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‘Land Day’ march highlights dilemmas facing Israel

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A Bedouin youth in the southern Israeli village of El Araqib takes part in the 34th annual “Land Day” protest, March 30, 2010. Uri Lenz/FLASH90/JTA

JERUSALEM – A mass demonstration by Israeli Arabs highlighted the core contradiction at the heart of the Israeli-Arab experience: demands for greater equality within Israeli society amid growing alienation from the Israeli state.

An estimated 50,000 demonstrators marched in two long columns March 30 to the Galilee town of Sakhnin to commemorate “Land Day,” an annual protest against unequal distribution of land resources and in memory of 19 Arabs killed in clashes with Israeli security forces in 1976 and 2000.

In the first Land Day demonstration, in March 1976, six Arabs protesting the expropriation of around 5,000 acres in the Galilee were killed; 13 died in Land Day rioting following the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in the fall of 2000.

News Analysis

This year’s protest was one of the biggest and best organized to date. For the first time, large numbers of Arab women took part, there was no police presence along the route, and no violence.

The message, however, was not uniform. While speakers focused mainly on land allocation, thousands of demonstrators waved Palestinian flags, emphasizing their own Palestinian identity and suggesting identification with Palestinians in the west bank and Gaza.

A few masked men went further. As the procession passed, they hoisted large photographs of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and slain Hezbollah operations chief Imad Mugniyeh, an expression of support for the hostile Iranian-backed Shiite militia. The Hezbollah supporters, however, proved to be very much in the minority. After angry exchanges with the marchers, they were confronted by Sakhnin municipal stewards and, after a brief scuffle, forced to leave.

Although public support for Israel’s enemies is rare, there can be little doubt that Israeli Arab alienation from the Jewish state is growing. In late 2006, the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee — the Arab community’s main representative body — published its “Vision Document,” calling for a large measure of Arab political and cultural autonomy. Israeli Jews saw in this a radical demand for separation from the state; Arab leaders countered that it was more a plea for help and a warning of what might happen unless the Jewish majority makes a genuine effort to integrate the 20 percent-strong Arab minority as fully equal citizens.

The main Arab charge on Land Day was that the government continues to destroy illegally built Arab homes, mainly in the Wadi Ara area of central Israel and the Negev desert in the south, without giving the Arabs a chance to expand their villages, towns, and cities legally. According to the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, by not drawing up new master plans that allow for growth of Arab urban and rural areas, the government is effectively choking them.

The ensuing tensions have been exacerbated by a string of legislative initiatives by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu party, the latest of which is a proposal to open the foreign service only to people who have done military or national service — effectively disqualifying most Arabs. Lieberman’s argument is that Israeli Arabs must be made to realize that sharing in the benefits of Israeli life comes at a price: loyalty to the state. Israeli Arabs, however, see this as discrimination on ethnic grounds. And pointing to Lieberman’s key position in government, Arab Knesset members charge that racism has become a central tenet in Israeli political life.

Other Arab leaders take a more conciliatory line. Writing in Yediot Achronot, Mohammed Zeidan, chairman of the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, insisted that the Israeli Arab struggle was not anti-Israel and had just two goals: equality within Israeli society, especially with regard to land ownership and use; and a just peace between Israel and the Palestinian people, based on two states along the 1967 lines.

“Our central message on Land Day is that we are part of Israeli society and we are struggling to remain part of it,” he wrote.

Some Israeli right-wing politicians focused on the hoisting of the Hezbollah photographs and the potential threat a radicalized Israeli Arab community could pose to the Jewish majority. Likud Knesset member Ophir Akunis called for tough measures against the masked Hezbollah supporters, arguing that a democracy under threat must defend itself.

Avishai Braverman, a member of the Labor Party and the minister in charge of minority affairs, agreed that the men who hoisted the photographs should be punished, but insisted that most Arabs want to be part of Israeli society. Braverman argues that integrating Israeli Arabs as equals in Israeli society is a major strategic interest, for both security and economic reasons.

A former World Bank economist and president of Ben-Gurion University, Braverman has set up a $40 million fund for projects in Arab communities, and intends to raise more, partly from diaspora Jews — just as he did in transforming Ben-Gurion University from a backwater college into a major academic institution. He argues that would be money well spent in defusing what might otherwise become a major existential threat.

“When I go round the country Arabs say to me: ‘Braverman, we finished the university, now we want jobs here, because we have nowhere else to go.’ On the other side, there are people creating fear and talking about a fifth column,” he told JTA. “If we don’t want the Israeli Arabs to turn against us, we must embrace them.”

JTA

 
 

New corruption scandal dooms chances of Olmert comeback

JERUSALEM – Whether or not he is found guilty of taking bribes in the Jerusalem Holyland corruption scandal, Ehud Olmert’s political career is almost certainly over.

At best, the former prime minister and ex-mayor of Jerusalem can expect many months, if not years, of litigation that will further tarnish his already tainted reputation and leave him unelectable. At worst, he faces a long prison term.

Olmert had hoped to make a dramatic return to political life as soon as three other pending corruption cases against him were resolved: the Rishon Tours affair, in which he is accused of double billing on fund-raising trips overseas; the Talansky affair, in which he is alleged to have accepted cash from American Jewish businessman Morris Talansky in exchange for favors; and the Small Business Authority affair, for allegedly granting favors to attorney and ex-aide Uri Messer when Olmert was trade minister.

For months Olmert had been insisting that the charges in the cases would disintegrate the way a long list of allegations against him had in the past, including improper conduct in his handling of a privatization tender for Bank Leumi while he was finance minister and his buying and selling two luxury homes in Jerusalem.

The implication was that as soon as his name was cleared, Olmert would make a triumphant comeback to politics and possibly even challenge Tzipi Livni for the leadership of the Kadima Party.

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The Holyland housing development in Jerusalem, widely dismissed as an eyesore, is at the center of a corruption scandal allegedly involving former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and ex-Mayor of Jerusalem Uri Lupolianksi. Kobi Gideon/FLASH90/JTA

But the new scandal, in which Olmert, as mayor of Jerusalem, is suspected of having taken nearly $1 million in bribes for extending building permits to the Holyland construction project, is likely to put to rest any lingering thoughts of a comeback. Not only do the dimensions of this new corruption affair dwarf the others, but the preponderance of allegations against Olmert reinforces a perceived pattern of criminal conduct that Olmert would be hard-pressed to shake off in the political arena.

The Holyland scandal also involves Olmert’s successor as Jerusalem mayor, Uri Lupolianski, and Messer, among others.

The extent of the alleged corruption raises two central questions: Was the Holyland affair an isolated case or, as seems more likely, part of a system? And to what extent was the municipal corruption in Jerusalem a reflection of a wider phenomenon in municipalities and local councils across Israel?

The Holyland saga goes back to the mid-1990s, when Hillel Charney, whose family owned the original Holyland Hotel, received a permit to build three new hotels on the 30-acre site. With the Oslo process in full swing, Israel’s 50th anniversary coming up and millennium celebrations around the corner, Jerusalem was in dire need of more hotel rooms. On paper, the initial blueprint seemed reasonable.

To help shepherd through the project, Charney brought in experienced real estate people who apparently convinced him he could do much better with a mega-sized housing development. The plans were changed several times before the current building complex was approved.

What started out as a plan to build about 300,000 square feet burgeoned to more than 3 million, translating into hundreds of millions of dollars more in revenues for the owners and developers.

It also resulted in a plan for 10 12-story buildings and two 30-story buildings. About half of those already have been built on the Holyland site, breaking the Jerusalem skyline with what experts and Jerusalem residents long have described as the city’s worst architectural eyesore.

Before the first stones were laid, two questions already were being asked: How did the developers get such excessive building allowances, and how was such an architectural monstrosity approved at both the city and regional planning levels?

The anomalies were so blatant that the police launched an investigation, but it was soon closed for lack of evidence.

The evidence of major wrongdoing came to light only several months ago when one of the real estate experts, or “fixers,” Charney brought in went to the police with a notebook and other documentation detailing a long list of bribes Charney allegedly had made to city officials, police, and at least one member of the regional planning committee.

Apparently in trouble with creditors and claiming Charney hadn’t paid him all he was owed, the fixer offered to become a state witness in return for immunity and the settlement of some of his debts. Although the man with the notebook has been named as Shmuel Dachner, there is a gag order against naming him or anyone else as the state witness. Police apparently are looking for another suspect to turn state witness to bolster their case.

The case could boil down to a battle between the two ex-mayors, both of whom maintain they are innocent. Olmert claims he approved only the hotels, and that the upgrade to extensive residential building rights was approved by his successor, Lupolianski, who was mayor from 2003 to 2008. Lupolianski claims it happened on Olmert’s watch, when Lupolianski was a deputy mayor.

Both accounts are problematic. The approval for a residential building came in 2002, when Olmert was still in charge. But the Charney family also made huge donations to Yad Sarah, a well-known charity for the sick and aged founded by Lupolianski, and to a yeshiva run by Lupolianski’s son.

Police believe both mayors were deeply involved. Lupolianski already has been arrested; Olmert is expected to be questioned soon. Messer, who also was arrested, allegedly served as the conduit for the cash bribes to Olmert.

The Holyland case points to a City Hall riddled with corruption. Dozens of officials, from low-level clerks to the top elected officials, including the city engineer and two mayors, are suspected of taking bribes.

Over the past few years, dozens of Israeli mayors have been prosecuted for similar offenses.

Under the Israeli system, all building projects and rezoning of land must be approved by municipal and district planning committees and are subject to a process of objections and reservations from the general public. The process is cumbersome and the laws complex, and ultimately leave considerable power in the hands of the mayors.

With land scarce and expensive, this apparently has created strong incentives for bribery by would-be developers who stand to make a fortune if they can get mayoral backing for their projects.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is planning a major land reform that on its surface will give the mayors even more power. Netanyahu wants to cut the red tape by canceling the regional committee stage, leaving decisions in the hands of a small municipal body. He argues that this will lead to far more building starts and reduce the cost of housing. Critics say it could lead to even more bribery and corruption because the regulatory process will be weakened.

The quandary Israel faces is how to reduce the red tape without increasing corruption.

JTA

 
 

Is Netanyahu alienating Israel’s friends in Europe?

JERUSALEM – On the day last week that Israel gained admission to the prestigious Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israel’s continued control over the Palestinians was eroding its global standing.

Whereas Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed Israel’s joining of the OECD as an economic and diplomatic coup, Barak warned of a growing tide of international isolation unless Israel comes out with a major peace initiative of its own, irrespective of the OECD membership.

News Analysis

The differences between Netanyahu and Barak lie at the heart of the debate over how central the Israeli-Palestinian process is to Israel’s diplomatic efforts worldwide.

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Angel Gurria, right, secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, congratulates Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on May 10 after Israel’s admission into the OECD. Moshe Milner/GPO

Some believe Israel can safely ride out the storm of international pressure for progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front. But many others argue that a credible peacemaking orientation is an essential component of Israel’s standing in the world, and that Netanyahu is alienating Israel’s few friends.

Barak, the Labor Party leader, makes no secret of his concern at the way differences over peacemaking have embroiled the Netanyahu government not only with the Obama administration, but also with some of its closest allies in Europe.

Israel long has had a rough ride in European public opinion, but since Netanyahu came to power in March 2009, there have been growing signs of tensions with friendly European leaders and governments, particularly Britain, Germany, and France.

Part of Netanyahu’s image problem has been his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who is widely perceived in Europe as a crude anti-Arab bulldozer against peace. But mainly it is skepticism over Netanyahu’s own seriousness about peacemaking that is hurting Israel. European leaders are not convinced of the genuineness of his commitment to the two-state solution, and they also see his declarations about continued construction of Jewish housing in eastern Jerusalem as unnecessarily provocative.

Moreover, Netanyahu’s oscillation between peace commitments to satisfy President Obama and construction promises to appease his right wing have led to a loss of credibility on the international stage.

Britain, for example, has been one of Israel’s staunchest allies in Europe. On a visit to Israel in July 2008, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown underlined the intimacy of the relationship by addressing the Knesset and launching a new Britain-Israel partnership for research and academic exchange. Brown also was one of six European heads of government who made a solidarity visit to Israel at the height of the war with Hamas in Gaza in January 2009.

But after Netanyahu came to power two months later, the Brown government’s policies quickly took an anti-Israel turn. In July, Britain decided not to renew five military export licenses, all for spare parts for naval guns, to protest Israel’s alleged use of disproportionate force in Gaza.

“We do not grant licenses where there is a clear risk that arms will be used for external aggression or internal repression,” a British Embassy spokesman in Tel Aviv declared.

In December, the British Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs ruled that produce from west bank settlements could no longer be labeled “produced in Israel,” but must be tagged “product of the west bank.” An optional additional label could clarify whether the origin was an Israeli settlement or Palestinian — a move Israel saw as encouraging a boycott of settler produce.

Also in December, much to Israel’s consternation, Britain backed an abortive Swedish move to have the European Union recognize East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestine.

Relations were strained further by the British government’s failure to take promised action against legislation enabling anti-Israeli groups to bring war crimes charges against Israeli leaders and generals.

Alarmed by a move to press war crimes charges against Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni, British leaders in December again vowed to repeal the offending legislation — but so far to no avail.

Tension between the two countries came to a head in February when it became apparent that suspected Israeli Mossad agents allegedly used forged British passports, among others, for the assassination in Dubai of a leading Hamas operative. The British responded by expelling an unnamed Israeli diplomat from London.

Things may be worse with Germany, where Netanyahu got into a spat with Chancellor Angela Merkel, who probably has been Israel’s best and most influential friend on the continent. It happened in a telephone conversation in mid-March.

According to the German version, Merkel called Netanyahu at Obama’s request to urge no further building in eastern Jerusalem. She asked that the call be kept secret and promised to refrain from public criticism of Israel’s construction policies.

Netanyahu, however, immediately arranged for a briefing of Israeli journalists and told them he had called Merkel to inform her of Israel’s building plans in eastern Jerusalem.

Merkel felt Netanyahu had betrayed her trust, according to senior German sources. The Germans then released their version of the conversation and, during a news conference the next day, Merkel publicly criticized Israeli building in eastern Jerusalem.

Netanyahu apparently also is on the outs with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, once a close friend. In mid-April, Sarkozy told Israeli President Shimon Peres that he was disappointed in Netanyahu and found it hard to understand the prime minister’s political thinking.

“I don’t understand where Netanyahu is going or what he wants,” the French president was quoted as saying.

Sarkozy also has been outspoken about Lieberman’s presence in the government. In a meeting with Netanyahu in Paris last June, he urged Netanyahu to replace Lieberman as foreign minister with Livni and “make history.”

“You must get rid of that man,” Sarkozy was quoted as saying.

The fact that Israel has strained relations with its three most important backers in Europe has yet to translate into dramatic change in EU policy. Israel’s requested upgrading of ties with the European Union remains on hold, but that was the case before Netanyahu came to power. And Israel’s acceptance to the OECD was unanimous by the group’s members.

However, if there is a showdown between Israel and the Palestinians over the peace process, Europe could well be more supportive of the Palestinians. As with the Obama administration, the major European powers make the distinction between fundamental support for Israel’s security and right to exist, and criticism of the policies of the current government.

That same distinction is also being made by Jews on the left in Europe, following the lead of J Street in America. In early May European Jews, backed by notable intellectuals such as Bernard Henri Levi and Alain Finkielkraut, formed JCall, a new Jewish organization “committed to the state of Israel and critical of the current choices of its government.”

The friction with Obama and Europe and the loss of automatic Jewish support in both Europe and America are causing concern among many in Jerusalem.

“For first time we have a government that is succeeding … in causing the rest of the world to hate us,” Shlomo Avineri, one of Israel’s most respected political scientists, wrote recently in the Israeli daily Haaretz.

The conclusion of politicians on the center left, from Livni to Barak, is the same: Israel under Netanyahu needs credible peace policies to turn around in its diplomatic fortunes.

Some of Netanyahu’s defenders say the perception that he isn’t serious about peacemaking is not fair. The question is, does Netanyahu believe his policies are alienating Israel’s friends, and what will he do about it?

JTA

 
 

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

 
 

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

 
 

Palestinian gambit for statehood puts Israel against wall

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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, seen here greeting Finnish President Tarja Halonenin in the west bank city of Ramallah on Oct. 14, may appeal to the international community for recognition of statehood. Issam Rimawi/Flash90/JTA

JERUSALEM – With talks at a stalemate and no agreement from the Israelis to reinstate a settlement freeze, the Palestinians are playing a new card: an end game to statehood through an appeal to the international community.

The card hasn’t actually been played, but the mere threat that the Palestinians would push for international recognition of a state from the United Nations has been enough to push the Israeli government to reconsider options to return to the negotiating table.

News Analysis

On Sunday, partly to pre-empt a Palestinian move toward statehood that would bypass negotiations with Israel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he is working intensively with the Obama administration on a formula to restart the stalled peace process.

“We are in close contact with the American administration with the aim of restarting the peace process,” Netanyahu said at his weekly cabinet meeting. “Our aim is not only to renew the process, but to renew it in such a way that it won’t collapse in a few weeks or in two months, but that we will go into a full year of serious negotiations on the core issues in an effort to reach a framework agreement on the way to a peace deal.

“Any attempt by the Palestinians to circumvent this process by going to international organizations,” he said, “is not realistic, and will not in any way advance a genuine peace process.”

Israeli, Palestinian, and U.S. leaders all say publicly that a negotiated peace deal is much preferred to unilateral steps that could spark a sharp response from the other side. But the Palestinians warn that if the direct peace talks remain on hold, they will consider approaching international bodies for recognition of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders with eastern Jerusalem as its capital.

It isn’t clear whether this is merely a tactic to frighten Israel back to the peace table — talks that were renewed in early September broke down four weeks later over Israel’s refusal to extend a building freeze in the west bank — or part of a new strategy aimed at achieving a better deal for the Palestinians through the international community.

Either way, given Israel’s precarious position on the international stage and the lack of international support for its west bank settlement construction policy, the Palestinian threat carries weight and is being taken very seriously in Jerusalem.

Much depends on the American stand, which gives the Obama administration added leverage over Israel.

The new Palestinian thinking has been evolving over the past few years and is based on two key principles: winning enhanced international support for Palestinian goals and, in parallel, building the institutions of a functioning Palestinian state from the bottom up.

The idea is that if the American-mediated peace process with Israel proves fruitless, the Palestinians can invoke Plan B: Gaining the world’s approval for an already functioning Palestinian state, on conditions favorable to the Palestinians, at a time of their choosing.

With Palestinian confidence in the Israeli government on the wane and Israel’s international standing in decline, Plan B has emerged as a genuine threat to Israel.

Last week, the Palestinians made their first significant move for recognition as a state by approaching the International Criminal Court at The Hague to urge recognition of the Palestinian Authority as the equivalent of a full-fledged state government. That designation would enable the Palestinian Authority to press war crimes charges against Israel for its conduct in the 2008-09 Gaza war because only states have standing before the court.

Recognition of the Palestinian Authority by the international court not only would open a crack for the possible prosecution of Israeli civilian and military leaders, it also would hand the Palestinians a major PR victory in their quest for internationally recognized statehood. The Palestinians would be able to cite the court’s recognition as legal backing for their case for a state.

Last week the court’s prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo of Argentina, heard arguments from legal experts, backed up by nongovernmental organizations, from both sides. The Israeli side argued that the Palestinian Authority is not a state and therefore cannot claim standing before the court, and that in any event, the court is not empowered to prosecute a state like Israel, which has effective and credible legal mechanisms for dealing with suspected war crimes.

A decision is not expected for several weeks.

If the Palestinians do press ahead in earnest with Plan B, the United Nations will be the main battleground. Given the certain backing for a Palestinian state by the non-aligned and Muslim states, the Palestinians easily would be able to secure a majority in the General Assembly — the same body that granted Israel international recognition in November 1947 by a vote of 33 to 13.

But the Palestinians want more than mere recognition: They want a binding allocation of territory based on the 1967 borders. For that they will likely seek a resolution from the U.N. Security Council, whose votes are binding. Such an effort likely would be blocked by the United States, which has veto power in that body. Therefore, for such a gambit to work, it would need to have the backing of the Obama administration. That’s unlikely.

In the run-up to a crucial Arab League meeting in early November that will discuss the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, PA President Mahmoud Abbas has been canvassing Arab leaders on his U.N. strategy.

The Palestinians see an important convergence in early November of key events for the future of the peace process: the Arab League meeting and the U.S. midterm elections. They believe that after the midterm elections, President Obama will have a freer hand to deal with Israel and will press Israel to return to the negotiating table on the Palestinians’ terms to head off any U.N. strategy.

For Israel this constitutes a major headache. The Netanyahu government fears that many countries, including the Europeans, would go along with the Palestinians and recognize a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 border between Israel and Jordan.

If Israel remains in control of large swaths of the west bank after a Palestinian state is declared and recognized, even if just in the General Assembly, it would further sink Israel’s international reputation and provide additional fodder for the campaign to delegitimize Israel. (See page 24.)

“The Palestinians will declare a state. Virtually the whole world will recognize it. And we will be left without security arrangements,” Israeli Trade and Industry Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer said Monday.

Israel’s response to the challenge has been a combination of defiance and diplomacy.

“Like Ben-Gurion, Netanyahu will not allow the United Nations, or any other organization, to dictate our borders,” Israel’s U.S. ambassador, Michael Oren, said last Friday. “They will be determined through negotiations.”

Privately, some Israeli cabinet ministers have been proposing unilateral Israeli responses, such as Israeli annexation of a significant part of the west bank or redeploying inside the large settlement blocs to create a de facto border along Israeli terms.

Behind the scenes, Israeli diplomats have been warning their colleagues in Washington and Europe that if the Palestinians act on the U.N. strategy, the current peace process, and the Oslo process on which it is based, would be over.

For now, however, Israel is focusing its efforts on putting direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks back on track and undercutting the Palestinians’ U.N. strategy. Netanyahu’s special envoy, Yitzhak Molcho, is in Washington this week working with his American counterparts on the details.

“Peace will only be achieved through direct negotiations,” Netanyahu said Sunday, “and I hope we will return to this avenue in full force very soon.”

JTA

 
 

Gaza-Israel border heats up as Hamas acquires new weapons

Leslie SusserWorld
Published: 31 December 2010

JERUSALEM – After two years of relative quiet since the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, Israel’s southern border with Gaza is again becoming volatile.

Last week, Gazans fired a rocket into Israel that landed close to a kindergarten in a kibbutz near Ashkelon just as parents were dropping off their children. Although no one was hurt, nothing like that had happened since the war.

News Analysis

Militants fired more than 200 Grad missiles, Kassam rockets, and mortar shells into Israeli territory in 2010, according to the Israel Defense Forces, compared to 160 in 2009. Both years pale in comparison to prewar levels in 2008, when militants in Gaza launched some 4,000 projectiles into Israel.

Nevertheless, despite the relative quiet for most of this year, the IDF is concerned that the recent escalation, if unchecked, could lead to a new round of serious fighting.

After last week’s attack in Ashkelon, the Israel Air Force bombed a staffed Hamas militia base, the first time it had taken such action in two years. Until then, the IDF had restricted its retaliatory and preemptive raids to targeting weapons caches, so-called workshops, smuggling tunnels and Hamas militants in the act of launching attacks. The IDF attacked the Hamas base to signal that Israel will hold the Hamas government responsible for what goes on in Gaza and that in allowing a bombing so close to a kindergarten, Hamas had crossed a dangerous red line.

But that didn’t quiet things down.

Last week, Gaza militants fired 24 mortar shells and three Kassam rockets at Israel, and Israel responded with air strikes that killed at least five militants.

Over the past few weeks, the militants also have stepped up ground attacks on Israeli border patrols. The most serious incident for Israel came in early December, when Gaza militants fired a state-of-the-art Kornet missile at an IDF Merkava tank. The Kornet, a lethally accurate and potentially game-changing anti-tank weapon that Hamas added to its arsenal only very recently, penetrated the Israeli tank’s armor but did not explode.

Hamas’ acquisition of Kornet weapons means that Israel will have to rethink its tactics if it launches another major ground incursion into Gaza. For now, tanks patrolling the border have been reinforced with the Israeli-developed “trophy” active protection system, which has the capacity to destroy incoming missiles.

The Hamas position on the escalation is ambivalent. The organization’s political wing says it has no interest in a major clash with Israel right now, but the military wing says it’s poised to resume large-scale rocket attacks.

At a rally in the Gaza city of Khan Yunis to mark the 23rd anniversary of the founding of Hamas — an event that coincided with the second anniversary of the Israel-Hamas war, called Operation Cast Lead — Mahmoud a-Zahar, one of the leaders of Hamas’ political wing, insisted that Hamas was committed to the ceasefire reached in the wake of Cast Lead.

But a day later, at a news conference called by Hamas, masked men from the Izz a-Din al-Qassam Brigades claimed to have new weapons that would surprise the IDF. They warned that they would respond harshly “to any acts of aggression by the occupying Zionist forces against its fighters or against the civilian population of Gaza.”

They also claimed responsibility for some past acts of terror, including the June 2008 attack on the Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav seminary in Jerusalem, in which eight yeshiva students were shot dead by a rampaging gunman. In a separate statement, Ahmed Ja’abari, deputy commander of Hamas’ military wing, declared that Israelis had two choices: death or expulsion.

Israeli analysts attribute the bellicose tone to competition between Hamas and other militias claiming to be doing more in the struggle against Israel. The tough talk is a way of saying that they, too, are fighting “the occupation.” On the other hand, the analysts say, Hamas’ political wing does not want to provoke another war, with all the hardship it would cause the population of Gaza and the threat it would pose to Hamas’ rearmament plans.

The upshot is that the Hamas government has been allowing its military and other smaller militias a slightly freer rein to test how much they can snipe at Israel without provoking a major military response.

Two years on, it seems that the record of the three-week war that began in Gaza on Dec. 27, 2008 achieved mixed results. The main aims of the operation were to restore deterrence, destroy as much of the Hamas terrorist infrastructure as possible, and prevent a renewal of weapons shipments into Gaza.

To a large extent, the operation achieved the first two goals, but the flow of weapons and war materiel into Gaza has continued unabated, perhaps even at an accelerated pace. The failure to stop the arms flow has threatened to undermine the operation’s other achievements. With new weapons and war materiel at its disposal, Hamas has been able to rebuild its military infrastructure and, now, the deterrent effects of Cast Lead appear to be beginning to wear off.

Hamas’ rearmament since the war has been impressive. The IDF believes that aside from the Kornet anti-tank missiles the terrorist group now has, Hamas also has anti-aircraft missiles. In addition, Hamas has more accurate and longer-range rockets — for example, the Iranian Fajr-5, which puts Tel Aviv in range.

Hamas fighters and other militiamen have received training in Iran, Syria, and Lebanon, and from Iranian and Syrian instructors in Gaza. They have also been building Hezbollah-style underground bunkers in Gaza.

The IDF sees two aspects to these developments: On the one hand, Hamas will not want to put all this at risk by provoking Israeli prematurely. The IDF assessment is that Hamas is still very much in the throes of the rearming and rebuilding process. But a future showdown, when Hamas feels it is strong enough, cannot be ruled out.

“Two years after Operation Cast Lead, the situation in the Gaza Strip is different and calmer,” IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi said at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on Sunday. But the situation is still potentially explosive, he said. He warned that Israel would not tolerate the continuation of the kind of rocket and mortar fire its civilians have witnessed over the last few weeks. But he gave no indication that the IDF would go beyond the limited, carefully controlled responses it has made so far.

Clearly, both sides are wary of sparking a major conflagration right now. But things could escalate very rapidly if a Gaza rocket inflicts Israeli casualties, or if an Israeli counterattack were to take a heavy Palestinian toll.

“The IDF,” Ashkenazi said, “is preparing for any scenario.” JTA Wire Service

 
 

Proposed law to probe Israeli rights groups prompts fierce criticism in Israel

JERUSALEM – Knesset legislation calling for an investigation of Israeli human rights groups has sparked a fierce argument over who is doing more to hurt Israel’s reputation: human rights organizations critical of the Israeli government and army, or the politicians who want to investigate them for allegedly going too far.

By a vote of 47-16, the Knesset last week gave preliminary passage to proposed legislation calling for the establishment of a parliamentary panel to investigate the funding and activities of a long list of left-leaning human rights groups.

One of the co-sponsors, Faina Kirshenbaum of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party, charges that the groups are working under the guise of human rights advocacy to discredit the Israel Defense Forces’ presence in the west bank, criminalize its soldiers, and encourage draft-dodging — with the overall aim of weakening the IDF and delegitimizing Israel.

News Analysis

“These groups provided material to the Goldstone commission and are behind indictments lodged against Israeli officers and officials around the world,” Kirshenbaum declared during a Knesset debate, referring to the U.N.-endorsed Goldstone report on the Gaza war, which among its findings included allegations of war crimes violations by Israel.

The heavy vote in favor of the legislation reflected widespread concern in Israel at the activities of human rights groups, some of which receive foreign government funds and whose goals may be seen as potentially inimical to the national interest.

Much of the subsequent criticism was directed at the choice of mechanism to deal with the issue: a parliamentary committee in which politicians would be interrogating their political opponents.

After days of criticism for the “undemocratic” nature of the proposed investigatory committee, Lieberman invited cameras into the normally closed party caucus meeting Monday to show he had no intention of backing down.

In his remarks, he suggested that Israel’s delegitimizers rely on the subversive work of Israel’s Haaretz daily newspaper; Yesh Din, a group that monitors the rule of law in the west bank; and Yesh Gvul, an organization that defends Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in the west bank. He called the organizations “collaborators in terror.”

“There wasn’t a single meeting abroad where I spoke about delegitimization of Israel and people didn’t say look at what Haaretz wrote or what Yesh Din, Yesh Gvul, or Yesh Batich published,” he said, the last name a derogatory play on words meaning “There is Zero.”

Critics — from both the left and right wings — have accused Lieberman of McCarthyism. They argue that establishing a parliamentary mechanism to hound political opponents is patently undemocratic and brings to mind the witch-hunting days of anti-communist fervor in the United States in the early 1950s.

Israeli law already requires full transparency on funding, most of the named NGOs are fully transparent, and there is a registrar of NGOs where funding information already is in the public domain, critics of the new legislation maintain.

NGO Monitor, an organization often harshly critical of left-leaning Israeli human rights groups, went so far as to publish an Op-Ed criticizing the proposed law as unhelpful and polarizing. (See it at http://www.jstandard.com.)

As for activities such as pointing out transgressions by IDF soldiers, opponents of the proposed law contend that such criticism shows the strength of Israeli democracy rather than casting aspersions on the IDF as a whole or bringing the country into disrepute. On the contrary, setting up a McCarthyist parliamentary committee would do far more damage to Israel’s good name, they argue.

The proposed law, wrote NGO Monitor President Gerald Steinberg, provides “more ammunition for Israel’s most ardent critics to proclaim the ‘death of Israeli democracy,’ further contributing to Israel’s isolation.”

Several of the singled-out groups monitor IDF activities in the west bank. The groups say this is precisely what the role of civil society groups should be: ensuring that the occupation is as humane as possible. If their funding or activities contravene the law in any way, they should be dealt with by the police, not a politically weighted Knesset committee, they insist.

Several Likud leaders, including Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, Michael Eitan, and Reuven Rivlin, say they, too, are appalled by Lieberman’s approach.

“It’s a mistake to establish a parliamentary committee in which Knesset members will interrogate their opponents,” Meridor, a deputy prime minister, told Israel’s Channel 2. “It will turn our country into something it never was or ought to be.”

Critical pundits warn of a vicious circle: Threatened by a highly focused international campaign of delegitimization, they see Israel turning on itself, with figures like Lieberman attacking Israeli human rights organizations, thereby laying it open to further delegitimizing attacks.

There is a significant domestic political context to the proposed law. Lieberman’s move to take on the human rights organizations is part of a deliberate campaign aimed at displacing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the natural leader of the Israeli right wing. The proposed Knesset legislation came a week after Lieberman publicly repudiated Netanyahu’s policies on reconciliation with Turkey and peace with the Palestinians.

The opposition by senior Likud members to Lieberman’s proposed investigatory committee gave Lieberman another opening to seize the right-wing mantle.

“These backsliders in the national camp, who are ready to sacrifice its interests, are responsible for the fact that the national camp has never ruled Israel even when we won elections,” Lieberman said, referring to Likudniks like Meridor and Begin.

On the Turkish and Palestinian issues, Netanyahu failed to censure Lieberman, prompting commentators to criticize him for weak leadership. But he did not leave the foreign minister’s broadside against the Likud unanswered, arguing that his party is just as determined to fight organizations that act illegally against the state or the IDF, but that there are different ways of going about this.

“The Likud is a democratic and pluralistic party, and not a dictatorship of a single view,” Netanyahu said, sniping at Lieberman’s high-handed leadership of Yisrael Beitenu and insinuating what kind of regime Lieberman might impose if he were to become prime minister.

The big loser in all this will be Israel, say some in the opposition.

Knesset member Yisrael Hasson, who left Yisrael Beiteinu in 2009 to join the centrist Kadima Party led by Tzipi Livni, accuses Lieberman of cynically undermining Israeli foreign policy in a bid to enhance his domestic political standing.

Lieberman is a “foreign policy pyromaniac” with license from an irresponsible prime minister to start fires all over the place, Hasson told JTA.

What makes this particularly dangerous, Hasson says, is that it comes in the context of the campaign to delegitimize Israel: The fires Lieberman starts can turn people who are neutral on Israel into opponents, fueling the campaign to delegitimize and isolate Israel.

JTA Wire Service

 
 

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

 
 
 
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