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As Israel’s image sinks, whither Israeli PR?

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Theresa McDermott, an Edinburgh postal worker who was a member of the Free Gaza Movement flotilla, speaks at a Boycott Israel demonstration in Edinburgh on June 5. Richard Milnes/Creative Commons

JERUSALEM – In the war of public relations for Israel, the past few weeks have been full of setbacks.

Israel’s deadly May 31 raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla sparked countless angry editorials, demonstrations, and condemnations. The assassination in Dubai in January of a Hamas operative by agents widely believed to have been Israelis — using faked passports — resulted in the expulsion of Israeli diplomats from the countries whose passports had been faked. Even leading musicians have canceled performances in Israel in recent weeks, citing political circumstances.

These developments have brought Israel’s growing image problem into sharp relief.

The fear is that Israel is subject to a growing tide of delegitimization that, if unchecked, could pose an existential threat. The nightmare scenario has the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement gaining more traction and anti-Israel opinion moving from Western campuses to governments, followed by a lifting of the protective American diplomatic umbrella.

More than ever, Israel needs an efficient PR machine capable of undermining the would-be delegitimizers and getting across the Israeli narrative.

That raises the question: Who is running Israel’s PR — in Hebrew, called hasbara — and why have they not been more successful?

The public face of Israel, the Netanyahu-Lieberman-Barak government, wins few points on the international stage. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is widely perceived as uninterested in making peace, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is seen as a racist bully, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak is seen as not doing enough to press for more peace-oriented policies.

Another problem is the large number of agencies within the government dealing with public relations. To name just a few, there is a directorate for PR in the National Security Council, and PR divisions in the Prime Minister’s Office, the Defense Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, and the Israel Defense Forces.

They are not always coordinated. For example, the Foreign Ministry’s quick response team and the IDF spokesman’s office argued over who should present the initial Israeli version of what happened aboard the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish-flagged ship that greeted Israel’s commando raid with violence. As a result, the Israeli account did not come out for about 10 hours after the incident, a lacuna the Turks and other detractors were able to take full advantage of.

Israel’s “rebranding” strategy also seems to have had little success.

For years, a Foreign Ministry team under Ido Aharoni has been trying to improve Israel’s image by branding it as a fount of “creative energy,” emphasizing Israel’s high-tech and scientific achievements, burgeoning economy, entrepreneurial zeal, energetic lifestyle, and vibrant diversity of opinion and culture. The core idea behind the campaign is that focusing on Israel beyond the conflict would deflect attention from its negative image as an occupying power.

Not only has the campaign failed to achieve its main goal, but politics has penetrated nonpolitical realms. Musicians such as Elvis Costello, the Pixies, and indie rocker Devendra Banhart have canceled concerts here, citing politics. The Madrid gay pride parade banned an Israeli float sponsored by the city of Tel Aviv, citing the raid aboard the Mavi Marmara.

Earlier this year the Reut Institute, a nonpartisan Tel Aviv-based think tank, issued a comprehensive report analyzing Israel’s delegitimization problem and the tools needed to combat it. The report argued that the time has come for the government to take the delegitimization challenge as seriously as it does the military threats facing Israel.

In its report, presented to the cabinet in February, Reut pointed to an increasingly effective alliance between Islamist rejectionists and radical left-wing groups in the West whose common goal is to destroy Israel by isolating it politically and economically, ultimately forcing a one-state solution with a Muslim majority. The delegitimizers are particularly active in places like London, Madrid, and the California bay area, which Reut called hubs, where they form grassroots networks of activists, NGOs, and fellow travelers against Israel. The tipping point in their work would be a growing international consensus for a one-state solution, the report said.

“Perhaps the existential threat to Israel is not yet around the corner, but as we know from history, state paradigms collapse exponentially,” Eran Shayshon, one of the authors of the Reut paper, told JTA. “Suddenly a few things happen to create an irresistible momentum, as happened with the Soviet Union or with apartheid South Africa.”

In order to meet the challenge, Reut proposes a complete overhaul of Israel’s foreign service. It argues that instead of an outmoded diplomacy geared toward handling states and continents, the new focus should be on the hubs where the delegitimizers are particularly active and where dozens of additional diplomats should be deployed to engage as many people as possible among the decision-making elites.

In addition, Reut recommends building anti-delegitimization networks worldwide based on Jewish and Israeli groups abroad, including NGOs. The main goal of the multifaceted campaign would be to prevent delegitimization from spreading from the fringes to the mainstream.

According to the Reut paper, the aim is to drive a wedge between bona-fide critics of specific Israeli policies and promoters of delegitimacy, thereby winning over the nonpartisan political center and creating a “political firewall around Israel.”

So far, there is no sign the government intends to adopt any of this. While pro-Israel NGOs from Jerusalem to New York are involved in trying to defuse deligitimization campaigns against Israel, some PR experts argue that the problem is more a question of government policy than organizational structures or efforts.

Israel will continue to suffer on the PR front unless it launches a major peace initiative, this school of thought says. That is one of the reasons Barak has been urging Netanyahu to come out with a new peace initiative, carefully coordinated with and backed by the Americans.

Such an initiative almost certainly would not impress the delegitimizers, but it probably would give Israel a better chance of stopping the erosion of its international standing by driving a wedge between them and the rest of the international community.

JTA

 
 

Article fuels speculation, debate over possible strike against Iran

JERUSALEM – If the United States doesn’t attack Iran’s nuclear facilities within the next eight months or so, Israel probably will.

So says journalist Jeffrey Goldberg in the September issue of The Atlantic magazine in an article that is fueling debate and speculation among many Middle East experts.

Goldberg bases his conclusion mainly on three premises: In the Israeli view, Iran will be in a position to produce a bomb by next spring or very soon thereafter. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is taking seriously persistent Iranian threats to wipe Israel off the map and is resolved to prevent a second Holocaust. And Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak argue that even if Iran doesn’t use the bomb, a nuclear threat hanging over Israel could destroy the Zionist enterprise, with Israelis leaving the country and prospective immigrants staying away.

Goldberg makes much of the prime minister’s reverence for his 100-year-old historian father, Benzion Netanyahu, who sees history in terms of successive threats to the existence of the Jewish people. And it is true that Netanyahu at times depicts himself as a latter-day Winston Churchill, whose life’s mission is to save his people.

Nevertheless, Goldberg gives many reasons why Israel would think twice before launching an attack on Iran.

On the tactical level, a strike against Iran’s well-protected and far-flung nuclear facilities might have limited effect. Also, the operational complexity of having to fly great distances, over American lines or Arab territory, is a military planner’s nightmare.

Far worse, though, on the strategic level, is the fact that attacking Iran without an American green light could lead to a major rupture between Jerusalem and Washington. And if distanced from or even abandoned by America, Israel could quickly become a pariah state isolated on the international stage.

The widespread international condemnation of Israel’s action against a Turkish “peace” vessel last May is an indication of where things could go.

Moreover, any Israeli strike against Iran would almost certainly trigger a major regional war, with Israel under missile and rocket attack from Iran, from Hezbollah in Lebanon, and also possibly from Syria and Hamas in Gaza. That, in turn, could lead to spiraling oil prices, for which Israel would be blamed. And Iran and its proxies almost certainly would unleash terror attacks against Jewish targets worldwide.

For reasons like these, outgoing Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi is said to be unenthusiastic about launching an Israeli strike. Although the Israel Defense Forces reportedly has conducted simulation exercises as far afield as Greece, and is continually fine-tuning its operational plans, Ashkenazi would prefer not to have to carry them out.

Ashkenazi is not the only senior military man with doubts.

Maj. Gen. (Res.) Giora Eiland, a former national security adviser and one of Israel’s sharpest military analysts, argued in a much-touted position paper late last year that there is no way Israel would risk harming its key strategic relationship with the United States for the lesser gain of putting Iran’s nuclear program back by a few years. Moreover, he said, if there is to be a military strike, the chances are that the Americans would prefer to carry it out themselves.

According to Eiland, some U.S. Army chiefs maintain that since America would be affected by the fallout of any strike, it should bring its greater military prowess to bear to ensure success.

In Eiland’s view, for Israel to have a realistic strike option, the following conditions would have to pertain: a clear failure of the current sanctions against Iran; American unwillingness to take military action despite what some of the generals have been saying; and American understanding for Israel’s need to act. Then Netanyahu would have to make his own personal calculus — bearing in mind that failure could leave the Gulf unstable, Western interests undermined, Israel blamed and isolated on the world stage, and worst of all, Iran’s drive to acquire nuclear weapons accorded a degree of legitimacy.

Zeev Maoz, a political scientist at the University of California, Davis, and at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, adds another concern. In a mid-August article in Haaretz, he suggested that an attack on Iran could lead to international pressure on Israel to dismantle its presumed nuclear arsenal and to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. If Israel refused to buckle, it could be ostracized, Maoz wrote, and if it did buckle under pressure, it would be losing a key bargaining chip for the creation of a new regional security order.

So, given the risks an attack on Iran would entail, would Israel consider a nuclear balance of fear with Iran?

According to Maj. Gen (Res.) Yitzhak Ben Yisrael, former head of military research and development in the IDF and the Defense Ministry, in such a balance the advantage would tilt hugely in Israel’s favor. He told JTA that the Iranians are trying to build a fission bomb that at around 20 kilotons would be about the size of the American bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

Foreign experts assert that Israel possesses fusion bombs that can be from 50 to 250 times more destructive than the 1945 atomic bomb.

In late 2007, Anthony Cordesman, a senior researcher at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, published “Iran, Israel and Nuclear War: An Illustrative Scenario Analysis,” in which he tried to gauge the outcome of a nuclear showdown sometime in the next decade. His bottom line: Israel would be able to survive and rebuild, while Iran would not.

According to Ben Yisrael, the Iranians are very well aware of this disparity and therefore would be unlikely to start a nuclear war against Israel.

“Maybe the Iranian man in the street doesn’t know these facts, but the engineers working on the Iranian bomb certainly do. And so does [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad,” Ben Yisrael told JTA.

Nevertheless, Ben Yisrael, like most Israeli analysts, is adamantly opposed to Iran’s acquiring the bomb for two reasons: The Middle East almost certainly would go multinuclear in its wake, exponentially increasing the chances of someone mistakenly pressing a nuclear button, and terrorists might get their hands on a nuclear device with no balance of fear possible.

Indeed, most Israeli analysts see compelling American reasons for action. They argue that the Obama administration would be loath to see a Middle East nuclear arms race undercutting the president’s vision of a nuclear-free world. It also is crucial for America to prevent Iran from using a nuclear umbrella to promote terror and extortion against the West, or terrorists from getting their hands on a dirty bomb, or Iran from using its nuclear posture to gain control of Middle East oil supplies in the Gulf.

In addition, the failure to stop Iran from going nuclear could lead to a loss of American prestige and influence in the region, with wavering Gulf states moving from the American to the Iranian orbit.

So, if sanctions don’t work, and if a popular uprising in Iran led by the opposition Green Movement fails to materialize, the Israeli leadership’s hope is that America will see the necessity of taking military action, despite the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Israelis are careful not to spell this out, since they don’t want to be seen as pushing for an American attack.

Israeli analysts point out that what would be very difficult for Israel to achieve, militarily and diplomatically, the United States could achieve much more easily. According to Goldberg, Netanyahu himself often tells visitors “the secret” that the U.S. Army is much bigger than Israel’s.

Netanyahu in his meeting with Obama in early July was heartened, according to aides, by what he heard from the president on Iran. Indeed, it appears that U.S. policy is to prevent Israel from going it alone, with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen urging Israel to bite the bullet, while Obama reassures Israeli leaders that he will not allow Iran to get the bomb.

But what if Israel and the United States differ in their estimates of the Iranian nuclear timetable? Or if the United States proves reluctant to attack when Israel feels that time is running out?

Will Israel, because of the threat posed by a nuclear Iran, then take the risk of acting alone? And, crucially, will the United States then give Israel a green light to attack?

JTA

 
 

Ill-advised settlement freeze weakened Israel strategically

 

Can Netanyahu accept new settlement freeze? U.S. might have to sweeten the deal

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen here at his weekly cabinet meeting on Oct. 4, reportedly is trying to convince cabinet members to agree to extend the west bank settlement freeze by 60 days. Kobi Gideon/Flash90/JTA

JERUSALEM – Following reports of an unprecedented U.S. offer of a host of assurances in return for a 60-day extension of the freeze on building in west bank settlements, some political analysts are wondering why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not grabbed the deal with both hands.

According to the reports, President Obama is offering Netanyahu pledges that the United States will:

News Analysis

• Not ask for additional extensions on the partial ban on settlement building, which expired Sept. 26;

• Commit to using the U.S. veto to prevent U.N. recognition of a unilaterally declared Palestinian state, if Israeli-Palestinian negotiations fail to bear fruit;

• “Accept the legitimacy” of Israel’s security needs as defined by the Netanyahu government — understood as referring to Netanyahu’s demand for a long-term Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley, in the eastern west bank;

• Broker talks with neighboring Arab states on a “regional security structure” — a nod to Netanyahu’s desire for cooperation on confronting Iran;

• Enhance Israel’s security through the sale of a second squadron of state-of-the-art stealth F-35 fighters and space cooperation, including access to U.S. satellite early warning systems.

The price: Israel must agree to extend for 60 days the recently expired west bank building freeze.

If Netanyahu spurns the offer, Israel not only would lose out on all the above, but the Americans would come out publicly in support of the 1967 borders as the basis for all future territorial negotiations with the Palestinians.

On its face, the deal would seem like a no-brainer for Netanyahu to take. So why hasn’t he?

For one thing, it’s not only up to Netanyahu. He needs the approval of a settlement freeze extension from his 29-member cabinet or at least his 15-member security cabinet, and he doesn’t have enough votes yet in those bodies. While by most accounts Netanyahu is inclined to take the deal and is pushing for cabinet members to approve it, the United States first might have to sweeten the pot.

The U.S. offer followed intensive negotiations in Washington between Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and an American team led by veteran Middle East adviser Dennis Ross. The idea was to affirm the U.S. commitments in a presidential letter to Netanyahu to persuade him and pro-settlement members of his government to go along with a new temporary freeze — and in so doing keep alive the direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks launched in early September. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has pledged to quit the talks if the freeze is not extended.

For now, the Israeli prime minister is being pressed by cabinet hard-liners not to accept the American package as is. They warn that it is all very general and that much of it will not stand up in practice.

The hard-liners are suspicious, too, of Barak’s motives. They believe Barak is behind the American offer because he fears that if the peace talks with the Palestinians break down, his Labor Party would be forced to withdraw from the government. Such a move would cost Barak the post of defense minister and, in all likelihood, his political future.

As things stand, Netanyahu does not have the votes for the deal.

In the full 29-member cabinet, 14 ministers are for extending the freeze and 15 are against. In the 15-member security cabinet the count is seven for and eight against, and in the unofficial forum of seven top advisers, three are for extending the freeze and four are against. In Netanyahu’s governing coalition, without the support of Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas, Torah Judaism, Habayit Hayehudi and Likud hard-liners, the prime minister would have the support of fewer than 40 members of the 120-member Knesset.

Netanyahu’s greatest political fear is of a repeat of 1999, when after making concessions to the Palestinians at Wye Plantation, he lost his right-wing political support base and was roundly defeated by Barak in the ensuing election. This time, the scenario that Netanyahu wants to avoid is accepting an American package, going ahead with the peacemaking, and then losing the next election to Kadima’s Tzipi Livni.

Even if Netanyahu could jettison the pro-settler parties from his coalition and bring in Kadima — changing the balance of power in the government and the Knesset in favor of pro-negotiation parties, and accepting the U.S. package — it could cost him the premiership.

Netanyahu therefore is being extra careful about making any moves that could lose him large swaths of what he sees as his natural constituency.

The Israeli prime minister also has a major strategic concern. According to confidants, he fears that as soon as any new 60-day freeze ends, the Americans will put a “take it or leave it peace plan” of their own on the table. With the U.S. midterm elections over, Obama might feel able to publicly present parameters for a peace deal that Netanyahu would find impossible to accept.

Israel might then find itself totally isolated and under intolerable international pressure. That is a scenario Netanyahu hopes the current negotiations with the Americans will help him avoid.

So far, Netanyahu has spoken of ongoing “delicate” negotiations with the Americans and implied that much of what has been reported in the press is inaccurate.

As so often in the past, Netanyahu is caught between the U.S. administration and his right-leaning coalition. If he chooses his coalition, he risks losing the support of the current administration; if he chooses America, he fears he could lose his coalition and, with it, the premiership.

What Labor and Likud moderates reportedly are telling him is that it is not 1999, and that now he can have his cake and eat it, too: If he goes with the Americans and the peace process, he will win the next election hands down.

JTA

 
 

Ehud Barak quits Labor

Political betrayal or precursor to something bigger?

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Defense Minister Ehud Barak announcing his intention to quit the Labor Party he heads to form a new faction, called Independence, on Jan. 17. Photo by Abir Sultan/Flash90

JERUSALEM – Was it an act of political self-preservation, a feat of political destruction, or a bid to stabilize Israel’s government ahead of some dramatic move?

And for Israel’s Labor Party, was it another sign of the once-leading party’s demise, or a precursor to a revival and the ideals for which it stands?

What’s certain is that Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s decision this week to quit Labor, which he had headed until Monday, has sent shock waves throughout the Israeli political establishment.

News Analysis

Ironically, the split of Labor — until this week a part of the Israeli government but now in the opposition — may yet strengthen the coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Barak’s decision to quit Labor and found a new political party along with four other Labor defectors leaves Netanyahu with eight fewer members in his coalition, but the 66 who remain are considered far more stable than the 74 he had pre-defection.

Before Barak’s dramatic announcement, Labor was threatening to withdraw all 13 of its Knesset members unless Netanyahu could show real progress in peacemaking with the Palestinians. That would have left the prime minister with only 61 coalition members, the vast majority right-wingers and the minimum necessary to stay prime minister in the 120-seat Knesset. Such a narrow coalition would have opened up Netanyahu to harsh domestic and international criticism for leading a perceived hard-line government.

Now, in what appears to have been a coordinated move, Netanyahu and Barak have pulled the rug out from under the feet of their opponents. With a more stable coalition, Netanyahu almost certainly has secured a full term in office, until 2013. Barak pre-empted attempts to oust him as Labor leader and force him to leave the Defense Ministry by cutting a deal in which he can stay on as defense minister after leaving Labor.

Many Israelis on the left and right viewed Barak’s move with deep skepticism. The new party he heads, called Atzmaut, which means Independence, has a hazy future other than the assurance of four ministerial berths in Netanyahu’s government and the chairmanship of a Knesset committee.

The leader of Israel’s opposition, Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni, called it the “dirtiest and ugliest maneuver” in Israel’s political history. Her own party was a breakaway from Likud in November 2005, when then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon led an exodus of moderates, including Livni, from the Likud.

The regional implications of the upgraded Netanyahu-Barak partnership could be far reaching.

It would appear that the peace process with the Palestinians is over, as the more dovish members of Netanyahu’s coalition have exited. Even if Netanyahu wanted to cut a deal with the Palestinians, his remaining coalition partners likely would block it.

Barak and Netanyahu, however, put a much different gloss on things. Until now, the Palestinians had been hoping for the Israeli government to fall and be replaced by one more amenable to their demands, representatives of the two men argue, and this has kept the Palestinians away from serious peace talks. Now, with a more stable government, the Palestinians will see this is who they have to deal with for the foreseeable future and may become more serious about returning to the negotiating table.

Furthermore, Netanyahu and Barak confidants have been dropping broad hints that a new Israeli peace initiative is in the offing, suggesting that this is part of a Netanyahu-Barak understanding.

There is another theory for Barak’s move: that Netanyahu is seriously contemplating a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear installations and believes he needs Barak at his side. According to this line of thinking, with the Labor Party threatening to force Barak to leave the government, Netanyahu could have found himself with a new defense minister who was less inclined to attack Iran. The front-runner would have been the Likud’s Moshe (Boogie) Yaalon, a super-hawk on the Palestinian issue but very cautious about striking Iran.

It would be understandable, commentators said, if Barak’s decision was part of a bid to revive peace talks with the Palestinians or take action against Iran’s drive toward nuclear weapons. But if not, the move is nothing more than a cynical act of political self-preservation.

In the media, Barak’s move was excoriated as a betrayal of those who voted for him and the party that had given him his chance in politics.

Barak’s leadership of Labor had been under severe threat. Would-be successors had called for an early party convention, expected to take place in late February or early March, with two issues on the agenda: deciding whether to stay in the government and setting a date for new leadership primaries. Within the space of a few months, Barak could have found himself out of the Defense Ministry and supplanted as party leader.

Barak says his new party will run in the next elections. But many Israelis are wondering if Barak really intends to make an electoral pact with Netanyahu and run on the Likud ticket.

Where does all this leave the Labor Party?

Many had accused Barak of ruining the party with his high-handed leadership style, lack of people skills, and loss of ideological direction — and now delivering the coup de grace by splitting the party in two. Many Israelis believe that the party, whose leaders founded and built the state, holding uninterrupted power for Israel’s first three decades, has run its course and that a new left-center constellation will rise from the ashes.

But the eight former ministers and Knesset members who have remained in the party insist that it could still be at the heart of a center-left revival.

One of the contenders for the party leadership, Yitzhak Herzog, said Barak’s departure has freed Labor of its biggest obstacle in the way of rehabilitation, and now the party can rebuild and recapture some of its former glory.

“Labor got rid of the hump on its back,” he declared.

Party activists, especially the young guard, say that with Barak gone, people will rejoin in droves.

Labor overcame its first serious hurdle on the way to rehabilitation when four Knesset members led by former party boss Amir Peretz — who had been considering a second split off from Labor — decided to stay. But the four have made it clear that unless there is a modicum of cooperation with them, they will leave at a later date, precipitating another major crisis.

Much will depend on who takes over as Labor’s leader. Early polls showed that Herzog enjoys 20 percent public support, with former party leader Amram Mitzna and Knesset member Shelly Yacimovich each with 18 percent.

But these polls are largely irrelevant. It is not clear who the final contenders for the Labor leadership will be, what new parties will emerge before the next elections, and what the center-left political map will look like.

More important, the results of the next election likely will be decided by how the new Netanyahu-Barak partnership fares. That has only just begun.

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Arab unrest alters power balance in as yet unseen ways

They were the devils they knew.

Though Israel lives in a dangerous neighborhood, surrounded by countries whose leaders or people wish its destruction, over the years it had adjusted to what was the status quo, more or less figuring out how to get by while keeping an eye on gradual change.

News Analysis

But the sudden upheaval in the region that in a matter of weeks has toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and threatens autocrats in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and elsewhere, is forcing Israel to grapple with how to recalibrate for dramatic change.

For the time being, as Israel sits and watches how things play out from Tripoli to Manama, Bahrain, it’s not clear exactly how the game will change.

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A demonstrator with an anti-Gaddafi sign outside the Libya Embassy in Cairo Feb. 22 shows his solidarity for Libyans protesting their leader. Sierragoddes via Creative Commons

“The best answer is we don’t know,” Ron Pundak, the director of the Peres Center for Peace in Herzliya, said this week at the J Street conference in Washington.

“The biggest change since 1967 is this tsunami rolling across the region whose end results no one really can foresee,” said Samuel Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who attended the conference. “Something new is happening in the Arab world.”

In some places, like Libya, the immediate effects on Israel are minimal. Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi’s state has had no ties to Israel, so the dictator’s demise — if it comes — wouldn’t change much for Israelis.

“The civil war raging in Libya poses no immediate cause for concern in Israel,” Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff wrote in Haaretz.

However, the cumulative effects of the Middle East unrest are prompting shifts throughout the region that may require dramatic strategic rethinking in the Jewish state.

Every time a protest movement in the Middle East succeeds, protest movements elsewhere are emboldened, and that has put many regimes that for decades have not been hostile to Israel — including those of the Persian Gulf, Jordan, and North Africa — on alert and at risk.

With Israel and the West engaged in a proxy war with Iran for regional hegemony, the fall of autocratic regimes allied with the West provides an opening for Iran to expand its power and sphere of influence.

And Iran is intent on doing so. It was no accident that just days after the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Tehran dispatched two warships to sail through the Suez Canal — something Iran had not dared to do since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The ships docked in Syria in what Iran’s navy chief, Rear Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, described as “a routine and friendly visit” to “carry the message of peace and friendship to world countries.”

In truth, it was an exercise in saber-rattling.

Iran is projecting “self-confidence and certain assertiveness in the region,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told CNN. Nevertheless, he said, “I don’t like it, but I don’t think that any one of us should be worried by it.”

When a pair of rockets fired from Gaza hit the Israeli city of Beersheba last week, some Israeli analysts saw it as another example of Iran’s saber-rattling. Iran has sent weapons to Gaza and seeks more influence there, even though the strip’s Hamas rulers are Sunni Muslims, and Iran is a Shiite power.

“I do not recommend that anyone test Israel’s determination,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the rocket attack.

The great fear is that regimes somewhat friendly toward Israel (Egypt, Jordan), or friendly with Israel by proxy via the United States (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain), or not actively hostile (Libya, among others), will be co-opted by elements with greater animus toward the Jewish state.

That hostility could come from any one of a number of places. On the Egyptian front, the long-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, an ally of Hamas, stands to gain greater power. In the cases of Tunisa and Libya, there is fear that al-Qaeda could capitalize on a power vacuum and take root. In Bahrain, which is overwhelmingly Shiite but ruled by a Sunni king, the concern is that genuine democracy could throw the country the way of Iran.

“The regional balance of power is changing, and not necessarily in Israel’s favor,” Robert Serry, the U.N. secretary-general’s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said at the J Street conference.

But there could be some good news, too. The uprisings that have spread from North Africa to the Persian Gulf have been broad-based, loosely organized protest movements led by young people networking through the Internet and social media like Facebook. They have not been dominated by Islamists, and the protesters have not made Israel a focal point.

Whether these young people really will take hold of the levers of power, and how they will relate to Israel in the future, are open questions.

For those concerned with Israel, the unrest is being interpreted one of two ways, depending largely on political leanings. Those on the right point to the instability as a reason for Israel to be more wary of concessions in any peace agreements, since their peace partner could disappear at any time.

“Why should Israel expect that another agreement would not be overturned by some new revolution, change of mind, or cynical long-term plan?” columnist Barry Rubin wrote in The Jerusalem Post.

Those on the left say that if Israel does not resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict quickly with a peace deal, the new generation of leaders emerging in the Arab world won’t be able to see Israel as anything other than an occupier and repressor of Palestinian rights. Arab commentators echo that thinking.

“The hatred of Israel will not end until you start treating Palestinians with freedom and dignity,” Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy said at the J Street conference. “This is the time for Israel to sit down and make concrete concessions.”

In Jerusalem, the government is still in the wait-and-see mode, albeit with as much handwringing as possible.

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, speaking Tuesday in Brussels, warned that the danger is that democracy movements in the Arab world will be “hijacked,” emulating the “model of Iran, the model of Hamas in Gaza, the model of Hezbollah in Lebanon,” according to the German news agency DPA.

Ayalon also said the unrest in the Arab world demonstrates that the notion of the Arab-Israel conflict being the region’s most serious issue is just not true.

“The real major problem of the Middle East, which is now so glaringly evident, is the dysfunctionality of the Arab societies,” Ayalon reportedly said, noting the absence of “rights of any kind.”

For more about the J Street conference, go to jstandard.com.

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Will Bibi go left or right?

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with Israeli army officers during a March 8 visit to the Jordan Valley in the west bank, said the Israeli army must maintain its presence along the length of the Jordan Valley in any future peace arrangement reached with the Palestinians. Moshe Milner/Flash90/JTA

JERUSALEM – Israel is staring at a fork in the road, with potential disaster along either path.

On the path to the left lies a major Israeli peace initiative that deals with all the core issues under dispute with the Palestinians. On the path to the right lies more waiting, possibly with some kind of offer of an interim peace agreement with the Palestinians, until conditions are right for something more.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the man behind the wheel at this critical juncture, is expected to announce a new peace initiative within the next two months, and the battle over which path it will hew to is causing serious divisions within his cabinet.

News Analysis

His defense minister, Ehud Barak, says the only way to head off a “diplomatic tsunami” that will engulf the Jewish state is by pressing for a major initiative on the Palestinian track that deals with all the core issues. Likud moderates such as Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan support Barak’s stance.

Hard-liners from the ruling Likud Party warn that if Israel makes premature territorial concessions, disaster will follow. Benny Begin, Silvan Shalom, and Moshe Ya’alon are leading this very strong and vocal campaign against Barak’s proposal.

The debate has brought to the fore the fundamental differences within the cabinet on the Palestinian issue.

Barak argues that unless Israel has a peace plan on the table within the next few months, it could suffer its worst-ever diplomatic defeat. With Israel failing to offer any alternative, he envisions a situation in which the Palestinians take their case to the United Nations in September and get wall-to-wall international recognition of their state along the 1967 lines without having to make concessions on borders, refugees or Jerusalem — or even declare an end to the conflict.

In Barak’s view, if Israel wants its case to be heard, it must offer an alternative plan. Otherwise, it will find itself under increasing international pressure to withdraw to the pre-1967 lines without even its most basic security demands taken into account. Israel also will face growing delegitimization as an occupying power in defiance of the will of the international community.

“It would be a mistake to ignore this tsunami,” he said Sunday at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “Israel’s delegitimization is just over the horizon, even if the public doesn’t see it. It’s very dangerous and we need to act.”

For the hard-liners, the danger lies in what they call Barak’s “delusional” approach. Ya’alon, who like Barak is a former Israeli army chief of staff, argues that it is dangerously naive to think the conflict can be solved by territorial concessions when the real problem is a fundamental Palestinian refusal to come to terms with Israel’s existence.

Ya’alon says that even moderate Palestinian leaders such as Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas would like to see Israel disappear, and that peace will be possible only when the Palestinian mind-set changes and all forms of anti-Israel education and incitement stop.

It’s a view that has gained some more traction among the Israeli public following the brutal killings last Friday night of five family members in the west bank Jewish settlement of Itamar.

For now, Ya’alon says, the focus should be on Palestinian institution-building and economic improvement; in other words, slow bottom-up building of a Palestinian capacity for peace. Big ambitious peace moves like Barak’s inevitably will fail and likely spawn new violence, he says. Ya’alon insists that any proposed new peace plan should have no territorial dimension.

Which way is Netanyahu likely to go?

On the one hand, he and his closest advisers have a great deal of respect for Barak and are well aware of the widespread international perception that it is Netanyahu’s foot-dragging on peacemaking that is responsible for the current impasse. Indeed, the leaks on Netanyahu’s purported new peace plan followed a heated telephone exchange in which German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly accused Netanyahu of having “done nothing to advance peace.”

Similarly, on March 1, President Obama told a roomful of American Jewish organizational leaders that they and their friends and colleagues in Israel should “search your souls” over Israel’s seriousness about making peace.

On the other hand, Netanyahu’s circle is comprised of hard-liners who are widely believed to wield much influence over the prime minister. The prime minister also has made some recent hard-line moves — for example, appointing the hawkish Yaakov Amidror as his new national security adviser and holding talks with the far right National Union Party on joining the governing coalition.

The question is not whether Netanyahu will present a peace plan but how far he will go.

Despite Ya’alon’s reservations, the plan is expected to focus on territorial and security issues, and the linkage between them. The way the plan is shaping up, Israel probably will offer to hand over more territory to full Palestinian jurisdiction ahead of negotiations on final borders and allay Palestinian fears that the interim stage will become permanent.

Under the plan, the United States will assure the Palestinians that final borders will be based on the pre-1967 lines with relatively minor land swaps, and Israel will seek U.S. assurances for an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley and for retention of large settlement blocs as part of Israel proper.

On the basis of the plan, reflecting Israeli good will and seriousness about peacemaking with a strong international underpinning, the Palestinians will be invited to talks on all the core issues.

Due to the differences between cabinet moderates and hard-liners, Netanyahu has not discussed the plan in the Forum of Seven senior ministers, which includes Barak, Meridor, Begin, and Ya’alon. Instead he is holding a series of one-on-one consultations.

There will also have to be detailed talks with the Americans to finalize a package in which they have a major role.

Despite the hype surrounding the new peace package, it remains too early to gauge whether Netanyahu is serious about peacemaking, as he insists, or simply playing for time, as his critics contend.

But with perception growing overseas that Netanyahu is the problem, not the Palestinians, the onus is on the prime minister to prove that this time he means business.

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Shuly Kustanowitz In her own words

 
 
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