is generally a mistake.This is not only because building by definition reinforces Israel’s hold on the territory in question (more people are harder to evacuate), but also because no country would accept an international dictate to freeze construction in territory it considers rightfully its own, so not building sends the pernicious message that Israel itself doesn’t really believe it has a valid claim to the territory.
As Elliott Abrams notes, Netanyahu’s settlement policy is roughly what you would expect from someone who favors a two-state solution. Outside of Jerusalem and the settlement blocs, he has authorized only the minimal building necessary to appease coalition members who favor a one-state solution, and even this sop consists primarily of endlessly recycled announcements of approvals for projects that somehow never actually get built. If anything, given the view I’ve stated above, I’d say he has built too little within Jerusalem and the blocs.
Still, for most Israelis, as for Netanyahu, a two-state solution remains the favored endgame—so, again, why exclude settlement policy from discussion and why limit my essay to areas, and to strategies, that can also accommodate other solutions? First, because a non-negligible minority disagrees on the two-state endgame, and my goal was to propose ideas that could command the broadest possible base of support.
More importantly, however (and contrary to Amnon Lord’s supposition that my own preferred endgame is the so-called Jordanian option), I genuinely consider it impossible to predict at this point how the conflict will ultimately be resolved. No matter how desirable any given solution might be, none of the possibilities I listed in my essay looks particularly feasible in the foreseeable future, and that’s as true of the two-state option as it is for all the others. Thus, to the degree possible, Israel must adopt strategies that leave it free to take advantage of any possible endgame rather than closing off its options at what is still, like it or not, a very early stage of the game. All of the strategies I proposed were tailored accordingly.
To some readers, this may sound like a cop-out. But as was pointed out by Israel’s Metzilah Center, headed by Professor Ruth Gavison, in a perceptive introduction to its posting of my essay on the center’s (Hebrew-language) Facebook page, the ability to agree on particular policies even “in the absence of agreement on the outline of a permanent arrangement” may be precisely “how democracy in general, and Israel in particular, has reached all of its accomplishments.”
Indeed, Israel has survived and thrived for 67 years largely by adopting strategies that strengthen the country both at home and abroad despite the absence of either peace or internal consensus on how to achieve it. Barring a miracle, it will need to do the same for many decades to come. My essay aimed to outline a strategy for how this could be done. And if I’ve managed at least to get people thinking seriously about this issue, dayenu.
Originally published in Mosaic on September 21, 2015