Analysis from Israel

Peace Process

Hundreds of Palestinian refugees demonstrated outside the Canadian Embassy in Beirut on Sept. 5 to request asylum in Canada or the European Union, the second such protest in the last month. The most surprising aspect of these demonstrations is that they have been so long in coming. Only now, after more than 70 years, are Palestinians publicly protesting the fact that they alone, of all the world’s refugees, are denied the most basic of refugee rights—the right to seek resettlement in a safe third country.

All other refugees worldwide are handled by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which resettles tens of thousands of refugees in third countries every year. But Palestinian refugees aren’t allowed to apply to UNHCR; they are handled by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, an agency created exclusively for them. And UNRWA hasn’t resettled a single refugee in its 70 years of existence.

The only option it offers the refugees and their descendants is eternal limbo: awaiting a “return” to Israel that will never happen. Thus it’s unsurprising that the protesters also assailed UNRWA for depriving them of “their most basic rights.”

Moreover, this refusal to grant Palestinians a right of resettlement enjoys the full support of so-called human-rights organizations and self-proclaimed advocates of human rights like the European Union. Thus it’s equally unsurprising that groups like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch completely ignored the demonstration.

Of course, one could legitimately argue (as I frequently have) that most Palestinians simply aren’t genuine refugees. Granted, those who demonstrated in Lebanon face discrimination due to their nationality: Not only are they denied citizenship, but as the Associated Press noted, they have “no access to public services, limited employment opportunities and no rights to ownership.”

But they’ve never faced the kind of threat that would drive them to flee. Most Palestinians in Lebanon—like most of those in the West Bank, Gaza and Jordan—were born there and have lived there all their lives. And the 1951 Refugee Convention explicitly defines a refugee only as someone who has fled his country due to “well-founded fear” of persecution or, if he’s stateless, is “outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of” such a fear. So it’s understandable that even Palestinians who manage to reach Western countries and apply for asylum there are usually rejected, unless they’re from war-torn Syria.

Yet no Western country actually makes the argument that Palestinians aren’t real refugees; they all accept UNRWA’s definition of refugeehood—an inherited status bequeathed to every new generation of Palestinians in perpetuity even if the “refugees” have citizenship in their country of residence, like most of those in Jordan, and even if they reside in what the United Nations itself has recognized as the Palestinian state, like all those living in the West Bank and Gaza. And as long as the West insists on defining Palestinians as refugees, it has an obligation to grant them the same rights as other refugees, including the right of resettlement.

Moreover, resettlement is what many of the refugees themselves want—and not just in Lebanon. Repeated polls show that more than 40 percent of Gazans want to emigrate (the figure hit 45 percent in one 2018 poll), as do around 20 percent of West Bankers. And many of these would-be émigrés are certainly refugees, given that more than 70 percent of Gazans and almost 30 percent of West Bankers are registered as refugees, and that refugees are generally among the worst-off members of Palestinian society. Both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have deliberately kept them in squalid camps and denied them basic services to generate Western sympathy for the demand that they all be resettled in Israel.

So why has the West, with ardent support from “human rights” organizations, continued to deny Palestinian refugees a basic refugee right that they themselves want to exercise? The answer can be found in an astonishing conversation that journalist Yoav Sorek recounted in Mosaic back in 2014. He and a colleague asked an official from ECHO, the E.U.’s humanitarian aid agency, why it didn’t help Gazans who so desired to resettle in other countries. The official replied, “Because if they leave, it’d be like releasing Israel from its responsibility for the ‘nakba,’ ” the Palestinian term (meaning “catastrophe”) for the refugee crisis spawned by the Arabs’ war to prevent Israel’s establishment in 1948.

In other words, the West has kept Palestinian refugees in miserable limbo for 70 years and deprived them of their basic right to resettlement in order to hold a gun to Israel’s head: Either make enough political concessions to the Palestinians and/or Arab states that they’ll deign to grant citizenship to their own brethren, or risk being flooded by millions of “refugees” and their descendants, who will destroy the Jewish state demographically. Just like the Palestinian Authority, the West has been treating these Palestinians as political game pieces rather than human beings with needs, wants and rights of their own. And as the protests in Lebanon show, Palestinians are increasingly fed up with this role.

Any resettlement program would have to be led by an international agency like UNHCR. Though an Israeli official ludicrously asserted in August that Israel is actively promoting emigration from Gaza, in reality, this isn’t something Israel can do much about. As I’ve explained in more detail elsewhere, neither Palestinians nor other countries would feel comfortable cooperating with Israel as part of such an effort.

But what Israel and its supporters can and should do is wage a full-throated campaign to demand that the international community finally choose: Either admit that the Palestinians aren’t actually refugees or finally start treating them as real refugees. If the former, it should dismantle UNRWA and use the agency’s $1.2 billion budget to encourage the places where Palestinians now live to start providing them with citizenship and basic services. And if the latter, it should dismantle UNRWA, transfer responsibility for Palestinian refugees to UNHCR and finally grant them the basic right of resettlement.

After 70 years, it’s long past time to stop treating millions of Palestinians as nothing but perpetual pawns in a war to destroy Israel.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on September 11, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org

Three seemingly unrelated incidents occurred last week, yet all share a common denominator: They exemplify the way anti-Israel politics has corrupted the concept of human rights.

Let’s start with best-selling British novelist Richard Zimler’s report that two British cultural organizations recently refused to host him for lectures about his new book, though he has lectured many times on previous books. “They asked me if you were Jewish, and the moment I said you were, they lost all interest,” he quoted his publicist as saying.

It’s not that these groups have anything against Jews per se. They simply feared that hosting a Jew would make them a target for anti-Israel protesters.

Zimler isn’t Israeli, has no relatives or investments in Israel and doesn’t write about Israel. His latest book is set in the Holy Land 2,000 years ago, but its storyline is Christian rather than Jewish (it’s called The Gospel According to Lazarus). So he wouldn’t seem an obvious target, given BDS apologists’ repeated claim that anti-Zionism isn’t anti-Semitic.

Unfortunately, much of the anti-Israel crowd hasn’t gotten that memo. See, for instance, the German courts which ruled that torching a German synagogue wasn’t a hate crime, but an understandable anti-Israel protest. Or the student organizations which demanded that a South African university expel all Jewish students to show its pro-Palestinian bona fides. Or the Norwegian attorney general who ruled that “F*** Jews” isn’t hate speech, but an expression of “dissatisfaction with [Israel’s] policies,” although the speaker never mentioned Israel. Or the dyke marches that banned Jews from holding Jewish pride flags because they remind some people of Israeli flags. And so forth.

So despite deploring the unnamed organizations’ cowardice, I can’t dismiss their fears as unfounded. And that’s the problem.

Human-rights groups and liberals worldwide rush to defend the “rights” of BDS activists; see, for instance, their opposition to anti-BDS legislation on the false grounds that it violates freedom of speech (it actually applies only to actions, not speech). Yet they’ve shown no interest in defending Jewish rights in most of the examples cited above. Evidently, Jewish rights are acceptable collateral damage in the sacred cause of anti-Zionism.

The second incident was the Palestinian Authority’s harassment of Palestinian businessmen who attended the U.S.-sponsored economic workshop in Bahrain on June 25-26. One was arrested, but eventually released under American pressure. Another escaped arrest by fleeing to the Israeli-controlled section of Hebron. And the P.A. raided the homes of several others, confiscating documents like credit cards and passports.

These roughly 15 businessmen traveled legally to Bahrain to participate in what one reporter termed the conference’s “real, unofficial” purpose—closing legal business deals, mainly with fellow Arabs. They explicitly said they represented only themselves, not the P.A, and refused to talk politics, saying only the P.A. was authorized to do that. In short, not only did they commit no crime, they made no attempt to undermine the P.A.’s political positions.

Indeed, the P.A. didn’t even try to pretend that any crime was committed. As one Palestinian security official told Haaretz, there was “no specific charge” against the arrested businessman; the arrest “was a warning. He must understand the implications of this sort of collaboration.”

In other words, this was pure political persecution, which is standard P.A. practice. Palestinian journalists, activists and businessmen have all been arrested for such “crimes” as saying P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas should resign.

Human-rights groups and liberals worldwide incessantly condemn Israeli violations of Palestinian rights (real or imaginary). They also frequently condemn Israel for utterly fictitious violations of Israeli rights. But innocent Palestinian businessmen arrested and harassed by the P.A. for doing legal business? You won’t hear a peep about that. Palestinian rights are evidently acceptable collateral damage in the sacred struggle against Israel.

The third incident was the estimated 100 fires that incendiary balloons flown from Gaza ignited in southern Israel. That’s an unusually high number for a single week, but incendiary devices from Gaza—courtesy of Hamas’s “balloon unit”—have been wreaking havoc for more than a year. In the six months ending in October 2018, such devices destroyed some 3,000 acres of forest and 4,000 acres of farmland. Since the winter rains ended, additional thousands of acres have been destroyed.

This is a war crime, according to both the Geneva Conventions and the treaty governing the International Criminal Court. Both define “extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly” as a war crime; the latter also lists causing “widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated.” Palestinian arson attacks do both, while serving no military purpose whatsoever.

The ICC is looking into numerous alleged Israeli crimes against the Palestinians and has even begged Palestinians to provide it with more complaints. Human-rights groups and liberals worldwide incessantly condemn these alleged Israeli crimes, including settlement construction, which, even if it were a genuine crime (it isn’t), is far less destructive than scorched-earth tactics (evacuated settlements could theoretically be given to the Palestinians under a peace deal). But I haven’t heard a peep about the destruction of large swaths of southern Israel, nor has the ICC considered probing it. Environmental devastation is evidently acceptable collateral damage in the sacred fight against Israel.

What all these cases show is that human rights have ceased being an objective standard applied equally to all. Instead, they’ve become a political tool to bash groups that liberals dislike. So Jewish rights matter when targeted by right-wing extremists (whom liberals loathe), but not when targeted by anti-Zionists. Palestinians’ rights matter when targeted by Israel, but not when targeted by the P.A. And Israeli rights never matter, except when violated by Israel.

This problem isn’t unique to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, of course. It’s just particularly blatant there.

Liberals and human-rights groups frequently complain that human rights are becoming devalued worldwide, and they’re right. But their own politicization of these rights is the chief culprit. And until this changes, contempt for human rights will only keep growing.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on July 3, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org

The Palestinians’ refusal to attend a U.S.-sponsored “economic workshop” in Bahrain on June 25-26 has been widely treated as a reasonable response to the unlikelihood that U.S. President Donald Trump’s peace plan (whose economic section will be unveiled at the workshop) will satisfy their demands. But in fact, it’s merely further proof that the Palestinian leadership doesn’t actually want a state—or at least, not a viable one. Because even if Palestinian statehood isn’t imminent, economic development now would increase the viability of any future state.

This understanding is precisely what guided Israel’s leadership in both the pre-state years and the early years of statehood. The pre-state Jewish community was bitterly at odds with the ruling British over multiple violations of the promises contained in the 1917 Balfour Declaration, the 1920 San Remo Resolution and the 1922 British Mandate for Palestine. These included Britain’s serial diminishments of the territory allotted for a “Jewish national home” and its curtailment of Jewish immigration, notoriously culminating in a total denial of entry to Jews fleeing the Nazis.

Nevertheless, the pre-state leadership still welcomed and cooperated with British efforts to develop the country, knowing that this would benefit the Jewish state once it finally arose (despite Britain’s best efforts to thwart it). And four years after Israel’s establishment, in a far more controversial decision, the government even accepted Holocaust reparations from Germany to obtain money desperately needed for the new state’s development.

The Bahrain conference requires no such morally wrenching compromise from the Palestinian Authority; its declared aim is merely to drum up investment in the Palestinian economy, primarily from Arab states and the private sector. Thus if the P.A. actually wanted to lay the groundwork for a viable state, what it ought to be doing is attending the conference and discussing these proposals. To claim that this would somehow undermine its negotiating positions is fatuous since attendance wouldn’t preclude it from rejecting any proposals that had political strings attached.

Nor is this the first time the P.A.’s behavior has proven that a functional state—as opposed to the trappings of statehood—isn’t what it wants. The most blatant example is its handling of the refugee issue.

The international community has always asserted that Palestinian statehood is necessary in part to provide a solution for Palestinian refugees. Forget for a moment that under the U.N. definition used for everyone except Palestinians, most of the nearly 5.5 million Palestinian “refugees” wouldn’t actually qualify as such. The fact remains that roughly half those 5.5 million people have lived under Palestinian rule for 25 years now. Indeed, around 40 percent of all Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are registered as refugees.

Yet in 25 years, neither the P.A. nor Hamas (which seized control of Gaza in 2007) has moved even one of these people out of refugee camps. Nor has either Palestinian government ever accepted financial responsibility for them. In fact, one of the few things both rival governments agree on is that the international community, via donations to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), bears full responsibility for the refugees’ education, health care and welfare.

In other words, the Palestinian state-to-be, which has already been recognized as an actual state by more than two-thirds of the world, insists it has no responsibility whatsoever for a whopping 40 percent of its population. This, to put it mildly, is not how you behave if you seek to become a functioning state.

Another salient example is the ongoing crisis over taxes that Israel collects on the P.A.’s behalf and remits to it. Israel recently (and very belatedly) decided to deduct from this sum the amount of money the P.A. spends incentivizing anti-Israel terror by paying above-market salaries to jailed terrorists. In response, the P.A. has refused to accept any tax transfers at all from Israel.

Since the tax transfers fund more than half the P.A.’s budget, this decision put it on what even The New York Times admitted was “a kamikaze course.” Inter alia, the P.A. has slashed government employees’ salaries by 50 percent (an injury exacerbated by the recent news that its cabinet secretly gave its members a 67 percent raise two years ago) and stopped sending patients to Israeli hospitals for treatments unavailable in Palestinian ones.

In contrast, the Israeli deduction would at most have created only modest financial pain since it amounted to less than 5 percent of the P.A. budget. And in reality, it would have created no pain at all, since both the European Union (with some strings attached) and the Arab states (with no strings) offered to make up the shortfall. Yet the P.A. rejected both offers.

In other words, the P.A. could have received its revenues in full without even having to make any changes in its pay-for-slay program. Instead, it chose to devastate its own economy and society rather than accept any solution that didn’t require Israel to acquiesce in financial incentives for the murder of its own citizens. This, too, isn’t how you behave if you actually want to create a functioning state.

Of course, the clearest evidence of all that the Palestinian leadership doesn’t want a state is its continued rejection of every Israeli and international offer. A leadership that actually wants a state doesn’t keep rebuffing offers just because they fail to meet 100 percent of its demands. Here, too, Israel’s pre-state leadership provides an instructive contrast: Since it actually did want a state, it repeatedly said “yes” to offers far more objectionable than those the Palestinians have rejected.

The most astounding part of all this is that the rest of the world, despite insisting that it wants a “viable Palestinian state” (to quote official E.U. policy), keeps encouraging this Palestinian behavior—in this case, by openly condoning the P.A.’s refusal to go to Bahrain. Instead, the rest of the world should be telling the P.A. what Washington has: that it ought to seize any chance for economic development. Because without such development, there’s no chance of any future Palestinian state actually being viable. Instead, it would be just another failed state.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on June 19, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org

Gaza’s health system is on the verge of collapse, Israeli defense officials warned last week. Their report echoed an international aid agency’s findings that Gaza hospitals are severely short of doctors, especially specialists, and lack 60 percent of necessary medications, including basics like painkillers and antibiotics. Entire hospital departments have closed due to the inability to offer treatment, and patients with cancer, diabetes or renal failure are simply being sent home.

You might think this situation would prompt at least one of the Palestinians’ two rival governments to take action. But you’d be wrong.

The Palestinian Authority, which repeatedly proclaims itself the sole legitimate government of both the West Bank and Gaza and is recognized as such internationally, receives billions in international aid to provide for humanitarian needs in both places. It ostensibly budgets 150 million shekels a year ($41.3 million) for medical supplies for Gaza. But it hasn’t paid this money in months.

Yet this same P.A. has no trouble finding $330 million a year to pay salaries to jailed terrorists. Evidently, paying terrorists is more important to it than its people’s health.

Nevertheless, the P.A.’s behavior pales beside that of Gaza’s real governing authority, Hamas. Two weeks ago, Hamas discussed the humanitarian problem with foreign officials, who then presented its ideas to Israeli officials. The organization proposed three possible scenarios, Haaretz reported. But none of them involved Hamas lifting a finger to help the people it governs.

Indeed, Hamas leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar “made clear that under any of these scenarios, Hamas would not disarm,” wrote reporter Yaniv Kubovich. In other words, it won’t divert any of the hundreds of millions of dollars a year it spends on its own military to ease Gazans’ humanitarian plight.

And it’s not as if the organization couldn’t afford to do so. As Haaretz reported this week, aside from about 130 million shekels a year that Hamas raises through taxes in Gaza, Qatar alone has given Gaza $1 billion over the last seven years, including $200 million last year. And unlike the billions Gaza receives from other international donors, part of the Qatari money—16 percent, or $160 million—has gone directly to Hamas for its own use and that of other terrorist groups in Gaza.

That’s almost four times what the P.A. spent annually on medical supplies for Gaza back when it was still financing Gaza’s health system. Thus the Qatari money alone could have solved the entire medical crisis had Hamas so chosen.

So what did Hamas propose instead? That someone else solve the problem. Responsibility for Gaza could be handed over to the P.A., the United Nations or Egypt, it suggested. And if none of them is willing, Hamas’s backup plan is to launch a war against Israel “that would end with an international force occupying the Strip,” Kubovich wrote—that is, another way of trying to shift responsibility to someone else.

Of course, all these plans are nonstarters as long as Hamas refuses to disarm because nobody wants responsibility for Gaza while an armed group inside it is repeatedly attacking Israel. That’s why neither Egypt or the United Nations, nor any other international player offered to take responsibility for Gaza after its three previous wars with Israel, and they wouldn’t do so after another war either. As for the P.A., it has said explicitly that it won’t assume responsibility for Gaza unless Hamas disarms.

Hamas knows all this. But being able to continue attacking Israel is more important to it than enabling a solution to its people’s medical crisis.

Yet not content with merely refusing to solve the crisis, Hamas is actively making it worse. Indeed, a major factor in the crisis has been the overload of patients caused by Hamas’s insistence on holding violent mass protests near the Israeli border every week for almost a year now. During these protests, many Palestinians have been shot while trying to break through the border fence or clashing with Israeli soldiers.

According to Haaretz, a whopping 6,000 people with gunshot wounds still await operations, and about one-quarter of them have developed infections that will lead to amputations if not treated soon. Gazan hospitals have closed other departments to focus on treating the weekly influx of new wounded. Yet rather than stop the demonstrations to ease the pressure on its overloaded medical system, Hamas insists on staging new ones every week.

You might think the fact that both Palestinian governments prioritize anti-Israel terror over their own people’s urgent health needs would make them unpopular. But while some Palestinians are indeed fed up, many share their governments’ priorities.

In a 2015 poll, a plurality of Palestinians—more than 40 percent in both the West Bank and Gaza—said the “main Palestinian national goal” over the next five years should be “reclaiming all of historic Palestine from the river to the sea,” aka eradicating Israel. And the number soared when pollsters asked about longer time frames. Establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel ranked a distant second.

Nor is this just empty verbiage. Many Palestinians genuinely live by those priorities, as a recent Associated Press feature about two men whose sons were wounded at the weekly protests shows. One father tried to keep his son from attending and was devastated that the boy disobeyed and got hurt. But the other intentionally brought his son to the protest and claims to have no regrets, even though the boy now has a permanent limp.

“This is the tax you have to pay to achieve the right of return,” that father said, referring to the Palestinian goal of turning Israel into a Palestinian-majority state by flooding it with millions of descendants of refugees. In other words, he was willing to have his son lamed for the sake of destroying Israel.

In sum, what motivates both Palestinian governments and many ordinary Palestinians isn’t the desire to have their own state, but the desire to eradicate the Jewish one. On that altar, they are willing to sacrifice even basic humanitarian necessities like lifesaving medical care. And as long as that’s true, peace with the Palestinians will remain a fantasy.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on February 13, 2019. © 2019 JNS.org

Israel’s election campaign has only just begun, but one key issue is already notable by its absence: peace with the Palestinians. To many Americans—especially American Jews, who overwhelmingly consider this the most important issue facing Israel—the fact that almost none of the candidates are talking about the peace process may seem surprising. But several recent incidents help explain why it’s a very low priority for most Israeli voters.

Not so long ago, of course, the peace process was Israel’s top voting issue, almost its only one. But in a poll published last month, self-identified centrists and rightists both ranked the peace process dead last among six suggested issues of concern. Even self-identified leftists ranked it only third, below corruption and closing socioeconomic gaps.

Originally published in Commentary on January 10, 2019

The International Criminal Court’s blatant anti-Israel bias is no secret. Just two months ago, I wrote about its decision to launch an unprecedented fishing expedition against Israel. Nevertheless, its latest decision raises bias to an art form—the art in question being farce. It also completely destroys any pretensions the court has left of serving its original purpose: Ensuring that the world’s worst crimes don’t go unpunished.

On November 15, the pretrial chamber of judges ordered the court’s prosecutor—for the second time—to reconsider her refusal to investigate Israel’s 2010 raid on a flotilla to Gaza. Demanding one reconsideration is rare. Demanding two is unheard of. No such option even exists in the ICC’s rulebook.

Originally published in Commentary on November 28, 2018

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is being assailed by his own base for his restraint last week following Hamas’s massive bombardment of southern Israel. But in considering what Israel’s policy should be, it’s important to realize that for now, the option of permanently ending Hamas terror doesn’t exist—not because it’s beyond Israel’s capability, but because it lacks sufficient public support.

If someone came up with an idea for destroying Hamas that could be executed quickly and with minimal casualties, Israelis obviously would support that, but nobody has. Thus the only plan with proven capability to suppress terror over the long term remains the one Israel executed in the West Bank in 2002 in response to the second intifada: The army goes in, and it never leaves. That’s how Israel defeated the second intifada, and how it has kept West Bank terror within tolerable limits ever since.

But doing the same in Gaza would have very high costs—in soldiers’ lives, in international opprobrium and possibly in saddling Israel with responsibility for Gaza’s civilian problems. It would be far more costly than it was to reoccupy the West Bank because Hamas has used its 11 years of total control over Gaza to become far better armed and far more deeply entrenched than West Bank terrorists were in 2002.

No democracy could undertake such a costly plan without widespread public support, but especially not Israel, because any major military operation requires a massive call-up of reservists, and Israeli reservists tend to vote with their feet. They’ll show up in droves for an operation with broad support, but an operation widely considered unjustified will spark major protests.

That’s exactly what happened when, during the second intifada, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon thought Israelis’ overwhelming support for reoccupying the West Bank created a golden opportunity to do the same in Gaza. He was forced to scrap that idea after a massive public outcry, especially from reservists.

The crucial difference Sharon had overlooked was the level of pain that Israelis were experiencing. The West Bank was wreaking havoc nationwide at that time. A wave of suicide bombings and other attacks in cities throughout Israel killed 452 Israelis in 2002, including 130 in March 2002 alone. But Gaza was causing most Israelis very little pain. Though there were attacks on soldiers and settlers in Gaza itself, there were almost no attacks from Gaza inside Israel. Consequently, most Israelis weren’t willing to pay the price that a major operation in Gaza would have entailed.

And for all the differences in today’s situation, that same basic fact remains true: Gaza isn’t causing most Israelis enough pain to make them willing to reoccupy the territory. It has made life hell for residents of communities near the border for the last seven months, and it did the same for the entire south during last week’s rocket barrage. But the vast majority of Israelis have been completely unaffected. For people in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem and most other major population centers, life continued as normal.

Hamas understands this very well. That’s why it deliberately confined itself to bombarding the south, despite having missiles capable of reaching most of Israel. It wanted to cause as much pain as possible without crossing the threshold that would provoke Israel into war—and it succeeded.

But with the option of reoccupying Gaza unavailable, the two main options left are both short-term fixes.

One is a smaller-scale military operation. The last such operation, in 2014, bought the south three-and-a-half years of almost total quiet, but at a price (for Israel) of 72 dead and massive international opprobrium. Another such operation might buy a similar period of calm, but at a similar or even higher cost. And it would have to be repeated again in another few years, by which time Hamas may be better armed and capable of exacting an even higher price.

The second option, which Netanyahu evidently favors, is to negotiate a long-term ceasefire. This might buy a similar period of quiet, though since it hasn’t been tried before, there’s no guarantee. And it has several obvious advantages: no deaths, no international opprobrium, and most likely, greater support within Israel (though judging by past experience, not abroad) for a more forceful response once the ceasefire collapses, as it will at some point.

But it also has some obvious downsides. First, it’s devastating to Israeli deterrence, since it shows that firing rockets is a good way to get Israel to capitulate to your demands. Second, it ensures that when the inevitable next round arrives, Hamas will be able to inflict much more damage than it could today.

To grasp just how much, consider that since the 2014 war, Hamas has been under a tight Israeli and Egyptian blockade. Yet according to Israeli intelligence, it has nevertheless managed to completely rebuild and perhaps even exceed the arsenal it had then. Indeed, Hamas fired more than 450 rockets in just two days last week, almost three times the daily average of 85 rockets during the 2014 war. If it managed such a massive rearmament despite the blockade, one can only imagine how much more military materiel it would acquire under a long-term truce that would relax the blockade and pour cash into Gaza (ostensibly for civilian projects, but Hamas makes sure to take a cut of every dollar that enters).

Either of these options would only postpone the inevitable: Barring a miracle, Hamas will eventually become overconfident and cause Israel enough anguish to provoke it to reoccupy Gaza. By postponing that day, and thereby allowing Hamas to further arm and entrench itself, Israel merely ensures that when it comes, it will come at a much higher price—in Israeli casualties, in Palestinian casualties and in international opprobrium.

But knowing that doesn’t change the political reality that such an operation isn’t possible now. In today’s reality, the most that Netanyahu can do is buy a few more years of quiet. And his only choice is whether to do so via a ceasefire or a limited military operation, each of which carries its own major price tag.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on November 21, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org

Listening to “experts” on the Mideast has been positively embarrassing recently. They admit that the Arab world has just taken some dramatic steps toward normalization with Israel, and they admit that they had previously considered such steps inconceivable without Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. Yet in the same breath, they assert unequivocally that progress on the Palestinian track remains a prerequisite for further normalization. In other words, the failure of their previous predictions hasn’t dented their confidence in their predictive powers.

Mideast experts obviously aren’t alone in this. It’s a common failing among experts in many fields, and it has contributed significantly to “populist” disdain for expert opinion. But recent developments in the Mideast offer a particularly clear example of the problem.

One of the most significant of these developments was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Oman, an Arab country with which Israel has no official relations, on Oct. 26. Given that even Egypt and Jordan, with which Israel does have relations, often keep Netanyahu’s visits secret, the fact that Oman made the trip public, with several Omani newspapers reporting it, may be even more noteworthy than the fact that it took place.

The next day, at the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain, Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah went even further, telling the Mideast security summit that “Israel is a state present in the region, and we all understand this. … Maybe it is time for Israel to be treated the same and also bear the same obligations.”

That same weekend, an international judo tournament took place in the United Arab Emirates. Although much has been made of the fact that Israeli judokas were allowed to compete under their own flag and anthem for the first time in the history of the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam, that actually proves nothing except that the International Judo Federation finally developed a spine: After cravenly forcing Israeli athletes to complete under the federation’s flag and anthem at last year’s tournament, this year, it threatened to strip Abu Dhabi of hosting rights unless Israeli athletes were treated the same as athletes from other countries (the success of this tactic should be a lesson to other sporting associations that still kowtow to Arab states’ refusal to grant Israeli athletes equal rights).

But Abu Dhabi went far beyond the federation’s mandate. Nothing in the federation’s rulebook, for instance, required the hosts to grant Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev the honor of awarding the medals at one of the tournament’s events. Nor did anything in the federation’s rules require Emirati officials to take Regev on an official visit to Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque—the first such visit by any Israeli minister. As Times of Israel reporter Raphael Ahren put it, this “was something veteran analysts said they never imagined could happen in their lifetime.” In other words, Abu Dhabi took advantage of the cover provided by the tournament to make some dramatic gestures toward Israel.

Mideast experts readily acknowledged that the Omani and Emirati moves, coming as they did at a time when the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is frozen, were both unprecedented and completely unexpected. Yet that didn’t stop most of them from asserting that “only a final status agreement with the Palestinians can inspire normalization,” as Evan Gottesman of the Israel Policy Forum put it. Or as Yoel Guzansky of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies told Ahren, “The Palestinians are still the glass ceiling for Arab-Israel normalization. … This visit should be the beginning of normalization, not the end, but for the Gulf states, it’s likely the end. This is the most they can do for now.”

Yet what makes them so certain? After all, they’ve been wrong many times before. Just two years ago, after another round of unprecedented gestures, the “experts” similarly declared (wrongly) that the rapprochement had gone as far as it could without progress on the Palestinian track. So why are they convinced that this time, they’re right?

There are two answers to this. The first is wishful thinking. The experts making this claim generally favor Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, so they don’t want Israel to be able to normalize relations with Arab states without such concessions. Similarly, the few experts who confidently predict that normalization is possible regardless of the Palestinians are generally people who oppose such concessions.

The second answer is that predicting change is hard. For decades, with the notable exception of the peace with Egypt, Arab attitudes toward Israel were in stasis, making it easy to predict that the future would resemble the past. But now, with Arab attitudes in flux, nobody can really know how far Arab states are willing to go; I doubt they even know themselves. There’s simply no precedent to judge by.

Yet since human beings don’t deal well with chaos, the normal human instinct is to cling to the past as a guide even when that guide is clearly no longer reliable. And that’s especially true for “experts” because if they admit to being clueless, then why should anyone listen to them anymore?

That’s precisely why experts are so often wrong on so many issues—not because they’re stupid or evil, but because they’re too arrogant to admit that even experts can’t predict the future. They can’t predict whether a complex policy will succeed or fail, they can’t predict when a seemingly stable country will suddenly implode, they can’t predict when long-held attitudes will suddenly shift.

That doesn’t make them useless; experts excel at concrete tasks that don’t require oracular powers. For instance, though Israel’s intelligence agencies failed to predict the second intifada, they became very good at the day-to-day task of thwarting terror attacks once they adjusted to the new situation.

But unless experts acquire enough modesty and honesty to admit that they have no special expertise about the future, they will keep getting big issues wrong. And eventually, like the boy who cried “wolf,” people will stop listening to them altogether, even on issues where they do have something to contribute.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on November 7, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org

With the Trump Administration reportedly planning various steps against UNRWA—the U.N. aid agency devoted solely to Palestinian refugees—Israeli defense officials have leaped to UNRWA’s defense. A rapid cutback of U.S. funding would create a vacuum in basic services, especially in Gaza, that Hamas might fill, and could even spark violence, they warned.

But their argument is wrong on at least three counts. First, U.S. cutbacks won’t actually cause a financial crisis. Second, forcing Hamas to provide basic services in UNRWA’s stead would be a plus, not a minus. Third, their policy would sacrifice long-term strategic interests for minuscule tactical gains.

As I’ve written before, I’d support plunging UNRWA into financial crisis, since that might force it to reform. But Washington can’t cut its donations much more than it already has—from $360 million last year to just $60 million this year. And judging by the results, it hasn’t caused a crisis at all.

Admittedly, you wouldn’t guess this from listening to UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Kraehenbuehl or from reading the numerous media reports that uncritically parrot his claims. Kraehenbuehl has repeatedly said the organization faces “its worst crisis ever,” a genuinely “existential” danger. He even threatened not to open UNRWA schools this year, though he later backtracked.

But in real life, the agency has laid off 113 workers in Gaza, 154 in the West Bank and around 100 in Jordan—about 370 in total. If that sounds like a lot, then you haven’t read UNRWA’s website, which proudly declares the agency “one of the largest United Nations programs, with over 30,000 personnel.” In short, these “extensive” cutbacks, as one media report termed them, total a little more than 1 percent of UNRWA’s enormous staff. That’s not something most organizations would label a crisis.

Moreover, UNRWA wouldn’t have any crisis at all if it weren’t outrageously overstaffed. It has almost three times as many employees as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, though the latter agency, which cares for all non-Palestinian refugees and displaced people worldwide, serves 12 times as many people. In other words, UNRWA has one employee for every 167 “refugees,” while UNHCR has one for every 5,200.

Nor would UNRWA have any problem if it didn’t endlessly expand its refugee rolls by including every refugee’s descendent for all eternity, even though most aren’t refugees at all, since they’re either citizens of other countries or residents of the West Bank and Gaza, which the United Nations itself deems the “State of Palestine.” The agency doesn’t even bother delisting many who are dead. In short, it has many ways to cut costs without causing a crisis.

Defense officials’ second fallacy is that Hamas providing services in UNRWA’s stead would somehow be bad. In reality, if Hamas had to provide services to the people it governs, it would have less money to spend on its endless military build-up, which would improve Israel’s security.

That’s exactly what happened last year, when the Palestinian Authority, which had previously financed all civilian services in Hamas-run Gaza not provided by UNRWA, stopped doing so. For the first time, Hamas had to pay for civilian needs like fuel for Gaza’s only power plant out of its own pocket. Consequently, according to Israeli intelligence, it slashed its annual military budget from $200 million in 2014 (the year of the last Hamas-Israel war) to $50 million last year. Even $70 million in military aid from Iran, then still flush with cash from the 2015 nuclear deal, couldn’t make up that shortfall.

UNRWA cutbacks would force Hamas to spend even more on civilian needs in order to preserve its rule in Gaza. And that would further reduce its ability to invest in rockets and cross-border tunnels.

Granted, Hamas-run schools and summer camps would indoctrinate children in anti-Israel propaganda. But so do UNRWA-run schools and summer camps. UNRWA textbooks teach that Jews have no right even to pre-1967 Israel, that all Jewish holy sites are actually Muslim, that Molotov cocktail attacks on Jewish civilians are a “barbecue party.” UNRWA summer camps teach that even pre-1967 Israel belongs to the Palestinians, and they should seek to “liberate” it through force of arms. Thus on this score, Israel would be no worse off than it is now.

The final fallacy is defense officials’ desire to postpone conflict at any cost. Obviously, preventing war is usually desirable. But war with Hamas isn’t an existential threat, and in any case, virtually all Israeli analysts consider it inevitable at some point.

The refugee crisis, in contrast, remains a potentially existential threat. Should the Palestinians ever succeed in mobilizing international support behind their demand that all 5 million “refugees” relocate to Israel, this would eradicate the Jewish state.

Hence Israel has a major interest in defusing this crisis by taking most of these “refugees” off the rolls—where, as noted, they don’t belong in any case—and permanently shuttering UNRWA, whose main mission in life is to endlessly expand those rolls. Since no previous U.S. administration has ever been willing to address this issue, Israel would be foolish not to take advantage of the Trump administration’s apparent desire to do so, even at the price of war with Hamas.

But that’s especially true given that defense officials think war will happen anyway. They merely seek to postpone it so that Israel can finish building its anti-tunnel barrier. And for a few months (or even years) of delay and the minor tactical advantage of an anti-tunnel barrier, they’re willing to sacrifice an existential Israeli interest.

It’s foolish beyond belief. But unfortunately, it’s not surprising. As Einat Wilf and Adi Schwartz argue in a new book, the defense establishment has been UNRWA’s top lobbyist for decades.

All this merely proves a point I’ve made before: Military men are good at solving militarily problems, but they’re no better than anyone else, and often worse, at understanding political problems. Yet their facade of expertise often cows politicians into deferring to them.

Let’s hope Israel’s current government resists this temptation and takes full advantage of the Trump administration’s plan. It’s an opportunity that may not recur for a very long time.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on August 29, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org

The Jerusalem Post published a surprising report in June: According to data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the number of construction starts for housing in the settlements has been in a “downward spiral” ever since U.S. President Donald Trump took office in January 2017 and hit a six-year low in the first quarter of 2018.

Granted, Israel’s government regularly approves plans for thousands of new settlement homes. But it rarely authorizes their actual construction. Moreover, even these “new approvals” are often just recycled plans that were previously approved but never built.

That settlement construction has plummeted under Trump may seem counterintuitive, given that Israel’s government is still comprised mainly of pro-settlement parties and Trump’s friendly administration has consistently refused to criticize settlement activity. Indeed, Hagit Ofran of the left-wing group Peace Now told the Post she couldn’t explain the drop.

But Ofran’s bewilderment merely proves, for the umpteenth time, that Israel’s far left doesn’t understand how the rest of the country thinks. In fact, as perceptive centrist Yossi Klein Halevi noted in a 2013 interview with The Times of Israel, most Israelis’ willingness to please the “international community” has always been directly proportional to how supportive they feel that community is of Israel.

Klein Halevi interpreted this primarily as an emotional response, citing two examples as evidence. One was Sebastia, the first settlement deep in the northern West Bank. Initially, the Rabin government opposed it. But in November 1975, the United Nations passed its infamous “Zionism is racism” resolution, and Israelis became “so enraged at the U.N. that they adopt Gush Emunim [the settlement movement] as the response,” said Klein Halevi. Three weeks later, the settlers overcame the government’s opposition.

He then contrasted this with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in November 1977, which broke the Arab world’s decades-long boycott of Israel. Sadat made this gesture with no guarantee of Israeli recompense and at considerable cost: Many Arab countries severed relations with Egypt and even slapped an economic boycott on it; Sadat himself was assassinated by an angry Islamist four years later. But as Klein Halevi wrote, Sadat’s “genius was to understand that the only pressure Israelis can’t resist is the pressure of an embrace.” Less than a year later, Menachem Begin’s rightist government, which had previously opposed any territorial concessions, agreed to return the entire Sinai for peace with Egypt.

Yet while emotion undoubtedly plays a major role in decision-making, it would be a mistake to ignore the equally significant role played by realpolitik: No politician will prefer the international community’s desires to those of his own constituents unless he or she is convinced that doing so will bring Israel international benefits that outweigh the domestic costs. And nothing illustrates this better than the settlement issue.

Contrary to his image overseas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has never displayed much interest in settlement expansion. As I’ve noted before, settlement construction during most of his last nine years in office was lower than under any of his predecessors, including leftists like Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert. Even Haaretz—no fan of Netanyahu—subsequently reached that same conclusion.

But most of Netanyahu’s party and many of his coalition partners do favor expanding settlements. Thus to persuade them to show restraint, he must be able to show that doing so will produce tangible international benefits—either increased international support or at least reduced international hostility. And since no Israeli concession has ever produced any recompense from Europe, realistically, that means America.

Under the Obama administration, settlement restraint provided no benefits whatsoever. In 2009, for instance, Netanyahu instituted an unprecedented 10-month settlement freeze to facilitate negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, whose leader, Mahmoud Abbas, refused even to show up for nine months and then walked out in the 10th. But Obama still blamed Netanyahu for the talks’ failure.

Five years of below-average settlement construction later, another round of talks collapsed. As an American negotiator recalled, “In February, Abbas arrived at a Paris hotel for a meeting with [Secretary of State John] Kerry … He rejected all of Kerry’s ideas. A month later, in March, he was invited to the White House. Obama presented the American-formulated principles verbally—not in writing. Abbas refused.” Yet the administration, dismissing Abbas’s rejectionism, again blamed Netanyahu, and specifically settlement construction.

Later that summer, Hamas and Israel fought a war. Rather than supporting Israel’s right to defend itself against missile attacks from Gaza—a territory it vacated nine years earlier—the Obama administration tried to impose a cease-fire that met most of Hamas’s demands and none of Israel’s. Adding insult to injury, it even halted certain weapons shipments to Israel.

At no point during Obama’s two terms did administration officials even give Netanyahu lip-service credit for restraining settlement construction. Instead, they picked nonstop public fights over the issue. Thus toward the end of Obama’s tenure, it had become impossible for Netanyahu to persuade his cabinet that Israel was gaining anything by this restraint, and settlement construction began rising again.

Yet during Trump’s first year as president, housing starts in the settlements plummeted by 47 percent and dropped again in the first quarter of 2018. This is not surprising. Though Trump never made a public issue of settlement activity, his administration quietly told Netanyahu that it would appreciate restraint. And in Trump’s case, it was easy for Netanyahu to show that compliance would benefit Israel.

In the past 18 months, Trump has provided unstinting support for Israel at the United Nations via Ambassador Nikki Haley; recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the U.S. embassy there; publicly confronted the P.A.’s “pay to slay” policy; cut funding for UNRWA, the organization whose sole purpose is to perpetuate the Palestinian refugee problem; and abandoned the disastrous nuclear deal with Iran. For anyone but the most rabid settlement supporter, this is clearly a worthwhile tradeoff.

That’s why Obama’s policy of putting “daylight” between America and Israel was always doomed to fail, and anyone who knew anything about Israel would have known it. For both emotional and realpolitik reasons, arm-twisting usually produces far less Israeli cooperation than a hug.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on July 6, 2018 © 2018 JNS.org

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Israel’s do-over election performed a vital service for democracy

Like many Israelis, I was horrified when April’s election led to another in September; it seemed a colossal waste of time and money. But the do-ever election proved critical to maintaining Israel’s democratic legitimacy among half the public—the half that would otherwise have thought that April’s election was stolen from them.

In April, rightist parties that explicitly promised to support Benjamin Netanyahu for prime minister won 65 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. In other words, a clear majority of voters seemingly cast their ballots for a rightist, Netanyahu-led government. But after the election, Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman refused to join such a government.

Thus even if an alternative government could have been formed—whether a unity government or one led by Netanyahu’s rival, Benny Gantz—it would have undermined rightists’ faith in the democratic process. Any such government would have looked like a product not of the majority’s will, but of the whims of a single individual who “stole” right-wing votes and gave them to the left.

The do-over election showed this wasn’t the case. Lieberman’s party not only maintained its strength, but increased it, thereby proving him right that his voters cared more about curbing ultra-Orthodox power than about keeping Netanyahu in office. Moreover, the pro-Netanyahu bloc shrank even further—from 60 seats (excluding Lieberman) in April to 55 in September—due entirely to Netanyahu’s own appalling behavior in the intervening months, which prompted a nontrivial number of center-right voters to either switch sides or stay home and a massive increase in Arab turnout.

That doesn’t mean Gantz won; the bloc he heads can’t form a government on its own. But neither can Netanyahu’s bloc. Any possible solution—a unity government, a Netanyahu government with leftist partners or a Gantz government with rightist partners—will require compromise between the blocs. And nobody will be able to claim the election was stolen when that happens.

This matters greatly because the democratic process has been subverted far too often over the past 25 years, usually in the left’s favor, with enthusiastic applause from the left’s self-proclaimed democrats.

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