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entries tagged with: Danny Danon


Is Bibi beholden to the right wing?

JERUSALEM – As the dust settles in Jerusalem after the U.S.-Israel confrontation over building in the city east of the 1967 Green Line, one key question comes to the fore: To what extent is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu beholden to and dependent on the more hard-line elements in the Israeli right?

The answer will have major ramifications for the viability of the peace process with the Palestinians and future ties between Israel and the United States.

Netanyahu came to power last year on a cusp of right-wing support. Even though his Likud Party won one seat fewer than Tzipi Livni’s Kadima, all the right-wing parties backed Netanyahu, ensuring that he and not Livni would have a majority in the Knesset and become prime minister.

Netanyahu’s connections to the right run deep.

Deputy Knesset Speaker Danny Danon, right, a member of the Likud Party, visits the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, where an announcement about Israeli housing starts became a flashpoint in U.S.-Israeli relations. David Vaaknin/ Flash 90 / JTA

In 2007, the Likud worked out a strategy for regaining power based on an alliance with the right-wing Orthodox Shas Party. Working in tandem with his Likud colleague Yisrael Katz, Netanyahu promised Shas leaders political gains that Kadima would never grant them. A bargain was struck and Shas delivered.

First, Shas prevented Livni from forming a government in the autumn of 2008, after Ehud Olmert resigned as Kadima leader. Then in 2009, Shas backed Netanyahu for prime minister. Likud leaders see the bond with Shas as a long-term investment to keep Likud in power.

Although there is no similar pact with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, Netanyahu owes Lieberman for tipping the scales in his favor in last year’s standoff against Livni for the premiership. Part of the payoff was to make the bellicose Yisrael Beiteinu leader foreign minister. Indeed, the fact that Netanyahu appointed Lieberman, of all people, to Israel’s top diplomatic post shows just how much he feels he needs him.

Coalition partners aside, potential right-wing constraints on Netanyahu start closer to home.

A majority in his own Likud Knesset faction opposes Palestinian statehood, to which Netanyahu is ostensibly committed. Many also oppose the 10-month freeze on construction in west bank settlements that Netanyahu agreed to last November and are insisting that it be rescinded as soon as it expires, irrespective of the state of negotiations with the Palestinians.

One of the Likud hard-liners, Deputy Knesset Speaker Danny Danon, claims he has a hard and fast promise from Netanyahu to resume building on Sept. 26. Danon and his fellow hard-liners hope to tie Netanyahu’s hands here with a binding Likud Central Committee resolution next month.

Danon warns that if Netanyahu insists on making serious moves toward Palestinian statehood, he will face rebellion both in the coalition and the party. But Danon does not expect it to come to that. On the contrary, he claims that Netanyahu’s mind-set is no different from Likud hard-liners.

“It’s not as if he is prepared to pay a price for peace the way former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert were,” Danon told JTA. “He fully understands that there is no viable Palestinian partner, and that what we need now is to manage the conflict and not try to solve it.”

Netanyahu brought the Labor Party into the coalition and publicly sought, but failed, to do the same with Kadima. But some pundits argue that Netanyahu, himself not enamored of the two-state solution, deliberately surrounded himself with coalition partners who would not allow him to make a move.

The result has been a performance strikingly similar to that of Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister from 1996 to 1999. Then, too, he navigated between a U.S. administration seeking movement on the Palestinian track and a defiant right wing. Eventually he was brought down by the right for succumbing to U.S. pressure to hand over 13.5 percent of the west bank to the Palestinian Authority.

While those like Danon recognize the existential importance for Israel of the strategic relationship with Washington, they believe wholesale concessions to the Palestinians could put Israel’s survival at risk. They argue that once started, there is no saying where an inevitably salami-like process of compromise will end.

“I think the prime minister realizes that every concession he makes simply invites more pressure,” Danon said. “If he hadn’t agreed to freeze construction in the west bank, no one would be demanding a freeze in Jerusalem. Every time he gives in, he invites more pressure from the American administration — and we get nothing in return.”

In the past, Netanyahu has spoken of a need for flexibility on the Palestinian track for the sake of more intimate cooperation with the United States against the far greater Iranian nuclear threat. Some pundits have even suggested the possibility of a “grand bargain” under which Israel helps boost America’s regional standing by making serious peace moves with the Palestinians in return for which Washington helps neutralize the Iranian nuclear threat.

The hard-liners tend to reverse the linkage: First defang Iran to facilitate peacemaking — or to decouple the Iranian and Palestinian issues altogether. They argue that defanging Iran is as much an American as an Israeli interest, and should have nothing to do with the state of play on the Palestinian track.

But those close to Netanyahu acknowledge that any perceived tensions in the Israeli-U.S. strategic alliance could send the wrong message to Tehran.

“There must be a perception in Tehran of a strong, coordinated Israel-U.S. strategic alliance,” Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States who now advises Netanyahu on American affairs, told JTA. “Otherwise the Iranians will say if America and Israel are not on the same wavelength, we can certainly go on doing what we are doing to develop a nuclear capability.”

Some observers argue that the right-wing hold over Netanyahu — or any prime minister, for that matter — goes well beyond party and coalition politics.

In a new book titled “The Shift: Israel and Palestine from Border Conflict to Ethnic Struggle,” Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University, maintains that elements of the pro-settler right have infiltrated the establishment on a scale that makes withdrawal from the west bank in the context of a two-state solution with the Palestinians virtually impossible.

“That’s one of the main reasons that the political leadership is backing away from the showdown, because it will mean confrontation with large segments within the establishment itself,” Klein told JTA.

If Klein is right, Netanyahu, a prisoner of the right, will not be able to make serious moves toward a deal with the Palestinians even if he wishes.



Ill-advised settlement freeze weakened Israel strategically


Six years on, lessons of Gaza withdrawal resonate for west bank

SHILOH, west bank – Yisrael Medad remembers when just eight families lived in the red-roofed homes in this Jewish settlement deep in the hills of the west bank.

Now some 2,500 Israelis live here, and Shiloh has playgrounds, schools, and a yeshiva. The red-roofed homes sprawl over several hills, and new homes continue to be built. At the bottom of the hill is the archeological excavation of the biblical Shiloh, where the tabernacle is believed to have been built.

Shiloh is often cited as one of the settlements likely to be uprooted under any final peace deal with the Palestinians. It is relatively isolated, about 28 miles north of Jerusalem, and halfway between the Palestinian cities of Ramallah and Nablus.

But with little movement in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Shiloh is not likely to disappear anytime soon. And even in the long term, any discussion of dismantling Jewish settlements in the west bank is haunted by Israel’s experience six years ago this summer, when the removal of some 9,000 settlers from their homes in the Gaza Strip was followed by a Hamas takeover of Gaza and rocket attacks against Israel.

“The expulsion from Gaza should serve as a warning for any withdrawal from Judea and Samaria,” said Hamutal Cohen of the Committee for the Residents of Gush Katif, which was the largest bloc of Jewish settlements in Gaza. “The government totally failed with 9,000 settlers. How can they manage with tens of thousands?”

Only 20 percent of the 1,700 families forced to leave Gaza have moved into permanent homes, according to the committee. Many, especially farmers, have not been able to find work.

“You can’t fix the trauma and crisis these people are still suffering six years later,” Danny Danon, a Knesset member from the Likud Party, told JTA. “Marriages have broken up and a lot of kids dropped out of school. People still live like refugees.”

There is great debate in Israel over whether the withdrawal from Gaza, which then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon carried out in August 2005, was a strategic failure or success.

On the one hand, Israel no longer had to deal with the daily security threats and headache of protecting 9,000 Jews in Gaza. And on the diplomatic front, Israel’s withdrawal ended Israel’s formal occupation of the coastal strip, which it had captured from Egypt in 1967 but never incorporated into Israel proper.

On the other hand, a year after the Israeli withdrawal, Hamas seized control of Gaza and rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel increased dramatically. At the end of 2008, Israel launched a three-week war to stem the rocket fire, drawing international condemnation for its military actions. Over the last few years, Palestinian advocates also have argued that Israel’s blockade of Gaza, which has loosened recently, constituted a de facto continuation of the occupation.

Danon says the Gaza withdrawal was clearly a mistake and a west bank pullback would be an even bigger mistake. Citing the rocket threat, he noted that an Israeli withdrawal even from part of the west bank would leave central Israel — including Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Ben-Gurion Airport — well within Palestinian rocket range.

“People in Israel were willing to pay a heavy price in exchange for a real peace, but now they feel betrayed,” Danon said. “They feel like it was all for nothing.”

Then there’s the military challenge inherent in any west bank withdrawal. During the pullout from Gaza, many in Israel speculated that pro-settler soldiers and officers would disobey orders to evacuate the Gaza settlers. That did not happen and most soldiers did their jobs. The few who in good conscience felt they could not perform this duty were quietly excused.

But a withdrawal from the west bank could be different. For one thing, the number of settlers whose communities would not be annexed to Israel could exceed 80,000 (an estimated 320,000 Jews are living in west bank settlements, not including eastern Jerusalem, which Israel annexed).

Yossi Klein Halevi, a journalist and a fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute, says support for Jewish settlers in the west bank has gone mainstream in a way that support for settlements in Gaza never did.

“Two generations have grown up in Israel who see the settlements not only as part of Israel but as the heart of Israel,” Halevi told JTA. “Any withdrawal from the west bank would involve mass refusal of soldiers to follow orders, and I am deeply worried about the ability of the army to continue to be an effective fighting force.”

Halevi estimates that Jewish settlers and their supporters make up 40 percent of some combat units; an Israeli army spokesman said the IDF does not release figures “on such a sensitive subject.” Orthodox men, who constitute a wellspring of support for the settlements, continue to volunteer for combat units in large numbers.

These Orthodox youth also are fiercely loyal to their rabbis. When Israeli police recently detained Rabbi Dov Lior of the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba to question him on charges of incitement and racism, hundreds of Orthodox youth in Jerusalem blocked streets and clashed with police. If Lior issued a ruling that it is forbidden to force Jews to leave Jewish settlements in the west bank, many Orthodox Jewish soldiers might find themselves torn.

Gershon Baskin of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information says such fears are overstated and that most religious soldiers would follow the orders of the army, not their rabbis.

“Israel is a state where the rule of law works,” Baskin told JTA. “If there’s a democratic decision which is seen as legitimate, supported by Knesset, and perhaps backed by a referendum, the public will not be behind any settlers who will take the law into their own hands and use violence.”

“It will be much more traumatic than the Gaza withdrawal. But if people are convinced that peace is going to be real and settlement withdrawal would be gradual and incremental over time,” they would support it, he said.

It’s not clear whether Jews who live in settlements like Shiloh would have the option of staying on under Palestinian sovereignty or whether they would want to remain. Some Palestinian officials, including Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, have welcomed the idea, but PA President Mahmoud Abbas has expressed reservations.

“If a Palestinian state is created and my security could be ensured, I would definitely choose to stay,” said Medad of Shiloh, who has lived in the settlement since 1981.

JTA Wire Service


With debt crisis looming,  Jewish service groups are on alert

WASHINGTON – Jewish service groups are telling their constituents to be on guard for a possible government shutdown or slowdown after Aug. 2, when the United States is scheduled to hit its debt ceiling.

What that means is not yet clear: The government isn’t saying what it will stop paying for or which debts it will halt payment on.

Moody’s, one of the three pre-eminent credit-rating agencies, said the crisis could affect not only the AAA rating of the U.S. credit risk — the best offered by the agency — but also the ratings of nations that have loans guaranteed by Washington. It named Egypt and Israel.

Democrats, Republicans, the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate, and the White House have deadlocked over a formula that would raise the limit the U.S. can take out in loans while shaping a longer-term formula to tamp down the deficit.

The White House says that as of Tuesday, it will not have the money to fully fund government, which means that anything from government paychecks to defense spending to social services could come to screeching halt. For Jewish service groups, housing grants that help maintain Jewish homes for the elderly could stop paying out, Medicaid money that funds services for the vulnerable could dry up, and the Social Security checks that help the Jewish elderly make ends meet could stop coming.

“We are sending out guidance to federations and Jewish social service agencies to make sure they are aware of the situation and to act accordingly with a message that they should stand by” for further guidance as the deadline looms, said William Daroff, the Washington director for the Jewish Federations of North America.

Daroff said the “game of chicken in Washington could have an impact on the most vulnerable.”

“We are most worried about Medicaid payments that go to Jewish nursing homes and Jewish family services,” he said. “The people who will be most affected are the most vulnerable of our population — the people who are suffering most because of the recession.”

The effect won’t be felt immediately on Aug. 3, according to Rachel Goldberg, director of aging policy for B’nai B’rith International. Instead, its effect will become apparent as the Obama administration chooses what to cut.

“No one is going to be happy with the choices made,” she said.

There could be a ripple effect on the economy. If millions of elderly Americans don’t get their Social Security checks directly deposited after Aug. 2, then mortgages and rents due could be affected.

Likewise, said Mark Olshan, the director of B’nai Brith’s Center for Senior Services, if the Department of Housing and Urban Development fails to send out subsidies to homes for the elderly, the institutions will have to dip into reserves immediately.

“That eats up future moneys,” he said.

The principal division between the parties is over revenue — whether or not to raise taxes as part of a recovery package. Democrats want some tax hikes, while Republicans want only cuts for now.

It’s a division that seeps into the Jewish groups. The Reform movement and B’nai B’rith International back plans that include increased taxes. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for Jewish policy groups, last week wrote to Congress to oppose the cuts-only Cut, Cap and Balance Act backed by the Republicans.

On Tuesday, the JFNA wrote to the president and congressional leaders appealing to them not to gut discretionary spending — the allocations that states use to fund services that provide food, shelter, and medicine to the needy, as well as Medicaid. The letter also appealed to the parties to leave alone charitable tax deductions, which have been targeted by Democrats.

Yet as the crisis looms, Goldberg said, it becomes harder to advocate for the whole social services package that Jewish service groups once favored.

“We want to protect Medicare and Medicaid,” she said of the programs that respectively subsidize health care for the elderly and the poor. “But we don’t want to keep pressing for that and end up with default. Everyone is struggling with how hard to push.”

Goldberg said that cuts that do not immediately affect Jewish services may have ancillary effects one or two weeks into the crisis. The government could authorize funds for HUD to pay institutions, she said, while cutting back government salaries.

Another consideration is whether a deal forged after a cutoff in funds would be retroactive, Daroff said.

With the sides continuing to disagree on the best way out of the crisis, no one is sure what may happen.

The looming crisis drew Muslim, Christian, and Jewish clergy to the Capitol on Tuesday to press for a resolution.

“The stiffening of the ideological lines is really alarming,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, who directs the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center. “The people who fall through the cracks are very often the people in our pews. When you cut the safety net out from under, it’s the elderly and the hungry and the disabled” who suffer.

JTA Wire Service

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