Ostensibly, winner Avi Gabbay and runner-up Amir Peretz couldn’t be more different. Peretz is a veteran hard-left activist, an early leader of the Peace Now movement, who was advocating Palestinian statehood back when most Israelis still considered the idea anathema. Gabbay is a moderate who once supported Benjamin Netanyahu’s center-right Likud party and, more recently, co-founded the centrist Kulanu party. Yet they sounded almost indistinguishable when answering five questions posed by Haaretz (in Hebrew) before Monday’s run-off (an abbreviated English version is here).
Asked about the idea of unilaterally withdrawing from parts of the West Bank, for instance, both men rejected it. “I don’t believe in unilateral withdrawal,” Gabbay said bluntly. Peretz was wordier, but still quite clear. “We won’t continue to settle the territories, but at the same time, we mustn’t forget the lessons of the unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza (and also from other conflict areas around the world),” he said.
What makes this surprising is that several Labor-affiliated former senior-defense-officials-turned-activists have been pushing unilateral withdrawal. Among them are former Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, the man slated to be Labor’s defense minister had it won the last election, and former Shin Bet security service chief Ami Ayalon, a one-time Labor Knesset member. Thus one might expect the idea to appeal to rank-and-file members.
But Peretz and Gabbay thought otherwise. Israel’s unilateral pullout from Gaza in 2005 resulted in three wars and 16,000 rockets on Israel (compared to zero from the Israeli-controlled West Bank), while its unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 enabled Hezbollah to grow from a terrorist nuisance into a major strategic threat, whose arsenal of 150,000 rockets is larger than that of most national armies. Thus the candidates evidently concluded that even left-of-center Israelis no longer believe the activist “experts” who persist in denying that unilateral withdrawal endangers Israel’s security.
Moreover, both candidates promised to freeze settlement construction, but only outside the major settlement blocs. This is a sharp rejection of the line the Obama Administration spent eight years peddling—that construction anywhere beyond the 1949 armistice lines, even in areas everyone knows will remain Israeli under any agreement, is an obstacle to peace. It turns out even left-of-center Israelis consider it ludicrous for Israel to stop building in the settlement blocs and large Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem. They simply don’t buy the idea that construction in these areas, which will clearly remain Israeli, is a legitimate excuse for the Palestinians’ ongoing refusal to negotiate.
No less noteworthy was one glaring omission. Though both candidates promised immediate final-status negotiations with the Palestinians and deemed a peace deal essential, their only stated reason for this position was to keep Israel from becoming a binational state. Neither so much as mentioned the fear that Israel could face growing international isolation if it didn’t resolve the conflict. That claim has been a staple of left-wing advocacy for years. It was most famously expressed by former Labor chairman (and former prime minister) Ehud Barak who, in 2011, warned that Israel would face a “diplomatic tsunami” if the conflict continued.
This argument has been getting harder and harder to make in recent years, as Israel’s diplomatic reach has steadily expanded. But it would have sounded particularly fatuous coming just days after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s historic visit to Israel, which caused many who had previously parroted Barak’s warning to throw in the towel. Typical headlines from center-left commentators included “Where’s the diplomatic isolation?” and “Modi visit shows Israel can improve foreign ties even without a peace process.” Judging by the fact that neither Peretz nor Gabbay mentioned this argument, they evidently think even Labor Party members will no longer buy it.
As an aside, it’s far from clear that diplomatic ties would continue expanding under a Labor government, because center-left governments typically view the Palestinian issue as their top priority, and therefore devote much less time and energy to expanding ties with the rest of the world. In contrast, since Netanyahu’s government believes a Palestinian deal is currently unobtainable, it has invested enormous effort in expanding Israel’s other diplomatic relationships. And that effort matters. As Kenya’s UN ambassador said last week, it’s only recently that “the lights have gone on” in Israel and it has started engaging. Previously, he spent years asking Israeli officials, “Why are you not engaged? Where is Israel?” But the possibility that Labor might choose to focus on the Palestinians instead doesn’t change the fact that Israel clearly can expand its diplomacy even without a peace process.
Finally, Peretz and Gabbay both rejected the increasingly popular argument among left-wing activists that fully integrating Israeli Arabs requires inviting elected Arab parties into the governing coalition, no matter how extreme those parties are. Inter alia, they include one parliamentarian doing jail time for smuggling cell phones to imprisoned terrorists, another who calls Arab policemen “traitors,” and a third who canceled a meeting with American Jewish leaders because he “cannot in good conscience” enter a building that houses a Zionist organization. Gabbay, typically blunt, said the Arab parties’ Joint List “includes anti-Zionist elements … so we can’t cooperate with this composition.” Peretz concurred: “Incidents that have occurred in the Joint List undoubtedly make it very hard to add them to any future coalition. Effectively, the difficulty is so great as to make this impossible.”
In short, both men upheld the traditional view that integration requires bolstering Arab moderates rather than bolstering radical politicians who support terrorists and/or want to abolish the Jewish state. Evidently, they believed any other position would repel Labor voters.
The bottom line is that, even among mainstream left-of-center voters, many ideas pushed by left-wing journalists and activists remain toxic. It’s a point worth remembering for all those foreigners who get much of their information from these very same sources.
Originally published in Commentary on July 14, 2017
Gaza’s worsening electricity crisis provides a textbook example of why many so-called human-rights organizations no longer deserve to be taken seriously. The crisis stems entirely from an internal dispute between the Palestinians’ two rival governments, and since it can’t be blamed on Israel, most major rights groups have ignored it, preferring to focus instead on such truly pressing issues as—this is not a joke—playing soccer in the settlements. But the exceptions to this rule are even worse: They’re the ones so untroubled by facts that they’ve actually found a way to blame Israel for a problem entirely of the Palestinians’ own making.
A brief recap: Back in April, Gaza ran out of fuel for its only power plant because neither the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority nor Gaza’s Hamas-run government—both of which have plenty of money to spend on fomenting anti-Israel terror—would agree to pay for it. The argument focuses specifically on a tax the PA imposed on the fuel, which Hamas won’t pay but the PA won’t lower. The fuel shortage slashed Gaza’s power supply to about four hours a day.
That same month, the PA announced it would stop paying for 40 percent of the electricity Israel sends Gaza via high-voltage wires, and Hamas naturally refused to take over the payments. Israel continued providing the power anyway for about six weeks, but this week, it finally decided to stop giving Hamas free electricity. That will reduce Gaza’s power supply to three hours a day or less.
The power shortage is creating a worse humanitarian crisis in Gaza than Israel’s partial blockade ever did, yet neither Amnesty nor Human Rights Watch—both of which issued countless statements about the blockade—has published a single press release about the electricity crisis. Astoundingly, however, HRW did find time to issue no fewer than three press statements in May blasting the international soccer association’s refusal to take action against Israel over six soccer teams in the settlements. Apparently, playing soccer in a settlement is a much more serious humanitarian problem than being without power 20 hours a day.
But the Israeli organization Gisha—the Legal Center for Freedom of Movement—adopted an even more dishonest tack in an op-ed published in Haaretz last week (before Israel decided to stop giving Gaza free electricity). Field worker Mohammed Azaizeh provided heart-rending descriptions of the problems Rantisi Children’s Hospital faces due to the power crisis, but was curiously reticent about the cause: He said only that the power plant stopped operating “due to a political conflict,” without ever identifying the parties to the conflict.
He also noted that Gaza’s hospitals are severely short of medicine and medical equipment, but again offered no explanation, not even the lame excuse of an unspecified “political conflict.” Yet in fact, the same political conflict is at fault: In May, the PA stopped paying for Gaza’s medicine, and Hamas refuses to do so itself, so Gaza’s medical stocks are rapidly being depleted.
Only toward the end did Azaizeh finger an actual villain:
Even transferring equipment from Israel that was bought in advance especially for Rantisi is a challenge: Four months have passed since the renovation of the oncology department, with the help of monetary assistance from an American foundation, and they’re still waiting here for essential parts for the air conditioning system. The entry of the parts and equipment into Gaza is being delayed because Israel decided to label them “dual-use” items.
Let’s ignore the fact that this particular lack is irrelevant to Rantisi’s woes, since a hospital Azaizeh described as lacking enough power to keep its lights on certainly doesn’t have enough to run its air conditioners, with or without parts. The key sentence is the clever segue between the paragraph about the lack of medical equipment and the one about the lack of air conditioning: Not only is medical equipment lacking, but “Even transferring equipment from Israel that was bought in advance especially for Rantisi is a challenge.”
Thus without actually saying so, Azaizeh managed to imply that the shortage of medical equipment also stems from Israeli restrictions. And from there, it’s an easy step to concluding that the unspecified “political conflict” behind the power crisis must also involve Israel. In reality, of course, Israel has never interfered with shipments of either fuel or medicine to Gaza, though it has barred dual-use items that aren’t humanitarian necessities.
A human-rights organization that actually cared about Gaza’s humanitarian crisis would name and shame the responsible parties—Fatah and Hamas—in an effort to pressure them to compromise, or at least make clear that the crisis stems from nonpayment and urge international donors to cover the shortfall. Yet Azaizeh’s op-ed makes no effort to address the causes of the crisis; its sole purpose is to smear Israel.
Nor is Gisha a negligible organization. Granted, it’s not a household name in America, but its reports are regularly quoted by the U.S. State Department, the European Union, the UN, and international rights organizations like Amnesty and HRW. Indeed, Europe considers it so valuable that European governments provide over half its funding; the UN and the New Israel Fund also chip in.
None of these self-appointed guardians of human rights are troubled by the fact that Gisha’s main interest is hurting Israel rather than helping Palestinians, since their interest is the same. That’s why HRW cares more about shutting down Israeli soccer teams in the settlements than it does about providing Gaza with reliable power, why Europe lavishes funding on organizations like Gisha, and why even the State Department’s human-rights bureau (not to be confused with the rest of the U.S. government) devoted more space in its annual report to Israeli “rights violations”(most of them either trivial matters or unsubstantiated slurs) than to the ongoing slaughters in places like Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. That’s also why such organizations are becoming increasingly “isolated” in Israel, as the NIF’s president complained this week.
That so many “human-rights organizations” now devote themselves to propaganda rather than exposing real human-rights violations is a tragedy for the many victims worldwide who have consequently been left voiceless. But as long as it remains the case, there’s absolutely no justification for continuing to endow them with money, attention, and above all, credibility.
Originally published in Commentary on June 14, 2017
Donald Trump and the mainstream press may act like enemies on many issues, but they are the closest of allies when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Trump spouts fantasies about making Israeli-Palestinian peace, and Western media dutifully fails to report any news that might disrupt these fantasies, such as what the Palestinians’ two rival governments are actually doing to their own people right now.
On any other day, the Wall Street Journal’s report on Tuesday would have been a major bombshell. Instead, it was unjustly overshadowed by the news that Donald Trump had shared sensitive third-party intelligence (apparently provided by Israel) with Russia. Granted, the intelligence story reveals something important about the U.S. president. But the WSJ story revealed something important about long-term trends in the Middle East–and for once, it’s unabashedly good news. Major Arab states have grown tired of having their relationship with Israel held hostage to the Palestinian problem, and they’re actually seeking to do something about it.
The Journal reported that the Gulf States are discussing a proposal to normalize certain types of commercial relations with Israel in exchange for Israeli gestures toward the Palestinians (the report is behind a paywall, but the Times of Israel helpfully provided a detailed account of what the WSJ article said). Two countries, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have already told both America and Israel that they’re willing to adopt it, the Journal added.
Today is Israel’s Memorial Day, which is always marked by the release of official statistics on the number of Israelis killed in wars and terror attacks. If the Trump Administration is serious about wanting to revive an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, reviewing those statistics would be a good place to start. What those numbers show is that Israel’s annual death toll from terrorism has more than doubled since it signed its first “peace agreement” with the Palestinians. And that simple fact sheds light on both why the process has consistently failed and what would be necessary to reverse this pattern of failure.
According to the official statistics, more than 3,100 Israelis have been killed in terror attacks since Israel’s establishment in 1948. The press releases don’t offer any breakdown of this statistic, but more detailed information is available on the Foreign Ministry’s website. Those numbers (located here for 1949-99 and here since 2000) show that terrorists killed 1,176 Israelis from 1949 through 1992, a period of 44 years. But since 1994, they’ve killed another 1,538 people–a significantly larger number of victims in a period just over half as long. (My tally omits the 45 deaths from 1993 because I don’t know whether they occurred before or after the Oslo Accord was signed on September 13, 1993, as well as 379 deaths from 1948, most of which took place either prior to or during the War of Independence.)
In other words, prior to the Oslo Accords, the number of terrorist deaths averaged 27 people per year. But in the post-Oslo period, terrorist deaths have averaged 66 people per year–almost two and a half times as many. And the real increase is slightly higher, because the ministry’s figures don’t include 75 soldiers killed in two wars in Gaza in 2009 and 2014, although they, too, are attributable to the Oslo Accords. Pre-Oslo, Israel didn’t fight wars with the Palestinians, because the Palestinians controlled no territory from which to launch a war.
Regardless of whether you support or oppose a new law allowing Israel to bar entry to prominent supporters of anti-Israeli boycotts, one outcome was eminently predictable: Israel would lack the guts to enforce it even when doing so was most justified. That was amply proven by Wednesday’s decision to grant a one-year work visa to Human Rights Watch researcher Omar Shakir. By this decision, Israel eviscerated the one crucial point the law got right, despite the many it got wrong: You cannot wage an effective war on the BDS movement while giving the people behind it a pass. As the old truism goes, people are policy.
The U.S. Army recently announced that it has horrifying video footage of Islamic State fighters herding Iraqi civilians into buildings in Mosul. The plan was not to use them as human shields–that is, to announce their presence in the hope of deterring American airstrikes. Rather, ISIS was deliberately trying to ensure that American troops killed them, by “smuggling civilians into buildings, so we won’t see them and trying to bait the coalition to attack,” an army spokesman said at a briefing for Pentagon reporters. The motive, he explained, was hope that massive civilian casualties would produce such an outcry that the U.S. would halt airstrikes altogether.
There’s an important point to this story which the spokesman neglected to mention: This tactic is borrowed directly from Hamas. And it was borrowed because the world’s response to successive Hamas-Israel wars convinced ISIS that creating massive civilian casualties among residents of its own territory is an effective strategy. Admittedly, Hamas hasn’t yet been caught on video actually herding civilians into buildings before launching attacks from them. But there’s plenty of evidence that Hamas prevented civilians from leaving areas whence it was launching rockets or other attacks at Israel, thereby deliberately exposing them to retaliatory strikes.
During the 2014 Gaza war, for instance, the Israel Defense Forces warned civilians to evacuate the town of Beit Lahiya before launching air strikes at Hamas positions. But according to Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid, who based himself on interviews with Palestinians in Gaza, Hamas gunmen showed up and warned that anyone who left the town would be treated as a collaborator. Since Hamas executes collaborators, that was equivalent to saying that anyone who tried to leave would be killed on the spot. Thus, faced with the alternative of certain death at Hamas’s hands, most Beit Lahiya residents understandably opted to stay and take their chances with the IDF.
There’s also plenty of evidence that Hamas deliberately launched attacks from buildings where it knew civilians were present. Just last month, for instance, I wrote about a case during the 2009 Gaza war in which Hamas directed sniper fire at Israeli troops from the third floor of a well-known doctor’s home, thereby forcing the soldiers to choose between becoming sitting ducks or shooting back and risking civilian casualties. Unbeknownst to the soldiers, Hamas was also storing explosives in the house (using civilian buildings as arms caches or wiring them with explosives is standard practice for Hamas). Consequently, when the soldiers fired at the Hamas position, an unexpectedly large explosion ensued, killing three of the doctor’s daughters and one of his nieces.
In short, Hamas repeatedly used tactics aimed at maximizing the number of civilian casualties on its own side. Yet instead of blaming Hamas for this, the world largely blamed Israel. Mass demonstrations were held throughout the West condemning Israel; there were no mass demonstrations condemning Hamas. Journalists and “human rights” organizations issued endless reports blaming Israel for the civilian casualties while ignoring or downplaying Hamas’s role in them. Western leaders repeatedly demanded that Israel show “restraint” and accused it of using disproportionate force. Israel, not Hamas, became the subject of a complaint to the International Criminal Court.
Hamas thereby succeeded in putting Israel in a lose-lose situation. Either it could let Hamas launch thousands of rockets at Israeli civilians with impunity, or it could strike back at the price of global opprobrium.
Alan Dershowitz, who aptly calls this the “dead baby strategy,” has been warning for years that unless it “is exposed and rejected in the marketplace of morality, it’s coming to a theater (or school or hospital) near you.” After all, why wouldn’t other terrorist organizations adopt a strategy that has so obviously proven successful?
Now, ISIS has proven his point: It has chosen to deliberately sacrifice civilians rather than employing the more obvious tactic of using them as human shields. Granted, the organization enjoys killing, but based on its track record, it’s also far from stupid. So if it has concluded that dead civilians are more useful than living human shields, it’s because, like Hamas, it considers this a win-win strategy. At worst, America’s reputation will be tarnished, since many people worldwide will blame it for the civilian casualties rather than putting the blame on ISIS, where it belongs. And at best, negative public opinion will force America to abandon the airstrikes altogether.
Nor is the latter hope as far-fetched as it may seem at first glance. It’s true the “dead baby strategy” never persuaded Israel to stop airstrikes against Hamas, but there’s a fundamental difference between the two cases: Israel’s citizens were under direct attack by Hamas rockets and tunnels, and in a choice between sacrificing its citizens’ lives and suffering global opprobrium, any self-respecting country would choose the latter. But ISIS isn’t launching rockets at America from Mosul; the threat it poses is far less immediate. Consequently, the incentive for America to simply back away from the fight if the civilian death toll climbs too high is much greater.
In short, by blaming Israel for civilian casualties that were actually deliberately caused by Hamas’s actions, the world ensured that other terrorist organizations would adopt a similar strategy. Or to put it more bluntly, it ensured that many more civilians would die, because terrorist groups would see a profit in their deaths.
ISIS obviously bears primary blame for all civilian deaths in Mosul. But a portion of that blame is shared by every journalist, “human rights” activist, politician and demonstrator who blamed Israel rather than Hamas for civilian deaths in Gaza–because they are the ones who persuaded ISIS that deliberately sacrificing civilians is an effective way to fight a war.
Originally published in Commentary on April 5, 2017
A review of a comedy of manners set in England in the 1920s wouldn’t seem the obvious place to look to understand why the average Westerner really has no business trying to tell Israelis how to run their country. But two sentences in this New York Times book review encapsulate the problem perfectly: “Historical details, which abound, are often fascinating. (Who knew that beards interfere with gas masks?)”
I’m sure most New York Times readers don’t know that. But virtually every adult Israeli does, other than a few recent immigrants. That’s because almost every adult Israeli either has a gas mask or did at one time (mine still lives in my closet), and many of us have actually worn them. They were distributed nationwide before the 1991 Gulf War, out of fear that Saddam Hussein would put chemical warheads on the missiles he launched at Israel during the war. Israel, incidentally, was one of only two countries Saddam launched missiles at, even though it wasn’t one of the 39 countries actually waging war on Iraq at the time.
Since then, Israel has run several nationwide campaigns to get people to exchange their old gas masks for new ones. That gas masks have an expiration date is another fascinating “historical” detail most Westerners probably don’t know (the campaigns ended a few years ago, after the implosion of both Iraq and Syria reduced the risk of a chemical attack). Israel also passed a law requiring every new house to include a bomb shelter capable of doubling as a sealed room, since ordinary bomb shelters offer no protection against chemical attacks (yet another little-known “historical” detail). That’s one of many factors contributing to the country’s sky-high housing costs, but not one Israelis complain about. In-house bomb shelters are even more necessary today, given the thousands of rockets launched at Israel by both Hezbollah and Hamas over the last 10 to 15 years.
Even Israelis who were children in 1991 undoubtedly remember being woken by sirens in the middle of the night, rushing to makeshift sealed rooms (heavy-duty plastic wrap, tape and damp towels), putting on their masks and sitting for hours waiting for the all-clear. The adults also remember being unable to fall asleep at night while awaiting that siren. The chronic sleep deprivation experienced by people under missile bombardment is another little-known historical detail (somehow, it never seems to interest human rights organizations as much as the sleep deprivation of captured terrorists during interrogations).
As for beards, this being Israel, a public battle raged for months in 1990-91 over whether Haredi men, who normally don’t shave for religious reasons, should be given special, more expensive masks that can accommodate beards, or whether they could reasonably be expected to shave, given that in Jewish law, saving a life trumps most other religious precepts. There was even a high-profile court case by a secular bearded man charging discrimination because Haredim got the special masks while he did not (he won).
Of course, there’s no reason why reviewer Susan Coll or any other Westerner should know any of these “historical details.” Thankfully, no Western country has faced the threat of bombardment with chemical warheads, or even conventional rockets, in more than 70 years. The problem is that so many Westerners who share her ignorance feel fully qualified to tell Israel what it should do, despite not knowing the most basic facts about the security challenges it faces.
If you don’t even know that beards interfere with gas masks, something every Israeli has been forced by hard necessity to learn, or if you see that fact as nothing but a “fascinating historical detail,” what makes you qualified to give advice to a country whose security challenges are so clearly outside your knowledge and experience? What makes you qualified to decide how Israel should cope with the hundreds of thousands of missiles pointed at it? What makes you qualified to insist that withdrawing from the West Bank doesn’t pose a serious risk, or that bombing rocket storehouses in Gaza causes disproportionate harm?
Most people wouldn’t dream of proposing solutions to, say, the mystery of dark matter unless they were experts in cutting-edge astrophysics. Yet hundreds of thousands of people worldwide see no problem with propounding solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict despite not knowing even elementary facts.
It would be nice if some of those people would evince a little more humility. But as long as they don’t, they really shouldn’t be surprised that Israeli voters keep rejecting their prescriptions.
Originally published in Commentary on March 22, 2017