I’m not naïve enough to think that better PR would solve all of Israel’s international relations problems. But there’s no question that incompetent PR makes its situation much worse. As one example, consider Tuesday’s shocking revelation: Within about 24 hours of the most high-profile civilian casualty incident of the 2009 Gaza war, Israel had obtained evidence casting doubt on its responsibility for that death. But it sat on this evidence for more than eight years, finally releasing it only as part of a defense brief in a civil suit by the victims’ father.
The incident in question took place on January 16, 2009, when Israeli troops fighting in Gaza came under sniper fire. The troops fired two shells at an observation post that seemed to be directing the snipers. The observation post was located on the third floor of a building which, unbeknownst to the soldiers, was also the home of a well-known doctor, Izzeldin Abuelaish. Three of Abuelaish’s daughters were killed, along with one of his nieces; several other family members were wounded. Abuelaish, who worked in Israel, maintained good relations with Israelis and advocated for Israeli-Palestinian peace, later became famous worldwide when he published a book about this incident and his response to it, called I Shall Not Hate. Israel was blamed worldwide for the Abuelaish casualties and never publicly challenged the assumption of its guilt. Yet it now turns out that within a day after the incident, it had evidence indicating that its shells may not have caused the carnage.
The evidence came in the form of laboratory tests conducted on six pieces of shrapnel extracted from the two casualties treated in Israel (the other wounded weren’t brought to Israel, nor were any of the dead, so no shrapnel from the other victims was available). The tests showed that alongside traces of various explosives used by both the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas, at least one fragment contained an explosive called R-Salt, which isn’t used by the IDF but is commonly used in improvised explosive devices in Gaza. Moreover, all six fragments contained potassium nitrate, another substance not used in IDF weaponry that is used in Hamas’s homemade Qassam rockets.
A follow-up report a month later, which compared the shrapnel to the specific type of Israeli shells fired, concluded that four of the six fragments could not possibly have come from those shells; a fifth “may have come” from an IDF shell, and apparently, no conclusions were possible about the sixth.
All of the above indicates that Hamas or a smaller Palestinian organization was using the house as a weapons cache. According to the IDF, there is no other way to account for the presence of non-IDF explosives in the shrapnel.
This in no way implies culpability on Abuelaish’s part; Palestinian terrorists routinely store weaponry in civilian houses without the owners’ consent or even knowledge. But it does raise the possibility that the Israeli shells, which were intended to take out the observation post without significant damage to the house, would not have caused such extensive casualties had the house not contained a concealed weapons cache–something the soldiers couldn’t have known–which exploded when the shells hit. And if so, then Israel clearly isn’t responsible for the deaths: It used a reasonable amount of force to respond to a legitimate military threat and could not have foreseen the deadly consequences.
One of the most common accusations leveled at Israel by its critics is that because it possesses precision weaponry capable of feats like destroying a single room without damaging the rest of the building, any civilian casualties it causes must be the result of criminal negligence at best and deliberate murderousness at worst. That conclusion is obviously possible only if you ignore various salient facts, such as that mistakes are inevitable in wartime when soldiers must often make split-second decisions based on imperfect information.
But one of those salient facts is Hamas’s habit of storing arms and ammunition in civilian houses–without, obviously, informing Israel of the caches’ locations. This means that no matter how carefully Israeli troops choose their munitions, they have no way to protect against the possibility that an arms cache they didn’t know about will set off secondary explosions, resulting in far more extensive damage than they intended.
This fact is essential to understanding why the blame for most civilian casualties actually rests not with Israel, which does try hard to use proportionate military force, but with Hamas, which deliberately endangers its own civilian population by hiding weapons in their houses. Yet since it is frequently not well understood overseas, Israel has every interest in publicizing high-profile examples as heavily as possible.
Instead, it sat on its information about the Abuelaish case for eight years. The lab report was kept so secret that even Abuelaish’s lawyers didn’t know of its existence until last week, although the suit was filed back in 2010. And then, having finally been forced to disclose the report to defend against the lawsuit, the government nevertheless made no attempt to publicize it; it came to light only because a reporter took the trouble to read the defense brief and realized that the information was newsworthy.
Obviously, information like this won’t change a single Israel hater’s mind. But there are many people of goodwill, especially overseas Jews, who sincerely want to believe that the IDF strives to avoid civilian casualties, but can’t understand why, if so, they nevertheless keep occurring.
Israel has many valid answers to that question, including the fact that its civilian-to-military casualty ratio is actually lower than that of other Western armies. But these answers are useless if it doesn’t take the trouble to publicize them. Sitting on exculpatory information about a high-profile case for eight years is hardly the way to assuage its supporters’ concerns.
Originally published in Commentary on March 15, 2017
A few weeks ago, the security threat Israel faced from Palestinian terror looked relatively low. But then Barack Obama and John Kerry decided to meddle. The consequences were eminently predictable: They got to enjoy feeling self-righteous, while Israelis and Palestinians pay the price in blood.
Here’s what things looked like a few weeks ago: The lone-wolf Palestinian terror attacks that were proliferating a year ago had largely died down since most Palestinians had concluded (correctly) that they weren’t accomplishing anything. Rocket attacks from Gaza were at their lowest point in 11 years, with only 15 rockets fired in all of 2016, down from 24 in 2015. Moreover, the fact that just 39 rockets were fired in the two years following the Gaza war of 2014 showed that this war had created far greater deterrence than its predecessors. By comparison, 261 rockets were fired in the two years after the 2009 war and 412 in the two years after the 2012 war. And if further proof were needed of the war’s deterrent effect, there was Hamas’s bizarre offer last month to share its homemade rockets with anyone willing to use them against Israel–a clear indication that it had no intention of waging its own war anytime soon. If it did, it would be stockpiling its rockets rather than trying to hawk them.
But by last week, things looked very different. Israeli defense officials reported a sharp upsurge in attempted Palestinian attacks–primarily rock-throwing, but there was also a deadly car ramming in Jerusalem that killed four soldiers and wounded 16. In a highly unusual statement, the officials noted that this rise had occurred in the two weeks since the UN Security Council passed a resolution condemning Israeli settlements on December 23. And while the increase was partly attributable to the Palestinian exam season (when more teens are out throwing rocks because regular classes are canceled), it was much steeper than the usual exam-period spike.
That this upsurge occurred immediately after the UN resolution is no coincidence. Defense officials obviously can’t spell out the causal connection. It would be highly unseemly for them to accuse the Obama Administration of fomenting anti-Israel terror. But a commentator is subject to no such restraints, so let me explain.
In the months preceding the resolution, the international community had started paying more attention than ever before to the way the Palestinian Authority incites and encourages terror. For instance, a July report by the Quartet (comprising the U.S., UN, EU and Russia) infuriated the PA by including an unequivocal condemnation of PA incitement, complete with examples. Even more significantly, the British government announced last month that it was putting new restrictions on aid to the PA because of its payment of salaries to imprisoned terrorists, while the U.S. Congress is considering slashing aid to the PA for the same reason. Since the PA is already facing serious funding shortfalls, these were worrisome developments. Consequently, it had begun ratcheting its anti-Israel incitement ever so slightly downward.
But then came the UN resolution, followed by Kerry’s speech on the peace process five days later, and the PA realized it no longer had to worry about incitement: The good old days, in which the world blamed Israel alone for the absence of peace, were back. The resolution–which wrongly deemed the settlements both illegal and an impediment to peace and demanded that all states take punitive action against them by distinguishing, “in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967”–didn’t utter a word of criticism of the Palestinians. True, it included a generic condemnation of incitement and terror, but without any mention of who was perpetrating said incitement and terror, allowing the Palestinians to claim that even this section was aimed solely at Israel. Kerry then reinforced the message by devoting the lion’s share of his speech to the settlements, with Palestinian incitement and terror coming only a distant second.
Consequently, the PA felt free to ramp its incitement back up to full force. And it did, to deadly effect.
Shortly before the resolution passed, for instance, a Jerusalem Post reporter who asked more than two dozen east Jerusalem Palestinians what they thought of reported plans to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem couldn’t find a single one who cared. But then the PA, bolstered by the resolution and Kerry’s speech, ordered all imams under its control to devote their sermons on Friday, January 6 to why the embassy move was unacceptable and would/could/should lead to violence. After all, the world could hardly object to that. Kerry himself had said exactly the same thing. And on January 8, an east Jerusalem Palestinian carried out the car-ramming that killed four soldiers. His relatives said he did so after hearing a local imam assail the proposed embassy move in his Friday sermon.
But Palestinian incitement isn’t just deadly to Israelis; it’s even deadlier to Palestinians. Whenever violence breaks out, Palestinians always end up with the higher death toll; that’s inevitable, given Israel’s superior weaponry. Unfortunately, that has never yet deterred the Palestinian leadership from fomenting it. Thus, by reassuring the PA that it will face no international consequences for inciting, the Obama/Kerry team guaranteed bloodshed on both sides.
Two and a half years ago, I detailed how another Obama/Kerry effort to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace ended up sparking a war instead. But either they learned nothing from that fiasco, or they simply don’t care how many Israelis and Palestinians die for the sake of enabling them to posture self-righteously on the world stage. After all, they’ll be out of office at the end of the week. Israelis and Palestinians will still be here bleeding.
Originally published in Commentary on January 17, 2017
Despite 23 years on repeated failure, Martin Indyk remains convinced that he knows exactly how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Without a trace of embarrassment, he unveiled his latest plan in the New York Times last week, a “Jerusalem first” approach that calls for the Old City to be run by “a special regime that maintained the religious status quo and ensured that the three religious authorities continued to administer their respective holy sites.” But with characteristic disdain for reality, he ignored the elephant in the room: The status quo he seeks to preserve, especially on the Temple Mount, is actually unacceptable to both sides–and should be unacceptable to anyone who cares about the fundamental right of freedom of religion.
Unlike many veteran peace processers, Indyk doesn’t pretend that Jews have no connection to the Mount. He admits that it contains “the ruins of Judaism’s holiest of holies.” He simply seems to think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect Jews to forgo any contact, even the most tenuous, with their holiest site in perpetuity. Not, of course, that he puts it that bluntly. But when you consider what’s happening on the Mount even today, when Islamic authorities don’t yet have absolute control, it’s hard to imagine his “solution” producing any other outcome. And it’s equally hard to see why anyone should consider the current situation acceptable.
Just last week, for instance, Palestinian guards employed by the Islamic Waqf (religious trust) that runs the Mount’s day-to-day affairs tried to eject an Israeli archeologist from the site merely for daring to use the term “Temple Mount” in a lecture to American students. They demanded that he use the Mount’s Islamic name instead, and when he refused, they demanded that Israeli policemen on the site eject him. Other tour guides subsequently told the Times of Israel that this isn’t an uncommon occurrence.
Disgracefully, the Israeli police–who have long since decided their job on the Mount isn’t protecting Israelis’ rights, but kowtowing to the Waqf’s every whim to prevent Arab rioting–seconded the request that Dr. Gabriel Barkay stop using the site’s Judeo-Christian name. But at least they also told the Waqf guards that they couldn’t evict him merely for using the term “Temple Mount.” Under full Islamic control, even uttering that name would evidently be a punishable offense.
Or consider what happened to Jerusalem Post reporter Lahav Harkov when she visited the Mount in September 2015. As usual, the Waqf guards harassed her nonstop, over everything from the length of her skirt (below the knees, but not ankle length) through taking pictures to standing still for longer than the guards deemed proper. But the climax came when, moved by thoughts of the Temple, she unexpectedly began to cry. A Waqf guard promptly started shouting at her in Arabic. And once again, an Israeli policeman disgracefully seconded the Waqf’s complaint: “You can’t close your eyes and cry. That’s like praying.”
Yet at least the Israeli police didn’t kick her off the Mount. Had the Waqf had its way, she would never even have been allowed to enter.
In a 2014 report for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, journalist Nadav Shragai, an expert on Jerusalem’s history, detailed all the ways the “status quo” on the Mount has eroded to the Jews’ detriment since 1967. Jewish visiting hours have been drastically curtailed; Jews can no longer enter the mosques, even as the portion of the Mount occupied by the mosques has expanded greatly; the Waqf has been allowed to destroy Jewish archaeological relics with impunity; and so forth. All this has happened even though Israel nominally controls the Mount.
But to Palestinians, even the one right Jews still retain on the Mount, the right of a strictly limited number to pay strictly controlled visits–as long as they don’t mind nonstop harassment and refrain from doing anything offensive to the Waqf, like praying, tearing up, or using the term “Temple Mount”–is unacceptable. The consensus Palestinian position today, as memorably articulated by their “moderate” leader Mahmoud Abbas, is that Jews who ascend the Mount are “defiling” it with their “filthy feet.” In short, the Palestinians aren’t interested in preserving the Mount’s status quo; what they want is to ban any Jew from ever setting foot on it again.
Yet the status quo is equally unacceptable to a growing number of Jews – and rightly so. There’s no reason why Jews shouldn’t be allowed to visit their holiest site whenever and in whatever numbers they please, aside from, say, during Muslim holidays or Friday prayers at the mosque. There’s no reason Jewish visitors to the site should be unable even to shed a tear or use its Hebrew name. And there’s especially no reason why Jews should be denied the right to pray at their holiest site, as long as they don’t do it in the mosque itself – which they wouldn’t want to do anyway, since Jewish law forbids entering the area where the Holy of Holies once stood, and its exact location isn’t known. Thus Jewish prayer would be possible only in peripheral areas, where there’s no risk of violating Jewish law.
Nor can one credibly argue that it’s impossible for Jews and Muslims to share a holy site; at Israel’s insistence, they’ve been doing it at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron for decades. The only thing that makes the Mount different is that there, Israel has shied away from enforcing a similar equal-access arrangement.
Thus, instead of sanctifying the “status quo,” it’s long past time to admit that this status quo grossly violates basic religious rights, that the violations are only getting worse, and that this deterioration will continue unless Israel takes steps to reverse it. In short, it’s time for Israel to scrap the status quo and finally start protecting Jewish as well as Muslim rights on the Mount. And it’s time for America, whose own constitution enshrines freedom of religion, to fully back Israel in doing so.
Originally published in Commentary on January 11, 2017
The massive support in Israel for soldier Elor Azaria, who was convicted of manslaughter on Wednesday for killing a wounded Palestinian terrorist, has confounded some of its friends and supplied ammunition for its enemies. So it’s important to understand why that support is so widespread. Jonathan Tobin correctly explained some of the reasons yesterday, including the fact that most Israelis have limited sympathy for terrorists. But to a large extent, this is also a self-inflicted wound by the two people at the top of the military chain of command, who forgot the most basic principle of justice: Not only must it be done, but it must be seen to be done. By their own actions, they managed to create an appearance of injustice in a case where I believe none actually occurred.
The shooting occurred at about 8:30 A.M. on March 24. Five hours later, B’Tselem released videotaped footage of it. By that evening–at a time when the Military Police investigation had barely begun, and long before the video could have been examined to ensure it hadn’t been doctored–both then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot had already unequivocally condemned Azaria’s behavior. Ya’alon said it “completely contradicts” IDF values, while an IDF spokesman termed it a “grave breach” of IDF standards. Such condemnations continued in the coming days. On March 28, for instance, three weeks before the military prosecution decided to file charges, Ya’alon told the Knesset that Azaria was “a soldier who has transgressed, and not a hero.” In other words, both Ya’alon and the army had declared Azaria guilty even before he was charged.
In conversations with friends shortly after the incident, it was this that most infuriated them and aroused their sympathy for Azaria: They felt that the men in charge of the army, whose job was to ensure that any soldier suspected of wrongdoing receives a fair hearing, had instead rushed to judgment against him in order to appease a hostile world after B’Tselem made its video public. Moreover, they wondered whether Azaria could even receive a fair trial when the two men who must sign off on promotions for every senior military police officer, prosecutor and judge had already made it clear that they expected a conviction. Under those circumstances, would military justice officials risk their careers by exonerating Azaria if the evidence justified it?
To be clear, based on the evidence that later emerged in court, I think Eisenkot and Ya’alon had good reason to believe Azaria had “transgressed” even when they first spoke out. The officer at the scene had reported the incident to his superiors as a possible crime within minutes of its occurrence, and this report, including damning testimony from other soldiers at the scene, had moved swiftly up the chain of command, leading army officials to decide a criminal investigation was warranted even before B’Tselem published its video.
But by immediately and publicly condemning Azaria – instead of saying, as the army usually does, that his conduct must be deemed unacceptable if proven, but meanwhile, the case is under investigation and the military justice system should be allowed to work without interference–they created an appearance that the deck had been stacked against the soldier. And since most Israelis weren’t following the minutia of the court hearings, that initial impression is what remained: In response to a video released by an irredeemably hostile organization, and whose authenticity had yet to be proven, the two men who headed the army had declared Azaria guilty even before the investigation began.
This impression was reinforced over the ensuing months by the fact that Eisenkot, in particular, refused to stop talking about the case, while demonstrating shocking insensitivity to the way his comments would sound to most Israelis. The very day before the verdict was issued, for instance, he said, “An 18-year-old man serving in the army is not ‘everyone’s child’ … He is a fighter, a soldier, who must dedicate his life to carry out the tasks we give him.”
Obviously, the second part of that statement is true; the army can’t function if its 18-year-old draftees aren’t treated as soldiers and fighters. But to parents, their child is always “their child,” even after he turns 18 and dons a uniform. And because in Israel, most young men do army service, most parents can imagine their own son in any other soldier’s place. In that sense, Azaria is “everyone’s child,” just as kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit was “everyone’s child.” Israelis therefore overwhelmingly supported freeing 1,027 terrorists to secure his freedom. Israeli parents entrust the army with their most precious possession–their children–and in return, they expect the army to take the best possible care of them that’s consistent with carrying out its military functions.
Thus, when Eisenkot dismissively declared that a soldier isn’t “everyone’s child,” what Israeli parents heard was a refusal to acknowledge that his soldiers are indeed also their children, whose protection must be high on his priority list. And that merely reinforced the impression left by his initial hasty condemnations: In responding to the case, he had given insufficient weight to his responsibility toward his soldiers.
Based on the evidence, I see no reason to think Azaria was in fact convicted unjustly. But from the start, Eisenkot and Ya’alon created the appearance of injustice by routinely speaking out against Azaria when they should simply have kept silent and let the military justice system do its work. The result is that now, many Israelis still aren’t certain Azaria was convicted fairly, and that has translated into overwhelming support for an early pardon.
This case has sowed devastating distrust of both the army’s leadership and its justice system among a large section of the Israeli public. Yet much of that distrust could have been avoided had Ya’alon and Eisenkot simply kept their mouths shut. That neither man proved capable of doing so is a damning indictment of them, and a tragedy for Israel.
Originally published in Commentary on January 5, 2017
There’s really only one suitable Zionist response to last week’s UN Security Council resolution on the settlements: massive settlement construction. That’s the appropriate response for more than one reason, but I’ll focus here on the most obvious one: The resolution proves conclusively that Israel gets no credit for showing restraint on this issue, so there’s no earthly reason why it should continue suffering the costs of restraint.
As I’ve written repeatedly in the past, data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics shows that there has been less settlement construction under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than under any of his predecessors. Nor is this a matter of partisan dispute: The left-wing daily Haaretz, a virulent opponent of both Netanyahu and the settlements, used the same data to reach the same conclusion last year.
Moreover, fully three-quarters of the growth in the settlements’ population under Netanyahu has been in the major blocs, which every serious international peace proposal for decades has concluded will remain Israeli under any Israeli-Palestinian deal. Again, this isn’t a matter of partisan dispute; that three-quarters figure comes from Shaul Arieli, a veteran peace activist who is also a virulent opponent of Netanyahu and the settlements.
Finally, almost all the growth in the settler population under Netanyahu has stemmed from natural increase – i.e. women having babies – rather than people actually moving to the settlements. The Haaretz report put the proportion at 74 percent; Arieli’s study, which is more recent, put it at almost 90 percent. Either way, the bottom line is that the only way Israel could have prevented this growth was by passing legislation requiring the forced sterilization of every woman in the settlements. Even the UN hasn’t demanded that yet.
For Netanyahu, this restraint has come at a real price. First, it caused him political damage, because it infuriated his voter base. The result, as I’ve noted before, is that by last month, he was facing an open revolt in his own party over the issue.
Second, it caused Israel strategic damage, because it kept the country from strengthening its hold over areas that most Israeli governments have considered essential for security under any future agreement. To take just one example, all Israeli premiers have deemed the E1 corridor, which links Jerusalem with the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement bloc, critical for Israel’s security – even Yitzhak Rabin, the patron saint of the peace process. Moreover, E1 in no way prevents the possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state, and has actually been assigned to Israel by every serious international peace plan ever proposed. Yet for years, Israel has refrained from building there out of deference to international public opinion, even as illegal Palestinian construction has mushroomed in this formerly empty area. The result is that it now has no “facts on the ground” to act as a counterweight to Palestinian claims. And since Palestinian claims always enjoy the international community’s automatic support, facts on the ground, in the form of large numbers of Israelis whom it’s
simply too difficult to evacuate, are Israel’s best guarantee of retaining areas it deems essential to its security.
Third, settlement restraint has caused major financial damage by exacerbating Israel’s massive housing crisis. As of last year, the price of an average apartment had soared to 146 average monthly salaries, more than double the ratio in most other countries, and up from just 43 in 2008; rents have risen correspondingly. In short, housing in Israel has simply become unaffordable for most people, and that’s a major threat to Israel’s future: People will neither remain in nor move to a country where they can’t even afford to put a roof over their head. Yet substantial building in the settlement blocs and eastern Jerusalem – where Netanyahu has also imposed an undeclared freeze in deference to the international community – could have alleviated the shortage responsible for this massive price rise. The settlement blocs are all within commuting distance of the center of the country, which is where the jobs are, and thus where people want to live; inside the Green Line, in contrast, there are few empty areas left in the country’s narrow waist. And in Jerusalem, the housing shortage is the main reason why the capital loses some 18,000 Jews every year.
Netanyahu was willing to absorb all this damage in the belief that international leaders, regardless of what they said publicly, would know the truth about the brakes he has put on settlement construction and support him when it mattered. But to most of the world, the facts have never mattered where Israel is concerned, and it turns out the same is true of the post-truth Obama Administration: Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes justified America’s support for the resolution (and support is the right word, because in this case, abstaining was no different than voting yes) with the spurious claim that the vote was motivated by an “acceleration of settlement activity” under Netanyahu.
It’s hard to say what impact the resolution will actually have, but there are at least two possible negative consequences. First, its declaration that the settlements are “a flagrant violation under international law” could spur the International Criminal Court, which is already considering a case against Israel over the settlements, to go ahead with it, by assuring prosecutor Fatou Bensouda that such action would enjoy widespread international support. Second, its demand that all states “distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967” provides a tailwind for international boycotts and sanctions against Israel and Israeli companies, since Israel itself considers some of those territories – for example, the Western Wall – to be sovereign Israeli territory.
So if Israel is going to be accused of “accelerated settlement activity” and slapped with potentially serious consequences no matter how much restraint it shows, there’s no justification whatsoever for it to incur the very real costs of this restraint. Hence there’s only one sensible response to this resolution: Build, baby, build.
Originally published in The Jewish Press on December 28, 2016
The past month provides a textbook example of one of the major flaws in Western efforts to promote a two-state solution: a tendency to focus on all the wrong issues. The peace processing community is currently in a tizzy over something that ought to be an irrelevancy: the possibility that the Trump Administration might actually move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. But it had nothing whatsoever to say about a far more significant development: the outcome of recent elections for the governing organs of the Fatah party, aka Israel’s “peace partner.”
As Jonathan Tobin correctly pointed out earlier this week, the idea that moving the embassy would destroy the peace process is ludicrous. If Palestinians were willing to recognize Israel within the 1949 armistice lines, as they claim, they would have no reason to care where the embassy is located as long as it’s inside those lines, which the proposed Jerusalem locale would be.
Moreover, judging by a report in the Jerusalem Post on Thursday, ordinary Palestinians (as opposed to the Palestinian leadership) genuinely don’t care. Reporter Daniel Eisenbud wandered around East Jerusalem asking random Palestinians what they thought about relocating the embassy, and couldn’t find even one who thought it worth getting upset over. “Why should I care about where the US Embassy is located?” one asked. “They want to move it to Jerusalem? So what?” said another. “I don’t understand why it matters,” added a third. “Don’t waste my time with such unimportant things,” a fourth demanded. Indeed, the only people Eisenbud found who did care were Israeli leftists, who offered patronizing explanations for why ordinary Palestinians seemed incapable of understanding the magnitude of the impending disaster.
In short, this is strictly a manufactured crisis–one that wouldn’t actually impede prospects for peace at all, and that ordinary Palestinians consider a nonissue. Yet Western peace processers are obsessed with it.
In contrast, I haven’t heard any veteran peace processers voicing concern over the outcome of Fatah’s elections three weeks ago. Yet those results matter, because Fatah is both the main component of the PLO–the organization with which Israel signed the Oslo Accords–and the Palestinian Authority’s ruling party.
So who came in first in the election for Fatah’s top governing organ, the Central Committee? Marwan Barghouti, a man currently serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail for murdering five Israeli civilians. And these weren’t murders committed back when Israel and the PLO were still officially at war; they were committed in 2001-02, almost a decade after the Oslo Accords were signed.
In other words, the 1,311 delegates who attended Fatah’s seventh General Conference thought the best choice to head their party was a man who had repeatedly violated the one key promise the PLO made under the Oslo Accords: to stop anti-Israel terror. And if Israel’s official peace partner believes a serial violator of signed agreements is the ideal choice to lead the Palestinian people, why exactly would Israel want to risk signing another agreement with it?
Nor was Barghouti’s involvement in terrorism incidental to his election. On the contrary, his overwhelming popularity stems primarily from the leading role he played in orchestrating anti-Israel terror during the second intifada (Israeli intelligence considers him responsible for many more attacks than the crimes for which he was convicted). And if Israel’s official peace partner believes a mass murderer is an ideal choice to lead the Palestinian people, why exactly would Israel believe it wants any kind of peace, other than the peace of the grave?
But Barghouti’s first-place finish wasn’t the only problematic outcome of the vote; no less significant was the second-place finisher, who is now well-positioned to become PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s heir as long as Barghouti remains in jail. The second-place slot was won by Jibril Rajoub, who is famous, inter alia, for saying that if he had a nuclear bomb, he’d drop it on Israel tomorrow. And that was in 2013–fully two decades after the PLO supposedly recognized Israel’s right to exist. In other words, in the eyes of Israel’s official peace partner, even openly voicing a desire to commit genocide doesn’t disqualify you from leadership.
No less significant, however, is how Rajoub has conducted himself in his current role, as head of the Palestinian Football Association. Aside from doing everything he can to get Israel expelled from FIFA, the governing body of international soccer (which probably upsets soccer-mad Israelis more than his genocidal threats do), he has spent his tenure vigorously thwarting attempts to arrange soccer matches between Israeli and Palestinian youth teams.
In 2013, for instance, the Barcelona FC soccer team thought it could use its popularity on both sides of the Green Line to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace: It offered to host separate soccer clinics for Israeli and Palestinian youth, culminating in an exhibition match between the two sides. The clinics took place, but the match was canceled because Rajoub refused to allow Palestinian youth to participate.
In other words, in the eyes of Israel’s official peace partner, the ideal choice to be Abbas’s heir apparent is someone so opposed to “normalization” with Israel that he won’t even let Palestinian and Israeli kids play soccer together. And if someone won’t let children play soccer together, how exactly is he supposed to make peace?
No two-state solution will ever be possible as long as Israel’s “peace partner” sees men like Barghouti and Rajoub–men whose conduct is the antithesis of peace–as its preferred leaders. Hence, any effective Western policy to promote peace would focus first and foremost on education to change Palestinian attitudes. Instead, the West ignores the all-important issue of Palestinian attitudes and behavior while obsessing over issues with zero impact on the prospects for peace, like the location of the U.S. embassy. And then it wonders why more than two decades of efforts to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace have produced no progress at all.
Originally published in Commentary on December 23, 2016
Watching the Israeli government convulse itself over 40 homes in the illegal settlement outpost of Amona, an outsider could be forgiven for wondering whether it had gone mad. If you don’t understand the underlying politics, there’s no rational explanation for why top government officials have devoted more hours to finding a way to avoid razing those 40 houses than they have to numerous weightier issues. The politics of it all makes more sense than the policy, and it also shows why Barack Obama’s approach to the settlements issue is ultimately destructive to the very two-state solution he claims to favor.
As Israeli commentator Yossi Verter noted last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hasn’t previously had problems taking steps that upset his base. In 2009, he instituted an unprecedented 10-month freeze on settlement construction, and he’s removed other illegal outposts with relatively large populations. Settlement construction has been slower on his watch than under any previous prime minister, as even the far-left Haaretz admits. He even imposed an undeclared–and unprecedented–building freeze in large Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. So what suddenly changed?
The answer, which became clear to me during a discussion over Shabbat lunch, stems from a generational divide. My generation’s most searing political memories are the 1993 Oslo Accords and the ensuing upsurge in terror; the failed Israeli-Palestinian summit in 2000 and the ensuing bloodshed of the second intifada; and the 2005 disengagement from Gaza and the ensuing rocket fire on Israel, which has so far led to three wars. So, from our perspective, Netanyahu is basically doing great. Unlike all his predecessors, he has resisted massive international pressure to make further territorial concessions that would be similarly disastrous for Israel’s security. Consequently, we’re willing to cut him slack on other issues, even when we disagree with him.
But people who were children during most or all of the above events have a very different view of Netanyahu. Lacking the memory of how quickly other prime ministers reversed themselves under pressure–Yitzhak Rabin on his promise of no negotiations with the PLO, Ariel Sharon on his promise of no unilateral pullout from Gaza–they don’t see Netanyahu as courageously holding the line against disastrous territorial withdrawals. They take this for granted.
What they see instead is the way he has ceded control of the land de facto by giving the international community veto power over when and where Israel builds. To take the most glaring example, what other country refrains from building desperately needed housing in its own capital because of fear of international pressure? Doesn’t that make a mockery of Israel’s claim to sovereignty in Jerusalem?
So after almost eight years of declared and undeclared construction freezes, younger activists are boiling over with frustration. They want to see Israel acting like a normal, sovereign country and building where it sees fit–which, for many of them, means all over the West Bank. That Amona has become the vehicle for their frustration is a simple accident of fate. Because the Supreme Court mandated its demolition by December 25, the government’s usual trick of postponing any decision won’t work anymore; it has to either raze the outpost or legalize it within the next three weeks.
But what does any of this have to do with Obama’s settlement policy? The answer is simple. Previous U.S. governments distinguished between areas Israel would almost certainly keep under any deal with the Palestinians–like large Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem or the major settlement blocs–and isolated settlements that would have to be evacuated under any such deal. Since building in the former areas didn’t actually impede prospects for a two-state solution, previous administrations didn’t raise much fuss about it.
The Obama Administration, in contrast, objects to new houses in large Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem just as vociferously as it does to new houses in the most isolated West Bank outpost. Nor has it given Netanyahu any credit for his unprecedented restraint on settlement construction; instead, it has consistently and falsely accused him of “aggressive” construction and then used this false accusation to blame him for the impasse in the peace process.
Had Obama quietly acquiesced in building in Jerusalem and the settlement blocs and given Netanyahu public credit for his restraint, Netanyahu would have had a solid case to make to his party’s angry young activists. It’s true we aren’t building everywhere, he could have said, but at least we’re building in some places that are important to us. Restraint in other areas is worth it for the sake of good relations with Washington.
But in the face of Obama’s actual policy, Netanyahu has no case at all. You aren’t building anywhere, the young activists justly retort, and if you’re going to generate just as much international outrage by building in Jerusalem as by building in Amona, why not build everywhere?
Netanyahu has striven desperately to find some sort of compromise over Amona, and he may succeed. But the young activists’ anger isn’t going to go away, so at some point, he’ll have to choose: start building and risk the international community’s displeasure, or continue his restraint and risk losing his own base. And when politicians in democratic countries are forced to choose between their voters and foreign leaders, the latter usually lose.
Thus, if the international community wants to ensure that settlement building won’t undermine a two-state solution, it needs to stop opposing construction in areas where construction does no such thing, like Jerusalem and the settlement blocs, and start giving Netanyahu credit for his restraint. Otherwise, he’ll have no ammunition with which to fight his base’s angry young activists. And if he can’t beat them, he’ll almost certainly join them.
Originally published in Commentary on December 5, 2106
If you want to know why the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace are currently zero, consider Avi Issacharoff’s report in the Times of Israel last week about Fatah’s Seventh General Congress, which is slated to take place in Ramallah on Tuesday. The Congress is supposed to elect Fatah’s two main leadership organs, the Central Committee and the Revolutionary Council; one candidate for the latter is Nasser Abu Baker, a reporter for Radio Falastin. “Abu Baker, who used to maintain close ties with his Israeli colleagues, has boycotted Israeli journalists since he began nurturing his political career,” Issacharoff wrote matter-of-factly.
Fatah, of course, is Israel’s official peace partner, twice over. It is the main component of the PLO, the organization that signed the Oslo Accords with Israel, and also the party headed by the “moderate” Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president and PLO chairman. Yet it turns out that the way to win votes among members of Israel’s “peace partner” is not by promoting peace, but by refusing even to talk to your Israeli colleagues–even if they are among the most pro-Palestinian Israelis you’re ever likely to find, as is true of most Israeli journalists. Moreover, this practice of boycotting Israelis has actually gotten much worse under the “moderate” Abbas, as another Israeli journalist noted in an unrelated article last week. Interviewed by Haaretz about his new television series on the Arab world, Ohad Hamu, the Arab affairs reporter for Channel 2 television, recalled:
Not so long ago I could wander freely around Gaza and the West Bank and bring cultural and political stories, but today there are few places I can enter in the West Bank … The Israeli media doesn’t go into something like 70 percent of the West Bank, and even when I do go, it’ll be to film some 10-minute dialogue with someone and then we’re out of there right away, because it’s just become too dangerous. They don’t want to see us there … Israeli journalists used to serve as a bridge between Israeli and Palestinian society, but this bridge has been gradually cracking.
Nor is this problem exclusive to journalists. The “anti-normalization” campaign–a euphemism for refusing to talk to Israelis and intimidating others into doing the same–has also produced boycotts of Israeli cultural figures, businessmen, nongovernmental organizations and more.
Clearly, it’s difficult to imagine Israeli-Palestinian peace breaking out as long as even talking to Israelis is taboo, to the extent that even in the “moderate” Palestinian party, someone running for office feels obligated to start boycotting his Israeli colleagues. It’s hard to make peace with other people if you aren’t willing to talk to them.
But the fact that this problem has been getting worse rather than better over the past two decades shows that, far from advancing prospects for peace, the “peace process” has dealt them a blow from which it may take generations to recover. By creating and financing an autonomous Palestinian government without making peace education an integral part of the package, the Oslo process and its supporters–both Israeli and Western–have allowed the Palestinian Authority to spend the last two decades systematically teaching its people to hate Israel. The fact that even talking to Israelis is now seen as a major impediment to electoral office is the direct result of the way the Palestinian education system has poisoned the minds of its children, which I’ve described before:
This [PA] curriculum rejects the legitimacy of Israel’s existence (textbooks refer to “the so-called State of Israel”), justifies violence against it, defines such violence as a religious obligation and informs students that Jews and Zionists are irredeemably evil (one book, for instance, refers to “the robbing Jews”; another tells students that Israel “killed your children, split open your women’s bellies, held your revered elderly men by the beard, and led them to the death pits”). These messages are then reinforced by the “educational” programs broadcast on the PA’s official media, where Jews are described as “monkeys and pigs,” “enemies of Allah” and the “most evil of creations,” among other charming epithets.
The indoctrination effort is assisted by the fact that most Palestinians today have no firsthand knowledge to counteract the vicious incitement churned out daily by Palestinian schools and media. That’s a result of the escalating terror that followed the PA’s establishment in 1994 severely curtailed the daily interactions between Israelis and Palestinians that were commonplace until then. Those interactions made it easier for both sides to at least view the other as human beings.
Today, outside the construction industry, most Israelis never encounter a Palestinian unless they’re doing army duty, and most Palestinians never encounter any Israelis other than soldiers. In other words, the only Israeli-Palestinian interactions that take place today are the kind that reinforces each side’s view of the other as an enemy. That is precisely what the “anti-normalization” campaigners want, and why they castigate any other type of contact with Israelis as tantamount to treason.
It’s going to take a long, long time, and probably a lot of pressure from the PA’s Western donors, to reverse these decades of hate education. But until that happens, the chances of Israeli-Palestinian peace are considerably less than a snowball’s chance in hell.
Originally published in Commentary on November 28, 2016
Donald Trump’s election as president has already had one negative effect: It seems to have turned most Israeli cabinet ministers into radical leftists. By that I obviously don’t mean they have started adopting leftist policy prescriptions. But they do seem to have embraced radical leftists’ childish demand for immediate implementation of their own preferred solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, regardless of how much real-world damage it causes.
Most Israeli ministers–albeit not Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu–appear to support a one-state solution, and ever since Trump won, they have been demanding major steps toward its implementation: unrestricted building in the settlements, legalizing illegal settlement outposts and annexing roughly 60 percent of the West Bank (Area C). As a first step, the governing coalition decided earlier this week to support a controversial bill that would legalize many (though not all) outposts built on privately owned Palestinian land; the bill passed its preliminary Knesset reading on Wednesday. Netanyahu himself opposed it, but facing a revolt in both his cabinet and his party, he refrained from using his prerogatives to stall the bill.
To be clear, nobody, even in the coalition, expects the bill to become law; its passage in preliminary reading was primarily a way of making a statement. But even if you genuinely support the bill, advancing it at this particular moment would be asinine. And that’s true even if you could somehow discount the two most obvious objections to the timing.
The first of those, of course, is that Barack Obama remains president for another two months and could use that time for various anti-Israel moves. Thus, the last thing Israel’s government needs is to give him additional impetus for such moves by appearing to abandon his cherished two-state solution.
The second is that before taking unilateral steps, it’s common sense to first try to coordinate with the incoming U.S. administration–especially since Trump’s advisors have reportedly requested this explicitly. If, for instance, Trump were willing to support construction in areas critical to Israel in exchange for a reasonable quid pro quo, that would be better than having every new home become a major conflict with Washington, as it has for the last eight years. And if Trump refuses to accommodate Israel’s needs, there will be plenty of time for unilateral steps after he takes office on January 20.
But even in a fantasy world where nobody in Washington objected to Israel building anywhere in the West Bank, moving full tilt toward a one-state agenda right now would be irresponsible, because should the world become convinced that Israel is abandoning or precluding a two-state solution, pressure for an immediate one-state solution, with Palestinians given full voting rights, is liable to escalate rapidly. And Israel simply isn’t ready for a one-state solution right now.
First, even assuming the world would let Israel ignore Gaza and annex the West Bank only, Jews account for just 66 percent of all residents of Israel and the West Bank according to even the most optimistic calculations. Given how controversial those calculations are, betting the Jewish state’s future on their accuracy would be foolish. But even if they are accurate, that would still leave Israel with a 34 percent Arab minority. Combined with support from Israeli leftists, that’s enough to democratically erase every vestige of Israel’s Jewish character, despite the fact that most Israeli leftists remain Zionists. Why? Because the non-Zionist left has repeatedly proven able to persuade parts of the Zionist left that various aspects of Israel’s Jewish identity somehow contradict “democracy” and “human rights.” And the larger the combined bloc of Arabs and non-Zionist leftists becomes, the easier it will be for them to pull wavering Zionist leftists to their side.
A second problem is economic: Europe, which is far more committed to Palestinian statehood than the Palestinians themselves, still accounts for about a third of Israel’s exports, so serious European sanctions could devastate Israel’s economy. Most European governments currently have no interest in imposing such sanctions. But if Israel appeared to be abandoning the two-state solution altogether, that could easily change–especially given Europe’s large and vocal anti-Israel lobby.
The final problem is diplomatic. I doubt Republicans would abandon Israel over this issue, but there’s every reason to think Democrats would, and power in Washington changes hands on a fairly regular basis. Thus unless Israel finds a substitute for America’s diplomatic backing–and I don’t see any on the horizon right now–it can’t afford to completely alienate Democrats.
None of these problems is necessarily permanent. For instance, over the past several years, Jewish fertility has consistently risen while Arab fertility has fallen. Just this week, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reported that for the first time since Israel’s establishment in 1948, the Jewish fertility rate has caught up with that of Israeli Arabs: The former has risen to 3.13 children per woman (from 2.6 in 2000) while the latter has dropped to 3.13 (from 4.3 in 2000). Israel has also been working hard to diversify its trade and thereby reduce its economic dependence on Europe, and this effort might eventually bear fruit. Or perhaps changing circumstances could someday persuade both Europe and the Democrats that Palestinian statehood is a bad idea.
But for the foreseeable future, there is no viable solution to the conflict–not two-state, not one-state, and not any of the more esoteric options that have been proposed. Nor can anyone predict what kind of solution might ultimately become viable in the future. Thus, it makes sense for Israel to keep all its options open, and that includes the one-state option. But locking itself into one state right now makes no more sense than locking itself into two states would.
All that Israel can reasonably do right now, as I explained in detail in a Mosaic essay last year, is manage the conflict, await the kind of changes that might someday make it solvable and ensure that the country is strong enough to survive until then. Demanding an instant solution, whether two-state or one-state, is a surefire recipe for disaster.
Originally published in Commentary on November 17, 2016