Commentary Magazine


Topic: Benjamin Netanyahu

Hamas Knows It Is Losing

Is Hamas on the ropes? The terrorist group certainly seems to think so. That’s one takeaway from the tragic news that Hamas terrorists infiltrated the Israeli kibbutz of Nahal Oz, fired an anti-tank missile, and killed five Israeli soldiers. According to Haaretz, it marks the fourth such infiltration by Hamas fighters via cross-border tunnels. Such events–especially the deadly assault at Nahal Oz–might appear to fall into one of two categories: a successful attack on Israel (Nahal Oz) or a disquieting signal of Hamas’s plans to invade undetected (the attacks that failed). But I think there’s a third explanation.

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Is Hamas on the ropes? The terrorist group certainly seems to think so. That’s one takeaway from the tragic news that Hamas terrorists infiltrated the Israeli kibbutz of Nahal Oz, fired an anti-tank missile, and killed five Israeli soldiers. According to Haaretz, it marks the fourth such infiltration by Hamas fighters via cross-border tunnels. Such events–especially the deadly assault at Nahal Oz–might appear to fall into one of two categories: a successful attack on Israel (Nahal Oz) or a disquieting signal of Hamas’s plans to invade undetected (the attacks that failed). But I think there’s a third explanation.

The network of tunnels Hamas has built underground has been at the center of the conflict’s escalation. The discovery of the planned Rosh Hashanah mass terror attack utilizing those tunnels has only reinforced to Israel’s leaders that the tunnels must be destroyed or rendered inoperative. Israel has also shown its determination to get a full picture of those tunnels, and has resisted efforts to let Hamas cover its tracks. The rockets are certainly a threat against which Israel has the right to self-defense. But because of Iron Dome, the rockets pale in comparison to the tunnels in terms of sophistication and the danger to Israel’s civilians. So why would Hamas fighters use the tunnels now?

According to what we’ve learned about the tunnels during Operation Protective Edge, they were a grand accomplishment–a city under the sand in the 21st century. They were also to be used for the kind of concerted terror attack that would, to Hamas and its backers, make them worth the investment. The Rosh Hashanah attack certainly would appear to fit that bill. It’s unclear whether the goal would be to take entire kibbutzim hostage, to kill everyone in range and all at once, or to kidnap large numbers of Israelis from all over the country and take them back to Gaza. It could, I suppose, have been a combination of the three.

But there are no indications the tunnels were constructed for desperate jihadis to lure Israel into playing whack-a-mole. It certainly doesn’t make much sense to do so now, anyway. Israel and Hamas are currently at war. Israel is taking this fight very seriously–too seriously for the chuckleheads in Turtle Bay and Foggy Bottom, in fact. The nation is at high alert, the reserves have been called up, and the IDF knows the tunnels are there and are intended to be used for an attack on Israeli territory.

This is, then, easily the worst time for Hamas to start using those tunnels in relatively ad-hoc attacks. Doing so now puts them at a distinct disadvantage, with the IDF ready for them to pop out of the ground. It risks exposing the existence of tunnels the IDF may not have found, and thus expanding the mental map the IDF is piecing together of this underground city.

It reduces if not completely erases the element of surprise, and it ensures the IDF is staffed up enough to respond immediately and forcefully to any breach of its territory. One isolated attack may or may not be considered a casus belli–Hamas is surely aware of just how hesitant Benjamin Netanyahu was in committing ground troops at all–but an attack during a war guarantees a response.

There is always some risk in trying to explain the behavior of a barbaric terrorist organization with logic and reasoning. So maybe Hamas looks like it doesn’t know what it’s doing because it doesn’t know what it’s doing. But even if that’s the case, Hamas’s recent behavior is a tell. Hamas believes Israel means it this time. The Israeli leadership is united, as is much of the Israeli public, and they have resisted pressure from the U.S. to let Hamas off the ropes. Hamas, then, is in “use it or lose it” mode with the tunnels. They expect Israel to leave them no avenue of cross-border attack, so they’re utilizing them while they can.

The U.S. even stepped aside this week to let the UN take a swing at Israel. According to Foreign Policy’s Column Lynch, one expert, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Robert Danin, even “suggested that the United States may be seeking to leverage its position by playing on Israeli fears of being left to fend for itself at a United Nations that appears to be universally opposed to the current offensive.”

Israel is at war, and the American president wants to send a message by playing on Israel’s fears of being abandoned. How nice. And yet, Israel still insists on protecting its civilians instead of begging forgiveness for insulting the magnificent stupidity of the American secretary of state’s attempt to force Israel to appease the terrorists currently popping out of the ground in Israeli territory firing anti-tank shells.

Hamas was expecting the Jews to tie themselves to the tracks and save them the work. When that failed, they expected John Kerry to take care of it, preferably with sturdy Qatari rope. But they are now realizing that Israel intends to win, and that it is well on its way to doing so. And they are acting with evident recklessness, because it might be all they have left.

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Lessons from the Failed Peace Process

There are a few conclusions to be drawn from Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon’s deeply reported and engagingly written investigation into the failure of the recent Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The first is that, if the reporting is accurate, there is no longer any doubt that it was the Palestinian side that blew up the talks. They attempted to kill the process twice, but the first time the Israeli negotiators, led by Tzipi Livni, rescued the talks. The second time, the Palestinians ensured nothing could be done to save the process.

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There are a few conclusions to be drawn from Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon’s deeply reported and engagingly written investigation into the failure of the recent Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The first is that, if the reporting is accurate, there is no longer any doubt that it was the Palestinian side that blew up the talks. They attempted to kill the process twice, but the first time the Israeli negotiators, led by Tzipi Livni, rescued the talks. The second time, the Palestinians ensured nothing could be done to save the process.

The second conclusion is that the way the Palestinians, led by Mahmoud Abbas and chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, blew up the talks bodes ill for any future peace process:

Over the next three weeks, with April 29 approaching, Indyk would meet nine times with Livni, Molho, Erekat, and Faraj in a bid to salvage the peace talks. He was determined to get everything in writing this time. No more misunderstandings. And by April 23, the sides seemed close to an extension agreement. Indyk drove to Ben Gurion Airport that day to pick up his wife, and while at the baggage claim, he got a call from Livni. She’d heard that the Palestinians had just done something to ruin all the progress they had made. Indyk immediately phoned Erekat, who said he wasn’t aware of the development, but would investigate. Back at the U.S. consulate, the Kerry team was combing over the details of the emerging deal, with the secretary calling periodically to check in. Soon, the news penetrated their office, too. Weeks earlier, they had been surprised by the timing of Abu Mazen’s U.N. ceremony, but not by the act. The Palestinians had put them on notice. But as the American officials huddled around a desktop computer, hungry for actual details about this rumor they were hearing, they couldn’t believe the headline that now flashed across the screen: FATAH, HAMAS END YEARS OF DIVISON, AGREE TO UNITY GOVERNMENT. The next day, the Israeli Cabinet had voted to suspend the talks. John Kerry’s peace process was over.

It’s one thing to threaten action, set a deadline, and then carry it out. That is essentially what the Palestinians did with their UN gambit. But the idea that the process could just end on a Palestinian whim can poison the well (or whatever’s left of it).

That’s because for the Palestinians, once the process begins it’s in the hands of Abbas, Erekat, and some high-level members of Abbas’s cabinet. That is not the case for Israel. As the report details, the day the Palestinians signed their applications to the UN agencies, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was holding meetings throughout the day in his office seeking to reassure skeptics in his coalition without alienating Livni and the peace processors to their left. Additionally, he had to deal with the constant threat of rebellion from Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing party that held the third-most seats in the governing coalition.

The unity deal between Hamas and Fatah was an unmitigated disaster for the peace process. It was more than just a setback: it raised the possibility that any Israeli leader who risked his government for a peace process would get a more terroristic Palestinian government than he or she started with and would have imminent war looming. The Palestinians are willing to pull the plug without warning. That’s a lesson their Israeli and American counterparts will learn.

And it is related to the third conclusion to be drawn from the essay. The authors relate a conversation between Kerry and Netanyahu in which Netanyahu raises the issue of Palestinian incitement. Eventually, the following exchange occurs:

Kerry pressed on: “When I fought in Vietnam, I used to look at the faces of the local population and the looks they gave us. I’ll never forget it. It gave me clarity that we saw the situation in completely different ways.”

“This isn’t Vietnam!” Netanyahu shouted. “No one understands Israel but Israel.”

That comment may paint Netanyahu as defensive, but in fact he’s right–and the essay demonstrates that convincingly. Kerry and his negotiating team, as well as the Palestinian leadership, consistently misread the Israeli political scene and Netanyahu’s reaction to it. Autocrats don’t seem to understand democratic politics, and Kerry’s team exhibited no real grasp of what it takes to form a consensus and keep a government intact in Israel.

The reporters themselves even got tripped up by Israeli politics and leaned heavily on trite and completely inaccurate narratives. At one point in the article, they refer to Netanyahu as “a right-wing ideologue”–an absurdly reductionist and patently false claim. If Netanyahu, the famous dealmaker and pragmatist who elicits much Israeli wariness precisely because he is not an ideologue, can be classified as such, then everybody and nobody is an “ideologue.”

Elsewhere in the piece we are told, indefensibly, that “Tea Party types were continuing their slow-motion takeover of the Likud.” This is a common, but no less justifiable, trope. It is a sign either that the writer can only understand politics through shallow American analogies or that the writer assumes that to be true of the reader. Or both, I suppose. Whatever the reason, the “Tea Party” contention is obviously untrue, and those who offer it with regard to Israeli politics are doing their readers a considerable disservice.

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Will Kerry Hand Hamas a Victory?

Four days into Israel’s ground operations in Gaza casualties are rising on both sides, but the only ones who seems to be cracking under the pressure are President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. While Hamas remains confident that it can bank on international support and Israel’s government seems determined not to kick the can down the road any further with respect to the ongoing threat from the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza, the administration may be panicking and about to make yet another mistake that will sow the seeds for more suffering in the future.

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Four days into Israel’s ground operations in Gaza casualties are rising on both sides, but the only ones who seems to be cracking under the pressure are President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. While Hamas remains confident that it can bank on international support and Israel’s government seems determined not to kick the can down the road any further with respect to the ongoing threat from the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza, the administration may be panicking and about to make yet another mistake that will sow the seeds for more suffering in the future.

Secretary Kerry’s hot-mic moment when he sarcastically mocked Israeli efforts to destroy part of Hamas’s underground tunnel complex in Shejaiya was a telling moment in the conflict. Once back live on the air, Kerry reiterated support for Israel’s right to self-defense. But the comments, along with President Obama’s statement of “serious concern” about the casualties from the operation against the Hamas fortress, was the backdrop for the decision to send the secretary of state back to Cairo today to work on a cease-fire. While in principle that seems like the right thing to do at a moment when the conflict is heating up, it is difficult to escape the impression that Kerry’s mission is more an opportunity for an unforced error by Washington–one that will allow Hamas to emerge from the fray with a victory–than a mission of mercy.

Hamas was correct in its estimation that provoking a ground invasion would produce Palestinian casualties that fueled the fire of anti-Israel sentiment across the globe. Armed with the backing of Qatar, Turkey, and radical Islamists across the region as well as bolstered by the sympathy of international opinion that can always be counted on to damn any Israeli measure of self-defense even when the Jewish state is being assailed by rockets and tunnel infiltrations, Hamas believes it can simply stand its ground. The longer the bloody battle to disarm the Islamist terror movement that rules Gaza goes on, the more Palestinian human shields will die. That, in turn, will raise the pressure on Egypt to open up its border with Gaza and end the political and economic isolation that has hampered the terror group since the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo last year.

However, Hamas may have, for once, underestimated the resolve of both Israel’s government and its people. Prime Minister Netanyahu was slow to order the ground operation despite being given ample reason to send in troops once Hamas started launching hundreds of rockets at Israeli cities. He also gave Hamas ample opportunities to stand down and accept cease-fires that the Islamists consistently rejected. But once the die was cast, the prime minister seems to be serious about not repeating the mistakes his country made in the recent past whereby it gave Hamas the impression that there was nothing it could do that would be enough to prompt a decision to take out the group’s terror infrastructure. The methodical offensive appears to be doing serious damage to Hamas’s capacity to inflict terror on Israel. If it is allowed to continue, there is a chance that Israel will finally land a lethal blow against the group that is the real obstacle to peace in the region.

Just as important as Netanyahu’s resolve is the reaction of Israel’s people to the crisis. It is likely that Hamas believed Israelis too fearful of paying the high price in blood–both in terms of its own soldiers and Palestinians–to significantly impact the strategic equation along the Gaza border. But so far, despite the frayed nerves of people tired of having to run for bomb shelters and horrified by the loss of life in the fighting, support for the government appears to be strong. A visit to Israel’s southern region showed me that despite the best efforts of Hamas, life is going on even in the areas that have been most affected. Moreover, the faces of the busloads of Israeli reservists who are being shipped into the area of the border showed that the country’s citizen soldiers remain committed to doing what must be done to ensure their country’s safety. If Hamas thought Netanyahu was too politically weak to make hard decisions or that Israelis would turn on him and succumb to foreign pressure, it may have made a crucial mistake.

But that resolve is not shared by Israel’s American ally. Though nothing would do more to pave the way for a renewed peace process with the Palestinians that both Obama and Kerry have ceaselessly advocated than the weakening or the elimination of Hamas, neither man appears to have the intestinal fortitude to unwaveringly back an operation that would do just that. For months Washington has been sending mixed messages to the region that have encouraged the Islamists to believe the U.S.-Israel alliance was weakening as blame for the collapse of Kerry’s negotiations was placed solely on Israel despite the fact that it was the Palestinian Authority’s decision to embrace Hamas that finally ended that fool’s errand. Moreover, by constantly carping about Israel’s counter-attacks after Hamas launched the current war, the administration has encouraged the terrorists to believe that the U.S. won’t let them be defeated.

Thus Kerry’s decision to fly to Cairo to work on a cease-fire is exactly the news that Hamas wanted to hear. They have already made it clear they don’t care how many Palestinians die in the conflict they provoked so long as the end result grants them the political concessions from Egypt that will further their cause. They know that if the U.S. was not prepared to pressure the Egyptian government to throw Hamas a bone or to force Israel to stop operations aimed at eliminating their rocket arsenal and blowing up their underground fortresses, there was no reason for Kerry to come to the region. A cease-fire that would grant Hamas no political victories didn’t require the personal presence of the secretary in Cairo. But by bending to the usual hypocritical international outcry against any Israeli attempt to take out the terror nest on their border, the administration is signalling that it won’t let Netanyahu take out Hamas or allow Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi to stand his ground about sealing his country’s border against infiltration from an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood he deposed.

Were Obama and Kerry prepared to show the kind of resolve that Netanyahu and Sisi have exhibited it would be very bad news indeed for Hamas and its foreign cheerleaders that continue to nurture delusions about Israel’s destruction. Instead, the U.S. appears to be as clueless as ever about the stakes involved in this fight and cracking under the pressure generated by the Palestinians sacrificed by Hamas on the altar of their jihadist mission. If so, the price paid by both Israelis and Palestinians in the future will be considerable.

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Washington’s Mixed Messages and Israeli Realities

The Obama administration helped create the situation that led to the current fighting in Gaza by sending mixed messages to the Palestinian Authority about mainstreaming Hamas. That was bad enough, but now the State Department is compounding its recent errors with its equivocal stance about Israeli efforts to suppress both Hamas’s incessant rocket fire and its attempts to send terrorists across the border via tunnel attacks. While U.S. concerns about civilian casualties that result from these counter-attacks are, at least in theory, reasonable, the notion that Israel isn’t doing enough to protect innocents in Gaza reflects the same disconnect from reality that helped create the current mess.

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The Obama administration helped create the situation that led to the current fighting in Gaza by sending mixed messages to the Palestinian Authority about mainstreaming Hamas. That was bad enough, but now the State Department is compounding its recent errors with its equivocal stance about Israeli efforts to suppress both Hamas’s incessant rocket fire and its attempts to send terrorists across the border via tunnel attacks. While U.S. concerns about civilian casualties that result from these counter-attacks are, at least in theory, reasonable, the notion that Israel isn’t doing enough to protect innocents in Gaza reflects the same disconnect from reality that helped create the current mess.

Writing from Jerusalem in the hours before Shabbat descends on the city, I can report that while the country’s collective nerves are frayed by the constant rocket attacks, life is going on pretty much as normal. Crowds are out in the evenings in the cities (an outdoor showing of The Wizard of Oz at the capital’s old train station went on without incident) and there was the normal bustle at the Mahane Yehuda market prior to the Sabbath. There’s also little doubt that in spite of their endemic political divisions, most Israelis are behind their government’s decision to hit Hamas hard in pursuit of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s goal of “sustainable quiet.” The launch of ground operations against Gaza was rendered inevitable after Hamas’s repeated rejections of cease-fire offers and its raising the ante with an infiltration attack. But this sequence of events validates the widespread recognition that so long as Hamas remains in power in Gaza, the violence will resume sooner or later even if the Islamists eventually agree to stop shooting.

It is in that context that the administration’s attempt to both back Israel’s right of self-defense while also maintaining a critical stance about the loss of civilian lives in Gaza must be regarded.

While Israelis deeply regret the loss of lives in Gaza, the notion that their army isn’t doing enough to prevent non-combatants from being killed doesn’t resonate here. No army is perfect, but few here doubt that the Israel Defense Forces’ highly restrictive rules of engagement are both limiting the army’s ability to strike at will against Hamas positions as well as keeping casualties to a minimum. Americans who are inclined to be judgmental about the IDF’s actions should think about the similar dilemmas often faced by U.S. forces in Afghanistan when fighting the Taliban and its allies or when drone attacks are launched at terrorist targets and ask themselves how they would feel about their troops being second-guessed by foreign leaders the way State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki is speaking about Israeli efforts.

But leaving aside the administration’s hypocrisy, the bigger problem is Washington’s attempt to limit Israeli actions to, in Secretary of State Kerry’s words, “precise actions” against tunnel infiltrations that leave in place a terrorist infrastructure that will ensure that more attempts to inflict large-scale atrocities on Israelis–the goal of Thursday’s cross-border raid–will continue.

Back in April when the administration declined to oppose the Palestinian Authority’s decision to strike an agreement with Hamas rather than Israel, it pretended that the Islamist terror movement could be rendered irrelevant by the peace process. But now we see that so long as Hamas retains the power to plunge the country into a new war every time it wants to better its position, stability, let alone peace, is impossible. Nothing short of actions that will force Hamas’s disarmament will enable Kerry to realize his dream of brokering peace. Yet the U.S. continues to act as if limiting Israeli actions to superficial pinpricks against the terrorists’ strongholds and arsenal will enhance the cause of peace. Perhaps Kerry and President Obama believe their clinging to an equivocal stance about Gaza will enable the U.S. to be an “even-handed” broker in the future. But if there is anything that we have learned in the last month, it is that so long as Hamas’s power remains intact, America’s pretensions about peace are exposed as pipe dreams.

It’s not clear if the current operations will realize Netanyahu’s goal of quiet. But the contrast between Washington’s mixed messages about self-defense and the reality of Israel’s security dilemma illustrates how clueless the administration is about the situation. As much as Netanyahu has tried to avoid open fights with the U.S., there are no illusions here about the country’s need to ignore the State Department’s criticism if there’s a chance that the IDF can substantially reduce Hamas’s ability to terrorize Israelis.

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Does Obama Want 20 More Gazas?

Speaking today, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu vowed not to cease Israel’s military operations against Hamas terrorists until his country’s people are “assured of quiet” as they coped with a weeklong rocket barrage from Gaza. But in explaining his position, he raised an important question that transcends the immediate confrontation: does the U.S. really expect Israel to tolerate a situation in which this battle will be duplicated on the West Bank?

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Speaking today, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu vowed not to cease Israel’s military operations against Hamas terrorists until his country’s people are “assured of quiet” as they coped with a weeklong rocket barrage from Gaza. But in explaining his position, he raised an important question that transcends the immediate confrontation: does the U.S. really expect Israel to tolerate a situation in which this battle will be duplicated on the West Bank?

Though the United States has expressed its support for Israel’s right of self-defense against a ceaseless rain of rockets aimed at its civilian population, the Obama administration remains resolute in refusing to draw any conclusions from these events.

As I noted earlier this week, the administration began the week by issuing a scathing denunciation of Israel’s government delivered by a top White House staffer in person at an Israeli forum. Even as the Islamist group’s rockets were landing all over the Jewish state, Philip Gordon, the White House coordinator for the Middle East praised Hamas’s Fatah partners in the Palestinian unity government and blasted Israel’s leaders for the lack of peace. He urged Israel to give up the West Bank as part of a two-state solution that would end the conflict.

As it happens, most Israelis agree that this would be the best option. But the reason why there isn’t much support for Washington’s suggestions is directly related to this week’s events. As Netanyahu stated, Israel’s current no-win situation vis-à-vis Hamas in Gaza is the result of a decision to take America’s advice about the value of territorial withdrawal. In 2005, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pulled every last Israeli soldier, civilian, and settlement out of the strip in a vain effort to make progress toward peace. While few Israelis have any desire to retake Gaza, they understand that Hamas is creating what is, for all intents and purposes, an independent Palestinian state in all but name.

In Gaza, Hamas has not only created a terrorist fortress where they can hide behind a large civilian population. It has dug itself innumerable tunnels where it stores armaments such as the missiles it shoots at Israeli cities as well as more than 1,200 more crisscrossing the border with Egypt.

As Hamas has proved this week, Israel’s attempts to limit the damage that the group can cause are complicated by their ability to increase the range of their rockets while also depending on the Jewish state’s reluctance to engage in an all-out war with its attendant suffering to root out the terrorist threat. But most Israelis assume that sooner or later, Hamas will stop shooting and they can get back to their normal lives.

But unless a sea change in Palestinian opinion happens that would make it possible for their leaders to accept an end to the conflict and a recognition of the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, it’s difficult to imagine how any Israeli government could possibly agree to the American request that it replicate the Gaza experiment in the far larger and more strategically located West Bank.

Speaking for President Obama, Gordon said that Israel is wrong to deny Palestinians sovereignty over the West Bank as well as security and dignity. But the problem here is not Israeli reluctance to give up territory. They have done it before and, if given any reasonable assurance that it will not come back to haunt them, may do it again. Yet somehow no one in the administration thinks that what happened in Gaza after an Israeli withdrawal should inform their opinion of what would follow if they were to give up control of security in the West Bank. As Netanyahu rightly said, there is every possibility that, despite the administration’s faith in Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s dedication to peace, all such a withdrawal would mean is the creation of 20 more Gazas.

Israel’s critics see Netanyahu’s repeat of his pledge that he would not give up security control of the territory west of the Jordan River as intransigence. But it is a position that has majority support in Israel because, whether they like Netanyahu or support the settlements, they have seen what happens when Israel gives up territory to Palestinian groups that are still pledged to the destruction of the Jewish state or entrust their security to others.

More than any settlement or any statement by Netanyahu or even the clear reluctance of Abbas to sign a peace deal despite the blandishments of Obama, the rockets from Gaza are killing hopes of achieving a two-state solution in the foreseeable future. Gaza is not just a daunting military problem for Israelis or a challenge to those who wish to see the Palestinians live in peace without being pushed into destructive wars by Islamist leaders who are bent on fomenting more violence and opposing any progress toward reconciliation. It is a preview of what an independent Palestinian state would be. The rockets and the refusal to devote Palestinian resources to any effort but perpetuating the conflict is a guarantee that peace isn’t possible in the near or perhaps even the long term.

Though most Israelis long for peace and would pay dearly for it, the next time Obama chooses to reiterate his demand for an Israeli withdrawal, he should think about what happened this week. The citizens of the Jewish state will never allow the creation of another Gaza, let alone 20 more.

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Obama’s Mixed Middle East Messages

President Obama called Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and offered to help mediate a cease-fire with Hamas that was accompanied by a statement of support for Israel’s right to self-defense. But Israel is not jumping at the proposal. And, as much as Israelis would love for the rocket attacks from Gaza to stop, that reluctance is well founded.

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President Obama called Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and offered to help mediate a cease-fire with Hamas that was accompanied by a statement of support for Israel’s right to self-defense. But Israel is not jumping at the proposal. And, as much as Israelis would love for the rocket attacks from Gaza to stop, that reluctance is well founded.

It’s still not clear if the Israeli ground operation that many have suggested is inevitable will actually take place. In a rare press conference held today, Netanyahu played his cards pretty close to his vest, merely saying that he will continue Israeli operations against Hamas terrorist bases in Gaza “until all quiet is restored to Israeli citizens.” But the assumption is that while the characteristically cautious Netanyahu is deeply reluctant to send troops into Gaza—a move that would likely cause casualties on both sides to spike—he also knows that merely letting Hamas stop shooting and then declare victory is not in Israel’s interest either.

Though Gaza is being pounded hard by strikes aimed at silencing the rocket attacks that have rained down by their hundreds on Israel in the last week without causing a single fatality, Hamas may well emerge as the victor in this exchange if it is allowed to exit the conflict with its rocket arsenal and infrastructure intact. More importantly, if, thanks to U.S. diplomacy, Hamas is allowed to remain inside the Palestinian Authority government and strengthened by its stance defying Israel, then the result will make it even less likely that PA leader Mahmoud Abbas will ever summon the will to break with the Islamists and make peace with the Jewish state.

The irony here is that even though Hamas is clearly losing the military battle in this contest of Israeli air power and missile defense against the terrorist rocket launchers, it believes it is winning the political battle. In its isolation after the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and the sealing of the Gaza smuggling tunnels by the new military regime in Cairo, causing a severe cash-flow problem, Hamas was forced to embrace unity with Abbas’s Fatah. That exposed them to criticism from Palestinians who said they had given up the struggle against Israel but also offered the group a chance to strengthen its organization in the West Bank.

In the wake of the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers by Hamas operatives, Israel rounded up many of the group’s members on the West Bank. Hamas then stepped up the missile fire from Gaza that had never really stopped completely even after the latest cease-fire brokered by Egypt and the U.S. in 2012. But by starting what appears to be a new war, the Islamists have regained their credibility among Palestinians as the address for violence against Israelis, a quality that has always served as the principal credential for any party seeking their support.

That means Hamas gains ground—at least in a political sense—vis-à-vis Fatah no matter whether the Israelis invade Gaza. If the Israelis don’t strike back on the ground and a cease-fire leaves Hamas’s infrastructure and arsenal intact, it can claim victory. But even if the Israelis do attack and take out much of their armaments, they can also claim that they stood up to the Israelis and strengthened their claim of being a better exponent of Palestinian nationalism than Fatah in an environment that will have become more radicalized.

Where does the United States fit into this?

The problem with the president’s expressions of support for Israel is that they have also been accompanied not only by calls for “restraint”—which are rightly interpreted as a not-so-subtle demand that the Jewish state’s armed forces stand down—but by continuing ambivalence about Hamas’s presence in the PA government. Just this week Obama praised Abbas, who embraced Hamas as his partner in April, while pointedly snubbing Netanyahu. The U.S. has refused to cut aid to the PA even though U.S. law demands that it be shut down due to the Fatah alliance with Hamas.

While the Palestinians don’t need encouragement from the U.S. to cause them to embrace radical positions that make peace impossible, the mixed messages from Washington, including today’s offer of mediation with a group that even Obama’s State Department still classifies as a terror group, heightens Israel’s sense of isolation and makes it harder for the Jewish state to deter Hamas terror.

Deterrence is the key word here since the Israelis understandably have no appetite to a return to control of Gaza or even of toppling Hamas since they worry about which radical group would replace it. However, the goal of making it more difficult for Hamas to launch strikes such as the ones that have paralyzed Israeli life the past few days remains.

The Obama administration has strengthened security ties with Israel and been generous with military aid, a point that has re-emphasized the importance of the Iron Dome system. But it has accompanied that help with constant criticism and diplomatic maneuvering that has made it clear that Netanyahu cannot count on Washington’s support if he seeks to significantly weaken Hamas in Gaza.

Moreover, so long as the administration refuses to pressure Abbas to cut ties with Hamas, it is impossible to expect the so-called moderates of Fatah—whose members have joined in the launching of rockets from Gaza at civilian targets in Israel—to reject the Islamists or their determination to keep the conflict simmering. Indeed, it is a given that any cease-fire with Hamas will be followed by renewed American calls for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and other concessions. Rewarding Hamas for terror won’t convince either side to take risks for peace. In exchange for real peace, most Israelis would be willing to make painful sacrifices. But the latest bout of terrorism and the barrage of hundreds of rockets aimed at Israeli cities understandably make most citizens of the Jewish state reluctant to replicate the independent Palestinian state in all but name that exists in Gaza in the West Bank.

Palestinians can be forgiven for thinking Obama’s mixed messages give them no reason to make their own hard decisions about embracing peace.

Israelis can also draw conclusions from America’s ambivalent attitude toward Hamas. While it’s not clear that any Israeli strike on Gaza will restore a sense of deterrence, Netanyahu would be wise not to base a decision about his country’s security on any assumptions about how to retain the good will of the Obama administration. Either way, they are very much on their own.

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Even the Media’s Corrections Are Deceptive

Earlier this week I wrote about the thoroughly dishonest and ignorant editorial in the New York Times on the recent abduction and killing of four teens in Israel. The Times strove for moral equivalence since the victims included Jews and an Arab. To review: the Times editorial wrongly accused Benjamin Netanyahu of a delay in condemning the killing of an Arab teen and the editors took a Netanyahu quote that denounced the desire for vengeance and claimed it meant Netanyahu was doing the opposite and inciting vigilante terrorism. After wide condemnation, the Times corrected the editorial. Sort of.

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Earlier this week I wrote about the thoroughly dishonest and ignorant editorial in the New York Times on the recent abduction and killing of four teens in Israel. The Times strove for moral equivalence since the victims included Jews and an Arab. To review: the Times editorial wrongly accused Benjamin Netanyahu of a delay in condemning the killing of an Arab teen and the editors took a Netanyahu quote that denounced the desire for vengeance and claimed it meant Netanyahu was doing the opposite and inciting vigilante terrorism. After wide condemnation, the Times corrected the editorial. Sort of.

Here is the Times’s correction of just one of the falsehoods the editors pushed:

An editorial on Tuesday about the death of a Palestinian teenager in Jerusalem referred incorrectly to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response to the killing of Muhammad Abu Khdeir. On the day of the killing, Mr. Netanyahu’s office issued a statement saying he had told his minister for internal security to quickly investigate the crime; it is not the case that “days of near silence” passed before he spoke about it.

But in reality the way the editorial now reads is not all that much better. Here is the initial, false sentence, as pointed out immediately by CAMERA’s Tamar Sternthal:

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, after days of near silence, condemned that killing and promised that anyone found guilty would “face the full weight of the law.”

Sternthal had made it clear that even the Times’s own reporting showed this to be wrong; Netanyahu had spoken up days earlier. Yet here is how the corrected sentence now reads:

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel condemned that killing and promised that anyone found guilty would “face the full weight of the law.”

Notice the problem? The editorial still uses Netanyahu’s condemnation days after the murder instead of his earlier statements on the crime, leaving the reader to come away with the same mistaken impression. The Times’s new version of the editorial is closer to the truth, but still not all that close. The Times editors’ allergy to the truth is inexcusable: they should pop a Claritin, endure the hives, and be honest about Israel.

But that’s not the end of the objectionable content in the Times’s faux correction. The correction makes no mention of the other, arguably greater mistake on the Israeli poem, and the editorial still includes that line. It’s one thing to get the date of Netanyahu’s condemnation of the attack wrong; that’s bad, especially because it shows the Times editors don’t read their own (or any other) newspaper. But there is a dangerous aspect to the editors’ pernicious misreading of the poem.

To put this in simple terms: Netanyahu read a poem that denounced earthly vengeance and vigilantism. The Times editorial claims the poem encourages earthly vengeance and vigilantism. This is a serious slander of Netanyahu, the poet, and the Israeli people. It includes Netanyahu in a group of Israelis the Times accuses of displaying vicious anti-Arab bigotry and violent tendencies, when in fact the prime minister was criticizing them in a bid to lower the temperature and promote restraint.

Only the New York Times can so blithely add a “correction” to its own false claims that muddy the waters even more and further concretize a dishonest narrative that tosses a match into a tinderbox. And the really dispiriting aspect to this is that we can expect more of the same. The desire of the leftist media to perpetuate a lie that the Israeli and Palestinian leadership are morally equivalent will only produce more hateful anti-Israel propaganda now that Hamas and Fatah have joined in their unity government.

That’s because Hamas is guilty of even more terrorism and anti-Semitism than Fatah is, so if the media want to equate the Israeli leadership with the Palestinian leadership they’ll have to drop Israel to Hamas’s level. And they’ll be taking their cues from Washington, apparently. While the State Department recently offered the laughable nonsense that America’s leaders “have no evidence that Hamas plays any role in the interim technocratic government,” other countries are taking a more serious approach to foreign affairs and recognizing reality.

In a Times of Israel story about how several Western countries have been more supportive of Israel during this crisis and possessed a greater degree of moral clarity than the Obama administration, we read the following tweet from Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird:

The new Palestinian government must exercise its authority in #Gaza and bring an immediate end to Hamas’s rocket attacks on #Israel

I don’t know whether the New York Times editors are getting their information from the Obama administration or the White House is getting its information on the conflict from the Times, but there’s a quite delusional feedback loop here. And it helps explain why even the Times’s corrections warrant their own corrections.

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The Misleading Blood Feud Narrative

Today’s escalation of fighting in the Middle East is provoking the usual calls for restraint from the West and the usual talk about cycles of violence from the international media. But as long-range missiles are being launched at Israeli cities to indiscriminately kill or maim the country’s citizens, Americans should be asking themselves why Hamas is doing this.

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Today’s escalation of fighting in the Middle East is provoking the usual calls for restraint from the West and the usual talk about cycles of violence from the international media. But as long-range missiles are being launched at Israeli cities to indiscriminately kill or maim the country’s citizens, Americans should be asking themselves why Hamas is doing this.

This is, after all, the same Islamist group that the Obama administration assured us was on its way to being a partner for peace. Though the United States still rightly classifies Hamas as a terrorist organization, the administration refused to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority after its leaders signed a unity pact with the group. The assumption was that Hamas would come under the influence of PA leader Mahmoud Abbas and that there was no need for the U.S. to pressure him to cut ties with terrorists.

But Hamas had other ideas. Its members kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teenagers. Since then it has not only sought to mobilize Palestinians to obstruct Israeli forces searching vainly for the youngsters and then exploit the murder of a Palestinian teen by Jews into the excuse for a third intifada. More importantly, it has used this violence as the rationale for breaking a two-year-old cease-fire with Israel along the border with Gaza by beginning a large-scale missile barrage with some of the projectiles aimed at major Israeli cities.

This is represented by much of the media coverage as just another instance of a tit-for-tat exchange in which both sides are equally culpable. That impression is strengthened by President Obama’s demands for Israeli “restraint” and his implicit criticism of the Jewish state’s democratically elected government accompanied by praise for Hamas’s erstwhile partner Abbas.

But lost amid the rush to moral equivalence are some basic facts about Hamas and why it chooses to keep attacking Israel.

The first is that while the Western media and the foreign-policy establishment continues to speak as if Israeli settlements and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s supposed intransigence are the primary obstacles to peace, the fact remains that Hamas’s goal remains Israel’s destruction. Its ideology is geared not toward the eviction of Jews from the West Bank or the creation of a Palestinian state there, or in Gaza (where it still rules the strip in what is an independent Palestinian state in all but name). What it wants is the end of the Jewish state and the eviction and/or slaughter of its population.

That is why its operatives target Jewish children and its missiles are aimed at Israeli cities where, if they get through the country’s defenses, can cause the maximum amount of harm.

The point here is that if Hamas really wanted to maintain a cease-fire with Israel, they could have committed themselves to avoiding violence and chosen not to up the ante with Israel once the killing of Muhammed Khdeir might have made it more difficult if not impossible for Netanyahu to order a large-scale assault on Gaza. Instead, it went big, shooting more missiles into Israel than have been fired in years as if their goal was to goad the prime minister into an assault on the terrorist enclave.

At this point, criticisms of Netanyahu and Israel are clearly irrelevant to the unfolding events. It’s clear that although many in his government were in favor of devastating attacks on Hamas or even re-taking the strip that Ariel Sharon abandoned in 2005, the prime minister had no interest in escalating the fighting. But no government of any country can tolerate the kind of attacks on its civilians that Hamas is undertaking with its missile barrage.

For Hamas, such attacks are not a tactic or a means to an end. Though the media narrative of this conflict has become one of a senseless blood feud between angry people on both sides, it should be remembered that the Palestinians cheered the kidnapping of the Israeli teens and treat captured terrorists as heroes. The Israeli government condemned and arrested those responsible for the attack on the Arab teen. Hamas believes “resistance” to the presence of Jews in the country is integral to Palestinian or Muslim identity. Nothing short of a complete transformation of the group and of the Islamist movement could make it possible for them to engage in genuine peace talks with Israel.

Americans believe in compromise and think any difference can be split between two parties given a certain amount of good will. But there can be no compromise with Hamas’s ideology or its actions. Its only goal is death and destruction. Anyone who forgets this in order to sustain an “even-handed” approach to the Middle East conflict that sees both sides as somehow morally equivalent is ignoring the truth.

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The Media’s Make-Believe Bibi

One of the lessons of the past week’s unrest in Israel, one would think, is the importance of news outlets getting their stories right before leveling explosive accusations. In the case of reviewing events that have already happened, that becomes much easier. So it’s all the more disconcerting that the editorial board of the New York Times chose to pronounce its collective judgment on the recent murders without, apparently, consulting even its own newspaper. If the editors of the New York Times don’t read the New York Times, the paper is in worse shape than we thought.

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One of the lessons of the past week’s unrest in Israel, one would think, is the importance of news outlets getting their stories right before leveling explosive accusations. In the case of reviewing events that have already happened, that becomes much easier. So it’s all the more disconcerting that the editorial board of the New York Times chose to pronounce its collective judgment on the recent murders without, apparently, consulting even its own newspaper. If the editors of the New York Times don’t read the New York Times, the paper is in worse shape than we thought.

But someone has to read the Times, and that someone turns out to be CAMERA’s Tamar Sternthal. In the Times of Israel today, Sternthal calls attention to a dramatic–and demonstrably false–series of claims made by the Times’s editors:

Subtitled “Can Israeli and Palestinian Leaders End the Revenge Attacks?”, the editorial ought to have been particularly precise in reporting the leaders’ respective words and deeds. And, yet, the author/s grossly erred: “On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, after days of near silence, condemned that killing and promised that anyone found guilty would ‘face the full weight of the law.’”

Netanyahu did not remain silent for days concerning the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir. The Israeli prime minister spoke out against the killing of Abu Kheir (sic) from July 2, the very same day of the murder.  As The Times’ own Isabel Kershner reported: “On Wednesday, after the body of the Palestinian teenager was found in the woods, the prime minister called on Israelis to obey the law, and asked investigators to quickly look into what he called ‘the abominable murder.’”

Netanyahu again denounced the murder Thursday, July 3 at the home of American Ambassador Daniel Shapiro during the July 4th celebration.

In criticizing the anti-Arab incitement that followed the deaths of the three kidnapped Israeli teens, the Times writes that “some Israelis gave in to their worst prejudices.” The editorial includes Netanyahu in this: “Even Mr. Netanyahu referenced an Israeli poem that reads: ‘Vengeance for the blood of a small child, Satan has not yet created.’”

Sternthal points out that the Times editorialists are slandering Israel here; the poem means the exact opposite of what the Times says:

Thus, The Times’ cites Netanyahu’s recitation of a line from Chaim Nachman Bialik’s poem “The Slaughter” as an indication that, he, like the crowds chanting “Death to Arabs” also gave in to his “worst prejudices.” In fact, Bialik’s lines, and Netanyahu’s quotation of them, are widely understood as a call for heavenly justice and a rejection of human vengeance for the killing of a small child.

Why would the Times fabricate such an explosive accusation, especially knowing the role that anti-Israel propaganda plays in violence against the Jewish state? Is it ignorance or malice? With regard to the poem, because of its historical and religious connections, the answer is probably ignorance. But if the editors want to plead ignorance on the slander that Netanyahu didn’t speak out against the murders in a timely fashion, it would require them to admit they don’t read their own paper. That’s certainly possible: as editors at the paper, they must know that the Times’s Israel reporting usually leaves readers misinformed, and they want to avoid that fate.

But another explanation is that this is merely the inevitable result–albeit a dangerous one–of the moral equivalence to which the press devotes itself when the subject is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Times editors understand that an accurate recitation of events paints the Palestinian leadership in more morally ambiguous territory than Netanyahu’s response. So they pretend Netanyahu had the same response.

In fact, the current crisis is further demolishing the leftist media’s caricature of Netanyahu, and they don’t appear quite sure how to react. The truth would be nice, of course. But that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. So they project the Bibi of their fevered imagination onto the page. Not only has Netanyahu denounced the gruesome, evil murder of Khdeir, but he’s also been the voice of moderation with regard to the fact that the Palestinians of Gaza have stepped up their rocket war against Israel.

As the Jerusalem Post reported yesterday on a contentious Israeli Cabinet meeting:

Following days of rockets on the South and riots in Jerusalem and among segments of the Israeli-Arab population, Netanyahu opened the weekly cabinet meeting saying on camera what was needed now was to act “with composure and responsibly, and not with “militancy or rashness.”

“We are working on several fronts at the same time” he said. “Last night we acted against numerous Hamas targets in Gaza, and the objective of all those actions is to return the quiet and security to the citizens of the South. Experience proves that at such times we must act responsibly and with equanimity, not hastily. We will do whatever is necessary to restore quiet and security to the South.”

This is perfectly in keeping with the restraint Netanyahu has shown throughout his premiership. But it conflicts with the make-believe Netanyahu who appears in fictional accounts passed off as news reporting in the Western press. The Times editors had some harsh words for this make-believe Bibi. But he’s still the only Bibi they’re willing to acknowledge.

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For Netanyahu and Lieberman, Breaking Up Is Easy to Do

The first thing to understand about Avigdor Lieberman’s move to dissolve his party’s pact with Likud over the correct response to Gaza is this: it’s not about the correct response to Gaza. Or anything else about Gaza. The Gaza Strip is close to irrelevant to the split between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, though it does serve as a convenient pretext.

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The first thing to understand about Avigdor Lieberman’s move to dissolve his party’s pact with Likud over the correct response to Gaza is this: it’s not about the correct response to Gaza. Or anything else about Gaza. The Gaza Strip is close to irrelevant to the split between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, though it does serve as a convenient pretext.

This is Lieberman’s second departure from Likud. He was close to Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1990s, managing his campaigns and soon becoming an incredibly influential figure once Netanyahu won the premiership the first time around. Then Lieberman tapped into the Russian immigrant community’s desire to have its representation in the Knesset more closely align with its demographic muscle. (The community also matured politically, having integrated without completely assimilating.) He formed a party to do just that.

Lieberman became a kingmaker by eventually garnering 15 seats in the Knesset in 2009–enough to make or break a coalition but not enough to lead one. Lieberman is both politically shrewd and hugely ambitious, so when he hit Yisrael Beiteinu’s ceiling he went back to the Likud, this time with an embarrassment of electoral riches.

The point was to eventually become prime minister. Netanyahu is a decade older than Lieberman and, crucially, so are Likud’s brightest and most experienced contemporaries. Lieberman understood that he’d have to wait out Bibi but that was probably it. As the last election showed, there are younger, bright stars in the Israeli political solar system, but they formed their own parties. Lieberman would have real competition in the future, but not from within Likud.

So why leave Likud (again)? Lieberman must have seen signs either that he wouldn’t inherit Likud after all or that it wouldn’t matter. The most likely answer is that it was a combination of the two, but more the latter. Lieberman has seen that there is still no serious challenge from the left; it’s other center-right or right-wing parties breathing down Likud’s neck. That means that if he can pull enough votes away from Likud, there is suddenly no real frontrunner, and there might be enough of a vacuum for another party to win now (or soon) instead of waiting out the Likud old guard.

The Likud-Beiteinu union was always an engagement that never turned into a marriage. And it was designed that way. Lieberman obviously learned plenty from his time as Netanyahu’s right-hand man: the two are by far the most politically adroit figures on the Israeli scene. They are not without flaws, of course, and this latest maneuver from Lieberman exposes his greatest weakness: he is a brilliant political operator behind the scenes, but will never have the charismatic command not only of a Yair Lapid or even Naftali Bennett but of any number of politicians who may crop up in the future.

In a parliamentary system, that charisma is less important than in a presidential system, and the ability to operate behind the scenes correspondingly more beneficial. But it is far from clear that it would be enough, in Lieberman’s case. The other potential mistake Lieberman is making has to do with the shifting math of seats in the Knesset. He should not assume that Likud’s vote total will remain stagnant at the number of seats it holds when he officially departs the party.

Likud has the advantage of brand. It’s true, this hasn’t helped Israel’s Labor Party. But the country is center-right, and so is Likud. That means Likud has the ability to attract politicians and voters in a way that other parties don’t: witness, for example, Lieberman’s ceiling at Yisrael Beiteinu, and the consistent disintegration of new parties. It’s also possible that Likud could win back voters who left when the party merged with Lieberman.

In that respect the union between the two parties may have been holding back both leaders. Netanyahu was losing out to voters who liked Lapid’s big-tent message and Bennett’s Anglo relatability more than Lieberman’s gruff polarizing rhetoric and shifting alliances. Lieberman, in turn, may have seen others threatening to do what he thought couldn’t (yet) be done: eclipse the establishment figures while they were still in power, and while he had tied his fortunes to them.

It’s an amicable split, as far as these things go, and it is unlikely to shake up Israeli politics at the moment. The real test will be the next election. In the meantime, it’s quite possible the public will barely notice the breakup of its largest political party.

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Not the Time to Split Over Gaza

Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has announced his party’s split from the joint Likud-Beitenu list that Prime Minister Netanyahu headed at the last election. The move isn’t entirely unexpected and Lieberman’s party will remain in the coalition. Nevertheless, the timing is hardly helpful. Allegedly it was an argument over how to respond to the ongoing Hamas rocket fire from Gaza that forced the split. By all accounts Lieberman has been pushing for a large scale operation and possible reoccupation in Gaza, whereas the prime minister has been cautioning restraint. Under different circumstances Lieberman’s call for a large scale response might seem highly warranted, and it may be that Hamas leaves Israel with no other option. Yet given the critically fragile situation that Israelis now face within the rest of Israel it seems hard to imagine that now is the time to initiate a major ground offensive in Gaza.

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Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has announced his party’s split from the joint Likud-Beitenu list that Prime Minister Netanyahu headed at the last election. The move isn’t entirely unexpected and Lieberman’s party will remain in the coalition. Nevertheless, the timing is hardly helpful. Allegedly it was an argument over how to respond to the ongoing Hamas rocket fire from Gaza that forced the split. By all accounts Lieberman has been pushing for a large scale operation and possible reoccupation in Gaza, whereas the prime minister has been cautioning restraint. Under different circumstances Lieberman’s call for a large scale response might seem highly warranted, and it may be that Hamas leaves Israel with no other option. Yet given the critically fragile situation that Israelis now face within the rest of Israel it seems hard to imagine that now is the time to initiate a major ground offensive in Gaza.

In recent years Israel has had two minor wars with Hamas in Gaza; the first, in 2009, involved ground troops in addition to airstrikes but today it is difficult to see what strategic benefit has been achieved by either of these smaller operations. It must be clear now that the only way to bring a definitive end to the rocket fire from Gaza would be a full scale invasion that would topple Hamas. But such an operation would be no small or easy undertaking and managing the aftermath—even if with the cooperation of Fatah–would likely be equally as challenging.

While the above action may eventually prove inevitable for Israel, there are a number of ongoing security concerns that Israel cannot afford to neglect right now, and most immediately there is the matter of the widespread unrest currently playing out among its Arab population. There has of course been talk of a third intifada. The numbering here seems to fall a little short, however. Indeed, long before the establishment of the State of Israel, the local Arab population was engaging in violent uprisings against both non-Muslim British rule and the growing Jewish presence in the area as was the case in 1920, 1929, 1936-9, and 1947. The pattern continues to this day. But what is particularly alarming about the violence of recent days is that it has for the most part concerned not the Palestinians of the West Bank, but rather Israel’s Arab citizens. These are people with full accesses to the ballot box should they wish to express dissatisfaction, and while many still suffer real economic difficulties (as do the ultra-Orthodox and Ethiopian Jews) there have in recent years been some serious efforts on the part of the Israeli government to integrate this group into the wider Israeli economy.

Right now Israel’s priority has to be about restoring calm with this group. That means treading a fine line that involves using enough force to restore law and order and to resist the violence of the mob, but without being so heavyhanded as to further inflame an already volatile mood. It is safe to say that a reoccupation of Gaza and the civilian casualties that this would unavoidably involve would do nothing to help this incredibly fragile situation. And of course the casualties that would result from engaging Hamas–with its war crime tactic of hiding behind civilians–could also greatly weaken Israel’s standing with its jittery Western allies. As we saw during Israel’s efforts to try and find the three Israeli teens who had been kidnapped—and as we now know, murdered—in the West Bank, the international community was allowing Israel’s security forces precious little room for maneuver. After the Obama administration put out the word that Israel sabotaged the peace negotiations with settlement building and as such was inviting another intifada, the mood among diplomats could all too quickly become a cold: “told you so.”

And Israel finds herself all the more reliant on international goodwill given that the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program now appear to be reaching a crucial stage. Having been forbidden by the Obama administration from carrying out a strike on Iran while that was still a realistic possibility, it now appears that there is nothing other than the rickety diplomatic track standing between the Jewish state and the nightmare of life with a nuclear Iran. Nor is Iran Israel’s only pressing security concern in the region. The ongoing civil war in Syria has seen increased instability along the Golan Heights as well as the threat of Hezbollah becoming armed with some of the Assad regime’s most devastating weaponry. And now added to that is the threat of ISIS infiltrating Jordan, thus creating a renewed threat along the entirety of Israel’s eastern border.

With all of these factors in play it is difficult to fathom how Avigdor Lieberman can seriously think that now is the time for redeploying in Gaza. This split from the Likud has been in the cards for some time and is no doubt a move informed as much by party politics as anything else. Yet Gaza hardly seems like the issue to split over, and now is certainly not a particularly wise moment to be adding to Israel’s instability.

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Will the Jewish Terrorists Be Released for Peace?

The arrest of Israeli Jews for the murder of an Arab teenager in Jerusalem has unleashed a wave of cheap moral equivalency. Some of it is obviously pure demagoguery: those who call for the destruction of the houses of these suspects will not ask that for the house of the Israeli Arab arraigned yesterday for the terrorist murder of a 19-year old Israeli girl, Shelly Dadon, three months ago.

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The arrest of Israeli Jews for the murder of an Arab teenager in Jerusalem has unleashed a wave of cheap moral equivalency. Some of it is obviously pure demagoguery: those who call for the destruction of the houses of these suspects will not ask that for the house of the Israeli Arab arraigned yesterday for the terrorist murder of a 19-year old Israeli girl, Shelly Dadon, three months ago.

Several points should be borne in mind in considering Israel’s treatment of the accursed murders. To be clear, the accused deserve, and are receiving, broad and unconditional condemnation–not because they do not help Israel, but because they are evil.

1) Prisoner swaps. We know Israel will never ask for these Jewish killers to be released as part of a peace deal. This is because Israel recoils with revulsion from their act. They are no one’s heroes.

Indeed, one can imagine the outrage from the Palestinian side if the Israeli government insisted on springing these Jewish terrorists as a “sweetener” to open peace talks. Apart from the new trauma of the victim’s family, the Palestinians could say this does not seem like a government serious about peace, if freeing murders is part of the peace process. That outrage is what Israel has been going through over and over as it released scores of savage murderers per Mahmoud Abbas’s request.

A useful initiative for Prime Minister Netanyahu now would be to offer to make a joint statement with Abbas, that neither would ever seek the release of either set of killers.

2) Pensions. Israel will never pay pensions to the killers. The prime minister will not take photos with them, or do anything other than condemn them. The glib questions making the rounds–will Israel knock down the Jewish terrorists’ houses–rather avoids the question that home demolitions are in part a way of offsetting the generous financial benefits Palestinian terrorists receive.

3) Finding the killers. The fact that during a massive three-week hunt for killers of the three Jewish boys, the authorities also managed to hunt down the killers of the Arab boy proves how seriously Israel takes crime against anyone, Jew or Arab. Indeed, the apprehension of the Jewish terrorists coincided with the arrest of an Israeli Arab for murdering a Jewish girl–three months ago. These cases take time, and the one involving the murder of an Arab boy got full priority.

4) Community support. The fact that the killers of three Jewish boys have hid out for three weeks shows they have a base of support, an organization: people to keep their secret, feed them, etc. Jewish killers had nowhere to hide because there is no Jewish community that accepts this.

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Understanding Israeli-Palestinian Stability

Lost in the well-deserved criticism of President Obama’s call on Israel to exercise restraint in the face of terrorist violence emanating from two of its borders is a clear-eyed assessment of the status quo. “I also urge all parties to refrain from steps that could further destabilize the situation,” the president said. It echoes claims from the New York Times’s lead Israel reporter that Israeli self-defense had “destabilized” the region’s politics. Of course it’s risible to make that claim against Israel, but more importantly, it assumes the existence of a delicate balance that on all counts merits preserving. It shouldn’t.

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Lost in the well-deserved criticism of President Obama’s call on Israel to exercise restraint in the face of terrorist violence emanating from two of its borders is a clear-eyed assessment of the status quo. “I also urge all parties to refrain from steps that could further destabilize the situation,” the president said. It echoes claims from the New York Times’s lead Israel reporter that Israeli self-defense had “destabilized” the region’s politics. Of course it’s risible to make that claim against Israel, but more importantly, it assumes the existence of a delicate balance that on all counts merits preserving. It shouldn’t.

To be sure, several aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s status quo are the status quo for a reason: both sides see them as advantageous or at least better than the alternatives. And the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli boys engendered cooperation from Mahmoud Abbas, which is another reminder that Abbas’s Fatah, for all its faults, is preferable to groups like Hamas, which would replace Fatah if it fell from power in the West Bank. But the statement about restraint mainly concerned Israel’s battle with Hamas. And it is here that the conflict presents a status quo that deserves to be shaken up.

As Haviv Rettig Gur writes in the Times of Israel, the Jewish state’s sense of humanity and defense of the value of each and every life will remain consistent no matter how often Hamas takes advantage of the fundamental decency of the Israeli people. And that’s the way Israelis want it:

Yet while the costs of past exchanges became stark and agonizing, Israelis also know that if push had come to shove, if the teens had turned out to be alive and out of the reach of Israel’s security services, and if Hamas had demanded the release of terrorists in exchange for the boys’ safe return, then Israel’s leaders would have found it nigh unbearable to leave them in enemy hands.

For Hamas, the collapse of this kidnapping has not changed the fundamental strategy. The “success” of the Shalit operation — successful in the sense that Palestinian prisoners were released — along with the sheer scale of the public outpouring of grief over the most recent murders, have assured Hamas that the effectiveness of kidnapping has not abated. Palestinian politics has yet to reach the point where critics of Hamas can safely point out that its belligerency has spelled a decade of ruin for Gaza’s economy and society.

As the leaders of Hamas, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and other groups have said openly in countless glorying speeches following previous prisoner exchanges, kidnappings lay bare Israel’s weak underbelly, its whimpering, distraught obsession with its missing boys.

This weakness, Israel’s enemies have argued, has strategic significance. The skewed math of Israeli-Arab prisoner exchanges are a sign of Israeli decline, of slackening Israeli morale in the face of Arab persistence and endurance. Israelis may be militarily powerful, but their threshold for pain is low. Even the inflicting of relatively little pain — how many Israelis have died in rocket attacks, Palestinians often ask — can achieve meaningful gains toward the broader goal of Israel’s eventual destruction.

And here you have a concise explanation of why Hamas, and any of its peer groups who operate along those lines, must be defeated. It is one thing to counsel restraint when overreaction risks empowering the wrong forces. Israel does not want the PA in the West Bank to fall, and it will take care to ensure it does not bring Abbas down and create the vacuum Hamas has been waiting for–to do Hamas’s work for it, essentially.

But arresting and/or deporting Hamas leaders and operatives in the West Bank does the opposite: it clears space for Fatah and takes some of the heat off of Abbas. Hitting Hamas targets in Gaza provides the necessary contrast, and disrupts the terrorist group’s ability to plan and carry out its anti-Israel strategy, which consists almost entirely of committing war crimes.

The status quo, then, is really two different prevailing sets of circumstances. There is some stability worth keeping with regard to Israel’s relationship with Abbas’s West Bank government. And striking back at Hamas can keep it that way: “It’s clear that the terrorists came from areas under Palestinian Authority control and returned to territories under Palestinian Authority control,” Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev said, as quoted by CNN. Hamas’s presence in the West Bank is destabilizing; Israel is trying to remedy that.

Then there is the stability between Israel and Hamas. In this case, the stability itself is not worth preserving. Hamas will keep trying to kidnap, torture, and murder innocent children. Israel will keep searching for them, trading terrorists for them if need be. Hamas will see the compassion as weakness. Lather, rinse, repeat. Those calling for restraint now to preserve stability are missing the vital point that Israel’s tough response is the only thing that can maintain stability where it is worth saving, and upend the status quo that fosters the murder of innocents.

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Not the Moment for “Restraint” Against Hamas

In a sentiment that was echoed across the Israeli political spectrum, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed today that “Hamas will pay” for the murders of three Israeli teenagers kidnapped two weeks ago. What exactly Netanyahu meant by this phrase isn’t yet known. But given the track record of both Israel and the Palestinians and the efforts by President Obama to head off any tough action by Netanyahu, the leaders of the terror group may not exactly be shaking in their boots.

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In a sentiment that was echoed across the Israeli political spectrum, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed today that “Hamas will pay” for the murders of three Israeli teenagers kidnapped two weeks ago. What exactly Netanyahu meant by this phrase isn’t yet known. But given the track record of both Israel and the Palestinians and the efforts by President Obama to head off any tough action by Netanyahu, the leaders of the terror group may not exactly be shaking in their boots.

In the wake of the discovery of the victims’ bodies, anger against the Islamist terror group is widely felt and it is likely that Netanyahu’s government will have wide political leeway to hit Hamas hard, both in the West Bank and Gaza. But the question facing Israel is not so much whether to launch air strikes at Hamas headquarters or to round up even more of their supporters. Rather, it is whether if, after an interval of a week or two, Hamas is still functioning and is still part of the ruling coalition of the Palestinian Authority. If, after absorbing a pounding from the Israeli army, the Islamist movement’s leadership can claim that it not only shed more Jewish blood but also survived another Israeli counterattack, then despite all of the fearsome rhetoric coming out of Jerusalem, Hamas will have won.

President Obama’s condemnation of the deaths of the three Israeli teens was appropriate but it was accompanied by the standard call for “all sides to exercise restraint.” Which is to say that the U.S. is making it clear to the Israelis that anything beyond a minimal retaliation that will not make a difference will be condemned as worsening the situation. But, like all past efforts to enforce restraint on Israel, such counsel merely ensures that this tragedy will be played out again and again.

It must be understood that while the gruesome crime committed against three teenagers may damage Hamas’s already shaky reputation in the West, the willingness of the group to commit this atrocity may increase its popularity among Palestinians. In the last year, Hamas’s political stock has fallen as the cash shortfall caused by its rift with Iran and the closing of smuggling tunnels to Egypt undermined its ability to maintain local support. Where once it was seen as a viable alternative to the Fatah kleptocracy that rules over the West Bank, it is now seen as merely an Islamist version of the same corrupt model. Its willingness to maintain a rough cease-fire with Israel along the border with Gaza also robbed it of its mantle as the standard-bearer of the struggle against the Jewish state. It was for these reasons that it was forced to sign a unity agreement with Abbas’s Fatah.

Should a determined Israeli offensive take out some of its leadership and undermine its capacity to function, perhaps that decline will continue. But Hamas and its backers also know that violence has always been the main factor legitimizing Palestinian political parties. Should the kidnapping lead to another round of violence in which Hamas could portray itself as the true defender of Palestinian honor, then the incident could give it a new lease on life even as its members duck for cover.

That may incline some to counsel Israelis to avoid what in the past has been considered a “disproportionate” response to Palestinian provocations. Since Israeli attacks may actually undermine Abbas and boost Hamas, some (especially in the United States) may advise Netanyahu to make some noise but then get back to business as usual as quickly as possible lest a new counter-terror campaign serve to create a new generation of terrorists.

While that line of reasoning may sound logical, it would be a mistake. Israel needs to do more than launch some symbolic strikes that will do nothing to assuage Israeli anger while doing nothing to deter Palestinians from emulating this horrific deed. Nothing short of a stroke that will decapitate the leadership of this group will convince the Palestinians that Hamas has made a mistake.

As a poll I discussed last week showed, the vast majority of Palestinians want the struggle against Israel to continue but they don’t want to personally pay the price of that conflict. Making the vast majority of Palestinians pay for Hamas’s outrages would deepen their bitterness against Israel and lead to charges of collective punishment. But if, instead, Israel makes Hamas’s leaders pay in such a measure as to make it difficult if not impossible to carry on then perhaps Netanyahu can thread the needle in between an escalation and a weak non-response.

It may be that Israel’s options are limited by political realities and Hamas’s ability to withstand attacks. But no matter what choices Netanyahu makes, “restraint” will be merely an invitation for Hamas to repeat this crime again in the future.

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Peace Process Gets a Boost: Indyk Quits

Years ago while planning out a story on Israel’s Labor Party, I called a former Clinton administration official who had been part of the White House’s Mideast diplomatic team. He declined to comment, saying he simply doesn’t talk about Israeli domestic politics. I was surprised but understood. Yet I couldn’t figure out quite why I was surprised until I saw a different U.S. official, Martin Indyk, talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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Years ago while planning out a story on Israel’s Labor Party, I called a former Clinton administration official who had been part of the White House’s Mideast diplomatic team. He declined to comment, saying he simply doesn’t talk about Israeli domestic politics. I was surprised but understood. Yet I couldn’t figure out quite why I was surprised until I saw a different U.S. official, Martin Indyk, talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Indyk, who the AP reports is now resigning from President Obama’s Mideast team, had the opposite policy of the official I had called seeking comment. Indyk never hesitated to prattle on about Israeli domestic politics to any reporter who would listen. I was reminded of this when Indyk was universally identified as the source for bitter complaints about Israel to the Israeli press after Indyk failed miserably as the Obama administration’s peace envoy. As Elder of Ziyon noted, Indyk’s meddling in domestic Israeli politics while working for Bill Clinton was so egregious and out of control that Knesset member Uzi Landau lodged an official complaint with Clinton over it in 2000, writing:

In addition to his remarks concerning Jerusalem, Ambassador Indyk offered his views regarding secular-religious tensions in Israel and the role of the Reform and Conservative movements in Judaism. He also intimated his tacit support for Prime Minister Barak’s so-called secular revolution. As a commentator in the liberal daily Ha’aretz noted, “readers are urged to imagine what the Americans would say if the Israeli ambassador to Washington were to come to a local religious institution and say such things.”

As a veteran Knesset member who has consistently supported closer ties between our two nations, I wish to strongly protest Ambassador Indyk’s blatant interference in Israel’s internal affairs and democratic process. I am sure you would agree that it is simply unacceptable for a foreign diplomat to involve himself so provocatively in the most sensitive affairs of the country to which he is posted. If a foreign ambassador stationed in the United States were to involve himself in a domestic American policy debate regarding race relations or abortion, the subsequent outcry would not be long in coming.

Ambassador Indyk’s remarks about Jerusalem are an affront to Israel, particularly since he made them in the heart of the city that he aspires to divide. By needlessly raising Arab expectations on the Jerusalem issue, rather than moderating them, Ambassador Indyk has caused inestimable damage to the peace process. It is likewise inexplicable that Ambassador Indyk would choose to interject his private religious preferences into the debate over secular-religious tensions in Israel.

Indyk’s dislike of much of the Israeli public led to his infamous refusal to acquaint himself with the reality of Israeli life and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Thus as our Rick Richman wrote in May, even while Indyk was in Israel he had his facts backwards. At a Washington Institute for Near East Policy event, Indyk took questions from the institute’s director, Robert Satloff. One question was about settlements: Indyk had blamed Benjamin Netanyahu for “rampant settlement activity,” but of course this was not true. Netanyahu has quietly reined in the settlements. Richman quotes Indyk’s response:

I’ve not heard of this second account — it doesn’t make any sense to me — and I honestly don’t understand what it means. Maybe someone else can explain it to me.

Not only did Indyk not know the basic truth about Israeli policy, but he admitted he couldn’t even understand it. When the facts conflicted with his prejudiced preconceptions, he couldn’t process the information.

Which explains why he used his time as peace envoy to mount a disinformation campaign against the democratically elected Israeli government. The Washington Free Beacon had reported back in May that Indyk was at the center of an Obama administration media campaign against Israel during the negotiations. Such behavior is almost guaranteed to make Israelis suspicious of Indyk and encourage Palestinians to believe they don’t have to make concessions because the Obama administration will simply keep pressuring Israel no matter what.

In other words, Indyk’s behavior was the surest path to failure. Which is precisely what happened. Just as it is precisely what happened the last time he was tasked with representing the White House in the Middle East. Indyk stepping down may be a result of the breakdown of the peace process, but it is its own silver lining: with Indyk back home, the prospects for peace automatically get just a bit brighter.

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Two More Myths About Israeli Settlements Bite the Dust

One encouraging element to the gross media bias against Israel is that eventually, many of the lies spread about Israel and republished uncritically in the press finally become undeniably impossible to believe. This realization leads to stories that emerge, Austin Powers-like, from a time machine, awkwardly in perpetual awe of facts any informed person knew years, if not decades, before.

Jewish settlement is frequently the subject of such stories. One of my all-time favorites is this 2009 piece in the New York Times by Ethan Bronner and Isabel Kershner, declaring that an Israeli-Palestinian deal might indeed be possible because, through “scores of interviews over several months, including with settler firebrands,” they have learned that the settlers “are unlikely to engage in organized armed conflict with the Israeli military” should a deal be struck.

It was a long story, the upshot of which was to repeatedly proclaim, as if they had invented the wheel, that Jews living in their historic homeland are not, in fact, psychotic mobs of violent fanatics. Better late than never for Bronner and Kershner, I suppose, but it was only news to those who get all their information from the New York Times.

The popular Mideast news site Al-Monitor has a new entry in this field. Headlined “Youths’ abduction stirs Israeli sympathy for settlers,” the author proceeds to explain that Israelis don’t think Jews deserve to be kidnapped by terrorists just because they found themselves outside the green line:

Throughout the first and second intifadas, there were many voices in the public discourse blaming the settlers for the series of terrorist attacks in Israel. The left regarded the settlements as an obstacle to peace; the right regarded them as an obstacle to war. On the left, authors, intellectuals, pundits and politicians took the position that Israel’s very domination of the territories was the main cause of Palestinian violence. For many Israelis, life beyond the Green Line was like living in another country. Time after time, surveys confirmed that most Israelis had never set foot in the territories and that many of them had never actually seen a settlement up close.

Then the three teenagers were abducted. It’s hard to think of another event in the territories that has evoked so much sympathy among Israelis.

This is apparently troublesome, though, because:

The [Israeli] minister even expressed his concern that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might actually exploit the past few days’ outpouring of support to even expand further the settlement enterprise in the occupied territories.

For some people, there’s always a downside to Jews supporting other Jews. In this case, it is that Jews will continue supporting their fellow Jews. But let’s look at that minister’s concern that Netanyahu will expand the settlement enterprise. One of the persistent myths about Netanyahu is that he is a pro-settlement hardliner. It is pervasive and false. It’s easy for uninformed Westerners to believe it, because they want to believe it, but it also exposes their ignorance of Israeli politics. In fact, not only is Netanyahu not a pro-settlements ideologue, but his actions as prime minister actually leave the opposite impression.

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One encouraging element to the gross media bias against Israel is that eventually, many of the lies spread about Israel and republished uncritically in the press finally become undeniably impossible to believe. This realization leads to stories that emerge, Austin Powers-like, from a time machine, awkwardly in perpetual awe of facts any informed person knew years, if not decades, before.

Jewish settlement is frequently the subject of such stories. One of my all-time favorites is this 2009 piece in the New York Times by Ethan Bronner and Isabel Kershner, declaring that an Israeli-Palestinian deal might indeed be possible because, through “scores of interviews over several months, including with settler firebrands,” they have learned that the settlers “are unlikely to engage in organized armed conflict with the Israeli military” should a deal be struck.

It was a long story, the upshot of which was to repeatedly proclaim, as if they had invented the wheel, that Jews living in their historic homeland are not, in fact, psychotic mobs of violent fanatics. Better late than never for Bronner and Kershner, I suppose, but it was only news to those who get all their information from the New York Times.

The popular Mideast news site Al-Monitor has a new entry in this field. Headlined “Youths’ abduction stirs Israeli sympathy for settlers,” the author proceeds to explain that Israelis don’t think Jews deserve to be kidnapped by terrorists just because they found themselves outside the green line:

Throughout the first and second intifadas, there were many voices in the public discourse blaming the settlers for the series of terrorist attacks in Israel. The left regarded the settlements as an obstacle to peace; the right regarded them as an obstacle to war. On the left, authors, intellectuals, pundits and politicians took the position that Israel’s very domination of the territories was the main cause of Palestinian violence. For many Israelis, life beyond the Green Line was like living in another country. Time after time, surveys confirmed that most Israelis had never set foot in the territories and that many of them had never actually seen a settlement up close.

Then the three teenagers were abducted. It’s hard to think of another event in the territories that has evoked so much sympathy among Israelis.

This is apparently troublesome, though, because:

The [Israeli] minister even expressed his concern that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might actually exploit the past few days’ outpouring of support to even expand further the settlement enterprise in the occupied territories.

For some people, there’s always a downside to Jews supporting other Jews. In this case, it is that Jews will continue supporting their fellow Jews. But let’s look at that minister’s concern that Netanyahu will expand the settlement enterprise. One of the persistent myths about Netanyahu is that he is a pro-settlement hardliner. It is pervasive and false. It’s easy for uninformed Westerners to believe it, because they want to believe it, but it also exposes their ignorance of Israeli politics. In fact, not only is Netanyahu not a pro-settlements ideologue, but his actions as prime minister actually leave the opposite impression.

As Elliott Abrams and Uri Sadot write at Foreign Affairs, Netanyahu has slowed construction in settlements to the point that it “can hardly sustain even natural population growth.” Additionally:

A geographic analysis of the data, moreover, suggests that the settlers have an additional reason to worry: under Netanyahu’s current government, construction outside the so-called major settlement blocs — the areas most likely to remain part of Israel in a final peace settlement — has steadily decreased. Over the past five years, the number of homes approved for construction in the smaller settlements has amounted to half of what it was during Netanyahu’s first premiership in 1996–99. Moreover, the homes the government is now approving for construction are positioned further west, mostly in the major blocs or in areas adjacent to the so-called Green Line, the de facto border separating Israel from the West Bank. The 1,500 units that Israel announced plans for earlier this month were also in the major blocs and in East Jerusalem, continuing the pattern.

Despite the fact that this might qualify as a bombshell to those in the press, Abrams and Sadot have another piece of news. After talking about land swaps and the geography of the peace process, they write:

Accusations that Netanyahu is reluctant to negotiate for peace bury the true headline: that his government has unilaterally reduced Israeli settlement construction and largely constrained it to a narrow segment of territory. This might well be the signal that Israel’s historical settlement enterprise is nearing its end, and whatever its reasons — international pressures, demographic fears, or a shift in public opinion — it is a trend that deserves U.S. attention.

Let’s repeat that: Benjamin Netanyahu’s behavior toward the settlements raises the possibility that “Israel’s historical settlement enterprise is nearing its end” and that Netanyahu is the one who might preside over it. Liberal critics of Israel have slammed Netanyahu as a prime minister who could make true history by striking a peace deal but is letting ego and ideology get in the way. The reality is that he may just make history of the kind those leftist critics thought they could only dream of, and they don’t even realize it.

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Rivlin and Israeli Reality

Today’s election by the Knesset of Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin as the next president of Israel wasn’t exactly what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was hoping for as he contemplated this date earlier this year. Netanyahu maneuvered furiously to avoid a scenario in which Rivlin or anyone else that wasn’t one of his close allies became Israel’s head of state. Given that Netanyahu loyalists are rare even in his own Likud Party, that hope was always a long shot. In the end, the PM had to settle for the elevation of a man who is clearly to his right on the peace process and the settlements issue. Yet his disappointment must pale when compared to that of the Obama administration and members of the international community who had enjoyed seeing outgoing President Shimon Peres act as a symbolic yet potent voice opposing Netanyahu on the peace process. Peres walked a fine line between engaging in the sort of partisanship that would be inappropriate for the holder of an office that is supposed to be above politics and constant advocacy that often undercut Netanyahu.

Rivlin is widely respected as a man of integrity who can probably be counted on to observe the non-partisan traditions of the office that give it moral authority and the ability to act as a unifying force in a fractious society. But that a person who has always been identified as an opponent of the kind of concessions to the Palestinians that Peres advocated could succeed Peres in the office is also one more sign of an Israeli consensus that flummoxes its foreign critics.

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Today’s election by the Knesset of Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin as the next president of Israel wasn’t exactly what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was hoping for as he contemplated this date earlier this year. Netanyahu maneuvered furiously to avoid a scenario in which Rivlin or anyone else that wasn’t one of his close allies became Israel’s head of state. Given that Netanyahu loyalists are rare even in his own Likud Party, that hope was always a long shot. In the end, the PM had to settle for the elevation of a man who is clearly to his right on the peace process and the settlements issue. Yet his disappointment must pale when compared to that of the Obama administration and members of the international community who had enjoyed seeing outgoing President Shimon Peres act as a symbolic yet potent voice opposing Netanyahu on the peace process. Peres walked a fine line between engaging in the sort of partisanship that would be inappropriate for the holder of an office that is supposed to be above politics and constant advocacy that often undercut Netanyahu.

Rivlin is widely respected as a man of integrity who can probably be counted on to observe the non-partisan traditions of the office that give it moral authority and the ability to act as a unifying force in a fractious society. But that a person who has always been identified as an opponent of the kind of concessions to the Palestinians that Peres advocated could succeed Peres in the office is also one more sign of an Israeli consensus that flummoxes its foreign critics.

It’s likely that Rivlin will not spend much time trying to upstage Netanyahu on war and peace issues and will, instead, devote himself to more domestic concerns along with the traditional symbolic duties of the presidency. But it must be understood that up until the last minute many observers believed that Rivlin would not win because they thought various forces in the Knesset would unite to back an alternative because they could not stomach having a right-winger as president. While the reasons that didn’t happen are complex and largely related to the intricate entangling rivalries between the various parties and leaders in the Knesset, it must also be acknowledged that Rivlin’s win is one more demonstration that the center of Israeli politics is well to the right of where Americans would like it to be. While liberals and others who deride Netanyahu think the views of the popular Peres represent what most Israelis think, the experience of the last 20 years of the peace process have created a new political alignment that means Rivlin’s opinions don’t place him outside of the mainstream.

This is disconcerting for those who would like to believe that Peres, the architect of Oslo process, speaks for Israel in a way that Netanyahu cannot. But even if most Israelis think a two-state solution would be ideal, they know that in the absence of a true peace partner it isn’t going to happen anytime soon. The second intifada and the repeated rejections of peace offers by the PA has marginalized the Israeli left even if that reality check hasn’t affected American Jewish opinion.

There is no shortage of prominent Israelis who can be counted on to echo the concerns of its foreign detractors and to blast Netanyahu whenever it will do the most harm to the PM. Indeed, the 90-year-old Peres is expected to try to play kingmaker and attempt to unite the various left-wing factions in an effort to topple the government and/or defeat it at the next election. But for the next few years, Israel’s president won’t be a part of the anti-Netanyahu chorus on that issue even if Rivlin may take shots at the PM over social issues or to speak up for the interests of the settlers. That won’t please Washington and many liberal American Jews. But it reflects the current state of Israeli opinion and the facts on the ground.

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A Female President for Israel?

As Shimon Peres’s trip to Rome yesterday to play a part in Pope Francis’s pointless Middle East prayer service with the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas proved, Israel’s largely symbolic presidency gives an individual the ability to make a lot of trouble for the country’s government. That’s the explanation for much of the attention that is being devoted abroad to the vote that will take place tomorrow in Israel to choose the nation’s next president. None of the serious contenders are well known in the United States, but as a list of contenders present themselves to the parliament, there’s a decent chance that the winner will make history. But whichever one of them prevails tomorrow in either a first ballot or a subsequent runoff conducted shortly thereafter, the odds are Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu won’t be happy with the result.

It must be remembered that Israel’s president has no direct role in governing the country. In theory, the president is a mere cutter of ribbons and convener of the Knesset in the manner of Great Britain’s monarchy but without the paparazzi interest, the glamour, or the history. But if the occupant of the office has the ability to engage the sympathies of the local media and/or the international community, then the Israeli presidency can take on greater importance. As Peres and some of his predecessors have demonstrated, the fact that the president is considered above politics (even if that is not really true), gives the office the ability to make mischief for the government. That’s why, as Seth wrote last month, Netanyahu tried so hard to create the circumstances under which he would avoid having a president who would undercut his policies and even mooted the possibility of eliminating the office. But those ploys failed and as of the moment it appears that the leading candidates are all people who are likely to plague the PM in the coming years. The only question now is whether it will be one who will embarrass him on the right or the left and will it be Israel’s first female president.

The odds-on favorite now is former Knesset Speaker Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin, who has the most declared support (31 out of the body’s 120 members have already declared for him) and the advantage of being the leading candidate of Likud, the party that leads the governing coalition. But rather than be happy about Rivlin, Netanyahu is rightly concerned that he will be a problem. Rivlin is an opponent of the two-state solution and a supporter of the settlements, which puts him firmly in the Likud mainstream. But that could be a problem for Netanyahu since Rivlin could use the office to try and undermine any of the PM’s efforts to keep the peace process alive as well as complicating relations with the United States. The fact that Rivlin and Netanyahu are not exactly friendly will increase the chances that their official relationship will be marked by tension.

But as Haviv Rettig Gur writes in the Times of Israel, the more moderate elements of the coalition may line up for any viable alternative to Rivlin in a runoff if no candidate receives a majority on the first ballot. While none of the other candidates who have garnered enough support from Knesset members to make it onto the ballot seem formidable, Gur thinks Dalia Itzik might be just the person to upset Rivlin if it comes down to a one-on-one race.

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As Shimon Peres’s trip to Rome yesterday to play a part in Pope Francis’s pointless Middle East prayer service with the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas proved, Israel’s largely symbolic presidency gives an individual the ability to make a lot of trouble for the country’s government. That’s the explanation for much of the attention that is being devoted abroad to the vote that will take place tomorrow in Israel to choose the nation’s next president. None of the serious contenders are well known in the United States, but as a list of contenders present themselves to the parliament, there’s a decent chance that the winner will make history. But whichever one of them prevails tomorrow in either a first ballot or a subsequent runoff conducted shortly thereafter, the odds are Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu won’t be happy with the result.

It must be remembered that Israel’s president has no direct role in governing the country. In theory, the president is a mere cutter of ribbons and convener of the Knesset in the manner of Great Britain’s monarchy but without the paparazzi interest, the glamour, or the history. But if the occupant of the office has the ability to engage the sympathies of the local media and/or the international community, then the Israeli presidency can take on greater importance. As Peres and some of his predecessors have demonstrated, the fact that the president is considered above politics (even if that is not really true), gives the office the ability to make mischief for the government. That’s why, as Seth wrote last month, Netanyahu tried so hard to create the circumstances under which he would avoid having a president who would undercut his policies and even mooted the possibility of eliminating the office. But those ploys failed and as of the moment it appears that the leading candidates are all people who are likely to plague the PM in the coming years. The only question now is whether it will be one who will embarrass him on the right or the left and will it be Israel’s first female president.

The odds-on favorite now is former Knesset Speaker Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin, who has the most declared support (31 out of the body’s 120 members have already declared for him) and the advantage of being the leading candidate of Likud, the party that leads the governing coalition. But rather than be happy about Rivlin, Netanyahu is rightly concerned that he will be a problem. Rivlin is an opponent of the two-state solution and a supporter of the settlements, which puts him firmly in the Likud mainstream. But that could be a problem for Netanyahu since Rivlin could use the office to try and undermine any of the PM’s efforts to keep the peace process alive as well as complicating relations with the United States. The fact that Rivlin and Netanyahu are not exactly friendly will increase the chances that their official relationship will be marked by tension.

But as Haviv Rettig Gur writes in the Times of Israel, the more moderate elements of the coalition may line up for any viable alternative to Rivlin in a runoff if no candidate receives a majority on the first ballot. While none of the other candidates who have garnered enough support from Knesset members to make it onto the ballot seem formidable, Gur thinks Dalia Itzik might be just the person to upset Rivlin if it comes down to a one-on-one race.

Itzik started out in Israeli politics as a more centrist Labor MK and quickly moved up in the ranks of that once formidable political party. She served in a number of cabinet positions and then, like Peres and many other opportunistic members of both major parties, joined Ariel Sharon’s Kadima in 2006. During the three-year period when Kadima ran the country under Sharon’s successor Ehud Olmert, Itzik was speaker of the Knesset. She remained in parliament until 2013 and chose not to run for reelection when it became apparent that Kadima would be smashed in last year’s Knesset vote.

Itzik might be able to garner support from both the left and the right if she manages to make it into a runoff. Indeed, as Gur notes, the presidency may well be decided by the votes of the two most marginalized factions in the current Knesset: the ultra-Orthodox Haredim who were excluded by Netanyahu from the government and the Arabs. If so, Itzik may be just the candidate to deny the presidency to a right-winger.

Itzik won’t have the international stature of Peres, but it is easy to imagine her using the office to prod Netanyahu on the peace process, something that would gain her the applause of the Obama administration and other critics of Israel. Being the first woman in the presidency will also give her a following and a stature that would be denied to Rivlin.

There’s no telling how the vote will turn out and Rivlin may well prevail. But whether it turns out to be Rivlin or Itzik or one of the other candidates, after all his maneuvering it looks like Netanyahu will wind up with another president who will seek to make his life miserable.

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Francis’s Misleading Middle East Symbolism

On Sunday, Pope Francis made good on his pledge to convene a summit of Israeli and Palestinian leaders for a prayer service in Rome. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was there along with Israel’s President Shimon Peres. Along with Francis, both made speeches calling for peace and listened as clergy from the three major faiths spoke of symbolic acts of reconciliation that were, as a number of commentators noted, supposed to show that at the very least, religion can be a uniting factor rather than the engine that drives separation and hostility. Even though no one is pretending that a few speeches or prayers in Rome will change the facts of a stalemate between the two sides in the peace talks, the gesture will reinforce the pope’s reputation as a man intent on healing the world.

Given the pope’s evident good will, it’s hard to argue with the idea that his summit will do no harm and might cause the two sides to think about working harder for peace. But this piece of conventional wisdom is misleading. Though no one should question the pope’s intentions, the event at the Vatican is more than empty symbolism. This piece of grandstanding on the part of the church not only did nothing to advance the cause of peace that was torpedoed by the Palestinian unity pact that brought the terrorists of Hamas into the PA along with Abbas’s Fatah. By lending the moral authority of a man who is rightly respected around the world for his probity and earnest desire to help others to a stunt that treats the partner of Islamist terrorists as a peacemaker, the event undermines any effort to pressure the PA to make a clear choice between peace with Israel or one with Hamas.

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On Sunday, Pope Francis made good on his pledge to convene a summit of Israeli and Palestinian leaders for a prayer service in Rome. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was there along with Israel’s President Shimon Peres. Along with Francis, both made speeches calling for peace and listened as clergy from the three major faiths spoke of symbolic acts of reconciliation that were, as a number of commentators noted, supposed to show that at the very least, religion can be a uniting factor rather than the engine that drives separation and hostility. Even though no one is pretending that a few speeches or prayers in Rome will change the facts of a stalemate between the two sides in the peace talks, the gesture will reinforce the pope’s reputation as a man intent on healing the world.

Given the pope’s evident good will, it’s hard to argue with the idea that his summit will do no harm and might cause the two sides to think about working harder for peace. But this piece of conventional wisdom is misleading. Though no one should question the pope’s intentions, the event at the Vatican is more than empty symbolism. This piece of grandstanding on the part of the church not only did nothing to advance the cause of peace that was torpedoed by the Palestinian unity pact that brought the terrorists of Hamas into the PA along with Abbas’s Fatah. By lending the moral authority of a man who is rightly respected around the world for his probity and earnest desire to help others to a stunt that treats the partner of Islamist terrorists as a peacemaker, the event undermines any effort to pressure the PA to make a clear choice between peace with Israel or one with Hamas.

In fairness to the pope, his foolish even-handed approach differs little from that of the Obama administration which has decided to continue to send aid to the PA despite the involvement of the Hamas terrorists in its administration following the signing of the unity pact. Together with the European Union, the United States has effectively given its stamp of approval to a PA government that is making peace impossible. Palestinian unity has not brought Hamas into a government bent on creating an agreement based on coexistence and an end to violence. Rather, it signifies the joint position of the two main Palestinian factions that proclaim their refusal to ever recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn.

Seen in that context, the ceremonial symbolism in Rome is not just a distraction from the reality of a PA that refused Israeli offers of independence and peace three times between 2000 and 2008 and also refused to negotiate seriously in the last year of American-sponsored talks that amounts to a fourth such refusal. So long as the world refuses to place the same kind of brutal pressure on the Palestinians to give up their war on Zionism and accept a two-state solution that it puts on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, peace will remain impossible for the foreseeable future.

It must also be pointed out that in the inclusion of Peres in the conclave rather than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the papal event engaged in the sort of cheap shot that is unworthy of a leader of the pope’s stature. While Abbas and Peres are technically both the heads of state of their respective government, the former is the leader of the PA while Peres’s role is purely ceremonial. Peres’s willingness to pretend that there is nothing wrong with a PA that partners with Hamas is in consistent with his past record of taking risks for peace. His Oslo led to the empowerment of a terrorist like Yasir Arafat but his international standing as a wise man has survived decisions that cost lives and did nothing to advance the goal he championed. But whatever we might think of Peres’s qualifications as a diplomat, going around Netanyahu’s back undermines Israeli democracy and allows those who seek to whitewash Abbas and the Fatah-Hamas government to say that they are merely agreeing with him. Peres’s presence at the summit was a rebuke to Israel’s government, which has rightly complained about the way the international community has given Abbas a free pass to make common cause with terrorists while still posing as a peacemaker. It bears repeating that it is only Netanyahu and his ministers who have the right to negotiate on behalf of the Israeli electorate that put them in office.

Nothing that happened in Rome today will help bring peace because the premise of the event is a foolish belief that what is needed is more dialogue. The two sides already know where they stand. Peace requires a Palestinian leader to have the guts to reject Hamas and those Fatah elements that are still supportive of terror and unwilling to bring the conflict to an end. Any prayer service or act of advocacy on behalf of Middle East peace that ignores this key question is part of the problem, not the solution. While we respect Pope Francis, like his misguided recent trip to the Middle East that bogged him down in dangerous acts of moral equivalency between terrorists and the victims of terror at Israel’s security barrier, this event was a mistake.

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Bergdahl Disgrace Not Like Israel’s Shalit

Did President Obama expect to be showered with praise for his exchange of five senior Taliban terrorists for U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl? The president defended the swap today while speaking in Europe as simply part of his obligation to leave no American behind on the field of battle, a position that is eminently defensible. But given the public splash made by the White House about this story over the weekend, it’s clear that some in the West Wing thought the retrieval of Bergdahl would dovetail nicely with the president’s West Point speech extolling his decision to abandon the war in Afghanistan. The return of the only missing American soldier from that conflict would put a period on the war Democrats once extolled as the “good war” in contrast to George W. Bush’s “bad war” in Iraq.

If a Bergdahl photo op with the prisoner’s parents at the White House was not quite the moral equivalent of the Situation Room photos on the night of Osama bin Laden’s killing, it’s possible that some in the presidential echo chamber believed it would still boost Obama’s image in a second term badly in need of a triumph. But only two days after the president walked arm-in-arm with the Bergdahl family at the White House, those expectations have been exploded.

News stories about the anger felt by Bergdahl’s army comrades who allege that he deserted rather than being captured have tainted any good feelings about the exchange. National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s tone deaf comments on ABC’s This Week claiming Bergdahl “served the United States with honor and distinction” now look to be as big a lie as her September 2012 Sunday show blitz about the Benghazi attack being the reaction to a video rather than terrorism. Congress is rightly grousing about the executive branch violating the law by not informing them of the prisoner exchange and many voices are being raised questioning the wisdom of releasing five top Taliban officials likely to return to the war against America for the freedom of a man who, if reports are correct, hated his country and abandoned his post on the field of battle.

Yet as the debate continues to rage about Bergdahl, the administration’s defenders have been able to put forward one coherent argument. If the Israelis can trade more than 1,000 terrorists for Gilad Shalit, one of their soldiers who had been kidnapped by Hamas, what’s so terrible about Obama bartering five Taliban prisoners for one American? As I wrote on Sunday, there are good arguments to be made that the seniority of the five released Taliban operatives as well as the implication that the U.S. is bugging out of the conflict in Afghanistan makes the American swap look even more lopsided than the Shalit deal. But the nature of the two redeemed hostages should also have told the White House that it was a mistake for them to expect to garner the applause that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got for his decision on Shalit.

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Did President Obama expect to be showered with praise for his exchange of five senior Taliban terrorists for U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl? The president defended the swap today while speaking in Europe as simply part of his obligation to leave no American behind on the field of battle, a position that is eminently defensible. But given the public splash made by the White House about this story over the weekend, it’s clear that some in the West Wing thought the retrieval of Bergdahl would dovetail nicely with the president’s West Point speech extolling his decision to abandon the war in Afghanistan. The return of the only missing American soldier from that conflict would put a period on the war Democrats once extolled as the “good war” in contrast to George W. Bush’s “bad war” in Iraq.

If a Bergdahl photo op with the prisoner’s parents at the White House was not quite the moral equivalent of the Situation Room photos on the night of Osama bin Laden’s killing, it’s possible that some in the presidential echo chamber believed it would still boost Obama’s image in a second term badly in need of a triumph. But only two days after the president walked arm-in-arm with the Bergdahl family at the White House, those expectations have been exploded.

News stories about the anger felt by Bergdahl’s army comrades who allege that he deserted rather than being captured have tainted any good feelings about the exchange. National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s tone deaf comments on ABC’s This Week claiming Bergdahl “served the United States with honor and distinction” now look to be as big a lie as her September 2012 Sunday show blitz about the Benghazi attack being the reaction to a video rather than terrorism. Congress is rightly grousing about the executive branch violating the law by not informing them of the prisoner exchange and many voices are being raised questioning the wisdom of releasing five top Taliban officials likely to return to the war against America for the freedom of a man who, if reports are correct, hated his country and abandoned his post on the field of battle.

Yet as the debate continues to rage about Bergdahl, the administration’s defenders have been able to put forward one coherent argument. If the Israelis can trade more than 1,000 terrorists for Gilad Shalit, one of their soldiers who had been kidnapped by Hamas, what’s so terrible about Obama bartering five Taliban prisoners for one American? As I wrote on Sunday, there are good arguments to be made that the seniority of the five released Taliban operatives as well as the implication that the U.S. is bugging out of the conflict in Afghanistan makes the American swap look even more lopsided than the Shalit deal. But the nature of the two redeemed hostages should also have told the White House that it was a mistake for them to expect to garner the applause that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got for his decision on Shalit.

At the time of the Shalit exchange, many in both Israel and the United States for the deal with Hamas blasted Netanyahu. He was reminded of his own writings on the subject of such prisoner swaps which spoke of the harm they do in encouraging terrorism and undermining his country’s ability to deter its enemies. But despite these compelling arguments, the overwhelming majority of Israelis cheered his decision. Gilad Shalit was a typical conscript who was merely doing his duty along with thousands of other young men and women when he was snatched by terrorists who crossed into Israeli territory. There was no question of misconduct on his part and concern about his welfare during his years of captivity became a national obsession. Shalit was considered every Israeli’s son. Leaving him in the hands of Hamas, even if the cost was the freedom of hundreds of terrorists, was unthinkable.

But unfortunately for Obama, Bergdahl is not an American version of Shalit. The emails he wrote damning the United States and the U.S. Army undermine sympathy for his plight. So do the angry denunciations of his fellow soldiers who not only resent his abandonment of his post but also point out that six Americans were killed trying to rescue a man who wasn’t loyal to his comrades. That the freedom of such a person was bought with the release of dangerous terrorists only makes it worse.

Rather than Bergdahl’s release being a cause for celebration as Rice foolishly described it, it is developing into yet another scandal dragging down the president’s public standing. And rather than diminishing in the days to come, it will only get worse as the Army is forced to begin an investigation of his behavior that is not likely to have a happy outcome for Bergdahl or his commander-in-chief.

It would have been far better for all concerned for the swap to be treated as an unfortunate necessity rather than a cause for cheering. The president didn’t have to host the Bergdahls—whose bizarre statements have only added to the embarrassment—or send Rice and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel onto the Sunday news shows to tell the American people things that were obviously not true. Obama may have thought he would bask in the applause of a grateful public like Netanyahu did after Shalit was freed, but that was never going to happen. It is arguable that had the administration done this deal without trying to sell it as a triumph, it might have come across less like another public deception. But in the days, weeks, and months to come, they will continue to pay for yet another unforced error that revealed their lack of honesty.

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