Analysis from Israel

Peace Process

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

Last Thursday, Palestinian Media Watch revealed that the Palestinian Culture Ministry proclaimed a National Reading Day in honor of Baha Alyan, a terrorist who murdered three civilians on a Jerusalem bus in 2015. This was just the latest of hundreds of similar examples of the Palestinian Authority’s glorification of terrorists, a practice the international community has been dismissing as unimportant for a quarter century now. Thus, it might be useful for Americans to look at the issue through the prism of a more familiar problem: school shootings. Because, as investigations into the shooters’ motivations reveal, those shootings have quite a lot in common with Palestinian terror.

As the New York Times reported last month, school shootings seem to have become “contagious.” Each new shooter is inspired by his predecessors, and especially by the media attention they receive. In a cellphone video made prior to February’s deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida, for instance, the gunman declared, “I’m going to be the next school shooter of 2018 … It’s going to be a big event. When you see me on the news, you’ll all know who I am.”

Similarly, after another gunman killed two people on live television in 2015, one 26-year-old man wrote on his blog, “I have noticed that so many people like him are all alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are … Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.” A few months later, that man murdered nine people in a shooting spree at an Oregon community college.

Investigators have consequently concluded that alienated or mentally disturbed young men see such shootings as a way “to get the attention of a society that they believe bullies, ignores or misunderstands them,” the Times reported. And media attention plays a major role in this, according to researchers at Western New Mexico University. As the Times put it, “The role of the media in turning school gunmen into household names and perpetuating ‘the infamous legacy they desire’ can be shown to have inspired additional attacks.”

This conclusion would come as no surprise to Israelis because Israeli researchers had long ago reached a similar conclusion about the role of societal attention in motivating Palestinian terror. During the height of the second intifada (2000-05), Dr. Anat Berko interviewed numerous failed suicide bombers–people who were caught before they could blow themselves up. She found that, for young men, a key driver of such attacks was the knowledge that they would be lionized by their own society (women were more likely to be motivated by a desire to escape miserable personal circumstances). As she put it in a 2014 interview, “The suicide bomber does not act out of suffering or inferior economic status, but rather out of a desire to win social recognition.”

Since Israel obviously couldn’t eliminate that motive as long as the PA continued to exist and to glorify murderers, it focused instead on denying suicide bombers means and opportunity. In this, it was stunningly successful, thanks mainly (as I’ve explained before) to its decision to let the Israel Defense Forces retake full control of the West Bank, thereby depriving terrorists of the safe havens in the PA where they had plotted, prepared, and trained for their attacks.

Yet the motive still exists, in spades, as even a cursory glance at PMW’s latest press releases show. Two days before the organization issued its release about National Reading Day, it announced that the PA had named a plaza after Maher Younes, an Israeli Arab who kidnapped and murdered an IDF soldier in 1980. And four days before that, it issued a press release about a new game show on official PA television whose host opened it by praising “our heroic martyrs who water the land of Palestine with their blood every day.”

As anyone familiar with Palestinian language-laundering knows, “martyrs” are terrorists who kill Israelis. This was made explicit in a music video broadcast last December on a television station run by PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party, in which the lyrics glorifying “martyrdom” were accompanied by pictures of suicide bombers.

This ongoing glorification of terrorists hasn’t made much of a dent in the Western dogma that Palestinian terror is actually driven by “legitimate grievances” and/or “poverty and distress.” Hence, many Westerners still deem PA incitement a trivial issue undeserving of attention, and Western countries still lavish aid on the PA without insisting on an end to such incitement.

This is clearly counterproductive for the West’s oft-proclaimed desire that Israel withdraw from the West Bank. As long as the PA continues urging its people to slaughter Israelis on a daily basis, such a withdrawal would be completely untenable. Were Israel to remove its soldiers, it would instantly be back in the situation of the second intifada–in which Palestinians had not just motive but also means and opportunity, and used it to slaughter over 1,000 Israelis, most of them civilians.

Yet it also turns out, and not for the first time, that by treating Palestinian terror as a unique and somehow “legitimate” form of terror, other countries harm themselves as well as Israel, because they deny themselves the chance to learn lessons that could save lives back home. As the Times reported, investigators now consider school shootings “the American equivalent of suicide bombings.” And, if so, as Berko’s study makes clear, logical tactics to combat them might include denying the shooters the media attention they crave and closer monitoring of those dark corners of the web where such shootings are glorified (and, yes, Israel’s experience also obviously shows that making it harder for killers to get guns would be a third).

Contrary to the old children’s rhyme, it is not true that “words can never hurt me.” The glorification of violence, whether it’s Palestinian terror or school shootings, can be deadly. It is, therefore, long past time for the West to stop tolerating it. Conditioning financial aid to the PA on an end to such incitement would be a good place to start.

Originally published in Commentary on June 27, 2018

If there’s one thing Israel advocates agree on, it’s that Israel lost the PR war over May 14’s violent demonstrations in Gaza. Everybody from the U.N. Security Council to a New York public high school mourned the 62 Palestinians killed as innocent victims, even though 53 belonged to terrorist organizations. And with Hamas planning another demonstration on Tuesday, a battle has been raging over whether the PR war is inherently unwinnable or if Israel’s public diplomacy was simply incompetent.

The correct answer is both. And nothing better illustrates this than the story of the Palestinian baby allegedly killed by Israeli tear gas.

Israel’s critics immediately seized on the death of 8-month-old Layla Ghandour as proof of its malfeasance. As the New York Times wrote, “The story shot across the globe, providing an emotive focus for outrage at military tactics that Israel’s critics said were disproportionately violent.” The Times of Israel noted that “Her funeral was filmed and featured on global TV news broadcasts and newspaper front pages.”

Soon afterward, however, a Gazan doctor suggested that she most likely died of a congenital heart defect rather than anything Israel did (a theory later apparently accepted even by Gaza’s Hamas-run Health Ministry, which last week removed Ghandour from its list of people killed by Israel).

What happened next was surreal: The doctor’s explanation was immediately seized on and disseminated worldwide by both official Israeli spokesmen and Israel supporters overseas as if it somehow mattered whether Ghandour was killed by tear gas or a congenital heart defect. In other words, Israel and its supporters implicitly accepted the view of the anti-Israel mob. Had the baby truly been killed by Israeli tear gas, presumably Israel could legitimately have been considered culpable.

What they should have pointed out instead is that Ghandour’s story proves just how dishonest all the critics accusing Israel of disproportionate force are. After all, ever since the weekly demonstrations along the Gaza border began in March, these critics have claimed that they don’t deny Israel’s right to protect its border. They merely demand that it restrict itself to nonlethal crowd-control measures rather than resorting to lethal force. As the New York Times put it in an April editorial, “Israel has a right to defend its border, but in the face of unarmed civilians it could do so with nonlethal tactics common to law enforcement.”

For now, leave aside that “unarmed civilians” lie. The more important point is that tear gas is exactly the type of nonlethal crowd control measure commonly used by law enforcement agencies. So if Israel’s critics meant what they said about its right to defend the border by nonlethal means, the death of a baby during a violent demonstration along the border might be a tragedy, but it wouldn’t be Israel’s fault. It would be the fault of the relatives who deliberately brought her into the heart of that violent demonstration, despite knowing Israel was using crowd-control measures to keep protesters from breaching its border.

Instead, Israel’s critics treated Ghandour’s death as proof of Israel’s evil. In other words, they effectively declared that Israel had no right to defend its border by any means whatsoever–even with non-lethal means like tear gas–unless it could somehow achieve the impossible feat of guaranteeing that no Palestinian would ever be killed under any circumstances. And if the only way Israel can win the PR war is leaving its border completely undefended, that war would indeed be inherently unwinnable; at least, among this portion of its critics.

But many people do understand that leaving a border undefended against angry mobs isn’t a tenable option. If Israeli public diplomacy had been even minimally competent, it would have made clear that this is the logical implication of blaming Israel for Ghandour’s death.

Critics might retort that even tear gas shouldn’t be used against completely peaceful demonstrators. But as the Times’ story makes clear, Ghandour wasn’t in a peaceful demonstration when she died. She had been deliberately taken from a peaceful one into a violent one.

On May 14, as in all the preceding weeks, there were actually two demonstrations taking place. One, which was largely peaceful, was hundreds of meters from the border fence. The other, which was right up against the fence, was anything but peaceful. Members of terrorist organizations threw bombs, Molotov cocktails, and slingshot-propelled rocks at soldiers. They flew incendiary kites across the border to set Israeli fields ablaze (to date, some 300 of these kites have ignited 100 fires, destroyed more than 3,000 acres of wheat and caused millions of shekels worth of damage). They vandalized the fence and tried to break through it. These are the “demonstrators” Israel targeted with measures ranging from tear gas to, when necessary, live fire, as evidenced by the fact that 53 of the 62 killed belonged to terrorist organizations.

Baby Layla was taken to the nonviolent protest by her 12-year-old uncle, who mistakenly thought her mother was there. Upon discovering his mistake, he responsibly kept her in the nonviolent section until late afternoon, when she began crying. Then, wanting to hand her off to an older relative, he “pushed forward into the protest in search of her grandmother, Heyam Omar, who was standing in a crowd under a pall of black smoke, shouting at Israeli soldiers across the fence,” the Times reported. Panicked by Layla’s crying, he deliberately brought her into the most violent part of the protest, where Israel was exercising its legitimate right of self-defense and where no baby should ever have been. And she died.

But even if it was Israeli tear gas that killed her, Israel cannot be held culpable for her death unless you start from the premise that it had no right whatsoever to defend its border against violent attacks of the type launched during this protest, even by the most nonlethal of means. That, of course, is precisely what many of Israel’s critics do think. And this is the point that Israel and its advocates should have been hammering home.

Originally published in Commentary on June 1, 2018

Note: After this article was published, Paraguay also moved its embassy to Jerusalem

After President Donald Trump announced in December that he was moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, a friend lamented that the move would have less impact than it should because Trump was so widely disdained both in America and overseas. Yet since then, I’ve heard more foreign acknowledgments of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital than I can ever remember before.

So far, only one other country is definitely moving its embassy—Guatemala, whose Jerusalem embassy is slated to open two days after America’s does. But at least four other countries—two in Latin America and two in Europe—are actively discussing an embassy move. And even if none actually happens, the very fact that this issue is now openly being debated in regions of the globe where Israel has faced considerable hostility in recent years is a remarkable change.

In both the European Union and most of Latin America, official policy has long been that eastern Jerusalem should be the capital of Palestine, while western Jerusalem should be . . . well, nothing. Few countries in either region have ever said that any part of Jerusalem should be Israel’s capital; in fact, some still explicitly declare the city a corpus separatum. In other words, they think Palestinians should get the eastern half while the western half should be an international city.

But now, a decades-old taboo has been broken. Suddenly, several other countries are where America was 20 years ago, with different branches of government actively arguing over Jerusalem’s status.

On April 12, the Honduras National Congress voted to move its embassy to Jerusalem by a sizable majority (59-33), though the decision hasn’t yet been approved by the executive branch. Later that month, Paraguay’s president said he’d like to move his country’s embassy before leaving office in mid-August, though buy-in from the rest of the political system is uncertain.

On April 19, Israeli Independence Day, Romania broke an even more significant psychological barrier by becoming the first European country to announce plans to move its embassy. The president of Romania’s Chamber of Deputies told a Romanian television station that the decision had been made the previous evening. Whether it will actually happen remains unclear; the country’s president opposes the move, and the cabinet hasn’t yet approved it. But the prime minister has formally asked the cabinet to do so.

And in the Czech Republic—whose parliament passed a resolution urging its government to promote “respect” for Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by a vote of 112-2 seven months before Trump’s announcement—the Foreign Ministry broke with E.U. policy by declaring, the day after Trump’s announcement, that it recognizes “West Jerusalem” as Israel’s capital. President Milos Zeman wants to move the embassy as well, but Prime Minister Andrej Babi refuses to defy E.U. policy to that extent.

There has also been a notable change in the conversation even in countries where an embassy move isn’t on the table.

In March, for instance, Belgian Secretary of State Philippe de Backer (whose position is equivalent to a deputy cabinet minister) told the local Jewish paper Joods Actueel: “There is no doubt that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. It’s clear; it’s reality. There’s no discussion on this issue.”

Former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls—who, admittedly, was the most pro-Israel member of former President François Hollande’s otherwise hostile government—made similar statements that same month in an interview with the Times of Israel. “I am very clear on this subject: Jerusalem is the capital of the Jews and of Israel—historically, religiously, and politically,” he said. “It’s at the heart of the foundation of the State of Israel.”

Neither statement heralds an imminent change in official policy. As De Backer explained, action isn’t possible now because “we’re in a political context where Europe sees Jerusalem as subject to negotiations toward a two-state solution.” But the very fact that current and former senior European officials suddenly feel they can openly acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is new.

Another intriguing example is Russia, which actually preceded Trump in recognizing “West Jerusalem” as Israel’s capital. A statement issued by Russia’s Foreign Ministry in April 2017 said that while Moscow continues to believe that eastern Jerusalem should be the capital of a Palestinian state, “we must state that in this context we view west Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.” Yet after Trump’s December announcement, Russia voted to condemn the U.S. decision in both the U.N. Security Council and the General Assembly, making it seem that the April decision had either been rescinded or was meaningless.

Then, in March 2018, Russia’s embassy in Israel issued a statement praising “the wise position of West Jerusalem” on a recent controversy (the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain, which Israel condemned, but without specifically mentioning Russia). Though it’s common to use a nation’s capital as a metonym for the country (“Washington” for the United States or “Moscow” for Russia), I can’t recall any use of “Jerusalem” to refer to Israel; that has always been taboo. So Russia is apparently sticking by its recognition; it just isn’t willing to give Trump any credit on the issue.

Obviously, Jerusalem isn’t going to be flooded with new embassies anytime soon, for reasons having little to do with Trump, as the Czech case makes clear.

But the more acceptable it becomes for people to admit that Jerusalem is and always will be Israel’s capital, the harder it becomes for others to maintain their decades-old denialism. And Trump has played an important role in moving this process forward.

In that sense, he’s like the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen’s famous fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” A young child obviously isn’t a respected role model for the adults around him, yet it was only after that little boy publicly declared the emperor naked that the adults could bring themselves to admit the same.

Andersen’s point was that telling the truth has a power of its own, regardless of the speaker. And Trump’s truth-telling on Jerusalem is already demonstrating a similar power, regardless of the speaker’s flaws.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on May 8, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org

Subscribe to Evelyn’s Mailing List

How Israel’s Electoral System Brings the Country’s Fringes Into Its Center

Like Haviv Rettig Gur in “How and Why Israelis Vote,” I, too, think the advantages of Israel’s parliamentary system outweigh its disadvantages, and for essentially the same reason: because it keeps a great many people in the political system who would otherwise remain outside it.

Critics of the system’s plethora of small parties—as Gur notes, no fewer than 43 parties have been vying for Knesset seats in this year’s election—maintain that it should be streamlined and redesigned so that only big parties would be able to enter the Knesset. In that case, the critics argue, people who currently vote for small parties would simply switch their votes to large ones.

No doubt, some voters would do so—but many others would not. There are at least three groups among whom turnout would plummet if niche parties became by definition unelectable: Arabs, Ḥaredim (including some ḥaredi Zionists), and the protest voters who, in every election, propel a new “fad” party into the Knesset. (In 2015, as Gur writes, the fad party was Kulanu. This year, it’s been Moshe Feiglin’s pro-marijuana, libertarian, right-wing Zehut party, which Gur doesn’t discuss although polls have consistently showed it gaining five to seven seats.)

Together, these three groups constitute roughly a third of the country, and all three are to some extent alienated from the mainstream. If they were no longer even participating in elections, that alienation would grow.

Why does this matter? In answering that question, I’ll focus mainly on Ḥaredim and Arabs, the most significant and also the most stable of the three groups (protest voters being by nature amorphous and changeable).

It matters primarily because people who cease to see politics as a means of furthering their goals are more likely to resort to violence. Indeed, it’s no accident that most political violence in Israel has issued from quarters outside the electoral system.

Read more
Archives