Analysis from Israel

Foreign Affairs and Defense

Take, for instance, German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer’s assertion that Hungary’s legislation banning foreign donations to NGOs puts it in “the ranks of countries like Russia, China, and Israel, which obviously regard the funding of non-government organizations, of civil society efforts, by donors from abroad as a hostile or at least an unfriendly act.” His purpose was to shame both Hungary and Israel by lumping them in the same category as Russia and China in their treatment of NGOs.

But while all four countries do impose some restrictions on foreign funding of NGOs (and in Israel’s case, for good reason), in China and Russia, this is part of a systematic attempt to silence criticism of the government that includes jailing and torturing activists (China) and even killing them (Russia). In Israel, NGOs can and do criticize the government without fear. The only “restriction” they face is that if more than 50 percent of their funding comes from foreign governments, all their published material must note that fact (unlike Russia or China, Israel places no restrictions on funding from nongovernmental foreign sources).

By lumping these countries together, Schaefer didn’t merely smear Israel; he also paradoxically legitimized Russian and Chinese abuses. After all, if Russia and China are no worse than Israel, they can’t be that bad.

Moreover, such comparisons eviscerate one of the West’s main weapons against human rights abuses: the power to name and shame. By treating non-issues like NGO reporting requirements as major rights violations, Western officials are like the boy who cried wolf: Eventually, many people will simply stop listening to them.

Worst of all, however, if jailing and killing activists provoke no more outrage than imposing financial reporting requirements on NGOs, brutal dictatorships have no reason not to go straight to the torturing and killing. That provides more effective suppression for the same price in international opprobrium.

For another example of this pernicious approach, consider Freedom House’s lowering of Israel’s press freedom ranking earlier this year “due to unprecedented personal attacks by the prime minister on leading investigative journalists, which contributed to a hostile environment for the press.”

Once, press freedom was measured by objective factors like whether journalists could write what they please without fear of physical or financial consequences—a standard by which Israel does fine. As Freedom House admitted, “Israel hosts a lively, pluralistic media environment in which press freedom is generally respected … Legal protections for freedom of the press are robust … The Israeli media collectively offer a diverse range of views, and they are generally free from overt political interference.”

But today, that isn’t enough: Politicians must also serve as the media’s cheerleaders. Should they dare to criticize it–something politicians have done since the dawn of time–then, in Freedom House’s view, that’s just as bad as the overt oppression practiced by other countries on its list of “most noteworthy” declines.

India, for instance, “declined due to violent reprisals against journalists” and “government blocking of internet service and halting of printing presses” in Kashmir. Hungary “declined because independent media have been squeezed out of the market, partly through the acquisition and creation of outlets by presumed government allies.” Hong Kong “declined due to increased mainland interference in local media as well as multiple attacks on journalists during demonstrations.”

Such inane comparisons clearly undermine Freedom House’s credibility. But worse, if governments can use violence against journalists, block internet service and take over the independent press without suffering any more international criticism than they’d get for making petulant remarks about journalists, what is to deter any government unhappy with the media–i.e. every government that ever existed–from taking such forceful measures?

Finally, consider the new trend of Holocaust survivors speaking out against President Donald Trump’s immigration policies because, as one told the Michigan state legislature: “I see a lot of parallels to what is going on right now in cities like Ann Arbor and Pontiac, where ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] is coming in and with the help of the local police are picking up immigrants,” and the infamous roundup of Parisian Jews during the Holocaust that resulted in most of his family being murdered at Auschwitz.

I wouldn’t presume to judge any survivor’s emotional response. But on a rational level, even opponents of Trump’s immigration policies ought to recognize that this is ludicrous. The biggest source of illegal immigration to America is Mexico–a democratic country which, by global standards, is both wealthy and stable (hence its membership in the OECD). Moreover, the migrants are Mexican citizens with full rights in Mexico. Whether or not deporting illegal immigrants makes for good policy, it’s not remotely comparable to France deporting its own citizens to a foreign country where they had no rights and which was ruled by a genocidal dictatorship.

Once again, by treating all deportations as equally unacceptable, opponents make the truly unacceptable seem not so bad. There are countries to which America shouldn’t be deporting people. But if activists treat deportations to Mexico as no less outrageous than deportations to genuinely repressive or dysfunctional countries, they’ll have no credibility left to combat the latter. Moreover, supporters of mass deportation will see no advantage to exempting certain countries from the deportation list, because doing so won’t diminish opposition to their policy.

In 1993, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined the phrase “defining deviancy down,” he was concerned that formerly unacceptable behavior had become unexceptionable. But it turns out that defining deviancy up can have the same effect: Treating behavior which should be unexceptionable as if it were unacceptable makes the truly unacceptable seem not so bad. That’s precisely why moral hierarchies are critical to any properly functioning society: If everything is equally evil, then “evil” loses all meaning.

Thus, by defining deviancy up to include even completely legitimate actions, people who genuinely seek to increase respect for human rights are instead creating a system of moral equivalence in which even the worst offenses are no longer beyond the pale.

Originally published in Commentary on June 23, 2017

I rarely waste time trying to debunk conspiracy theories, but this particular one has become so popular among certain pro-Israel conservatives, and is so damaging to Israel, that I’m breaking my rule. The theory is that Donald Trump signed the waiver keeping the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv this month because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked him to do so. Marc Zell, head of the Republican Party’s Israel chapter, said this openly as far back as January, and repeated it last month; just this week, I heard it privately from the head of a veteran American Jewish organization.

It’s impossible to overstate how harmful to Israel this is. Israel has striven unsuccessfully for decades to get the world to accept Jerusalem as its capital, and just this year, it has finally started scoring some victories: Russia’s Foreign Ministry surprisingly announced that it considers Jerusalem Israel’s capital, while the Czech parliament passed a resolution by an overwhelming vote of 112-2 demanding that its government show “respect” for Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Yet now, some of Israel’s strongest supporters are going around the world declaring that Israel’s own prime minister doesn’t want the U.S. Embassy moved to Jerusalem. In short, they’re giving the rest of the world a perfect excuse for maintaining the status quo of non-recognition: No government will be more pro-Israel than Israel’s own, so if even Netanyahu doesn’t really want Jerusalem to be treated as Israel’s capital, what foreign government would?

Wreaking such harm might be justifiable if the charge were true. Yet not only is it prima facie ludicrous, but there’s a much simpler explanation for Trump’s decision.

To understand just how ludicrous it is, contrast it with another rumor making the rounds: that Netanyahu also asked Trump to pressure him to restrain settlement construction. Whether or not that rumor is true, it’s at least plausible, because Netanyahu has many reasons for wanting such pressure. But none of those reasons applies to the embassy issue.

First, as I’ve argued before, Israel’s best option for now is to preserve the status quo in the West Bank, because neither the two-state nor the one-state solution is feasible in the foreseeable future: The Palestinians won’t make peace, yet even the most favorable estimates of the Palestinian population don’t give Israel a big enough demographic edge to comfortably annex the territory. Maintaining the status quo doesn’t preclude bolstering settlements in strategically vital areas, but it does mean not expanding them to the point that the Palestinians and the international community would deem the two-state solution dead and start demanding immediate annexation with equal rights.

In contrast, the embassy move poses no such risk. Even if you believe it would somehow constitute recognition of Israel’s rights in east Jerusalem—which it wouldn’t, assuming the embassy was in the city’s western half—the move wouldn’t alter the physical or demographic reality in any way, since Israel has already annexed east Jerusalem. Rather, it would simply acknowledge a 50-year-old status quo: united Jerusalem under Israel’s control.

Second, the European Union, which responds to settlement construction like a bull to red flags, is still Israel’s largest trading partner, accounting for about a third of its exports. Thus Israel must exercise enough restraint on settlements to avoid pushing that already hostile body over the edge into imposing real sanctions.

Moving the embassy, however, poses no such risk, because while settlement construction is an Israeli decision, the embassy location is strictly an American one. Even the EU wouldn’t punish Israel for a White House decision.

The same goes for American Jewry, assuming Netanyahu is concerned about that relationship: Though liberal American Jews blame Israel for the settlements, they would not blame Israel for the embassy move—quite aside from the fact that many American Jewish settlement opponents actually support moving the embassy.

Finally, assuming Netanyahu indeed believes that unrestricted settlement expansion isn’t in Israel’s interest right now, he needs U.S. pressure to counter pressure from members of his governing coalition who favor unrestricted expansion, since whether or not to build is ultimately an Israeli decision. But the opposite is true of the embassy move: Not only does Netanyahu face no coalition pressure on this issue, since as noted, it’s a U.S. decision beyond Israel’s control, but failure to move the embassy actually increases pressure from his right-wing base to provide compensation in the form of increased settlement construction.

In short, Netanyahu would have many reasons for wanting U.S. pressure to restrain settlement construction. But I have yet to hear any plausible reason for why he would want to foil the embassy move.

Purveyors of the conspiracy theory therefore resort to a different argument: Absent Netanyahu’s intervention, they say, it’s impossible to explain why Trump, who seriously considered announcing the embassy move in his inaugural address, backtracked so quickly. But they forget that alongside strong supporters of the move like Trump strategist Steve Bannon and Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, the idea has powerful opponents within the administration, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis—who shamefully told his Senate confirmation hearing that Israel’s capital is Tel Aviv—and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who refused to say whether the Western Wall is in Israel and bizarrely declared Tel Aviv to be the “home of Judaism.”

The administration’s internal battle over this issue, as detailed in this fascinating Haaretz report, provides a far more convincing explanation for Trump’s backtracking on the embassy than intervention by Netanyahu. After all, Trump has sided with the administration’s establishment wing on almost every issue connected to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, starting with his very decision to push for a peace deal, which the Bannon/Friedman wing correctly deems a waste of time. So why should it surprise anyone that he also accepted the establishment wing’s view that moving the embassy would undermine the peace process?

In short, this conspiracy theory has no plausible basis; it’s being used to explain something that has a much more logical explanation; and it’s undermining the very cause its purveyors seek to further—recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Thus by adopting and spreading it, some of Israel’s greatest friends are inadvertently and tragically aligning themselves with its worst enemies.

Originally published in Commentary on June 16, 2017

Though Israel’s diplomatic situation has improved remarkably, there’s been one glaring and nontrivial exception: Europe. Hence, it’s encouraging to discover that even in Europe, patient, persistent diplomacy can bear fruit if it focuses on a few clear, consistent messages. Consider, for instance, the following recent events:

Two weeks ago, by an overwhelming vote of 112-2, the lower house of the Czech parliament passed a resolution which urged the Czech government to show “respect” for Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and oppose any action by the European Union or other international organizations that “distorts historical facts” or is “imbued with the spirit of hatred of Israel.” The resolution slammed UNESCO, in particular, for its “biased and antagonistic approach” toward Israel, epitomized by its serial denial of Jewish ties to Jerusalem, and even demanded that the government withhold its UNESCO dues.

This doesn’t mean the Czech embassy will be moving to Jerusalem anytime soon; Congress has been trying to move the U.S. embassy there since 1995 without success. Nor will other European countries swiftly follow suit; the Czech Republic has long been Israel’s closest friend in Europe. Nevertheless, somebody had to be first, and this resolution is a stunning and unprecedented break with Europe’s longstanding rejection of Jewish rights to Jerusalem.

That same week, the Berlin chapter of Germany’s main center-left party, the Social Democrats, adopted a resolution condemning “the anti-Semitic BDS campaign” and “widespread anti-Zionist anti-Semitism.” This is noteworthy because young leftists are usually the West’s most anti-Israel demographic, yet the resolution was sponsored by the party’s youth wing (Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats adopted a similar resolution last year).

The timing was also notable. It occurred one month after the Social Democrats’ top politician, Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, visited Israel and ostentatiously chose to meet with Breaking the Silence, a group that fuels the BDS movement by promoting the canard that Israel perpetrates war crimes at anti-Israel events worldwide, rather than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In other words, the Berlin chapter and its youth wing implicitly rejected their leader’s anti-Israel positions.

The following week, Norway condemned the Palestinian Authority for naming a women’s center after a female terrorist who murdered 38 Israeli civilians. It also demanded a refund of the money Norway donated for the center and vowed not to sign any new agreements with the organizations behind the project until “satisfactory procedures are in place to ensure that nothing of this nature happens again,” in the words of Foreign Minister Borge Brende. This is noteworthy because Norway is one of the most anti-Israel countries in Europe, and has long lavished funding on the PA while turning a blind eye to its glorification of terrorism. Thus, for Oslo to suddenly say it’s no longer prepared to let its money be used for this purpose is revolutionary.

A few days later, Denmark halted $8 million in funding for 24 nongovernmental organizations while it investigates whether the funds are going to support BDS, anti-Israel incitement or glorification of terror. “It is possible that in wake of the examination we will be forced to stop our support of a number of Palestinian organizations,” its Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “Until this examination is complete we won’t sign any new grants for Palestinian organizations.” Like Norway, Denmark is a major Palestinian funder that has previously turned a blind eye to how its money is used.

All this was complemented by another notable development in the one non-European Western country that has consistently shared Europe’s attitudes and policies toward Israel: New Zealand. Its foreign minister wrote to Netanyahu last month seeking to end a rupture that began in December when it co-sponsored a Security Council resolution against the settlements and Israel responded by bringing its ambassador home and keeping him there. Once, it was Israel that begged other countries to establish relations. Now, it’s a beggar no longer; other countries–even Western ones–want good relations no less than Israel does.

Several factors contributed to these victories. One is the way Israeli NGOs are serving as force multipliers for Israeli diplomacy. The Norwegian and Danish funding decisions, for instance, would be inconceivable had two stellar organizations, Palestinian Media Watch and NGO Monitor, not been patiently been making the case for such moves in European capitals for years. Yet this also wouldn’t have happened had official Israel not begun pushing the issue in talks with European governments, thereby depriving them of a perfect excuse for inaction. Europe will never be more pro-Israel than Israel’s own government.

Second, Israel has finally developed the confidence to play hardball, as it did by downgrading ties with New Zealand and Senegal, another co-sponsor of Resolution 2334, last December. Ties with Senegal were restored this week after the Muslim-majority country promised to support Israel’s bid for observer status at the African Union, which it had previously opposed. The New Zealand rupture is expected to end soon.

This confidence undoubtedly stems in part from Israel’s growing diplomatic strength outside the West, as highlighted most recently by Netanyahu’s address on Sunday to the summit of the Economic Community of Western African States. He was the first Israeli leader to address ECOWAS, which even moved the summit from Saturday to Sunday to accommodate him. The group invited him even though two of its 15 members have no diplomatic relations with Israel, and it pointedly preferred him to another nonmember guest: Morocco’s king. The West African monarch announced he would skip the summit rather than attend alongside Netanyahu, but that gambit signally failed to result, as it once would have, in Israel being disinvited.

Above all, however, these successes stem from focusing consistently on simple, clear, easily digestible messages: Jews’ longstanding ties to Jerusalem, the anti-Semitic nature of BDS, Palestinian incitement, and the way Europe enables it. For too long, Israeli diplomacy has tried to convey complex, nuanced messages while the Palestinians endlessly repeated simple sound bites (“end the occupation”). But when shades of gray compete against black and white in the arena of public opinion, the latter usually wins.

Israel’s recent victories came from hammering home black-and-white messages of its own. And if it continues to do so, it can make further diplomatic gains, even in hostile Europe.

Originally published in Commentary on June 7, 2017

On any other day, the Wall Street Journal’s report on Tuesday would have been a major bombshell. Instead, it was unjustly overshadowed by the news that Donald Trump had shared sensitive third-party intelligence (apparently provided by Israel) with Russia. Granted, the intelligence story reveals something important about the U.S. president. But the WSJ story revealed something important about long-term trends in the Middle East–and for once, it’s unabashedly good news. Major Arab states have grown tired of having their relationship with Israel held hostage to the Palestinian problem, and they’re actually seeking to do something about it.

The Journal reported that the Gulf States are discussing a proposal to normalize certain types of commercial relations with Israel in exchange for Israeli gestures toward the Palestinians (the report is behind a paywall, but the Times of Israel helpfully provided a detailed account of what the WSJ article said). Two countries, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have already told both America and Israel that they’re willing to adopt it, the Journal added.

But the real bombshell–actually, several bombshells–lay in the proposal’s details: In exchange for Israel freezing settlement construction in “certain areas” of the West Bank and relaxing its blockade of Gaza, the Arabs would establish direct telecommunication links with Israel, let Israeli aircraft overfly their countries, lift certain trade restrictions and perhaps grant visas to Israeli athletes and businessmen. All these details are significant even in the likely event that the proposal goes nowhere.

First, they show that Arab leaders–unlike Trump–understand that Israeli-Palestinian peace is nowhere on the horizon. They didn’t merely say so to the Journal; it’s clear from the proposal itself. All it asks of Israel are gestures that would leave the status quo essentially unchanged, not concessions on any final-status issue. Granted, many of these same Arab leaders have told Trump that solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict should be a high priority, but that merely proves the old truism that what Arab leaders say to their Western counterparts shouldn’t be taken at face value.

Second, and more importantly, Arab leaders are no longer willing to give the Palestinians (or Syria) a veto over their relations with Israel. The last time Arab states proposed normalization with Israel (in the Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative of 2002), they conditioned it on Israel signing final-status agreements with both the Palestinians and Syria and withdrawing completely to the 1949 armistice lines (also known, wrongly, as the pre-1967 border). Even eight years ago, when President Barack Obama urged Arab states to make gestures toward Israel in exchange for an Israeli settlement freeze, they unanimously refused, saying steps toward normalization were impossible until an Israeli-Palestinian final-status deal was signed. Now, they’re seriously discussing partial normalization even without a final-status deal.

Third, unlike the Palestinians, Arab states have abandoned the fantasy of an Israeli retreat to the 1949 armistice lines. Their decision to demand a settlement freeze only in “certain areas” of the West Bank clearly implies that they see no reason for a freeze in other areas. They would remain Israeli under any final-status deal. This, incidentally, is something the Obama Administration never grasped. It treated construction in major settlement blocs or Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem as identical to construction in isolated outposts.

Fourth, after decades of spearheading boycotts of Israel, Arab states are now keen to do business with it. That’s clear from the fact that, aside from visas for athletes, all the Arab gestures under consideration are aimed at facilitating business. As a senior Arab official involved in discussions of the proposal told the Journal, “We no longer see Israel as an enemy, but a potential opportunity.”

In one sense, this is no surprise. In February, Bloomberg reported that Israeli high-tech firms were already doing booming business with the Gulf States via pass-through companies. What is surprising, however, is that then, just three months ago, the “experts” Bloomberg consulted were still insisting that open trade between Israel and the Gulf would be impossible without Israeli-Palestinian peace. Now, leading Arab countries are proposing open business ties without a peace deal.

Thus, even though the proposal doesn’t include formal diplomatic ties, it’s a huge step forward over any previous Arab offer.

Admittedly, it might well go nowhere at this stage. First, Saudi Arabia and the UAE won’t do it alone, and it’s not yet clear whether a critical mass of other Arab states will join them. Indeed, the WSJ report makes that less likely, since it will give opponents of normalization a chance to mobilize public opinion against the idea.

Second, it’s not clear what the Arabs states will ultimately demand in exchange. By the time they finish negotiating among themselves, the proposal may be significantly worse, just as the Arab Peace Initiative adopted by the Arab League in 2002 was significantly worse than the initial Saudi proposal (for instance, the Arab League version included language which Arabs interpret as requiring Israel to absorb millions of Palestinian refugees).

Finally, even if this doesn’t happen, the demands as stated could be unacceptable to Israel, depending on how the Arabs interpret them. For instance, Israel has long been willing to take some steps to help Gaza, but it would not agree to end the blockade entirely, as that would enable Hamas to import masses of lethal weaponry. Similarly, while Israel could agree to freeze construction in isolated settlements, it couldn’t accept a public freeze on construction in Jerusalem, its capital, which Arabs consider part of the West Bank.

Nevertheless, the very fact that this proposal is being openly discussed shows that Arab-Israeli relations are thawing at a faster pace than anyone would have predicted a few years ago. The credit for that goes primarily to changing geopolitical circumstances, but secondarily to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has worked hard and successfully to expand Israel’s foreign relations precisely because he never accepted the “expert” consensus that this was impossible without progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Just last summer, Israeli pundits from across the political spectrum were united in asserting that normalization with the Arab states would require an Israeli-Palestinian deal. At the time, I termed this assertion “sheer folly,” given how fast things were already changing; today, it looks even more ridiculous. And that’s good news not just for Israel, but for the entire Middle East.

Originally published in Commentary on May 17, 2017

The U.S. Army recently announced that it has horrifying video footage of Islamic State fighters herding Iraqi civilians into buildings in Mosul. The plan was not to use them as human shields–that is, to announce their presence in the hope of deterring American airstrikes. Rather, ISIS was deliberately trying to ensure that American troops killed them, by “smuggling civilians into buildings, so we won’t see them and trying to bait the coalition to attack,” an army spokesman said at a briefing for Pentagon reporters. The motive, he explained, was hope that massive civilian casualties would produce such an outcry that the U.S. would halt airstrikes altogether.

There’s an important point to this story which the spokesman neglected to mention: This tactic is borrowed directly from Hamas. And it was borrowed because the world’s response to successive Hamas-Israel wars convinced ISIS that creating massive civilian casualties among residents of its own territory is an effective strategy. Admittedly, Hamas hasn’t yet been caught on video actually herding civilians into buildings before launching attacks from them. But there’s plenty of evidence that Hamas prevented civilians from leaving areas whence it was launching rockets or other attacks at Israel, thereby deliberately exposing them to retaliatory strikes.

During the 2014 Gaza war, for instance, the Israel Defense Forces warned civilians to evacuate the town of Beit Lahiya before launching air strikes at Hamas positions. But according to Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid, who based himself on interviews with Palestinians in Gaza, Hamas gunmen showed up and warned that anyone who left the town would be treated as a collaborator. Since Hamas executes collaborators, that was equivalent to saying that anyone who tried to leave would be killed on the spot. Thus, faced with the alternative of certain death at Hamas’s hands, most Beit Lahiya residents understandably opted to stay and take their chances with the IDF.

There’s also plenty of evidence that Hamas deliberately launched attacks from buildings where it knew civilians were present. Just last month, for instance, I wrote about a case during the 2009 Gaza war in which Hamas directed sniper fire at Israeli troops from the third floor of a well-known doctor’s home, thereby forcing the soldiers to choose between becoming sitting ducks or shooting back and risking civilian casualties. Unbeknownst to the soldiers, Hamas was also storing explosives in the house (using civilian buildings as arms caches or wiring them with explosives is standard practice for Hamas). Consequently, when the soldiers fired at the Hamas position, an unexpectedly large explosion ensued, killing three of the doctor’s daughters and one of his nieces.

In short, Hamas repeatedly used tactics aimed at maximizing the number of civilian casualties on its own side. Yet instead of blaming Hamas for this, the world largely blamed Israel. Mass demonstrations were held throughout the West condemning Israel; there were no mass demonstrations condemning Hamas. Journalists and “human rights” organizations issued endless reports blaming Israel for the civilian casualties while ignoring or downplaying Hamas’s role in them. Western leaders repeatedly demanded that Israel show “restraint” and accused it of using disproportionate force. Israel, not Hamas, became the subject of a complaint to the International Criminal Court.

Hamas thereby succeeded in putting Israel in a lose-lose situation. Either it could let Hamas launch thousands of rockets at Israeli civilians with impunity, or it could strike back at the price of global opprobrium.

Alan Dershowitz, who aptly calls this the “dead baby strategy,” has been warning for years that unless it “is exposed and rejected in the marketplace of morality, it’s coming to a theater (or school or hospital) near you.” After all, why wouldn’t other terrorist organizations adopt a strategy that has so obviously proven successful?

Now, ISIS has proven his point: It has chosen to deliberately sacrifice civilians rather than employing the more obvious tactic of using them as human shields. Granted, the organization enjoys killing, but based on its track record, it’s also far from stupid. So if it has concluded that dead civilians are more useful than living human shields, it’s because, like Hamas, it considers this a win-win strategy. At worst, America’s reputation will be tarnished, since many people worldwide will blame it for the civilian casualties rather than putting the blame on ISIS, where it belongs. And at best, negative public opinion will force America to abandon the airstrikes altogether.

Nor is the latter hope as far-fetched as it may seem at first glance. It’s true the “dead baby strategy” never persuaded Israel to stop airstrikes against Hamas, but there’s a fundamental difference between the two cases: Israel’s citizens were under direct attack by Hamas rockets and tunnels, and in a choice between sacrificing its citizens’ lives and suffering global opprobrium, any self-respecting country would choose the latter. But ISIS isn’t launching rockets at America from Mosul; the threat it poses is far less immediate. Consequently, the incentive for America to simply back away from the fight if the civilian death toll climbs too high is much greater.

In short, by blaming Israel for civilian casualties that were actually deliberately caused by Hamas’s actions, the world ensured that other terrorist organizations would adopt a similar strategy. Or to put it more bluntly, it ensured that many more civilians would die, because terrorist groups would see a profit in their deaths.

ISIS obviously bears primary blame for all civilian deaths in Mosul. But a portion of that blame is shared by every journalist, “human rights” activist, politician and demonstrator who blamed Israel rather than Hamas for civilian deaths in Gaza–because they are the ones who persuaded ISIS that deliberately sacrificing civilians is an effective way to fight a war.

Originally published in Commentary on April 5, 2017

A review of a comedy of manners set in England in the 1920s wouldn’t seem the obvious place to look to understand why the average Westerner really has no business trying to tell Israelis how to run their country. But two sentences in this New York Times book review encapsulate the problem perfectly: “Historical details, which abound, are often fascinating. (Who knew that beards interfere with gas masks?)”

I’m sure most New York Times readers don’t know that. But virtually every adult Israeli does, other than a few recent immigrants. That’s because almost every adult Israeli either has a gas mask or did at one time (mine still lives in my closet), and many of us have actually worn them. They were distributed nationwide before the 1991 Gulf War, out of fear that Saddam Hussein would put chemical warheads on the missiles he launched at Israel during the war. Israel, incidentally, was one of only two countries Saddam launched missiles at, even though it wasn’t one of the 39 countries actually waging war on Iraq at the time.

Since then, Israel has run several nationwide campaigns to get people to exchange their old gas masks for new ones. That gas masks have an expiration date is another fascinating “historical” detail most Westerners probably don’t know (the campaigns ended a few years ago, after the implosion of both Iraq and Syria reduced the risk of a chemical attack). Israel also passed a law requiring every new house to include a bomb shelter capable of doubling as a sealed room, since ordinary bomb shelters offer no protection against chemical attacks (yet another little-known “historical” detail). That’s one of many factors contributing to the country’s sky-high housing costs, but not one Israelis complain about. In-house bomb shelters are even more necessary today, given the thousands of rockets launched at Israel by both Hezbollah and Hamas over the last 10 to 15 years.

Even Israelis who were children in 1991 undoubtedly remember being woken by sirens in the middle of the night, rushing to makeshift sealed rooms (heavy-duty plastic wrap, tape and damp towels), putting on their masks and sitting for hours waiting for the all-clear. The adults also remember being unable to fall asleep at night while awaiting that siren. The chronic sleep deprivation experienced by people under missile bombardment is another little-known historical detail (somehow, it never seems to interest human rights organizations as much as the sleep deprivation of captured terrorists during interrogations).

As for beards, this being Israel, a public battle raged for months in 1990-91 over whether Haredi men, who normally don’t shave for religious reasons, should be given special, more expensive masks that can accommodate beards, or whether they could reasonably be expected to shave, given that in Jewish law, saving a life trumps most other religious precepts. There was even a high-profile court case by a secular bearded man charging discrimination because Haredim got the special masks while he did not (he won).

Of course, there’s no reason why reviewer Susan Coll or any other Westerner should know any of these “historical details.” Thankfully, no Western country has faced the threat of bombardment with chemical warheads, or even conventional rockets, in more than 70 years. The problem is that so many Westerners who share her ignorance feel fully qualified to tell Israel what it should do, despite not knowing the most basic facts about the security challenges it faces.

If you don’t even know that beards interfere with gas masks, something every Israeli has been forced by hard necessity to learn, or if you see that fact as nothing but a “fascinating historical detail,” what makes you qualified to give advice to a country whose security challenges are so clearly outside your knowledge and experience? What makes you qualified to decide how Israel should cope with the hundreds of thousands of missiles pointed at it? What makes you qualified to insist that withdrawing from the West Bank doesn’t pose a serious risk, or that bombing rocket storehouses in Gaza causes disproportionate harm?

Most people wouldn’t dream of proposing solutions to, say, the mystery of dark matter unless they were experts in cutting-edge astrophysics. Yet hundreds of thousands of people worldwide see no problem with propounding solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict despite not knowing even elementary facts.

It would be nice if some of those people would evince a little more humility. But as long as they don’t, they really shouldn’t be surprised that Israeli voters keep rejecting their prescriptions.

Originally published in Commentary on March 22, 2017

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the Trump Administration’s plan to slash funding for the State Department, so I’d like to offer my own modest proposal in that direction: Kill the department’s human rights bureau.

This isn’t because I think America shouldn’t care about human rights. On the contrary, I think it ought to shine a spotlight on the world’s worst abusers, given that the UN Human Rights Council and so-called human rights organizations fail to do so. But since the bureau, judging by its latest annual human rights report, does nothing but channel those institutions’ Israel obsession, I see no reason to waste taxpayer dollars on it.

Haaretz reporter Amir Tibon did a numerical analysis of the report earlier this month and discovered two astounding facts. First, the document “devotes 141 pages to the human rights situation in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, more than to any other country in the world except China,” which gets the same number. Second, “Even when viewed as two separate reports, the number of pages devoted to each of the areas–Israel and the occupied territories–surpasses that of any other country in the Middle East region.” For instance, Israel alone, excluding the territories, gets 69 pages; by comparison, Iran gets 48 and Syria 58.

Since a normal reader would assume the amount of space devoted to a country bears some relationship to the magnitude of its human rights offenses, any such reader would have to conclude that Israel is a far worse human rights violator than, say, Syria, where the government has slaughtered hundreds of thousands of its own citizens. It must certainly be worse than Iran, which has abetted that slaughter with both money and troops.

But the report becomes even more surreal when you start examining the “crimes” to which the State Department devoted all that ink. Take, for instance, the demolition of illegal construction in the Israeli Bedouin town of Umm al-Hiran.

We’ll leave aside the question of why demolishing illegal construction–with the approval of several courts, including the Supreme Court, and while offering the residents alternative land plus cash compensation–constitutes a human rights violation at all. It’s enough to consider a single sentence, which is based on a report by an Israeli NGO, the Negev Coexistence Forum: “The NCF reported that construction work on [the planned new town of] Hiran progressed and expanded during the year, reaching to within a few yards of Bedouin houses in Umm al-Hiran, and residents suffered from the dust raised by construction.”

Is this a joke? Or do State’s human rights gurus seriously think people suffering from the dust of nearby construction constitutes a human rights violation? By that logic, the only place anyone could build without violating human rights would be in wilderness areas. In other words, we’d essentially have to shut down all construction worldwide.

Or take its section on press freedom, which quotes another NGO, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. It begins as follows: “The independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction. In December, however, ACRI published a report detailing a variety of legislative and rhetorical attacks on media throughout the year by elected officials, especially Prime Minister Netanyahu, and expressed concern about the chilling effect of these attacks on press freedom.”

In other words, State thinks it’s reasonable to fear a “chilling effect” on Israel’s media even though its own first sentence admits there’s no evidence of any such thing (“The independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views”). Even worse, however, the nonexistent human rights problem it alleges would be solvable only by creating a real one. How could Israel possibly prevent elected officials’ “rhetorical attacks on media” without suppressing their own freedom of speech?

But far worse than such inanities is the way the report traffics in unsupported libel. Take, for instance, this gem: “There were reports some children worked in forced labor in the West Bank, including in settlements. NGOs reported employers subjected Palestinian men to forced labor in Israeli settlements … The PA was unable to monitor and investigate abuses in these areas.”

In other words, the State Department accused Israel of subjecting Palestinians–including children–to forced labor, without citing a single example to substantiate this accusation. It did so despite admitting that it doesn’t actually have any evidence aside from unspecified “reports” by unspecified “NGOs,” which even the Palestinian Authority wasn’t prepared to back (it “was unable to monitor and investigate” the allegations). Nor is this lack of evidence surprising, since the accusation is groundless (shockingly, Israel isn’t running forced labor camps in the settlements). So why was such a vile, unsubstantiated allegation even included in the report?

A human rights report worthy of the name would prioritize, devoting most of its attention to the world’s worst abusers. It would reflect enough basic good judgment to excise inanities like “suffering from construction dust.” It would either try to confirm unsubstantiated allegations or omit them because they were unsubstantiated. And it might even include some original investigating about human rights abuses in the many oppressive dictatorships that “human rights” organizations find less enthralling than democratic Israel.

Instead, the State Department apparently just copy-pasted anything it could find from such organizations, no matter how ludicrous or unsubstantiated. That inevitably resulted in paying absurdly excessive attention to Israel, because that’s what most “human rights” organizations do. If you doubt that, just consider this stunning graph from the Elder of Ziyon blog analyzing Amnesty International’s tweets during one month in summer 2015: Amnesty spared only four tweets for Syria’s ongoing civil war, but devoted over 60 to Israel and Gaza, most of them rehashing a war that had ended a year earlier with less than half a percent of Syria’s death toll.

In short, the human rights bureau simply generated a U.S.-sponsored version of the same anti-Israel bias Ambassador Nikki Haley so rightly condemns at the UN. And if so, then really, who needs it?

Originally published in Commentary on March 20, 2017

I’m not naïve enough to think that better PR would solve all of Israel’s international relations problems. But there’s no question that incompetent PR makes its situation much worse. As one example, consider Tuesday’s shocking revelation: Within about 24 hours of the most high-profile civilian casualty incident of the 2009 Gaza war, Israel had obtained evidence casting doubt on its responsibility for that death. But it sat on this evidence for more than eight years, finally releasing it only as part of a defense brief in a civil suit by the victims’ father.

The incident in question took place on January 16, 2009, when Israeli troops fighting in Gaza came under sniper fire. The troops fired two shells at an observation post that seemed to be directing the snipers. The observation post was located on the third floor of a building which, unbeknownst to the soldiers, was also the home of a well-known doctor, Izzeldin Abuelaish. Three of Abuelaish’s daughters were killed, along with one of his nieces; several other family members were wounded. Abuelaish, who worked in Israel, maintained good relations with Israelis and advocated for Israeli-Palestinian peace, later became famous worldwide when he published a book about this incident and his response to it, called I Shall Not Hate. Israel was blamed worldwide for the Abuelaish casualties and never publicly challenged the assumption of its guilt. Yet it now turns out that within a day after the incident, it had evidence indicating that its shells may not have caused the carnage.

The evidence came in the form of laboratory tests conducted on six pieces of shrapnel extracted from the two casualties treated in Israel (the other wounded weren’t brought to Israel, nor were any of the dead, so no shrapnel from the other victims was available). The tests showed that alongside traces of various explosives used by both the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas, at least one fragment contained an explosive called R-Salt, which isn’t used by the IDF but is commonly used in improvised explosive devices in Gaza. Moreover, all six fragments contained potassium nitrate, another substance not used in IDF weaponry that is used in Hamas’s homemade Qassam rockets.

A follow-up report a month later, which compared the shrapnel to the specific type of Israeli shells fired, concluded that four of the six fragments could not possibly have come from those shells; a fifth “may have come” from an IDF shell, and apparently, no conclusions were possible about the sixth.

All of the above indicates that Hamas or a smaller Palestinian organization was using the house as a weapons cache. According to the IDF, there is no other way to account for the presence of non-IDF explosives in the shrapnel.

This in no way implies culpability on Abuelaish’s part; Palestinian terrorists routinely store weaponry in civilian houses without the owners’ consent or even knowledge. But it does raise the possibility that the Israeli shells, which were intended to take out the observation post without significant damage to the house, would not have caused such extensive casualties had the house not contained a concealed weapons cache–something the soldiers couldn’t have known–which exploded when the shells hit. And if so, then Israel clearly isn’t responsible for the deaths: It used a reasonable amount of force to respond to a legitimate military threat and could not have foreseen the deadly consequences.

One of the most common accusations leveled at Israel by its critics is that because it possesses precision weaponry capable of feats like destroying a single room without damaging the rest of the building, any civilian casualties it causes must be the result of criminal negligence at best and deliberate murderousness at worst. That conclusion is obviously possible only if you ignore various salient facts, such as that mistakes are inevitable in wartime when soldiers must often make split-second decisions based on imperfect information.

But one of those salient facts is Hamas’s habit of storing arms and ammunition in civilian houses–without, obviously, informing Israel of the caches’ locations. This means that no matter how carefully Israeli troops choose their munitions, they have no way to protect against the possibility that an arms cache they didn’t know about will set off secondary explosions, resulting in far more extensive damage than they intended.

This fact is essential to understanding why the blame for most civilian casualties actually rests not with Israel, which does try hard to use proportionate military force, but with Hamas, which deliberately endangers its own civilian population by hiding weapons in their houses. Yet since it is frequently not well understood overseas, Israel has every interest in publicizing high-profile examples as heavily as possible.

Instead, it sat on its information about the Abuelaish case for eight years. The lab report was kept so secret that even Abuelaish’s lawyers didn’t know of its existence until last week, although the suit was filed back in 2010. And then, having finally been forced to disclose the report to defend against the lawsuit, the government nevertheless made no attempt to publicize it; it came to light only because a reporter took the trouble to read the defense brief and realized that the information was newsworthy.

Obviously, information like this won’t change a single Israel hater’s mind. But there are many people of goodwill, especially overseas Jews, who sincerely want to believe that the IDF strives to avoid civilian casualties, but can’t understand why, if so, they nevertheless keep occurring.

Israel has many valid answers to that question, including the fact that its civilian-to-military casualty ratio is actually lower than that of other Western armies. But these answers are useless if it doesn’t take the trouble to publicize them. Sitting on exculpatory information about a high-profile case for eight years is hardly the way to assuage its supporters’ concerns.

Originally published in Commentary on March 15, 2017

One demand that President Donald Trump repeatedly raised before taking office is for U.S. allies to contribute more to the costs of their defense. Given that Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. military aid, it would seem an obvious target for this demand. Indeed, asked by a reporter last March whether Israel should pay for American protection, Trump replied affirmatively. Thus, it’s worth recalling why Israel is America’s largest recipient of military aid, and why it’s cheap at the price.

Unlike all the other allies Trump complains about, Israel isn’t under America’s military protection and doesn’t want to be. It never has and never will ask American troops to defend it. The annual aid is intended to ensure that this situation continues, by helping Israel purchase the weaponry it needs to defend itself by itself.

Israel is perhaps unique among American allies in that it genuinely doesn’t want America to protect it militarily. The belief that it must defend itself by itself is deeply ingrained in Israel and enjoys virtually wall-to-wall consensus, and this would remain true even if America gave it no military aid at all.

Moreover, while the price tag may sound astronomical–aid to Israel currently totals $3.1 billion a year, and is slated to rise to $3.8 billion in 2019–it’s cheap compared to the cost of U.S. troop deployments to protect other American allies. For instance, maintaining U.S. bases in Japan costs America about $5.5 billion a year, and that’s in a country where troops haven’t had to fire a shot in decades. The costs rise sharply when America actually has to send soldiers into action.

The 1991 Gulf War, for instance, was fought to liberate one ally, Kuwait, from Iraqi invasion and protect another, Saudi Arabia, from falling to Iraq as well. Even with allies picking up most of the estimated $61 billion tab, it cost the U.S. about $9 billion, and that’s just the money spent on the war itself. It doesn’t include the incalculable human cost of the 383 U.S. soldiers who were killed and the 467 who were wounded or the costs of treating the latter. Yet the Gulf War was a short, low-casualty war; most U.S. wars have been far more expensive and had much higher casualty tolls.

Nor can Israel be accused of failing to contribute financially to its own defense. It’s pathetic that 23 of NATO’s 28 members spend less than 2 percent of GDP on defense when that’s the alliance’s own agreed-upon floor, and most member states could easily afford it. But Israel can hardly be faulted on that score: Its defense spending constitutes 5.2 percent of GDP, well above America’s 3.5 percent, and is the largest single item in Israel’s budget by a large margin. By comparison, America’s defense spending comes in well below its spending on both healthcare and social security.

Needless to say, the U.S. also gets many tangible benefits from the Israeli defense capabilities that its aid helps finance. One is intelligence. Just last July, Haaretz reported that in the battle against ISIS, “According to Western intelligence sources, Israel has supplied more intelligence to its allies than any other intelligence organization.” Another is combat testing of weapons systems and ensuring beneficial modifications. For instance, America’s F-16 fighters contain over 600 modifications introduced by Israel. As Haaretz reported in 2010, “between 10 percent and 15 percent of every new F-16 made in America … consists of Israeli systems.”

In addition, America derives strategic benefit from having an ally willing to police its own neighborhood to some degree rather than relying on the U.S. to do so. For instance, as I’ve noted before, Israel’s destruction of a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007 prevented ISIS from getting its hands on the raw material for a nuclear bomb. The reactor was located in one of the swathes of Syria ISIS captured. Similarly, America was able to defend its allies in the Gulf War only because Israel had destroyed Iraq’s nuclear program a decade earlier. After the war, then-Defense Minister Dick Cheney publicly thanked Israel for doing so, though the U.S. had condemned the operation at the time. Had America had an Asian ally willing to take similar action in, say, North Korea, the U.S. wouldn’t now be worrying about Pyongyang’s nukes.

Nevertheless, Israel would doubtless continue providing these services even if the U.S. slashed its military aid, and obtaining them is not the aid’s main purpose. Rather, that purpose is to ensure that American soldiers, who are expected to put their lives on the line to defend most other U.S. allies (at least as long as America continues to see defending its allies as an American interest), will never need to do so for Israel.

Consequently, the aid is a win-win situation. Israel gets help in buying the arms it needs to defend itself. And America gets an ally that doesn’t need or want its military protection. That’s infinitely preferable to having to put its soldiers in harm’s way. And it also turns out to be a lot cheaper.

Originally published in Commentary on January 25, 2017

If you want to understand why no rational person should take the United Nations seriously, consider the following three facts: Last week, the World Health Organization, a UN agency, named Israel the first country in the world to be awarded its highest ranking for medical emergency response teams deployed overseas. In other words, the organization deemed the Israel Defense Forces its first responder of choice for any disaster worldwide. Two weeks ago, the daily Israel Hayom reported that the UN’s peacekeeping service asked Israel to train its peacekeepers in emergency field medicine; the seminar is expected to take place in the coming weeks. And every year, this same UN labels Israel the world’s worst violator of health rights, the only country deserving of a country-specific condemnation.

So if you take all three of those decisions seriously, you’re forced to conclude that the UN thinks the world’s worst violator of health rights is the ideal choice to be first on the scene in any medical disaster worldwide and also to train the UN’s own peacekeepers. The UN, by an overwhelming majority, regularly passes resolutions that even its own professional staff knows to be nonsense. Its latest condemnation of Israel for ostensibly violating health rights, for instance, passed in May by a vote of 107-8 with eight abstentions.

And lest anyone thinks there might be some way to square this circle, no, the contradiction can’t be resolved by assuming that Israel’s disaster relief efforts are somehow divorced from its regular medical practices. Over the past few years, for instance, thousands of Syrians wounded in that country’s civil war have willingly come to the Golan Heights and handed themselves over to an enemy army (Israel and Syria are still officially at war) in order to obtain medical care from Israel that they can’t obtain elsewhere. That’s the same Golan Heights where, according to the resolution, Israel is regularly violating Syrians’ health rights.

Similarly, West Bank Palestinians have higher life expectancy and lower infant mortality than Mideast neighbors like Egypt and Jordan or even OECD member Turkey, due in part to their access to Israeli hospitals. That’s the same West Bank where, according to the resolution, Israel is regularly violating Palestinians’ health rights.

One might argue, looking at the decisions cited in the first paragraph, that the UN’s periodic passage of delusional anti-Israel resolutions doesn’t really matter. After all, its annual condemnations of Israel’s medical practices didn’t stop either WHO or the peacekeeping service from recognizing that Israel actually shines in this field and seeking to benefit from its expertise.

The problem is that those decisions are a rare exception to the norm. Far more often, the UN’s non-reality-based resolutions actually serve as the basis of international policy.

Consider, for instance, the UN’s 2012 vote to recognize “Palestine” as a nonmember observer state, even though it didn’t meet the basic requirements of statehood set out in the 1933 Montevideo Convention. That convention requires states to have an actual government. “Palestine” has two, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, with the result that its ostensible president can’t even enter the latter territory and his writ doesn’t run there.

While it’s still unclear how this acceptance will affect the ICC, its effect on UNESCO has been devastating. Not only did it result in the loss of U.S. funding–a full 22 percent of the agency’s budget–but the Palestinians’ nonstop submission of resolutions denying historical fact in Jerusalem has become so embarrassing that even UNESCO’s director publicly repudiated the latest one.

Back in 2002, responding to worldwide criticism of the IDF’s efforts to stop a murderous wave of Palestinian suicide bombings, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan famously asked, “Can Israel be right and the whole world wrong?” It turns out even the UN recognizes that the answer to this question is “yes.” After all, two UN agencies just conferred accolades on Israel’s medical conduct despite the UN’s own 107-8 vote lambasting that same conduct.

But that’s precisely why Israel has refused ever since its establishment to take UN resolutions seriously: No sane country would agree to determine its policies based on the demands of an organization so often disconnected from reality. Indeed, the only sensible conclusion that can be drawn from the UN’s schizophrenia toward Israel is that the organization is in desperate need of comprehensive reform to cure its own illness.

Originally published in Commentary on November 15, 2016

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Blaming Bibi for Trump’s Embassy U-Turn Hurts Israel

I rarely waste time trying to debunk conspiracy theories, but this particular one has become so popular among certain pro-Israel conservatives, and is so damaging to Israel, that I’m breaking my rule. The theory is that Donald Trump signed the waiver keeping the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv this month because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked him to do so. Marc Zell, head of the Republican Party’s Israel chapter, said this openly as far back as January, and repeated it last month; just this week, I heard it privately from the head of a veteran American Jewish organization.

It’s impossible to overstate how harmful to Israel this is. Israel has striven unsuccessfully for decades to get the world to accept Jerusalem as its capital, and just this year, it has finally started scoring some victories: Russia’s Foreign Ministry surprisingly announced that it considers Jerusalem Israel’s capital, while the Czech parliament passed a resolution by an overwhelming vote of 112-2 demanding that its government show “respect” for Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Yet now, some of Israel’s strongest supporters are going around the world declaring that Israel’s own prime minister doesn’t want the U.S. Embassy moved to Jerusalem. In short, they’re giving the rest of the world a perfect excuse for maintaining the status quo of non-recognition: No government will be more pro-Israel than Israel’s own, so if even Netanyahu doesn’t really want Jerusalem to be treated as Israel’s capital, what foreign government would?

Wreaking such harm might be justifiable if the charge were true. Yet not only is it prima facie ludicrous, but there’s a much simpler explanation for Trump’s decision.

To understand just how ludicrous it is, contrast it with another rumor making the rounds: that Netanyahu also asked Trump to pressure him to restrain settlement construction. Whether or not that rumor is true, it’s at least plausible, because Netanyahu has many reasons for wanting such pressure. But none of those reasons applies to the embassy issue.

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