Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ehud Barak

The Escalation of U.S.-Israel Tensions Continues

Secretary of State Clinton, in the context of the decision by Israel to approve 1,600 new Jewish homes in East Jerusalem, said yesterday, “We are engaged in very active consultations with the Israelis over steps that we think would demonstrate the requisite commitment to the [peace] process.”

Here we go again. It is Israel that has to “demonstrate the requisite commitment to the [peace] process” — despite the fact that over the decades no nation on earth has given away more tangible assets or offered to give up more of its land for peace than Israel. That was the case with the Sinai Desert, the oil-rich land that Israel returned to Egypt in 1978 in exchange for Egypt’s recognition of Israel and normalized relations. For those keeping track, the Sinai desert is three times the size of Israel and accounted for more than 90 percent of the land Israel won in a war of aggression by Arab states against Israel in 1967. This was the case in 2000, when Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered almost all the territories in the West Bank and Gaza to Yasir Arafat, who rejected the offer and instead began a second intifada. And it was the case in Gaza in 2005, when Israel withdrew and did what no other nation — not the Jordanians, not the British, not anyone — has done before: provide the Palestinians with the opportunity for self-rule. In response, Israel was shelled by thousands of rockets and mortar attacks and Hamas used Gaza as its launching point.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn’t territorial, as Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal has written; it is existential. The Palestinian leadership has yet to make its own inner peace with the existence of a Jewish state. Until that happens, issues like building new Jewish homes in East Jerusalem — whatever you think of the idea and the timing of the most recent announcement — are at most peripheral matters. Yet the Obama administration has chosen to make the issue of the settlements not only of central importance; it has (as the Jerusalem Post story says) “led many to believe that US-Israeli ties may be at their lowest point in history.”

What is the end game for the Obama administration? It could well be that Obama and his team are simply amateurish, reacting emotionally rather than strategically. It may be that there is an unusual animus toward Israel within the administration. Or it may be that, as Jeffrey Goldberg reports, Obama wants to “force a rupture in the governing coalition that will make it necessary for [Benjamin] Netanyahu to take into his government [Tzipi] Livni’s centrist Kadima Party” in the hopes of creating a “stable, centrist coalition” that is the “key to success.”

If that’s the case, then, as Noah Pollack argues here, Obama is in for a rude awakening. Inserting himself into the affairs of Israel to this degree, via this method, would be quite astonishing. And it’s worth recalling that in order to justify his timid early words regarding the Iranian suppression of liberty in the aftermath of the June 12 elections, Obama declared, “It’s not productive, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling … in Iranian elections.” There’s that old double standard again. When it comes to our ally Israel, like our Latin American ally Honduras, meddling seems to be a habit. With Iran we need to speak with solicitousness, with respect, and with words of assurance.

Tough on your friends and weak on your adversaries isn’t a winning formula in international affairs, or in life, as Barack Obama will (hopefully) soon discover during his tenure as president. Unfortunately, there is quite a cost to our nation in the process. Let’s hope that it’s Mr. Obama’s learning curve that accelerates and not tensions between America and Israel.

Secretary of State Clinton, in the context of the decision by Israel to approve 1,600 new Jewish homes in East Jerusalem, said yesterday, “We are engaged in very active consultations with the Israelis over steps that we think would demonstrate the requisite commitment to the [peace] process.”

Here we go again. It is Israel that has to “demonstrate the requisite commitment to the [peace] process” — despite the fact that over the decades no nation on earth has given away more tangible assets or offered to give up more of its land for peace than Israel. That was the case with the Sinai Desert, the oil-rich land that Israel returned to Egypt in 1978 in exchange for Egypt’s recognition of Israel and normalized relations. For those keeping track, the Sinai desert is three times the size of Israel and accounted for more than 90 percent of the land Israel won in a war of aggression by Arab states against Israel in 1967. This was the case in 2000, when Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered almost all the territories in the West Bank and Gaza to Yasir Arafat, who rejected the offer and instead began a second intifada. And it was the case in Gaza in 2005, when Israel withdrew and did what no other nation — not the Jordanians, not the British, not anyone — has done before: provide the Palestinians with the opportunity for self-rule. In response, Israel was shelled by thousands of rockets and mortar attacks and Hamas used Gaza as its launching point.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn’t territorial, as Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal has written; it is existential. The Palestinian leadership has yet to make its own inner peace with the existence of a Jewish state. Until that happens, issues like building new Jewish homes in East Jerusalem — whatever you think of the idea and the timing of the most recent announcement — are at most peripheral matters. Yet the Obama administration has chosen to make the issue of the settlements not only of central importance; it has (as the Jerusalem Post story says) “led many to believe that US-Israeli ties may be at their lowest point in history.”

What is the end game for the Obama administration? It could well be that Obama and his team are simply amateurish, reacting emotionally rather than strategically. It may be that there is an unusual animus toward Israel within the administration. Or it may be that, as Jeffrey Goldberg reports, Obama wants to “force a rupture in the governing coalition that will make it necessary for [Benjamin] Netanyahu to take into his government [Tzipi] Livni’s centrist Kadima Party” in the hopes of creating a “stable, centrist coalition” that is the “key to success.”

If that’s the case, then, as Noah Pollack argues here, Obama is in for a rude awakening. Inserting himself into the affairs of Israel to this degree, via this method, would be quite astonishing. And it’s worth recalling that in order to justify his timid early words regarding the Iranian suppression of liberty in the aftermath of the June 12 elections, Obama declared, “It’s not productive, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling … in Iranian elections.” There’s that old double standard again. When it comes to our ally Israel, like our Latin American ally Honduras, meddling seems to be a habit. With Iran we need to speak with solicitousness, with respect, and with words of assurance.

Tough on your friends and weak on your adversaries isn’t a winning formula in international affairs, or in life, as Barack Obama will (hopefully) soon discover during his tenure as president. Unfortunately, there is quite a cost to our nation in the process. Let’s hope that it’s Mr. Obama’s learning curve that accelerates and not tensions between America and Israel.

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They Didn’t Think It Through

However it is that the Obami extract themselves from the current tempest with Israel, a bad taste will be left in the mouths of the administrations’ supporters, the American Jewish community, and Israel. The Obami have revealed themselves to be seriously lacking in both sensibility and understanding when it comes to the U.S.-Israel relationship, and to be in thrall to the Palestinian narrative. Bret Stephens explains the fallacy they’ve embraced:

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn’t territorial. It’s existential. Israelis are now broadly prepared to live with a Palestinian state along their borders. Palestinians are not yet willing to live with a Jewish state along theirs.

That should help explain why it is that in the past decade, two Israeli prime ministers—Ehud Barak in 2000 and Ehud Olmert in 2008—have put forward comprehensive peace offers to the Palestinians, and have twice been rebuffed. In both cases, the offers included the division of Jerusalem; in the latter case, it also included international jurisdiction over Jerusalem’s holy places and concessions on the subject of Palestinian refugees. Current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also offered direct peace talks. The Palestinians have countered by withdrawing to “proximity talks” mediated by the U.S.

And of course if it were about “settlements,” peace would have broken out before 1967. Moreover, as Stephens notes, if this were a land issue, the withdrawal from Gaza would have brought a cessation of hostilities, not an escalation. Dismissing the assurances given Israel by the Bush administration with regard to settlement activities, the Obami started a diplomatic war over an existing site within Jerusalem — one that would in any future deal remain in the Jewish state. The “affront” is an artificial one, a pretext for impressing the Obami’s audience in the “Muslim World.”

The lesson to be drawn by the Israelis is that the Obami don’t share a common understanding of the nature of the Palestinian conflict and are unpredictable partners, prone to fly off the handle when it suits their purposes. How in such a scenario does the Israeli government take “risks for peace”? And more to the point, why would the Israeli government rely on the U.S. when it comes to protecting the Jewish state against an existential threat from Iran? Once an ally proves unreliable, it’s every man for himself. That was precisely the opposite message the White House bullies no doubt intended to convey. But like so much else, they really didn’t think this through.

However it is that the Obami extract themselves from the current tempest with Israel, a bad taste will be left in the mouths of the administrations’ supporters, the American Jewish community, and Israel. The Obami have revealed themselves to be seriously lacking in both sensibility and understanding when it comes to the U.S.-Israel relationship, and to be in thrall to the Palestinian narrative. Bret Stephens explains the fallacy they’ve embraced:

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn’t territorial. It’s existential. Israelis are now broadly prepared to live with a Palestinian state along their borders. Palestinians are not yet willing to live with a Jewish state along theirs.

That should help explain why it is that in the past decade, two Israeli prime ministers—Ehud Barak in 2000 and Ehud Olmert in 2008—have put forward comprehensive peace offers to the Palestinians, and have twice been rebuffed. In both cases, the offers included the division of Jerusalem; in the latter case, it also included international jurisdiction over Jerusalem’s holy places and concessions on the subject of Palestinian refugees. Current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also offered direct peace talks. The Palestinians have countered by withdrawing to “proximity talks” mediated by the U.S.

And of course if it were about “settlements,” peace would have broken out before 1967. Moreover, as Stephens notes, if this were a land issue, the withdrawal from Gaza would have brought a cessation of hostilities, not an escalation. Dismissing the assurances given Israel by the Bush administration with regard to settlement activities, the Obami started a diplomatic war over an existing site within Jerusalem — one that would in any future deal remain in the Jewish state. The “affront” is an artificial one, a pretext for impressing the Obami’s audience in the “Muslim World.”

The lesson to be drawn by the Israelis is that the Obami don’t share a common understanding of the nature of the Palestinian conflict and are unpredictable partners, prone to fly off the handle when it suits their purposes. How in such a scenario does the Israeli government take “risks for peace”? And more to the point, why would the Israeli government rely on the U.S. when it comes to protecting the Jewish state against an existential threat from Iran? Once an ally proves unreliable, it’s every man for himself. That was precisely the opposite message the White House bullies no doubt intended to convey. But like so much else, they really didn’t think this through.

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Peace Plans and Palestinian Politics

Writing in the widely circulated Israeli newspaper Yisrael Hayom (“Israel Today”), Israeli journalist Dan Margalit reviews the prospects for the new peace process. The article is in Hebrew, but is summarized by the Israel Foreign Ministry:

The author recalls that in 2000, at Camp David, “Ehud Barak agreed to discuss the division of Jerusalem and the Palestinians fled the negotiations,” and adds that “In 2009, Ehud Olmert even offered to soften on the principle against ‘the right of return’ and again they fled.” The paper speculates that “In the current round, Israel is in a more complex position. Benjamin Netanyahu cannot offer Abu Mazen what came up in Ehud Olmert’s plan and if Ramallah rejected the previous move, what will it accept now?” The author notes that the Palestinians will, apparently, proffer a plan of their own in the hope that an Israeli rejection will draw the Obama administration to their side.

Presenting a plan they know Israel will not accept — to generate a condemnation of Israel for not accepting it – would be, in the weird world of the peace process, a step forward: at least the Palestinians would be proffering a plan. The last three times Israel offered the Palestinians a state – at Camp David, in the Clinton Parameters, and in the Olmert offer – the Palestinians rejected the offer without making a counterproposal.

If the process plays out as Margalit predicts, here is one way to determine the seriousness of the Palestinians’ plan: will they release it to their public before July 17? July 17 is the date set for local elections in the West Bank – coincidentally (or maybe not) a week after the four-month period the Palestinians have set for the new indirect talks. In an analysis for Ynet News, Alex Fishman discusses how that election relates to the peace process:

Abbas and Fayyad are aspiring to win at least 50% of the vote this time around. With such support, they would be able to move on to negotiations with Israel with the legitimacy of the Palestinian public, and not only with the backwind provided by moderate members of the Arab League. This would be a real source of power, not a bogus one. Hamas has already announced that it will not take part in the elections. The PA will go to elections even without it.

It will be a real source of power, however, and not a bogus one, only if the Palestinian public knows what it is voting for — and only if the plan, itself, addresses the criteria set forth in the 2004 Bush letter to Israel: a Jewish state with defensible borders encompassing the major Jewish population centers in the West Bank (which are necessary for such borders). But the chances of Abbas and Fayyad proposing such a plan in the indirect talks, or discussing it with the Palestinian public before an election, are slight. In Fishman’s words:

[T]he PA cannot show up at the July 17 elections with a record of concessions on the national front. The opposite is true. It has a clear interest in creating a crisis in order to prompt a warm public embrace and reach the elections with an image of national strength, clear of any indication of “collaboration.”

After the death of Yasser Arafat, it was thought that Palestinian democracy would lead to peace. But the 2006 election resulted in a victory for Hamas; the PA president’s term expired more than a year ago with no new presidential election in sight; PA leaders are afraid to make concessions in the peace process lest they lose even uncontested local elections. The tragedy of Palestinian politics is that the Palestinian electorate will not vote for anyone willing to make the concessions necessary to get them a state — in part because they lack leaders who will tell their public that painful compromises are necessary to achieve one.

Writing in the widely circulated Israeli newspaper Yisrael Hayom (“Israel Today”), Israeli journalist Dan Margalit reviews the prospects for the new peace process. The article is in Hebrew, but is summarized by the Israel Foreign Ministry:

The author recalls that in 2000, at Camp David, “Ehud Barak agreed to discuss the division of Jerusalem and the Palestinians fled the negotiations,” and adds that “In 2009, Ehud Olmert even offered to soften on the principle against ‘the right of return’ and again they fled.” The paper speculates that “In the current round, Israel is in a more complex position. Benjamin Netanyahu cannot offer Abu Mazen what came up in Ehud Olmert’s plan and if Ramallah rejected the previous move, what will it accept now?” The author notes that the Palestinians will, apparently, proffer a plan of their own in the hope that an Israeli rejection will draw the Obama administration to their side.

Presenting a plan they know Israel will not accept — to generate a condemnation of Israel for not accepting it – would be, in the weird world of the peace process, a step forward: at least the Palestinians would be proffering a plan. The last three times Israel offered the Palestinians a state – at Camp David, in the Clinton Parameters, and in the Olmert offer – the Palestinians rejected the offer without making a counterproposal.

If the process plays out as Margalit predicts, here is one way to determine the seriousness of the Palestinians’ plan: will they release it to their public before July 17? July 17 is the date set for local elections in the West Bank – coincidentally (or maybe not) a week after the four-month period the Palestinians have set for the new indirect talks. In an analysis for Ynet News, Alex Fishman discusses how that election relates to the peace process:

Abbas and Fayyad are aspiring to win at least 50% of the vote this time around. With such support, they would be able to move on to negotiations with Israel with the legitimacy of the Palestinian public, and not only with the backwind provided by moderate members of the Arab League. This would be a real source of power, not a bogus one. Hamas has already announced that it will not take part in the elections. The PA will go to elections even without it.

It will be a real source of power, however, and not a bogus one, only if the Palestinian public knows what it is voting for — and only if the plan, itself, addresses the criteria set forth in the 2004 Bush letter to Israel: a Jewish state with defensible borders encompassing the major Jewish population centers in the West Bank (which are necessary for such borders). But the chances of Abbas and Fayyad proposing such a plan in the indirect talks, or discussing it with the Palestinian public before an election, are slight. In Fishman’s words:

[T]he PA cannot show up at the July 17 elections with a record of concessions on the national front. The opposite is true. It has a clear interest in creating a crisis in order to prompt a warm public embrace and reach the elections with an image of national strength, clear of any indication of “collaboration.”

After the death of Yasser Arafat, it was thought that Palestinian democracy would lead to peace. But the 2006 election resulted in a victory for Hamas; the PA president’s term expired more than a year ago with no new presidential election in sight; PA leaders are afraid to make concessions in the peace process lest they lose even uncontested local elections. The tragedy of Palestinian politics is that the Palestinian electorate will not vote for anyone willing to make the concessions necessary to get them a state — in part because they lack leaders who will tell their public that painful compromises are necessary to achieve one.

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Hillary Tilts Talks Even Further Against Israel

The New York Times noted today a curious use of wording by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to describe the United States approach to prospective peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Answering a question in a news conference about the possibility of more peace talks, Clinton stated explicitly what the basis of negotiations should be: “Of course, we believe that the 1967 borders, with swaps, should be the focus of the negotiations over borders.”

As the Times reported, this is not a new concept. This notion was at the heart of previous Israeli offers made first by Ehud Barak and then by Ehud Olmert. But what the Times fails to point out is that the Palestinians have always rejected every possible swap, insisting that every inch of the land illegally occupied by Jordan (in the West Bank and Jerusalem) and Egypt (in Gaza) should be part of a Palestinian state. But as the Times does correctly note:

Mrs. Clinton’s mention of them went farther than the Obama administration’s standard script on the Middle East: that the positions of Israel and the Palestinians can be reconciled. Analysts said it could augur a new American emphasis, after a frustrating year in which President Obama failed to jump-start the peace process by pressuring Israel to halt construction of settlements. In particular, Mrs. Clinton’s reference may appeal to the Palestinians, who have long declared that the 1967 borders should be the basis for negotiations.

So far, the Palestinians have refused to restart talks, despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s offer of negotiations without preconditions. What they want is for the United States to guarantee more Israeli concessions in advance of any talks that would mandate the Jewish state’s surrender of all of this territory, including Jerusalem, without giving up anything in exchange. This is not a basis for a negotiation but a diktat in which Israel will be forced to withdraw from territory that, as the experience of the withdrawal from Gaza showed, would soon be used as a launching pad for terrorist attacks on Jewish targets. That is why there is virtually no support within Israel for more withdrawals under the current circumstances. The American effort to prop up Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah Party at the expense of his Hamas rivals who rule Gaza makes sense in that it is clearly in the interests of both Israel and the United States to undermine Hamas. But the idea that Fatah is any sense ready to make peace, or willing or able to make a deal allowing a single Jew to remain anywhere in the West Bank or in eastern Jerusalem, even if they were given parts of Israel as part of the transaction, is nothing more than a fantasy.

In the last year, the Obama administration’s emphasis on settlement freezes as part of a package of Israeli concessions to lure the Palestinians to the table achieved nothing. Nothing, that is, but to teach the Palestinians that if they keep saying no, they can escalate American pressure on Israel and widen the breach between Netanyahu’s popular coalition and an American government clearly more unsympathetic to Israel than any since the first president Bush.

This sort of pressure is exactly what left-wing groups like the J Street lobby seek as they launch a campaign to further undermine American Jewish support for Israel’s democratically elected government. That may please Obama and Clinton. But it also demonstrates just how disconnected both the administration and its left-wing Jewish cheerleaders are from the realities of the Middle East.

The New York Times noted today a curious use of wording by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to describe the United States approach to prospective peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Answering a question in a news conference about the possibility of more peace talks, Clinton stated explicitly what the basis of negotiations should be: “Of course, we believe that the 1967 borders, with swaps, should be the focus of the negotiations over borders.”

As the Times reported, this is not a new concept. This notion was at the heart of previous Israeli offers made first by Ehud Barak and then by Ehud Olmert. But what the Times fails to point out is that the Palestinians have always rejected every possible swap, insisting that every inch of the land illegally occupied by Jordan (in the West Bank and Jerusalem) and Egypt (in Gaza) should be part of a Palestinian state. But as the Times does correctly note:

Mrs. Clinton’s mention of them went farther than the Obama administration’s standard script on the Middle East: that the positions of Israel and the Palestinians can be reconciled. Analysts said it could augur a new American emphasis, after a frustrating year in which President Obama failed to jump-start the peace process by pressuring Israel to halt construction of settlements. In particular, Mrs. Clinton’s reference may appeal to the Palestinians, who have long declared that the 1967 borders should be the basis for negotiations.

So far, the Palestinians have refused to restart talks, despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s offer of negotiations without preconditions. What they want is for the United States to guarantee more Israeli concessions in advance of any talks that would mandate the Jewish state’s surrender of all of this territory, including Jerusalem, without giving up anything in exchange. This is not a basis for a negotiation but a diktat in which Israel will be forced to withdraw from territory that, as the experience of the withdrawal from Gaza showed, would soon be used as a launching pad for terrorist attacks on Jewish targets. That is why there is virtually no support within Israel for more withdrawals under the current circumstances. The American effort to prop up Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah Party at the expense of his Hamas rivals who rule Gaza makes sense in that it is clearly in the interests of both Israel and the United States to undermine Hamas. But the idea that Fatah is any sense ready to make peace, or willing or able to make a deal allowing a single Jew to remain anywhere in the West Bank or in eastern Jerusalem, even if they were given parts of Israel as part of the transaction, is nothing more than a fantasy.

In the last year, the Obama administration’s emphasis on settlement freezes as part of a package of Israeli concessions to lure the Palestinians to the table achieved nothing. Nothing, that is, but to teach the Palestinians that if they keep saying no, they can escalate American pressure on Israel and widen the breach between Netanyahu’s popular coalition and an American government clearly more unsympathetic to Israel than any since the first president Bush.

This sort of pressure is exactly what left-wing groups like the J Street lobby seek as they launch a campaign to further undermine American Jewish support for Israel’s democratically elected government. That may please Obama and Clinton. But it also demonstrates just how disconnected both the administration and its left-wing Jewish cheerleaders are from the realities of the Middle East.

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False Moral Equivalence and Its Defenders

Jackson Diehl, in a recent posting, wrote about the fact that in his State of the Union address, President Obama failed to mention Israel, the Palestinians, or the Middle East peace process, which was one of his most high-profile diplomatic initiatives during his first year. “For those reading tea leaves,” Diehl wrote, “and there are many in the Middle East — the president has offered a few signs recently that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have moved down his list of priorities.” Diehl thinks that’s a wise idea.

As I argued in a column earlier this month, the history of Israeli-Arab diplomacy clearly shows that only peace efforts that originate with the parties themselves have succeeded. Or, as former secretary of state James A. Baker III once put it, we “can’t want peace more than the parties” themselves. Baker, a master of Middle East diplomacy, once publicly gave Israelis and Palestinians the White House phone number and invited them to call when they were serious about pursuing negotiations. In a more subtle way, Obama may be doing the same thing.

I agree that having the U.S. try to impose a solution is the wrong way to proceed. But where I disagree with Diehl is in his “pox on both your houses” approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. This is an almost reflexive habit among many people in the foreign-policy establishment and the political class. The Israelis and Palestinians are equally to blame for the tension and lack of progress. Both sides have made mistakes. Neither has done all it should. Both are equally culpable. Call us when you’re serious.

This account is not only wrong; it is fanciful. It ignores so many things that bear on this matter, such as the fact that in 2005, Israel did what its critics had been demanding of it: unilaterally return land to the Palestinians. (This is something that no Arab nation has ever done, even when, for example, Jordan occupied and annexed the West Bank and the Gaza Strip was occupied by Egypt.) It came in the form of offering the Palestinians self-rule in Gaza. Israel took this “chance for peace” — and in response it was on the receiving end of thousands of rocket and mortar attacks.

It isn’t the first time. In 2000, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians virtually all the territory they had asked for. He would accept certain districts in East Jerusalem as the capital of a new Palestinian state. And he was willing to grant the so-called “right of return” to 100,000 Palestinians and compensate the rest. In response, Yasir Arafat began a second intifada, one that was bloodier and more violent than the first.

Israel has shown that when it deals with Arab nations that are not committed to its destruction — see Jordan and Egypt — it is prepared to make enormous concessions. In fact, in returning the Sinai Desert to Egypt, Israel returned land three times its size — territory that accounted for more than 90 percent of the land Israel won in the 1967 war of aggression by Arab states. Israel also offered to return all the land it captured during the Six-Day War in exchange for peace and normal relations; that offer was summarily rejected in August 1967, when Arab leaders met in Khartoum and issued their infamous “three no’s” edict: no peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel, and no recognition of Israel.

I’ve written previously about the false equivalence between the actions of Israel and the Palestinians:

It … ignores what Israel is: democratic and lawful, willing to grant rights to its Arab citizens, willing to hold itself accountable for its mistakes, a country of bustling energy, entrepreneurial spirit, and a thriving civil society. Israel is among the most admirable and impressive nations in the world, and that we have ever seen. And all of this despite living in a region that for the most part despises her and in some instances wants to destroy her.

The truth is that the people of Israel ache for peace; they have done as much as any people on earth to secure it. And for anyone to say that we in America want it more than they do is offensive. They cannot do it alone, and for Israel to offer concessions to nations bent on its destruction would be to sign a death warrant.

The Palestinian people have endured enormous suffering and hardship for more than half a century. But that has to do with the fact that other Arab nations have used the Palestinians as pawns in their own malignant games, and with Palestinians leadership, which has never made its inner peace with the Jewish state. That is at the core of this conflict; and until that burning hatred for Israel is finally extinguished, there is simply no chance for lasting peace.

Why this truth is overlooked so often, by so many, is a curious and troubling thing.

Jackson Diehl, in a recent posting, wrote about the fact that in his State of the Union address, President Obama failed to mention Israel, the Palestinians, or the Middle East peace process, which was one of his most high-profile diplomatic initiatives during his first year. “For those reading tea leaves,” Diehl wrote, “and there are many in the Middle East — the president has offered a few signs recently that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have moved down his list of priorities.” Diehl thinks that’s a wise idea.

As I argued in a column earlier this month, the history of Israeli-Arab diplomacy clearly shows that only peace efforts that originate with the parties themselves have succeeded. Or, as former secretary of state James A. Baker III once put it, we “can’t want peace more than the parties” themselves. Baker, a master of Middle East diplomacy, once publicly gave Israelis and Palestinians the White House phone number and invited them to call when they were serious about pursuing negotiations. In a more subtle way, Obama may be doing the same thing.

I agree that having the U.S. try to impose a solution is the wrong way to proceed. But where I disagree with Diehl is in his “pox on both your houses” approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. This is an almost reflexive habit among many people in the foreign-policy establishment and the political class. The Israelis and Palestinians are equally to blame for the tension and lack of progress. Both sides have made mistakes. Neither has done all it should. Both are equally culpable. Call us when you’re serious.

This account is not only wrong; it is fanciful. It ignores so many things that bear on this matter, such as the fact that in 2005, Israel did what its critics had been demanding of it: unilaterally return land to the Palestinians. (This is something that no Arab nation has ever done, even when, for example, Jordan occupied and annexed the West Bank and the Gaza Strip was occupied by Egypt.) It came in the form of offering the Palestinians self-rule in Gaza. Israel took this “chance for peace” — and in response it was on the receiving end of thousands of rocket and mortar attacks.

It isn’t the first time. In 2000, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians virtually all the territory they had asked for. He would accept certain districts in East Jerusalem as the capital of a new Palestinian state. And he was willing to grant the so-called “right of return” to 100,000 Palestinians and compensate the rest. In response, Yasir Arafat began a second intifada, one that was bloodier and more violent than the first.

Israel has shown that when it deals with Arab nations that are not committed to its destruction — see Jordan and Egypt — it is prepared to make enormous concessions. In fact, in returning the Sinai Desert to Egypt, Israel returned land three times its size — territory that accounted for more than 90 percent of the land Israel won in the 1967 war of aggression by Arab states. Israel also offered to return all the land it captured during the Six-Day War in exchange for peace and normal relations; that offer was summarily rejected in August 1967, when Arab leaders met in Khartoum and issued their infamous “three no’s” edict: no peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel, and no recognition of Israel.

I’ve written previously about the false equivalence between the actions of Israel and the Palestinians:

It … ignores what Israel is: democratic and lawful, willing to grant rights to its Arab citizens, willing to hold itself accountable for its mistakes, a country of bustling energy, entrepreneurial spirit, and a thriving civil society. Israel is among the most admirable and impressive nations in the world, and that we have ever seen. And all of this despite living in a region that for the most part despises her and in some instances wants to destroy her.

The truth is that the people of Israel ache for peace; they have done as much as any people on earth to secure it. And for anyone to say that we in America want it more than they do is offensive. They cannot do it alone, and for Israel to offer concessions to nations bent on its destruction would be to sign a death warrant.

The Palestinian people have endured enormous suffering and hardship for more than half a century. But that has to do with the fact that other Arab nations have used the Palestinians as pawns in their own malignant games, and with Palestinians leadership, which has never made its inner peace with the Jewish state. That is at the core of this conflict; and until that burning hatred for Israel is finally extinguished, there is simply no chance for lasting peace.

Why this truth is overlooked so often, by so many, is a curious and troubling thing.

Read Less

The Return of “Defensible Borders”?

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told foreign journalists last week that under any peace agreement, Israel would insist on maintaining a presence along the Palestinian-Jordanian border to thwart arms smuggling, he provoked some predictably negative responses. Writing in the Jerusalem Post this week, for instance, Ben-Gurion University Professor David Newman termed this “a return to a way of thinking … thought to have disappeared over a decade ago.” Claiming that “most generals” no longer consider this necessary, he accused Netanyahu of simply trying “to hammer the nails even more strongly into the coffin of peace.”

In fact, Newman is almost entirely wrong but through no fault of his own — because the one thing he’s right about is that Netanyahu’s statement “reinserted the defensible border concept into public discourse,” whence it had virtually disappeared. And since Israeli premiers stopped talking about it more than a decade ago, how was anyone to know that every prime minister, and the defense establishment, continued to insist on defensible borders in practice?

Two weeks ago, Haaretz’s veteran diplomatic correspondent Aluf Benn detailed the security demands that Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert received from the defense establishment, which Olmert approved, forwarded to then president George Bush, and later asked Bush to pass on to Barack Obama. These demands included “the rights to supervise Palestine’s border crossings, to fly in Palestinian airspace, to regulate radio frequencies and to build hilltop warning stations.”

And Olmert is the prime minister who offered the most far-reaching concessions in Israel’s history, including the equivalent of 100 percent of the West Bank and international Muslim control over the Temple Mount.

Indeed, as Benn noted yesterday, “Netanyahu’s political positions, which call for annexing the major West Bank settlement blocs and maintaining military control over the Jordan Valley, are no different from those of his predecessors, Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak.”

This invites an obvious question: if all Israeli prime ministers agreed that Israel needs defensible borders under any agreement, why did they stop saying so — thereby leading the world, and their own citizens, to assume that this demand had been dropped and that the security issue could thus be easily resolved, whereas in fact, as one veteran negotiator told Benn, it’s the hardest of all, the one on which “the agreement will stand or fall”? Did they assume the world would oppose these demands and want to avoid opening yet another front of international criticism of Israel? Or did they simply consider it irrelevant, given that Israeli-Palestinian disagreements on other issues show no signs of being resolved anytime soon?

Whatever the reason, it was a disastrous negotiating tactic. If Israel is to have any hope of achieving these demands, it cannot spring them as a surprise at the last minute, when an agreement is otherwise at hand; it must state them upfront — clearly, forcefully, and consistently — both to prepare international public opinion and to make it clear that Israel deems this issue critical.

It is therefore encouraging that Netanyahu has finally started reviving the “defensible borders” concept. Now he must ensure that it remains on the public agenda.

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told foreign journalists last week that under any peace agreement, Israel would insist on maintaining a presence along the Palestinian-Jordanian border to thwart arms smuggling, he provoked some predictably negative responses. Writing in the Jerusalem Post this week, for instance, Ben-Gurion University Professor David Newman termed this “a return to a way of thinking … thought to have disappeared over a decade ago.” Claiming that “most generals” no longer consider this necessary, he accused Netanyahu of simply trying “to hammer the nails even more strongly into the coffin of peace.”

In fact, Newman is almost entirely wrong but through no fault of his own — because the one thing he’s right about is that Netanyahu’s statement “reinserted the defensible border concept into public discourse,” whence it had virtually disappeared. And since Israeli premiers stopped talking about it more than a decade ago, how was anyone to know that every prime minister, and the defense establishment, continued to insist on defensible borders in practice?

Two weeks ago, Haaretz’s veteran diplomatic correspondent Aluf Benn detailed the security demands that Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert received from the defense establishment, which Olmert approved, forwarded to then president George Bush, and later asked Bush to pass on to Barack Obama. These demands included “the rights to supervise Palestine’s border crossings, to fly in Palestinian airspace, to regulate radio frequencies and to build hilltop warning stations.”

And Olmert is the prime minister who offered the most far-reaching concessions in Israel’s history, including the equivalent of 100 percent of the West Bank and international Muslim control over the Temple Mount.

Indeed, as Benn noted yesterday, “Netanyahu’s political positions, which call for annexing the major West Bank settlement blocs and maintaining military control over the Jordan Valley, are no different from those of his predecessors, Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak.”

This invites an obvious question: if all Israeli prime ministers agreed that Israel needs defensible borders under any agreement, why did they stop saying so — thereby leading the world, and their own citizens, to assume that this demand had been dropped and that the security issue could thus be easily resolved, whereas in fact, as one veteran negotiator told Benn, it’s the hardest of all, the one on which “the agreement will stand or fall”? Did they assume the world would oppose these demands and want to avoid opening yet another front of international criticism of Israel? Or did they simply consider it irrelevant, given that Israeli-Palestinian disagreements on other issues show no signs of being resolved anytime soon?

Whatever the reason, it was a disastrous negotiating tactic. If Israel is to have any hope of achieving these demands, it cannot spring them as a surprise at the last minute, when an agreement is otherwise at hand; it must state them upfront — clearly, forcefully, and consistently — both to prepare international public opinion and to make it clear that Israel deems this issue critical.

It is therefore encouraging that Netanyahu has finally started reviving the “defensible borders” concept. Now he must ensure that it remains on the public agenda.

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Breaking Israel’s Academic Stranglehold

This week’s recognition of Ariel College as a “university center” — a step toward full-fledged university status — outraged Israel’s academic establishment.

For some, the objection is political: the institution is located in Ariel, a West Bank settlement, so hard-core leftists want it dismantled, not upgraded — though all Israeli governments have sought to retain Ariel under any peace agreement.

But for most, the objection is ostensibly professional: academically, they claim, Ariel is no better than other colleges that haven’t been upgraded; the Council for Higher Education, an independent professional body that oversees Israeli academia, opposes the upgrade; and the final approval was ordered by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, constituting blatant political interference in higher education.

The actual facts are these: because Israel never annexed the West Bank, formal legal authority there lies with the army — specifically, the GOC Central Command — rather than civilian bodies. Thus Ariel isn’t formally subject to the CHE. But since the army clearly can’t oversee universities, a CHE clone, the Council for Higher Education-Judea and Samaria, was created to do the job.

In 2006, a CHE-JS subcommittee recommended the upgrade, and in 2007 the full CHE-JS adopted this recommendation. All six subcommittee members admittedly lean politically right; most leftists wouldn’t serve on the CHE-JS. But as one member of the regular CHE acknowledged, all were also “people of the first rank in research” — including Nobel Prize laureate Robert Aumann, Israel Prize laureate Yuval Ne’eman (the father of Israel’s space program), and Israel Prize laureate Daniel Sperber.

Despite this, the GOC Central Command refused for three years to confirm the decision. Hence, when Barak finally ordered him to do so, he was not overruling the professionals’ decision but upholding it.

As for the CHE’s opposition, that had nothing to do with Ariel’s qualifications: it opposed the upgrade because it saw “no academic need for another university.”

In truth, as researcher Dan Ben-David has documented, Israel desperately needs another university. From 1973 to 2005, Israel’s population doubled, yet the number of senior faculty per capita plunged 50 percent. At its two flagship universities, Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University, the number of researchers fell 14 percent and 21 percent, respectively, while the Technion, Israel’s MIT, added exactly one position. The result is a huge brain drain: fully 25 percent of Israeli academics work overseas, compared to less than 4 percent of European academics.

So what’s the real objection? Money. Israel’s universities are almost wholly state-funded. And while many colleges also receive state funds, universities get much more. Hence a new university would mean a smaller share of the pie for existing ones. And since existing universities control the CHE, they are determined to block newcomers.

But for a country with no natural resources, dependent entirely on its brainpower, a system that prevents new institutions from flourishing is bad news. It is therefore vital to end the CHE’s stranglehold, and in parallel to encourage existing universities to develop nongovernmental funding sources. A school shouldn’t have to be located in the West Bank to obtain recognition as an Israeli university.

This week’s recognition of Ariel College as a “university center” — a step toward full-fledged university status — outraged Israel’s academic establishment.

For some, the objection is political: the institution is located in Ariel, a West Bank settlement, so hard-core leftists want it dismantled, not upgraded — though all Israeli governments have sought to retain Ariel under any peace agreement.

But for most, the objection is ostensibly professional: academically, they claim, Ariel is no better than other colleges that haven’t been upgraded; the Council for Higher Education, an independent professional body that oversees Israeli academia, opposes the upgrade; and the final approval was ordered by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, constituting blatant political interference in higher education.

The actual facts are these: because Israel never annexed the West Bank, formal legal authority there lies with the army — specifically, the GOC Central Command — rather than civilian bodies. Thus Ariel isn’t formally subject to the CHE. But since the army clearly can’t oversee universities, a CHE clone, the Council for Higher Education-Judea and Samaria, was created to do the job.

In 2006, a CHE-JS subcommittee recommended the upgrade, and in 2007 the full CHE-JS adopted this recommendation. All six subcommittee members admittedly lean politically right; most leftists wouldn’t serve on the CHE-JS. But as one member of the regular CHE acknowledged, all were also “people of the first rank in research” — including Nobel Prize laureate Robert Aumann, Israel Prize laureate Yuval Ne’eman (the father of Israel’s space program), and Israel Prize laureate Daniel Sperber.

Despite this, the GOC Central Command refused for three years to confirm the decision. Hence, when Barak finally ordered him to do so, he was not overruling the professionals’ decision but upholding it.

As for the CHE’s opposition, that had nothing to do with Ariel’s qualifications: it opposed the upgrade because it saw “no academic need for another university.”

In truth, as researcher Dan Ben-David has documented, Israel desperately needs another university. From 1973 to 2005, Israel’s population doubled, yet the number of senior faculty per capita plunged 50 percent. At its two flagship universities, Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University, the number of researchers fell 14 percent and 21 percent, respectively, while the Technion, Israel’s MIT, added exactly one position. The result is a huge brain drain: fully 25 percent of Israeli academics work overseas, compared to less than 4 percent of European academics.

So what’s the real objection? Money. Israel’s universities are almost wholly state-funded. And while many colleges also receive state funds, universities get much more. Hence a new university would mean a smaller share of the pie for existing ones. And since existing universities control the CHE, they are determined to block newcomers.

But for a country with no natural resources, dependent entirely on its brainpower, a system that prevents new institutions from flourishing is bad news. It is therefore vital to end the CHE’s stranglehold, and in parallel to encourage existing universities to develop nongovernmental funding sources. A school shouldn’t have to be located in the West Bank to obtain recognition as an Israeli university.

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RE: Abbas Still Says No

The new preconditions for negotiations that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas posed this week are, as Jonathan noted, equivalent to refusing to negotiate until there’s nothing left to negotiate about. If talks cannot even start until the PA is granted every inch of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, that doesn’t leave much to discuss. I also agree that Abbas’s reluctance to talk stems partly from the knowledge that his own public would reject any deal Israel could actually sign.

However, another factor is at play here: refusing to talk has consistently proved a very successful Palestinian tactic. As chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Al-Dustour in June: “At first they told us we would run hospitals and schools, later they were willing to give us 66 percent, at Camp David they reached 90 percent and today they have reached 100 percent. Why then should we hurry?”

Erekat is correct: the offer Ehud Olmert made Abbas last year — to which Abbas never even responded until after Olmert left office, then finally rejected via the media — indeed gave the PA the territorial equivalent of 100 percent (with swaps).

What is noteworthy, however, is that these ever growing Israeli concessions occurred without a single parallel Palestinian concession. In 16 years, Palestinian positions haven’t budged. The PA still insists on resettling 4.7 million descendants of refugees in Israel; it still won’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state; it even rejects a 6 percent territorial swap for the settlement blocs.

In short, these concessions were not obtained through the normal give-and-take of negotiations, in which the parties inch closer by trading concessions. It has been a one-way street.

So how have Palestinians achieved these gains? By refusing to negotiate. Whenever Israel makes an offer, the PA just says “no,” with no counteroffer. Then it waits for the world to pressure Israel into offering something more to “restart the talks.” And Israel complies.

At Camp David in July 2000, for instance, mediator Bill Clinton lambasted Yasir Arafat for refusing to make Ehud Barak a counteroffer. But rather than press him to do so, Clinton proposed his own, far more generous deal in December 2000, offering the Palestinians 94 percent of the territory (compared with Barak’s 88 percent), plus the Temple Mount. Barak, pressured by Washington, agreed; Arafat again said no. Barak then sweetened the offer again at Taba in January 2001.

Abbas’s current tactic is identical: having rejected Olmert’s offer without even a counterproposal, he now seeks to pocket Olmert’s concessions, plus a few more (like eliminating the territorial swaps), and make them the starting point for the next round of non-negotiations.

You can’t blame the Palestinians: any negotiator would rather get something for nothing. As long as they can do so, that’s clearly their best strategy.

But you can blame the U.S. and Europe for letting them get away with it. Until the West stops demanding ever more Israeli concessions to “jump-start talks” and instead starts demanding that the Palestinians give something in exchange, no peace agreement will ever materialize.

The new preconditions for negotiations that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas posed this week are, as Jonathan noted, equivalent to refusing to negotiate until there’s nothing left to negotiate about. If talks cannot even start until the PA is granted every inch of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, that doesn’t leave much to discuss. I also agree that Abbas’s reluctance to talk stems partly from the knowledge that his own public would reject any deal Israel could actually sign.

However, another factor is at play here: refusing to talk has consistently proved a very successful Palestinian tactic. As chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Al-Dustour in June: “At first they told us we would run hospitals and schools, later they were willing to give us 66 percent, at Camp David they reached 90 percent and today they have reached 100 percent. Why then should we hurry?”

Erekat is correct: the offer Ehud Olmert made Abbas last year — to which Abbas never even responded until after Olmert left office, then finally rejected via the media — indeed gave the PA the territorial equivalent of 100 percent (with swaps).

What is noteworthy, however, is that these ever growing Israeli concessions occurred without a single parallel Palestinian concession. In 16 years, Palestinian positions haven’t budged. The PA still insists on resettling 4.7 million descendants of refugees in Israel; it still won’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state; it even rejects a 6 percent territorial swap for the settlement blocs.

In short, these concessions were not obtained through the normal give-and-take of negotiations, in which the parties inch closer by trading concessions. It has been a one-way street.

So how have Palestinians achieved these gains? By refusing to negotiate. Whenever Israel makes an offer, the PA just says “no,” with no counteroffer. Then it waits for the world to pressure Israel into offering something more to “restart the talks.” And Israel complies.

At Camp David in July 2000, for instance, mediator Bill Clinton lambasted Yasir Arafat for refusing to make Ehud Barak a counteroffer. But rather than press him to do so, Clinton proposed his own, far more generous deal in December 2000, offering the Palestinians 94 percent of the territory (compared with Barak’s 88 percent), plus the Temple Mount. Barak, pressured by Washington, agreed; Arafat again said no. Barak then sweetened the offer again at Taba in January 2001.

Abbas’s current tactic is identical: having rejected Olmert’s offer without even a counterproposal, he now seeks to pocket Olmert’s concessions, plus a few more (like eliminating the territorial swaps), and make them the starting point for the next round of non-negotiations.

You can’t blame the Palestinians: any negotiator would rather get something for nothing. As long as they can do so, that’s clearly their best strategy.

But you can blame the U.S. and Europe for letting them get away with it. Until the West stops demanding ever more Israeli concessions to “jump-start talks” and instead starts demanding that the Palestinians give something in exchange, no peace agreement will ever materialize.

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Toward a Saner Policy on Free Speech

Kudos to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak for yesterday’s decision to oust a yeshiva from the hesder program, which combines Torah study with army service, thereby laying down an important principle: the right to say what you please does not include the right to do so on the government’s dime.

The Har Bracha Yeshiva was expelled because its head, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, repeatedly urged his soldier-students to disobey orders to evacuate settlements. Were Melamed a private individual, this would have been unexceptionable. I vehemently oppose such disobedience, because it would undermine the army, on which Israel’s survival depends. But the other side has serious arguments as well — from the importance of obeying one’s conscience to the value of civil disobedience as a way of protesting problematic policies. Hence in principle, Melamed’s position is a legitimate part of the ongoing political debate.

But it ought to be clear that you cannot urge your soldier-students to disobey orders while accepting NIS 700,000 a year — 20 percent of your budget — from the very army you are telling them to disobey. The army need not and should not be funding activities aimed at undermining its ability to function.

Unfortunately, Barak’s decision did not fully establish this principle, as one other yeshiva whose head advocates disobedience remains in the hesder (which includes 61 yeshivas altogether). Indeed, Barak probably wouldn’t have expelled Har Bracha had Melamed not publicly humiliated him by refusing even to meet with him to discuss the issue.

Still, this is the first time a yeshiva has ever been removed from the program. And therefore it sets an important precedent.

What is necessary now is to expand this precedent to other areas of Israeli life. For instance, while it’s legitimate in principle for a professor to advocate boycotting Israel, it is not legitimate to do so while accepting a salary from the very university — and often, the very state — you are asking your overseas colleagues to boycott. How private institutions handle this issue is their business, but most Israeli colleges and universities are state funded. And the state should not be underwriting the paychecks of those who are soliciting others to boycott it.

Similarly, while it’s legitimate for ultra-Orthodox parents to educate their children according to their own beliefs, the state need not and should not finance a curriculum it deems inimical to its long-term health — because that curriculum both preaches eschewing work and army service in favor of full-time Torah study and omits secular subjects necessary to the modern workplace, such as English and math. Yet currently, the state covers up to 75 percent of these schools’ budgets.

For too long, Israel has acted as if the right to free speech includes the right to government financing for your views. Barak’s decision is a first step toward a more rational policy under which people may still say what they please, but the state will no longer finance views it deems inimical. Its importance thus goes far beyond a single yeshiva.

Kudos to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak for yesterday’s decision to oust a yeshiva from the hesder program, which combines Torah study with army service, thereby laying down an important principle: the right to say what you please does not include the right to do so on the government’s dime.

The Har Bracha Yeshiva was expelled because its head, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, repeatedly urged his soldier-students to disobey orders to evacuate settlements. Were Melamed a private individual, this would have been unexceptionable. I vehemently oppose such disobedience, because it would undermine the army, on which Israel’s survival depends. But the other side has serious arguments as well — from the importance of obeying one’s conscience to the value of civil disobedience as a way of protesting problematic policies. Hence in principle, Melamed’s position is a legitimate part of the ongoing political debate.

But it ought to be clear that you cannot urge your soldier-students to disobey orders while accepting NIS 700,000 a year — 20 percent of your budget — from the very army you are telling them to disobey. The army need not and should not be funding activities aimed at undermining its ability to function.

Unfortunately, Barak’s decision did not fully establish this principle, as one other yeshiva whose head advocates disobedience remains in the hesder (which includes 61 yeshivas altogether). Indeed, Barak probably wouldn’t have expelled Har Bracha had Melamed not publicly humiliated him by refusing even to meet with him to discuss the issue.

Still, this is the first time a yeshiva has ever been removed from the program. And therefore it sets an important precedent.

What is necessary now is to expand this precedent to other areas of Israeli life. For instance, while it’s legitimate in principle for a professor to advocate boycotting Israel, it is not legitimate to do so while accepting a salary from the very university — and often, the very state — you are asking your overseas colleagues to boycott. How private institutions handle this issue is their business, but most Israeli colleges and universities are state funded. And the state should not be underwriting the paychecks of those who are soliciting others to boycott it.

Similarly, while it’s legitimate for ultra-Orthodox parents to educate their children according to their own beliefs, the state need not and should not finance a curriculum it deems inimical to its long-term health — because that curriculum both preaches eschewing work and army service in favor of full-time Torah study and omits secular subjects necessary to the modern workplace, such as English and math. Yet currently, the state covers up to 75 percent of these schools’ budgets.

For too long, Israel has acted as if the right to free speech includes the right to government financing for your views. Barak’s decision is a first step toward a more rational policy under which people may still say what they please, but the state will no longer finance views it deems inimical. Its importance thus goes far beyond a single yeshiva.

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Calling a Crime a Crime

It’s a measure of how badly the “peace process” has warped Israel’s language of values that the most intelligent response to Friday’s torching of a mosque near Nablus, allegedly by extremist settlers, came from the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Its secretary general, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, correctly identified the crime as “blatant aggression against the sanctity of sacred places.”

That’s more than Israeli politicians seemed capable of doing. Defense Minister and Labor Party chairman Ehud Barak, for instance, sounded as if the real crime were the potential damage to the peace process. “This is an extremist act geared toward harming the government’s efforts to advance the political process,” he declared. Similarly, opposition leader and Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni condemned it as a “despicable act of provocation” — as if the crime were the response it might provoke.

If the perpetrators were settlers, they probably did intend to undermine the peace process by provoking a violent Palestinian response. But that’s not what made their act criminal. The crime isn’t the impact on the peace process; it’s the wanton destruction of a house of worship.

This perversion of language began when Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres deemed the suicide bombings that followed the 1993 Oslo Accord “crimes against the peace process” and the victims, “sacrifices for peace.” For them, this was a political necessity: If Oslo were seen as producing more anti-Israel terror rather than less, Israelis would turn against Oslo — and its sponsors. Hence they had to paint the attacks not as the same old anti-Israel terror, but as a new form of terror, aimed equally at Israel and its Palestinian partner — i.e., at the peace process itself.

This recasting of the crime led inevitably to the next perversion: the frequent labeling of settlers by leftist politicians and journalists as Israel’s equivalent of Hamas. If Hamas’s crime is mass murder, this comparison is clearly false: Blowing up buses and cafes is not a standard practice of settlers. But if the real crime is opposition to the “peace process,” the comparison becomes plausible: Settlers were trying to stop Oslo. The only difference was their choice of tactics: demonstrations and lobbying rather than violence.

And that is precisely what makes this new language, and the value system it embodies, so warped. If the crime is what you oppose rather than how you choose to oppose it, there is no difference between a peaceful protest and blowing up a bus. So why shouldn’t settler extremists torch a mosque, if they deem that a more effective means of “harming … the political process”? Their very opposition to the process makes them criminals regardless of what tactics they use.

Clearly, most Israelis think no such thing. But language does shape thought. So if they don’t want to raise a generation that indeed sees no difference between peaceful and violent tactics, Israelis need to realign their language with their values. That starts with saying clearly that the crime is torching the mosque — not its impact on the peace process.

It’s a measure of how badly the “peace process” has warped Israel’s language of values that the most intelligent response to Friday’s torching of a mosque near Nablus, allegedly by extremist settlers, came from the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Its secretary general, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, correctly identified the crime as “blatant aggression against the sanctity of sacred places.”

That’s more than Israeli politicians seemed capable of doing. Defense Minister and Labor Party chairman Ehud Barak, for instance, sounded as if the real crime were the potential damage to the peace process. “This is an extremist act geared toward harming the government’s efforts to advance the political process,” he declared. Similarly, opposition leader and Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni condemned it as a “despicable act of provocation” — as if the crime were the response it might provoke.

If the perpetrators were settlers, they probably did intend to undermine the peace process by provoking a violent Palestinian response. But that’s not what made their act criminal. The crime isn’t the impact on the peace process; it’s the wanton destruction of a house of worship.

This perversion of language began when Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres deemed the suicide bombings that followed the 1993 Oslo Accord “crimes against the peace process” and the victims, “sacrifices for peace.” For them, this was a political necessity: If Oslo were seen as producing more anti-Israel terror rather than less, Israelis would turn against Oslo — and its sponsors. Hence they had to paint the attacks not as the same old anti-Israel terror, but as a new form of terror, aimed equally at Israel and its Palestinian partner — i.e., at the peace process itself.

This recasting of the crime led inevitably to the next perversion: the frequent labeling of settlers by leftist politicians and journalists as Israel’s equivalent of Hamas. If Hamas’s crime is mass murder, this comparison is clearly false: Blowing up buses and cafes is not a standard practice of settlers. But if the real crime is opposition to the “peace process,” the comparison becomes plausible: Settlers were trying to stop Oslo. The only difference was their choice of tactics: demonstrations and lobbying rather than violence.

And that is precisely what makes this new language, and the value system it embodies, so warped. If the crime is what you oppose rather than how you choose to oppose it, there is no difference between a peaceful protest and blowing up a bus. So why shouldn’t settler extremists torch a mosque, if they deem that a more effective means of “harming … the political process”? Their very opposition to the process makes them criminals regardless of what tactics they use.

Clearly, most Israelis think no such thing. But language does shape thought. So if they don’t want to raise a generation that indeed sees no difference between peaceful and violent tactics, Israelis need to realign their language with their values. That starts with saying clearly that the crime is torching the mosque — not its impact on the peace process.

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Going, Going . . .

This is really not how prime ministers should behave. According to Haaretz, Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has been handling his interrogations relating to the corruption charges facing him rather poorly: He granted police investigators precisely one hour for the latest questioning, and he did his best to make sure police could get in as few new questions as possible. He starts by launching into an extended tirade against leaks of the details of the investigation. Then he changes his testimony, asking that he re-answer questions from previous rounds. (Especially the part where he denies taking money from Morris Talansky.) According to another report, he also insisted that all his answers be written down, not just audio-recorded. “It was clear Olmert was taking up interrogation time deliberately,” said one source. “He knew well that the detectives asked for only one hour, and he felt he was waging a power struggle.”

In the meantime, Olmert’s Kadima party is already fighting over the spoils of their leader’s demise. Olmert has  promised to quit if indicted, a prospect that seems increasingly likely: Even if they can’t prove a quid pro quo for Talansky’s cash-in-envelopes donations that would be required for a bribery charge to stick, the donations themselves were apparently unreported and therefore in apparent flagrant breach of campaign-finance and money-laundering laws. Ehud Barak, head of the Labor party, Kadima’s main coalition partner, has already told Olmert that either he quits or Labor pulls out, bringing on elections. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, front-runner to replace Olmert, has already started pushing for primaries in the party, to give Kadima a head-start in preparing for elections.

According to inside sources, Olmert himself is stalling, trying to figure out the most graceful way to step down. He could start by behaving himself with the police.

This is really not how prime ministers should behave. According to Haaretz, Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has been handling his interrogations relating to the corruption charges facing him rather poorly: He granted police investigators precisely one hour for the latest questioning, and he did his best to make sure police could get in as few new questions as possible. He starts by launching into an extended tirade against leaks of the details of the investigation. Then he changes his testimony, asking that he re-answer questions from previous rounds. (Especially the part where he denies taking money from Morris Talansky.) According to another report, he also insisted that all his answers be written down, not just audio-recorded. “It was clear Olmert was taking up interrogation time deliberately,” said one source. “He knew well that the detectives asked for only one hour, and he felt he was waging a power struggle.”

In the meantime, Olmert’s Kadima party is already fighting over the spoils of their leader’s demise. Olmert has  promised to quit if indicted, a prospect that seems increasingly likely: Even if they can’t prove a quid pro quo for Talansky’s cash-in-envelopes donations that would be required for a bribery charge to stick, the donations themselves were apparently unreported and therefore in apparent flagrant breach of campaign-finance and money-laundering laws. Ehud Barak, head of the Labor party, Kadima’s main coalition partner, has already told Olmert that either he quits or Labor pulls out, bringing on elections. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, front-runner to replace Olmert, has already started pushing for primaries in the party, to give Kadima a head-start in preparing for elections.

According to inside sources, Olmert himself is stalling, trying to figure out the most graceful way to step down. He could start by behaving himself with the police.

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Bibi Will Be Back

Two polls released today in Israel have confirmed what most observers have long thought — that new elections would bring Bibi Netanyahu and the Likud party back to power. The Haaretz poll has Likud, headed by Netanyahu, winning 29 Knesset seats (more than double the party’s current 12 seats); Kadima, led by Tzipi Livni, winning 23; and Labor, led by Ehud Barak, winning 15. The Ma’ariv poll found roughly the same results, with Likud at 30, Kadima at 25, and Labor at 18.

As a side note, it is entertaining to read Haaretz‘s grudging and opaque story on the poll results. One would think that a poll confirming the dramatic increase in Likud’s popularity would be headlined and would emphasize that information. Instead, the story is slugged, “Poll: Mergers drive away voters, parties better off running alone,” and only in the third paragraph (in the context of a discussion of the electoral prospects of merged parties) does the reader learn that Likud would handily beat Kadima and Labor in an election.

These results are unsurprising. Israeli voters, like their American counterparts, tend to be motivated in times of danger by a very basic consideration: Are my children going to be blown up on a bus? Is a rocket going to crash through my roof? The Likud party in Israel, like the Republican party in America, is seen as being most capable of preventing such tragedies.

Two polls released today in Israel have confirmed what most observers have long thought — that new elections would bring Bibi Netanyahu and the Likud party back to power. The Haaretz poll has Likud, headed by Netanyahu, winning 29 Knesset seats (more than double the party’s current 12 seats); Kadima, led by Tzipi Livni, winning 23; and Labor, led by Ehud Barak, winning 15. The Ma’ariv poll found roughly the same results, with Likud at 30, Kadima at 25, and Labor at 18.

As a side note, it is entertaining to read Haaretz‘s grudging and opaque story on the poll results. One would think that a poll confirming the dramatic increase in Likud’s popularity would be headlined and would emphasize that information. Instead, the story is slugged, “Poll: Mergers drive away voters, parties better off running alone,” and only in the third paragraph (in the context of a discussion of the electoral prospects of merged parties) does the reader learn that Likud would handily beat Kadima and Labor in an election.

These results are unsurprising. Israeli voters, like their American counterparts, tend to be motivated in times of danger by a very basic consideration: Are my children going to be blown up on a bus? Is a rocket going to crash through my roof? The Likud party in Israel, like the Republican party in America, is seen as being most capable of preventing such tragedies.

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Sunset for Olmert

Yesterday saw a dramatic turn in Ehud Olmert’s bribery scandal, as Morris Talansky, the New York businessman at the center of the storm, testified before an Israeli court.

There was some good news here for Olmert. The prosecution questioned the witness for seven hours, during which time he insisted he neither asked nor received anything in return for the $150,000 in cash he gave Olmert over a fifteen-year period. This is plausible: There are many American philanthropists who, acting out of a genuine desire to help the Jewish state, regularly support one Israeli politician or another, and Talansky came across to reporters as motivated by ideology rather than business interests. Olmert’s people immediately began claiming that his testimony proves their side of the story.

But the rest of the story is wildly disgraceful for Olmert, and even if he never sees a prison cell, it is hard to imagine Israelis ever voting again for a party that counts him among its leadership. According to Talansky, in addition to the cash he handed Olmert in envelopes whenever they met, Talansky also covered Olmert’s intensely decadent lifestyle, such as flying first-class rather than business, a $30,000 vacation to Italy, or $4,700 for a single night at the Ritz Carlton in Washington. Such expenses may seem unremarkable in certain high-flying American circles, but for an Israeli public servant they are outrageous, an utter humiliation for Olmert.

And then there is the odd matter of an additional $380,000 which was apparently wired from Talansky’s own Israeli-based companies directly to Olmert’s assistant. It is very difficult to prove bribery in cases like these, since very often payment comes well before the favor is returned, and the quid pro quo is by implicit agreement rather than anything traceable in an email. Yet this is one of the main reasons that campaign finance is so heavily guarded, and why giving thousands of dollars in cash to politicians is regarded as highly problematic. Whatever Olmert’s legal case, it really looks like his political career is heading to its end.

This end may come sooner than it takes for the wheels of justice to do their work. Today’s Jerusalem Post tells us that Ehud Barak, head of Olmert’s main coalition partner, the Labor Party, is expected to hand Olmert an ultimatum: You quit, or we’re out. Which means either that Olmert’s own party will have the good sense to sack him, or we are going to elections.

Yesterday saw a dramatic turn in Ehud Olmert’s bribery scandal, as Morris Talansky, the New York businessman at the center of the storm, testified before an Israeli court.

There was some good news here for Olmert. The prosecution questioned the witness for seven hours, during which time he insisted he neither asked nor received anything in return for the $150,000 in cash he gave Olmert over a fifteen-year period. This is plausible: There are many American philanthropists who, acting out of a genuine desire to help the Jewish state, regularly support one Israeli politician or another, and Talansky came across to reporters as motivated by ideology rather than business interests. Olmert’s people immediately began claiming that his testimony proves their side of the story.

But the rest of the story is wildly disgraceful for Olmert, and even if he never sees a prison cell, it is hard to imagine Israelis ever voting again for a party that counts him among its leadership. According to Talansky, in addition to the cash he handed Olmert in envelopes whenever they met, Talansky also covered Olmert’s intensely decadent lifestyle, such as flying first-class rather than business, a $30,000 vacation to Italy, or $4,700 for a single night at the Ritz Carlton in Washington. Such expenses may seem unremarkable in certain high-flying American circles, but for an Israeli public servant they are outrageous, an utter humiliation for Olmert.

And then there is the odd matter of an additional $380,000 which was apparently wired from Talansky’s own Israeli-based companies directly to Olmert’s assistant. It is very difficult to prove bribery in cases like these, since very often payment comes well before the favor is returned, and the quid pro quo is by implicit agreement rather than anything traceable in an email. Yet this is one of the main reasons that campaign finance is so heavily guarded, and why giving thousands of dollars in cash to politicians is regarded as highly problematic. Whatever Olmert’s legal case, it really looks like his political career is heading to its end.

This end may come sooner than it takes for the wheels of justice to do their work. Today’s Jerusalem Post tells us that Ehud Barak, head of Olmert’s main coalition partner, the Labor Party, is expected to hand Olmert an ultimatum: You quit, or we’re out. Which means either that Olmert’s own party will have the good sense to sack him, or we are going to elections.

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A Talk in Tehran

The Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reports that two organizations at Tehran University will host a May 26th conference on “Israel’s End” in order to coincide with “the sad 60th anniversary of Palestine’s occupation by the Zionists.”

Here’s the IRNA:

The guests of the conference that would be attended by Iranian and foreign students of universities in Tehran will be intellectuals and university professors from Egypt, Venezuela, Morocco, Lebanon, Indonesia, the United States, Pakistan, Argentina, India, Iraq, Syria, Chile, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, France, Tunisia, and a number of other countries.

In March, the Justice-Seeking Student Movement, one of groups organizing the upcoming confab, offered a bounty of more than $1 million for the assassination of Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Mossad director Meir Dagan, and military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin.

What kind of student activist group has a cool million laying around in a mercenary fund? The kind under the guidance of the “Council for Spreading Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Thoughts.” Yes, that is a real, government-organized council. And yes, the Justice-Seeking Student Movement is under their direct influence. So, the May 26th international conference on the liquidation of Israel is, in its turn, an Ahmadinejad-sponsored event. It’s hard to say whether or not IRNA’s claim of U.S. attendees is genuine–but there’s little reason to doubt that some American academics would jump at this golden opportunity.

The Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reports that two organizations at Tehran University will host a May 26th conference on “Israel’s End” in order to coincide with “the sad 60th anniversary of Palestine’s occupation by the Zionists.”

Here’s the IRNA:

The guests of the conference that would be attended by Iranian and foreign students of universities in Tehran will be intellectuals and university professors from Egypt, Venezuela, Morocco, Lebanon, Indonesia, the United States, Pakistan, Argentina, India, Iraq, Syria, Chile, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, France, Tunisia, and a number of other countries.

In March, the Justice-Seeking Student Movement, one of groups organizing the upcoming confab, offered a bounty of more than $1 million for the assassination of Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Mossad director Meir Dagan, and military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin.

What kind of student activist group has a cool million laying around in a mercenary fund? The kind under the guidance of the “Council for Spreading Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Thoughts.” Yes, that is a real, government-organized council. And yes, the Justice-Seeking Student Movement is under their direct influence. So, the May 26th international conference on the liquidation of Israel is, in its turn, an Ahmadinejad-sponsored event. It’s hard to say whether or not IRNA’s claim of U.S. attendees is genuine–but there’s little reason to doubt that some American academics would jump at this golden opportunity.

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Israel’s Goldberg Problem

I have a fair amount of respect for Jeffrey Goldberg, now of the Atlantic, who has done some first-rate reporting on the Middle East. So I was all the more shocked at the slippery reasoning of his New York Times op-ed: “Israel’s ‘American Problem.’” He argues that it is imperative for Israel’s long-term safety

to create conditions on the West Bank that would allow for the birth of a moderate Palestinian state. Most American Jewish leaders are opposed, not without reason, to negotiations with Hamas, but if the moderates aren’t strengthened, Hamas will be the only party left. And the best way to bring about the birth of a Palestinian state is to reverse – not merely halt, but reverse – the West Bank settlement project. The dismantling of settlements is the one step that would buttress the dwindling band of Palestinian moderates in their struggle against the fundamentalists of Hamas.

So not only is it imperative for Israel to make concessions in the West Bank to the Palestinians–regardless, it seems, of whether they make concessions in response–but, he goes on to argue, it imperative for America to have a president “who prods the Jewish state” in that direction “publicly, continuously, and vociferously.” And why won’t America’s current president prod Israel in that direction? According to Goldberg,

[t]he leadership of the organized American Jewish community has allowed the partisans of settlement to conflate support for the colonization of the West Bank with support for Israel itself.

Although he goes on to criticize the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis that this nefarious “Lobby” holds hostage American policy toward Israel, Goldberg concedes most of their substantive case. Which is crazy, because nearly every strand of his argument is deeply flawed.

How can he argue with a straight face that more territorial concessions on Israel’s part will “buttress” Palestinian moderates when we’ve seen just the opposite happen in the recent past? Israel unilaterally evacuated southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, in the latter case dismantling settlements as Goldberg urged. (I was in favor of this move, too.) The result, as we all know now, was to empower Hezbollah and Hamas–not the “moderates.” Why Goldberg thinks the result of a West Bank pullout would be any different is not readily apparent from his Times essay.

In fact, it is the failure of past concessions to win peace from the Palestinians that makes Israel wary today of further concessions in the West Bank. The influence of the American pro-Israel lobby has little or nothing to do with it. The lobby, after all, was just as powerful in 2000 as it is today. Yet then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak was willing to concede more than 95 percent of the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians. And, lobby or no lobby, President Clinton was happy to prod Israel “publicly, continuously and vociferously” in that direction.

No doubt the prime minister of Israel will be willing to make such concessions again at some point–with the full support of America’s President–if it appears that the Palestinians are serious about peaceful co-existence. That isn’t the case today. It is, therefore, positively perverse to blame the current impasse in the Middle East “peace process” not on Palestinian terrorists but on the leaders of American Jewish organizations.

I have a fair amount of respect for Jeffrey Goldberg, now of the Atlantic, who has done some first-rate reporting on the Middle East. So I was all the more shocked at the slippery reasoning of his New York Times op-ed: “Israel’s ‘American Problem.’” He argues that it is imperative for Israel’s long-term safety

to create conditions on the West Bank that would allow for the birth of a moderate Palestinian state. Most American Jewish leaders are opposed, not without reason, to negotiations with Hamas, but if the moderates aren’t strengthened, Hamas will be the only party left. And the best way to bring about the birth of a Palestinian state is to reverse – not merely halt, but reverse – the West Bank settlement project. The dismantling of settlements is the one step that would buttress the dwindling band of Palestinian moderates in their struggle against the fundamentalists of Hamas.

So not only is it imperative for Israel to make concessions in the West Bank to the Palestinians–regardless, it seems, of whether they make concessions in response–but, he goes on to argue, it imperative for America to have a president “who prods the Jewish state” in that direction “publicly, continuously, and vociferously.” And why won’t America’s current president prod Israel in that direction? According to Goldberg,

[t]he leadership of the organized American Jewish community has allowed the partisans of settlement to conflate support for the colonization of the West Bank with support for Israel itself.

Although he goes on to criticize the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis that this nefarious “Lobby” holds hostage American policy toward Israel, Goldberg concedes most of their substantive case. Which is crazy, because nearly every strand of his argument is deeply flawed.

How can he argue with a straight face that more territorial concessions on Israel’s part will “buttress” Palestinian moderates when we’ve seen just the opposite happen in the recent past? Israel unilaterally evacuated southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, in the latter case dismantling settlements as Goldberg urged. (I was in favor of this move, too.) The result, as we all know now, was to empower Hezbollah and Hamas–not the “moderates.” Why Goldberg thinks the result of a West Bank pullout would be any different is not readily apparent from his Times essay.

In fact, it is the failure of past concessions to win peace from the Palestinians that makes Israel wary today of further concessions in the West Bank. The influence of the American pro-Israel lobby has little or nothing to do with it. The lobby, after all, was just as powerful in 2000 as it is today. Yet then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak was willing to concede more than 95 percent of the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians. And, lobby or no lobby, President Clinton was happy to prod Israel “publicly, continuously and vociferously” in that direction.

No doubt the prime minister of Israel will be willing to make such concessions again at some point–with the full support of America’s President–if it appears that the Palestinians are serious about peaceful co-existence. That isn’t the case today. It is, therefore, positively perverse to blame the current impasse in the Middle East “peace process” not on Palestinian terrorists but on the leaders of American Jewish organizations.

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Israel at 60

Today is Israel’s independence day, and the country has taken two days off from everything–the war, the corruption, the politics–to celebrate six decades of Jewish sovereignty. The unofficial theme this year, I believe, is “warts and all”: Yes, we haven’t yet found a way either to defeat our enemies or make peace with them. Yes, we elected a President who appears to have been a thoroughbred sleazeball, and our Prime Minister is now in the thick of his fifth criminal investigation. But hey, we’re alive, our economy is very strong, our democracy works, and even if we don’t know where we’re going, we’re still standing, and that’s a lot given what’s happening around us.

The unlikely hero of the hour is Shimon Peres. After a career of political opportunism and ideological naivete culminating in the somewhat delusional and not-entirely-uncatastrophic Oslo Accords, Peres has emerged as the elder statesman, the last remaining leader from the founding generation, a dignified President who has served as a much-needed corrective to Moshe Katzav, who is about to be put on trial for rape. Peres has managed to stay out of controversy and represent the nation, both as a Zionist and as a man who understands the weight of his largely-symbolic post. His speech to the nation on Remembrance Day Tuesday night, honoring the fallen soldiers of Israel’s wars, was not merely uniting, it was deeply moving.

No-one could be further from Peres than Ehud Olmert. For a week his political life has been put entirely on hold, as a sudden and intense new criminal investigation has opened up, so serious that the police have slapped a far-reaching gag order on the whole thing. You won’t find details in the Israeli press, though the New York Post broke it open on Tuesday, with the New York Times following yesterday. If the rumors are true, then there is a good chance he’s finished as Prime Minister. Either a new coalition will emerge with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni taking Olmert’s place, or we will head to elections. The choice will be mostly in the hands of Labor party leader Ehud Barak. My bet is that he takes his chances on elections. I can hear Netanyahu’s engines revving.

Today is Israel’s independence day, and the country has taken two days off from everything–the war, the corruption, the politics–to celebrate six decades of Jewish sovereignty. The unofficial theme this year, I believe, is “warts and all”: Yes, we haven’t yet found a way either to defeat our enemies or make peace with them. Yes, we elected a President who appears to have been a thoroughbred sleazeball, and our Prime Minister is now in the thick of his fifth criminal investigation. But hey, we’re alive, our economy is very strong, our democracy works, and even if we don’t know where we’re going, we’re still standing, and that’s a lot given what’s happening around us.

The unlikely hero of the hour is Shimon Peres. After a career of political opportunism and ideological naivete culminating in the somewhat delusional and not-entirely-uncatastrophic Oslo Accords, Peres has emerged as the elder statesman, the last remaining leader from the founding generation, a dignified President who has served as a much-needed corrective to Moshe Katzav, who is about to be put on trial for rape. Peres has managed to stay out of controversy and represent the nation, both as a Zionist and as a man who understands the weight of his largely-symbolic post. His speech to the nation on Remembrance Day Tuesday night, honoring the fallen soldiers of Israel’s wars, was not merely uniting, it was deeply moving.

No-one could be further from Peres than Ehud Olmert. For a week his political life has been put entirely on hold, as a sudden and intense new criminal investigation has opened up, so serious that the police have slapped a far-reaching gag order on the whole thing. You won’t find details in the Israeli press, though the New York Post broke it open on Tuesday, with the New York Times following yesterday. If the rumors are true, then there is a good chance he’s finished as Prime Minister. Either a new coalition will emerge with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni taking Olmert’s place, or we will head to elections. The choice will be mostly in the hands of Labor party leader Ehud Barak. My bet is that he takes his chances on elections. I can hear Netanyahu’s engines revving.

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Re: Seven Years Later

Noah Pollak writes that Israel seems finally to be implementing the Bush Doctrine: Jerusalem allegedly has warned Damascus that it will be held accountable for Hezbollah attacks on Israel’s northern border. I hope he’s right, but I remain skeptical.

After all, when Ehud Barak (then prime minister, now defense minister) withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, he issued similar warnings that Syria would be held accountable for any further aggression. Well, Hezbollah’s aggression continued and in 2006 Israel fought an inconclusive war against that terrorist group, ignoring the suggestions of some commentators (including yours truly) that it should expand the conflict to Syria.

Is there any reason to think that the current government-led by the same prime minister (Ehud Olmert) who so conspicuously mishandled the Hezbollah war-will be more far-sighted in the future? I wouldn’t bet on it.

A fundamental problem here is that, while Israel believes in retaliation and deterrence, it doesn’t by and large believe in another aspect of the Bush Doctrine-regime change. Most Israelis are deeply cynical (not without reason) about the prospects of positive political change in the Arab world. Their attitude is: Better the devil you know. In Syria, the devil in question is Bashar Assad and, all things considered, Israelis prefer keeping him in power.

I’m not sure this attitude makes much sense, since Assad is already an avowed enemy of Israel who is actively helping anti-Israeli terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. To the extent that his aggression is restrained-he is not, for example, firing missiles from Syria into Israeli cities-it is not because he is a nice guy but because he is deterred by the threat of Israeli retaliation. Presumably that same threat would function against any future Syrian regime, even if it is led by Islamists.

But Israelis, at least those who run the government, are comfortable dealing with traditional Arab strongmen and can point to the rise of Hamas in Gaza as evidence of the dangers of democracy. In point of fact, Hamas’s rise is actually the price that Israel pays for supporting an autocrat–Yasser Arafat–for so long on the theory that he would do Israel’s dirty work by suppressing Palestinian militants. Instead, Arafat nurtured a climate in which shahids (martyrs) were glorified, the Jewish state was reviled, and moderate political figures were intimidated into silence, jailed, exiled, or killed. The corruption and ineffectiveness of his administration eventually turned most Palestinians to an even more radical alternative.

But just about the only prominent Israeli who believes in supporting Arab democrats is Natan Sharansky, and he is not in government any more. That’s why it is so ironic that American “neoconservatives”–who champion the promotion of democracy–are derided in some quarters as practically Mossad agents. In fact, the Mossad, and other organs of Israeli government, while happy to rub out terrorist kingpins, are not interested in toppling state sponsors of terror.

Noah Pollak writes that Israel seems finally to be implementing the Bush Doctrine: Jerusalem allegedly has warned Damascus that it will be held accountable for Hezbollah attacks on Israel’s northern border. I hope he’s right, but I remain skeptical.

After all, when Ehud Barak (then prime minister, now defense minister) withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, he issued similar warnings that Syria would be held accountable for any further aggression. Well, Hezbollah’s aggression continued and in 2006 Israel fought an inconclusive war against that terrorist group, ignoring the suggestions of some commentators (including yours truly) that it should expand the conflict to Syria.

Is there any reason to think that the current government-led by the same prime minister (Ehud Olmert) who so conspicuously mishandled the Hezbollah war-will be more far-sighted in the future? I wouldn’t bet on it.

A fundamental problem here is that, while Israel believes in retaliation and deterrence, it doesn’t by and large believe in another aspect of the Bush Doctrine-regime change. Most Israelis are deeply cynical (not without reason) about the prospects of positive political change in the Arab world. Their attitude is: Better the devil you know. In Syria, the devil in question is Bashar Assad and, all things considered, Israelis prefer keeping him in power.

I’m not sure this attitude makes much sense, since Assad is already an avowed enemy of Israel who is actively helping anti-Israeli terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. To the extent that his aggression is restrained-he is not, for example, firing missiles from Syria into Israeli cities-it is not because he is a nice guy but because he is deterred by the threat of Israeli retaliation. Presumably that same threat would function against any future Syrian regime, even if it is led by Islamists.

But Israelis, at least those who run the government, are comfortable dealing with traditional Arab strongmen and can point to the rise of Hamas in Gaza as evidence of the dangers of democracy. In point of fact, Hamas’s rise is actually the price that Israel pays for supporting an autocrat–Yasser Arafat–for so long on the theory that he would do Israel’s dirty work by suppressing Palestinian militants. Instead, Arafat nurtured a climate in which shahids (martyrs) were glorified, the Jewish state was reviled, and moderate political figures were intimidated into silence, jailed, exiled, or killed. The corruption and ineffectiveness of his administration eventually turned most Palestinians to an even more radical alternative.

But just about the only prominent Israeli who believes in supporting Arab democrats is Natan Sharansky, and he is not in government any more. That’s why it is so ironic that American “neoconservatives”–who champion the promotion of democracy–are derided in some quarters as practically Mossad agents. In fact, the Mossad, and other organs of Israeli government, while happy to rub out terrorist kingpins, are not interested in toppling state sponsors of terror.

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Look Who’s Talking

Michael Ledeen offers a rejoinder to one of the sillier promises Barack Obama makes about his approach to Iran and Syria:

We have been talking to Iran virtually non-stop for nearly 30 years. This most definitely includes the Bush administration, which has used open and back channels, including dispatching former Spanish President Felipe Gonzales to Tehran on our behalf. You can judge the results for yourself.

Let’s try it again: We have been talking to Iran. We are talking to Iran right now. The proposal that we talk to Iran is neither new nor does it represent any change in American policy. There is apparently a great desire to deny the facts in this matter.

It is also true that we have been talking to Syria. Well, maybe if we talked more earnestly? And at a higher level of representation? That’s exactly what has distinguished our engagement with Syria from that with Iran. And it hasn’t mattered.

The big push started immediately following the first Gulf War, with James Baker in Damascus promising Hafez Assad the return of the Golan plus an American security guarantee of the border if he would only submit himself to the peace process. Assad, after a great deal of drawn-out, exasperating back-and-forth, finally told Baker to take a hike. Clinton went even further, holding, among other parleys, an eight-day summit in Shepardstown, West Virginia, with then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and a Syrian delegation headed by the Foreign Minister, and later a one-on-one meeting in Geneva at which Assad brazenly betrayed the terms of a deal to which he had previously agreed.

The Syrian modus operandi both for Hafez and Bashar has been the same: talk and bargain, but give nothing and in the end agree to nothing. This has been the pattern whether the subject of the talks has been Hezbollah, Lebanon, Syrian support for the insurgency in Iraq, or peace with Israel. The latest western leader to get suckered is Nicolas Sarkozy, who this December grew so frustrated trying to negotiate an end to the Lebanese presidential impasse that he declared to the press, “I have reached the end of the road with Assad.”

Obama appears to either not know these details, or thinks that nobody will notice the utter falsity of his claim that we haven’t been “talking to our enemies.” There is thus a Grand Canyon-sized opening for McCain to pummel Obama on the foolishness of this particular trope — an attack that would perfectly complement the wider charge that Obama seems proudly intent on sending the United States wandering naively into the Middle Eastern bazaar.

Michael Ledeen offers a rejoinder to one of the sillier promises Barack Obama makes about his approach to Iran and Syria:

We have been talking to Iran virtually non-stop for nearly 30 years. This most definitely includes the Bush administration, which has used open and back channels, including dispatching former Spanish President Felipe Gonzales to Tehran on our behalf. You can judge the results for yourself.

Let’s try it again: We have been talking to Iran. We are talking to Iran right now. The proposal that we talk to Iran is neither new nor does it represent any change in American policy. There is apparently a great desire to deny the facts in this matter.

It is also true that we have been talking to Syria. Well, maybe if we talked more earnestly? And at a higher level of representation? That’s exactly what has distinguished our engagement with Syria from that with Iran. And it hasn’t mattered.

The big push started immediately following the first Gulf War, with James Baker in Damascus promising Hafez Assad the return of the Golan plus an American security guarantee of the border if he would only submit himself to the peace process. Assad, after a great deal of drawn-out, exasperating back-and-forth, finally told Baker to take a hike. Clinton went even further, holding, among other parleys, an eight-day summit in Shepardstown, West Virginia, with then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and a Syrian delegation headed by the Foreign Minister, and later a one-on-one meeting in Geneva at which Assad brazenly betrayed the terms of a deal to which he had previously agreed.

The Syrian modus operandi both for Hafez and Bashar has been the same: talk and bargain, but give nothing and in the end agree to nothing. This has been the pattern whether the subject of the talks has been Hezbollah, Lebanon, Syrian support for the insurgency in Iraq, or peace with Israel. The latest western leader to get suckered is Nicolas Sarkozy, who this December grew so frustrated trying to negotiate an end to the Lebanese presidential impasse that he declared to the press, “I have reached the end of the road with Assad.”

Obama appears to either not know these details, or thinks that nobody will notice the utter falsity of his claim that we haven’t been “talking to our enemies.” There is thus a Grand Canyon-sized opening for McCain to pummel Obama on the foolishness of this particular trope — an attack that would perfectly complement the wider charge that Obama seems proudly intent on sending the United States wandering naively into the Middle Eastern bazaar.

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Israel Gets It Right

When Israel sealed Gaza in response to continued Qassam rocket assaults last month, I argued that Ehud Olmert’s government had run out of ideas. After all, the move represented a sharp break from Israel’s historic policy of narrowly focusing its counterterrorism operations on the terrorists, subjecting Gaza’s entire population to shortages while raising international ire. Indeed, it was hardly surprising when Israel reversed its policy within twenty-four hours, with supplies-filled trucks entering Gaza as international pressure mounted.

But today, Israel announced a new and improved strategy for countering the rockets—one that will directly pressure Hamas in two key ways. First, by declaring a campaign of targeted assassinations against Hamas leaders, Israel demonstrated its willingness to take politically severe—yet militarily surgical—measures to stop the attacks. Second, with Defense Minister Ehud Barak announcing preparations for a major ground offensive in Gaza if the rockets continue, Israel threatened a devastating escalation should Hamas fail to act. The ball is now in Hamas’ court: it can draw back its rocket launchers to end the standoff, or continue its aggression and suffer the mounting consequences.

There are a number of reasons to be optimistic regarding this approach. For starters, Hamas’ leadership appears to be taking the threat of assassination quite seriously, with Ismail Haniyeh, Mahmoud al-Zahar, and Said Siam going into hiding. This significantly hampers Hamas’ decision-making, forcing its leaders to focus on personal safety rather than building a response strategy. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s skittishness regarding a ground offensive in Gaza might give Hamas realistic hope that it can avoid an escalation by scaling back its rocket attacks.

Still, for this strategy to hold, Hamas’ Gaza leadership must see itself with few strategic alternatives to ending its attacks. Egypt will be essential to creating this environment, and Israel should accept the U.S. proposal for Egypt to add an additional 750 soldiers to its border force. Since the border was first breached two weeks ago, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit has threatened to “break the legs” of future infiltrators. Israel could benefit by testing Egyptian sincerity, agreeing to the force escalation while holding Egypt accountable for future failures.

Moreover, for this strategy to succeed, Israel must remain focused on its short-term goal: ending the rocket attacks, which claimed the leg of an 8-year-old boy yesterday. In this vein, Tzachi Hanegbi’s call to topple Hamas sets the bar for success impossibly high, and threatens to undermine any strategic objectives that Israel may achieve through this new course. As Israel should have learned in Lebanon, matching strategy to reasonable expectations is critical to asserting a political victory in the aftermath of military operations. Indeed, if Israel hopes to rally Palestinians against Hamas, a political victory presents greater long-term implications than any realistic military achievement.

When Israel sealed Gaza in response to continued Qassam rocket assaults last month, I argued that Ehud Olmert’s government had run out of ideas. After all, the move represented a sharp break from Israel’s historic policy of narrowly focusing its counterterrorism operations on the terrorists, subjecting Gaza’s entire population to shortages while raising international ire. Indeed, it was hardly surprising when Israel reversed its policy within twenty-four hours, with supplies-filled trucks entering Gaza as international pressure mounted.

But today, Israel announced a new and improved strategy for countering the rockets—one that will directly pressure Hamas in two key ways. First, by declaring a campaign of targeted assassinations against Hamas leaders, Israel demonstrated its willingness to take politically severe—yet militarily surgical—measures to stop the attacks. Second, with Defense Minister Ehud Barak announcing preparations for a major ground offensive in Gaza if the rockets continue, Israel threatened a devastating escalation should Hamas fail to act. The ball is now in Hamas’ court: it can draw back its rocket launchers to end the standoff, or continue its aggression and suffer the mounting consequences.

There are a number of reasons to be optimistic regarding this approach. For starters, Hamas’ leadership appears to be taking the threat of assassination quite seriously, with Ismail Haniyeh, Mahmoud al-Zahar, and Said Siam going into hiding. This significantly hampers Hamas’ decision-making, forcing its leaders to focus on personal safety rather than building a response strategy. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s skittishness regarding a ground offensive in Gaza might give Hamas realistic hope that it can avoid an escalation by scaling back its rocket attacks.

Still, for this strategy to hold, Hamas’ Gaza leadership must see itself with few strategic alternatives to ending its attacks. Egypt will be essential to creating this environment, and Israel should accept the U.S. proposal for Egypt to add an additional 750 soldiers to its border force. Since the border was first breached two weeks ago, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit has threatened to “break the legs” of future infiltrators. Israel could benefit by testing Egyptian sincerity, agreeing to the force escalation while holding Egypt accountable for future failures.

Moreover, for this strategy to succeed, Israel must remain focused on its short-term goal: ending the rocket attacks, which claimed the leg of an 8-year-old boy yesterday. In this vein, Tzachi Hanegbi’s call to topple Hamas sets the bar for success impossibly high, and threatens to undermine any strategic objectives that Israel may achieve through this new course. As Israel should have learned in Lebanon, matching strategy to reasonable expectations is critical to asserting a political victory in the aftermath of military operations. Indeed, if Israel hopes to rally Palestinians against Hamas, a political victory presents greater long-term implications than any realistic military achievement.

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Israel to Elections?

So, against my predictions, the Winograd Commission report came and went, and Ehud Olmert’s government weathered the storm, right? Not so fast. It is true that, to everyone’s astonishment, the report essentially gave Olmert a much-needed bye, and his biggest coalition partner, Ehud Barak of the Labor party, announced he is not resigning for now. But last week Israel was awash in scandal, when a member of the esteemed commission, Yehezkel Dror, implied in an interview that the commission’s findings were skewed towards protecting Olmert’s government for political reasons. As he put it, “If we believe that the prime minister could promote the peace process, this is quite a lofty consideration. If the peace process succeeds, this could save so many lives, and therefore this is a substantial consideration.” If the message were not clear enough, Dror added the following: “What would you prefer? A government under Olmert and Barak, or new elections that would see Bibi [Netanyahu] rise to power?” Subtle.

But the most important news comes from a third party in the coalition, Shas, which holds twelve seats and can bring down the government on its own. Thursday, the head of the party, Eli Yishai, told his supporters that “I don’t know how long this government will last. I estimate that soon we will have elections.” According to radio reports, Yishai also instructed his party’s local branches to begin preparations for elections this coming November — a year and a half earlier than scheduled. Ehud Barak has also hinted that he is leaning towards early elections.

There are good reasons to think that this is not just posturing. True, historically speaking Shas is one of the least likely parties to bring down a government — its main goal in life is to secure maximum government funding for its religious schools, and being in opposition is not very good for that. But today Olmert’s government is deeply unpopular, reeking of both corruption and incompetence. In such a case, parties that cling to the government do so at their peril: As soon as one party seriously considers bolting under popular pressure, the other stands to be left clinging to a sinking ship — and voters will punish those who didn’t leave when they had the chance. The result is that contrary to ordinary politics, where parties hold on to power as long as they can, prophecies of a falling government are often self-fulfilling, as each party jockeys for the best advantage in the next election. Stay tuned.

So, against my predictions, the Winograd Commission report came and went, and Ehud Olmert’s government weathered the storm, right? Not so fast. It is true that, to everyone’s astonishment, the report essentially gave Olmert a much-needed bye, and his biggest coalition partner, Ehud Barak of the Labor party, announced he is not resigning for now. But last week Israel was awash in scandal, when a member of the esteemed commission, Yehezkel Dror, implied in an interview that the commission’s findings were skewed towards protecting Olmert’s government for political reasons. As he put it, “If we believe that the prime minister could promote the peace process, this is quite a lofty consideration. If the peace process succeeds, this could save so many lives, and therefore this is a substantial consideration.” If the message were not clear enough, Dror added the following: “What would you prefer? A government under Olmert and Barak, or new elections that would see Bibi [Netanyahu] rise to power?” Subtle.

But the most important news comes from a third party in the coalition, Shas, which holds twelve seats and can bring down the government on its own. Thursday, the head of the party, Eli Yishai, told his supporters that “I don’t know how long this government will last. I estimate that soon we will have elections.” According to radio reports, Yishai also instructed his party’s local branches to begin preparations for elections this coming November — a year and a half earlier than scheduled. Ehud Barak has also hinted that he is leaning towards early elections.

There are good reasons to think that this is not just posturing. True, historically speaking Shas is one of the least likely parties to bring down a government — its main goal in life is to secure maximum government funding for its religious schools, and being in opposition is not very good for that. But today Olmert’s government is deeply unpopular, reeking of both corruption and incompetence. In such a case, parties that cling to the government do so at their peril: As soon as one party seriously considers bolting under popular pressure, the other stands to be left clinging to a sinking ship — and voters will punish those who didn’t leave when they had the chance. The result is that contrary to ordinary politics, where parties hold on to power as long as they can, prophecies of a falling government are often self-fulfilling, as each party jockeys for the best advantage in the next election. Stay tuned.

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