Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ehud Olmert

They Haven’t Learned the Lesson

Last week, I wrote that American, European, and Arab success in pressuring the Palestinians to resume negotiations could prove a turnabout in the peace process, if the world learned the lesson and began pressing the Palestinians for necessary concessions on substantive issues. But based on its response to last week’s announcement of new construction in Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, the world clearly hasn’t learned the lesson.

All the parties concerned were understandably upset by the announcement’s timing: just as proximity talks were about to begin, and while Vice President Joe Biden was in the region. But substantively, the new construction makes absolutely no difference to the prospects of an agreement — because any agreement would unquestionably leave this neighborhood in Israel’s hands.

Ramat Shlomo already has more than 20,000 residents — far too big to be uprooted even without the planned 1,600 new houses. It is also, as Rick noted, of considerable strategic importance, dominating all of Jerusalem’s major roads; thus Israel would insist on retaining it, even if not a single Jew lived there. Finally, its location in no way precludes the division of Jerusalem, which is what both Washington and Europe claim to want: situated in the corner formed by two other huge Jewish neighborhoods to its west and south, it does not block a single Arab neighborhood from contiguity with a future Palestinian state.

Thus if Washington and Europe were serious about wanting an agreement, they would essentially tell the Palestinians: “Grow up. You can’t turn the clock back 43 years, so not everything that was Jordanian-occupied territory in May 1967 will eventually become Palestinian. Some of it will remain Israeli — and that includes Ramat Shlomo. Don’t waste time and energy fighting Israeli construction in areas that will never be part of Palestine; focus on fighting construction in areas that realistically could be Palestinian under any agreement.”

Instead, by their over-the-top condemnations, America and Europe have fed the Palestinians’ fantasy that they can turn the clock back — because the only way this new construction could be the enormous obstacle to an agreement that the world has labeled it is if Ramat Shlomo actually could and should become Palestinian.

Every serious negotiator for the last 17 years has recognized that any agreement will have to take account of developments since 1967. That’s why every serious peace proposal, from the Clinton plan in 2000 to Ehud Olmert’s offer in 2008, has involved Israel keeping about 6 percent of the West Bank (with or without territorial swaps). But the Palestinians still refuse to accept this fact: they continue to insist on swaps comprising at most 2 to 3 percent of the West Bank. That would force Israel to evict hundreds of thousands of Jews from their homes, which is both politically and economically unfeasible.

For any agreement to be possible, the world must finally make the Palestinians recognize that the clock cannot be turned back. By instead doing the opposite over Ramat Shlomo, Washington and Europe are undermining their own stated goal of achieving a peace deal.

Last week, I wrote that American, European, and Arab success in pressuring the Palestinians to resume negotiations could prove a turnabout in the peace process, if the world learned the lesson and began pressing the Palestinians for necessary concessions on substantive issues. But based on its response to last week’s announcement of new construction in Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, the world clearly hasn’t learned the lesson.

All the parties concerned were understandably upset by the announcement’s timing: just as proximity talks were about to begin, and while Vice President Joe Biden was in the region. But substantively, the new construction makes absolutely no difference to the prospects of an agreement — because any agreement would unquestionably leave this neighborhood in Israel’s hands.

Ramat Shlomo already has more than 20,000 residents — far too big to be uprooted even without the planned 1,600 new houses. It is also, as Rick noted, of considerable strategic importance, dominating all of Jerusalem’s major roads; thus Israel would insist on retaining it, even if not a single Jew lived there. Finally, its location in no way precludes the division of Jerusalem, which is what both Washington and Europe claim to want: situated in the corner formed by two other huge Jewish neighborhoods to its west and south, it does not block a single Arab neighborhood from contiguity with a future Palestinian state.

Thus if Washington and Europe were serious about wanting an agreement, they would essentially tell the Palestinians: “Grow up. You can’t turn the clock back 43 years, so not everything that was Jordanian-occupied territory in May 1967 will eventually become Palestinian. Some of it will remain Israeli — and that includes Ramat Shlomo. Don’t waste time and energy fighting Israeli construction in areas that will never be part of Palestine; focus on fighting construction in areas that realistically could be Palestinian under any agreement.”

Instead, by their over-the-top condemnations, America and Europe have fed the Palestinians’ fantasy that they can turn the clock back — because the only way this new construction could be the enormous obstacle to an agreement that the world has labeled it is if Ramat Shlomo actually could and should become Palestinian.

Every serious negotiator for the last 17 years has recognized that any agreement will have to take account of developments since 1967. That’s why every serious peace proposal, from the Clinton plan in 2000 to Ehud Olmert’s offer in 2008, has involved Israel keeping about 6 percent of the West Bank (with or without territorial swaps). But the Palestinians still refuse to accept this fact: they continue to insist on swaps comprising at most 2 to 3 percent of the West Bank. That would force Israel to evict hundreds of thousands of Jews from their homes, which is both politically and economically unfeasible.

For any agreement to be possible, the world must finally make the Palestinians recognize that the clock cannot be turned back. By instead doing the opposite over Ramat Shlomo, Washington and Europe are undermining their own stated goal of achieving a peace deal.

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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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A Lesson for the Future in Abbas’s Retreat on Refusing to Talk

That Israel and the Palestinians, after 16 years of direct talks, are now back to indirect talks is an undeniable retreat. But in a must-read analysis, the Jerusalem Post’s diplomatic correspondent, Herb Keinon, points out that this may nevertheless be one of the most hopeful moments of the entire peace process — because for the first time, “the Palestinians gave in on something.”

“Israelis, Palestinians and the world have become accustomed to Israel setting red lines, and then moving them,” Keinon wrote. “The Palestinians, on the other hand, have set a track record of saying what they mean.” For instance, they have never budged from their demand for “all of east Jerusalem, including the Old City,” or for “the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel proper.”

But after months of proclaiming that he would not resume talks with Israel without a complete freeze on Israeli construction in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has backed down. And this offers a crucial lesson for the future.

“The reason Abbas was willing to move his red line was because he came under intense pressure from the US, certain elements inside the EU, and from Arab states such as Egypt and Jordan to start talks, even though all his conditions were not met,” Keinon noted. “The valuable lesson here: The Palestinians, too, and not only Israel, are susceptible to pressure.”

In the rest of the article, Keinon focuses on the short term — primarily, whether the U.S., EU, Egypt, and Jordan will learn this lesson well enough to pressure Abbas to continue talks after his self-imposed four-month deadline expires.

But the truly significant implications are for the long term. Until now, the U.S., EU, and Arab states have devoted all their efforts to pressuring Israel to change its positions — with great success. Israel’s “red lines” on borders and Jerusalem, for instance, have steadily retreated, to the point where former prime minister Ehud Olmert offered the Palestinians the equivalent of 100 percent of the West Bank, large chunks of East Jerusalem, international Muslim control over the Temple Mount, and even a symbolic absorption of Palestinian refugees. Yet there are limits beyond which no Israeli government will ever go.

Thus, no agreement will ever be possible unless the Palestinians, too, change some of their positions – which, as Keinon noted, has yet to happen. And it never will happen without concerted pressure from the U.S., EU, and Arab world.

If these countries learn the lesson and in fact begin pressuring Abbas to start educating his people about what an agreement will really entail, Barack Obama might someday justly claim credit for having fomented the turnabout that ultimately led to an agreement. But if they instead fall back into the old familiar pattern of endlessly pressuring Israel for more concessions, the current round of talks will be just one more link in an unbroken chain of peace-process failures.

That Israel and the Palestinians, after 16 years of direct talks, are now back to indirect talks is an undeniable retreat. But in a must-read analysis, the Jerusalem Post’s diplomatic correspondent, Herb Keinon, points out that this may nevertheless be one of the most hopeful moments of the entire peace process — because for the first time, “the Palestinians gave in on something.”

“Israelis, Palestinians and the world have become accustomed to Israel setting red lines, and then moving them,” Keinon wrote. “The Palestinians, on the other hand, have set a track record of saying what they mean.” For instance, they have never budged from their demand for “all of east Jerusalem, including the Old City,” or for “the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel proper.”

But after months of proclaiming that he would not resume talks with Israel without a complete freeze on Israeli construction in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has backed down. And this offers a crucial lesson for the future.

“The reason Abbas was willing to move his red line was because he came under intense pressure from the US, certain elements inside the EU, and from Arab states such as Egypt and Jordan to start talks, even though all his conditions were not met,” Keinon noted. “The valuable lesson here: The Palestinians, too, and not only Israel, are susceptible to pressure.”

In the rest of the article, Keinon focuses on the short term — primarily, whether the U.S., EU, Egypt, and Jordan will learn this lesson well enough to pressure Abbas to continue talks after his self-imposed four-month deadline expires.

But the truly significant implications are for the long term. Until now, the U.S., EU, and Arab states have devoted all their efforts to pressuring Israel to change its positions — with great success. Israel’s “red lines” on borders and Jerusalem, for instance, have steadily retreated, to the point where former prime minister Ehud Olmert offered the Palestinians the equivalent of 100 percent of the West Bank, large chunks of East Jerusalem, international Muslim control over the Temple Mount, and even a symbolic absorption of Palestinian refugees. Yet there are limits beyond which no Israeli government will ever go.

Thus, no agreement will ever be possible unless the Palestinians, too, change some of their positions – which, as Keinon noted, has yet to happen. And it never will happen without concerted pressure from the U.S., EU, and Arab world.

If these countries learn the lesson and in fact begin pressuring Abbas to start educating his people about what an agreement will really entail, Barack Obama might someday justly claim credit for having fomented the turnabout that ultimately led to an agreement. But if they instead fall back into the old familiar pattern of endlessly pressuring Israel for more concessions, the current round of talks will be just one more link in an unbroken chain of peace-process failures.

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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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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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Something’s Rotten in the State of Israel’s Legal System

Something is deeply wrong with a justice system when mainstream journalists and politicians take it for granted that a suspect’s political views will affect the legal proceedings against him.

Consider the following sentence from a column that appeared Monday in Israel’s left-wing daily Haaretz: “If the attorney general decides to bring charges against Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister may decide that, in his bid to reach a plea bargain that will keep him out of prison, he is better off bringing down the government, and possibly even the Knesset, and disguising himself as a moderate in a government that has Kadima and Labor [two left-of-center parties] at its center.”

The author, Amir Oren, is no right-wing conspiracy theorist; he’s a veteran, left-of-center journalist and star columnist for a respected highbrow daily. And he considers it patently obvious that if Lieberman wants prosecutors to treat him leniently, he would be wise to swerve Left.

Nor is Oren alone in this belief. In 2007, after then prime minister Ehud Olmert appointed Daniel Friedmann, a well-known critic of the Supreme Court’s judicial activism, as justice minister, Yossi Verter wrote in Haaretz: “The justice system … has two alternatives for coping with this blow: hunkering down in its bunker and waiting for the government to change, or speeding up criminal proceedings against Olmert and working with greater vigor to topple him, which would also bring about Friedmann’s departure.”

Like Oren, Verter is a veteran left-of-center journalist and a star Haaretz columnist. And like Oren, he considers it self-evident that legal officials could and would use their prosecutorial powers to oust a politician whose policies they oppose.

And here’s another star Haaretz columnist and veteran left-of-center journalist, Ari Shavit, writing after the 2006 indictment of then Justice Minister Haim Ramon for sexual harassment:

Twelve hours before kissing the soldier identified as H, Haim Ramon sat at a private dinner and joked that he had to be careful, because something was liable to happen to him. Because something has happened to every justice minister who intended to shake up the judicial system the way he did, something that prevented the minister from ultimately filling the post. …

[Another] senior minister, whose lifelong dream has been to serve as minister of justice, decided at the beginning of the week to concede the coveted position because he was convinced that if he didn’t do so, he would shortly find himself questioned under caution in a police investigation. The senior minister … determined that there was no chance that a person known as a critic of the rule of law would be able to serve as justice minister without the rule of law finding a way to distance him from the public arena on some criminal pretext or another.

That mainstream politicians and journalists believe the legal system biased in this fashion is worrying even if they’re wrong. That so many probably wouldn’t believe it were there not some truth to it is even worse. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the lack of concern: it’s just a fact of life, to be noted casually in a column.

Something is deeply wrong with a justice system when mainstream journalists and politicians take it for granted that a suspect’s political views will affect the legal proceedings against him.

Consider the following sentence from a column that appeared Monday in Israel’s left-wing daily Haaretz: “If the attorney general decides to bring charges against Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister may decide that, in his bid to reach a plea bargain that will keep him out of prison, he is better off bringing down the government, and possibly even the Knesset, and disguising himself as a moderate in a government that has Kadima and Labor [two left-of-center parties] at its center.”

The author, Amir Oren, is no right-wing conspiracy theorist; he’s a veteran, left-of-center journalist and star columnist for a respected highbrow daily. And he considers it patently obvious that if Lieberman wants prosecutors to treat him leniently, he would be wise to swerve Left.

Nor is Oren alone in this belief. In 2007, after then prime minister Ehud Olmert appointed Daniel Friedmann, a well-known critic of the Supreme Court’s judicial activism, as justice minister, Yossi Verter wrote in Haaretz: “The justice system … has two alternatives for coping with this blow: hunkering down in its bunker and waiting for the government to change, or speeding up criminal proceedings against Olmert and working with greater vigor to topple him, which would also bring about Friedmann’s departure.”

Like Oren, Verter is a veteran left-of-center journalist and a star Haaretz columnist. And like Oren, he considers it self-evident that legal officials could and would use their prosecutorial powers to oust a politician whose policies they oppose.

And here’s another star Haaretz columnist and veteran left-of-center journalist, Ari Shavit, writing after the 2006 indictment of then Justice Minister Haim Ramon for sexual harassment:

Twelve hours before kissing the soldier identified as H, Haim Ramon sat at a private dinner and joked that he had to be careful, because something was liable to happen to him. Because something has happened to every justice minister who intended to shake up the judicial system the way he did, something that prevented the minister from ultimately filling the post. …

[Another] senior minister, whose lifelong dream has been to serve as minister of justice, decided at the beginning of the week to concede the coveted position because he was convinced that if he didn’t do so, he would shortly find himself questioned under caution in a police investigation. The senior minister … determined that there was no chance that a person known as a critic of the rule of law would be able to serve as justice minister without the rule of law finding a way to distance him from the public arena on some criminal pretext or another.

That mainstream politicians and journalists believe the legal system biased in this fashion is worrying even if they’re wrong. That so many probably wouldn’t believe it were there not some truth to it is even worse. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the lack of concern: it’s just a fact of life, to be noted casually in a column.

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Palestinians See Netanyahu as a “Man of His Word”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is trying hard to blame Israel for the absence of peace talks, with predictable support from Europe: addressing the European Parliament last week, brand-new EU foreign minister Catherine Ashton parroted PA criticisms of Israel wholesale, not even hinting at any Palestinian responsibility for the impasse. But Washington has yet to weigh in. Before doing so, it should consider the following astounding report:

“This is the place to note that, surprisingly, [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is widely perceived in the West Bank as a man of his word,” Haaretz’s Palestinian affairs reporter wrote, commenting on Abbas supporters’ claim that Netanyahu’s actions are mere “maneuvers” aimed at avoiding final-status talks. “In the period of [his predecessors] Ehud Olmert, Ariel Sharon and [Ehud] Barak there may have been peace talks, but the number of checkpoints reached a new high every week and chaos reigned in the West Bank.”

Netanyahu, in contrast, has kept his promise to remove checkpoints and otherwise facilitate Palestinian economic development — and it’s working. As the Jerusalem Post noted yesterday:

Only 14 major IDF security checkpoints remain inside the West Bank, easing the commute between Palestinian population centers. Unemployment is down to 18 percent (compared to over 40% in Gaza). The local stock market is on an upswing; likewise foreign investment.

A new mall has opened in Nablus. The cornerstone of a new neighborhood in Jenin was laid by PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Plans for a new suburb in the hills of Ramallah for middle-class Palestinians are advancing. A Bethlehem industrial zone is in the works. …

People are buying more cars. Bethlehem alone hosted a million tourists last year. West Bank imports and exports have exceeded $4.3 billion this year.

Indeed, the Haaretz report quoted a Palestinian journalist who termed the situation in the West Bank “not only better than in the past, but ‘terrific.’ ”

Netanyahu seems equally determined to keep his word on the settlement freeze, judging by a document leaked by an Israeli army source to settlers, and thence to Haaretz. The army has clearly been ordered to treat the freeze like a military operation.

For instance, the document states, “all agencies will be used” to detect violations of the freeze, “including the intelligence branch of the [Central] Command, the Shin Bet [intelligence agency] and regular troops.” And any illegal construction will be destroyed in blitzkrieg operations in which “tactical surprise” will be achieved “by blocking off the area with large forces so as to paralyze” resistance.

One might question the wisdom of a full-throttle military operation against one’s own citizens, but it certainly indicates determination on Netanyahu’s part to keep his word.

So might Netanyahu be equally sincere in claiming that he truly wants to reach an agreement with Abbas? If “agreement” is defined as complete capitulation to Abbas’s demands, no. But a deal produced by genuine negotiations, in which both sides make concessions? There’s only one way to find out. And it isn’t by letting Abbas demand ever more upfront concessions just to get him to the table.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is trying hard to blame Israel for the absence of peace talks, with predictable support from Europe: addressing the European Parliament last week, brand-new EU foreign minister Catherine Ashton parroted PA criticisms of Israel wholesale, not even hinting at any Palestinian responsibility for the impasse. But Washington has yet to weigh in. Before doing so, it should consider the following astounding report:

“This is the place to note that, surprisingly, [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is widely perceived in the West Bank as a man of his word,” Haaretz’s Palestinian affairs reporter wrote, commenting on Abbas supporters’ claim that Netanyahu’s actions are mere “maneuvers” aimed at avoiding final-status talks. “In the period of [his predecessors] Ehud Olmert, Ariel Sharon and [Ehud] Barak there may have been peace talks, but the number of checkpoints reached a new high every week and chaos reigned in the West Bank.”

Netanyahu, in contrast, has kept his promise to remove checkpoints and otherwise facilitate Palestinian economic development — and it’s working. As the Jerusalem Post noted yesterday:

Only 14 major IDF security checkpoints remain inside the West Bank, easing the commute between Palestinian population centers. Unemployment is down to 18 percent (compared to over 40% in Gaza). The local stock market is on an upswing; likewise foreign investment.

A new mall has opened in Nablus. The cornerstone of a new neighborhood in Jenin was laid by PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Plans for a new suburb in the hills of Ramallah for middle-class Palestinians are advancing. A Bethlehem industrial zone is in the works. …

People are buying more cars. Bethlehem alone hosted a million tourists last year. West Bank imports and exports have exceeded $4.3 billion this year.

Indeed, the Haaretz report quoted a Palestinian journalist who termed the situation in the West Bank “not only better than in the past, but ‘terrific.’ ”

Netanyahu seems equally determined to keep his word on the settlement freeze, judging by a document leaked by an Israeli army source to settlers, and thence to Haaretz. The army has clearly been ordered to treat the freeze like a military operation.

For instance, the document states, “all agencies will be used” to detect violations of the freeze, “including the intelligence branch of the [Central] Command, the Shin Bet [intelligence agency] and regular troops.” And any illegal construction will be destroyed in blitzkrieg operations in which “tactical surprise” will be achieved “by blocking off the area with large forces so as to paralyze” resistance.

One might question the wisdom of a full-throttle military operation against one’s own citizens, but it certainly indicates determination on Netanyahu’s part to keep his word.

So might Netanyahu be equally sincere in claiming that he truly wants to reach an agreement with Abbas? If “agreement” is defined as complete capitulation to Abbas’s demands, no. But a deal produced by genuine negotiations, in which both sides make concessions? There’s only one way to find out. And it isn’t by letting Abbas demand ever more upfront concessions just to get him to the table.

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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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Abbas Still Says No to Talks but Everyone Still Blames Bibi

The decision of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to agree to a freeze on building homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank has earned him little credit either in Europe or among his country’s Arab foes. Rather than respond to Israel’s gesture aimed at re-starting peace talks, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas raised the ante today by telling the PLO Central Council that he won’t engage in talks unless the international community recognize the 1967 lines as the borders of a Palestinian state and unless Israel halt all construction work not only in the settlements but also in Israel’s capital Jerusalem. In other words, until the Israelis make concessions that ensure that nothing be left to negotiate about, he won’t engage in negotiations.

Abbas, whose term in office will probably be extended without holding an election because his Fatah Party knows it might lose to the Islamists of Hamas, has been telegraphing his lack of interest in talks all year. Given the fact that the Palestinian public still won’t accept any deal with Israel no matter where the borders are set, it’s not likely that this will change. Having turned down a Palestinian state in virtually all of the territories as well as East Jerusalem when former Israeli leader Ehud Olmert offered it last year, it’s hard to understand why anyone would think the supposedly moderate Abbas would make peace now. But the focus of pressure and international speculation about peaceful intentions continues to be put on Netanyahu, not on the Palestinians.

Thus the conceit of Ethan Bronner’s latest “Mideast Memo” in the New York Times, which ponders the sincerity of Netanyahu’s desire for peace. The notion that Netanyahu is possibly undergoing some kind of conversion to a love for peace is, of course, absurd. His formal embrace this past summer of a two-state solution was a departure but he has always been on record as favoring a negotiated settlement to the conflict. The question is whether or not he’s willing to bend to the dictates of the West as to borders or the terms of Palestinian statehood, not whether a peace agreement would provide the Palestinians with sovereignty over part of the country.

But the frustrating aspect of this discussion isn’t so much in the condescension toward Netanyahu, but rather in the way the peace process is framed—that is, in such a way as to put the entire onus on Israel to make concessions, while the Palestinians continue complete refusal to accept the concept of peace with a Jewish state is virtually ignored. The point is, rather than wasting time worrying whether editorial writers at Ha’aretz or President Shimon Peres think Netanyahu is sincere, foreign correspondents based in Israel might want to spend a little more time paying attention to the fact that the political culture of the Palestinians makes peace an impossibility even for their allegedly moderate leader.

The decision of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to agree to a freeze on building homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank has earned him little credit either in Europe or among his country’s Arab foes. Rather than respond to Israel’s gesture aimed at re-starting peace talks, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas raised the ante today by telling the PLO Central Council that he won’t engage in talks unless the international community recognize the 1967 lines as the borders of a Palestinian state and unless Israel halt all construction work not only in the settlements but also in Israel’s capital Jerusalem. In other words, until the Israelis make concessions that ensure that nothing be left to negotiate about, he won’t engage in negotiations.

Abbas, whose term in office will probably be extended without holding an election because his Fatah Party knows it might lose to the Islamists of Hamas, has been telegraphing his lack of interest in talks all year. Given the fact that the Palestinian public still won’t accept any deal with Israel no matter where the borders are set, it’s not likely that this will change. Having turned down a Palestinian state in virtually all of the territories as well as East Jerusalem when former Israeli leader Ehud Olmert offered it last year, it’s hard to understand why anyone would think the supposedly moderate Abbas would make peace now. But the focus of pressure and international speculation about peaceful intentions continues to be put on Netanyahu, not on the Palestinians.

Thus the conceit of Ethan Bronner’s latest “Mideast Memo” in the New York Times, which ponders the sincerity of Netanyahu’s desire for peace. The notion that Netanyahu is possibly undergoing some kind of conversion to a love for peace is, of course, absurd. His formal embrace this past summer of a two-state solution was a departure but he has always been on record as favoring a negotiated settlement to the conflict. The question is whether or not he’s willing to bend to the dictates of the West as to borders or the terms of Palestinian statehood, not whether a peace agreement would provide the Palestinians with sovereignty over part of the country.

But the frustrating aspect of this discussion isn’t so much in the condescension toward Netanyahu, but rather in the way the peace process is framed—that is, in such a way as to put the entire onus on Israel to make concessions, while the Palestinians continue complete refusal to accept the concept of peace with a Jewish state is virtually ignored. The point is, rather than wasting time worrying whether editorial writers at Ha’aretz or President Shimon Peres think Netanyahu is sincere, foreign correspondents based in Israel might want to spend a little more time paying attention to the fact that the political culture of the Palestinians makes peace an impossibility even for their allegedly moderate leader.

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What Hamas Really Wants from a Prisoner Swap

One myth the negotiations over kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit should definitively debunk is that Hamas’s leadership actually cares about the fate of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

In exchange for Shalit, Israel has offered to free 980 Palestinian prisoners, including 450 chosen in consultation with Hamas. And by all accounts, it has already agreed to almost all the 450 specific prisoners whose release Hamas is demanding: the London-based daily Al-Hayat claimed today that Israel has agreed to 400 of them; the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam claimed yesterday that Israel has agreed to all but 15.

Hence if Hamas really wanted to free a large number of Palestinian prisoners — including hundreds involved in some of the worst terrorist violence of the past two decades — all it had to do was say yes. And since the handful Israel still refuses to release includes several senior Hamas figures, such a deal would even reap a public relations bonus: it would show that Hamas is willing to sacrifice for the good of the whole, to let some of its top people stay in jail in order to win freedom for almost 1,000 of its Palestinian brethren.

But in fact, Hamas has said no, publicly and repeatedly. Why? Because, as Al-Ayyam quoted a Hamas source saying, even the mere 15 prisoners whom that paper claims Israel is standing firm on are “a red line, without which there will be no deal.” Al-Hayat offered a similar explanation.

There are only two possible ways to interpret this. One, of course, is that Hamas’s leadership cares only about the handful of top-level terrorists in its inner circle, and unless they are released, the other 900-plus Palestinians can rot in jail forever for all it cares.

The other is that Hamas doesn’t actually care about any of the prisoners; what it cares about is proving that it can bend Israel completely to its will.

Granted, Hamas has already gotten Israel to capitulate almost completely. After initially refusing to negotiate at all, Israel began by agreeing to only 70 of the names on Hamas’s list and has since steadily retreated. In March, it agreed to release 325 of those on Hamas’s wish list, and now it has agreed to 400 or even 435.

But “almost” is not enough if the goal is to prove that Hamas’s path of “resistance” (i.e., terror) works better than Fatah’s tactic of diplomatic pressure. After all, Fatah has also gotten Israel to capitulate on almost everything: just last year, Ehud Olmert offered it the equivalent of 100 percent of the territories, including East Jerusalem, plus international Muslim control of the Temple Mount. Yet even then, Israel held out on a few issues, like the “right of return.” Hence to prove that “resistance” is the better path, Hamas needs 100 percent capitulation.

The truly scary part is that it might yet get it. But if not, those 980 prisoners can continue rotting in jail — sacrifices on the altar of Hamas’s partisan interests.

One myth the negotiations over kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit should definitively debunk is that Hamas’s leadership actually cares about the fate of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

In exchange for Shalit, Israel has offered to free 980 Palestinian prisoners, including 450 chosen in consultation with Hamas. And by all accounts, it has already agreed to almost all the 450 specific prisoners whose release Hamas is demanding: the London-based daily Al-Hayat claimed today that Israel has agreed to 400 of them; the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam claimed yesterday that Israel has agreed to all but 15.

Hence if Hamas really wanted to free a large number of Palestinian prisoners — including hundreds involved in some of the worst terrorist violence of the past two decades — all it had to do was say yes. And since the handful Israel still refuses to release includes several senior Hamas figures, such a deal would even reap a public relations bonus: it would show that Hamas is willing to sacrifice for the good of the whole, to let some of its top people stay in jail in order to win freedom for almost 1,000 of its Palestinian brethren.

But in fact, Hamas has said no, publicly and repeatedly. Why? Because, as Al-Ayyam quoted a Hamas source saying, even the mere 15 prisoners whom that paper claims Israel is standing firm on are “a red line, without which there will be no deal.” Al-Hayat offered a similar explanation.

There are only two possible ways to interpret this. One, of course, is that Hamas’s leadership cares only about the handful of top-level terrorists in its inner circle, and unless they are released, the other 900-plus Palestinians can rot in jail forever for all it cares.

The other is that Hamas doesn’t actually care about any of the prisoners; what it cares about is proving that it can bend Israel completely to its will.

Granted, Hamas has already gotten Israel to capitulate almost completely. After initially refusing to negotiate at all, Israel began by agreeing to only 70 of the names on Hamas’s list and has since steadily retreated. In March, it agreed to release 325 of those on Hamas’s wish list, and now it has agreed to 400 or even 435.

But “almost” is not enough if the goal is to prove that Hamas’s path of “resistance” (i.e., terror) works better than Fatah’s tactic of diplomatic pressure. After all, Fatah has also gotten Israel to capitulate on almost everything: just last year, Ehud Olmert offered it the equivalent of 100 percent of the territories, including East Jerusalem, plus international Muslim control of the Temple Mount. Yet even then, Israel held out on a few issues, like the “right of return.” Hence to prove that “resistance” is the better path, Hamas needs 100 percent capitulation.

The truly scary part is that it might yet get it. But if not, those 980 prisoners can continue rotting in jail — sacrifices on the altar of Hamas’s partisan interests.

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The Panama Precedent

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has made several welcome changes to his ministry’s priority list, with perhaps the most noteworthy being the section on bilateral relationships. Strengthening ties with Arab states, which was at the top of that section under his predecessor, Tzipi Livni, is now at the bottom. Instead, Lieberman assigned priority to strengthening ties with the hitherto neglected regions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

From a cost-benefit standpoint, this is a smart move. No Arab state is going to be anything but hostile in the foreseeable future. And while it is obviously preferable for states like Saudi Arabia to remain at their present hostility level rather than to escalate to Iran’s level, any investment beyond the minimum needed to ensure this much is just wasted time and effort.

In contrast, few non-Muslim states in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are inherently hostile to Israel; hence an investment of time and effort might well improve relations. And while most of these countries have little clout, they could nevertheless do much to boost Israel’s global image.

To understand why, consider this month’s UN General Assembly vote endorsing the Goldstone Report. The resolution passed 118-18-44, with another 16 countries not voting. That is a lopsided condemnation of Israel.

But of the 16 countries that skipped the vote, all were from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Of the 44 abstainers, 18 were from these regions (most were European). And of the 118 who voted in favor, almost half belong to the Organization of the Islamic Conference; most of the rest were non-Muslim states from Africa, Asia, and Latin America (plus five European states). Thus the vote could clearly have been made much less lopsided by flipping some of these states from “yes” to “abstention” and others from “abstention” or “not voting” to “no.”

Why does this matter? Because the fact that resolutions condemning Israel consistently pass by such lopsided margins contributes greatly to Israel’s pariah image, portraying it as a country with scarcely a friend in the world. If, instead, such condemnations passed only narrowly, this would portray it as a country that, despite many enemies, also has many friends. And countries with many friends are by definition not pariahs.

Could an investment of diplomatic effort flip some of these countries? It’s hard to know, given that Israel has never tried; for decades, its diplomacy has focused almost exclusively on the West and the Middle East. Nevertheless, another datum from the Goldstone vote is suggestive: the only Latin American country that did vote “no” on Goldstone — Panama — did so two weeks after its president met personally with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

And that’s the point: Most of these countries know little about Israel, and therefore care little. But if Israel made an effort to fill the knowledge gap, the caring gap might shrink, too. At the very least, it’s worth a try — especially when the alternative is for Israeli diplomats to waste their time battering their heads against a hostile Arab wall.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has made several welcome changes to his ministry’s priority list, with perhaps the most noteworthy being the section on bilateral relationships. Strengthening ties with Arab states, which was at the top of that section under his predecessor, Tzipi Livni, is now at the bottom. Instead, Lieberman assigned priority to strengthening ties with the hitherto neglected regions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

From a cost-benefit standpoint, this is a smart move. No Arab state is going to be anything but hostile in the foreseeable future. And while it is obviously preferable for states like Saudi Arabia to remain at their present hostility level rather than to escalate to Iran’s level, any investment beyond the minimum needed to ensure this much is just wasted time and effort.

In contrast, few non-Muslim states in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are inherently hostile to Israel; hence an investment of time and effort might well improve relations. And while most of these countries have little clout, they could nevertheless do much to boost Israel’s global image.

To understand why, consider this month’s UN General Assembly vote endorsing the Goldstone Report. The resolution passed 118-18-44, with another 16 countries not voting. That is a lopsided condemnation of Israel.

But of the 16 countries that skipped the vote, all were from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Of the 44 abstainers, 18 were from these regions (most were European). And of the 118 who voted in favor, almost half belong to the Organization of the Islamic Conference; most of the rest were non-Muslim states from Africa, Asia, and Latin America (plus five European states). Thus the vote could clearly have been made much less lopsided by flipping some of these states from “yes” to “abstention” and others from “abstention” or “not voting” to “no.”

Why does this matter? Because the fact that resolutions condemning Israel consistently pass by such lopsided margins contributes greatly to Israel’s pariah image, portraying it as a country with scarcely a friend in the world. If, instead, such condemnations passed only narrowly, this would portray it as a country that, despite many enemies, also has many friends. And countries with many friends are by definition not pariahs.

Could an investment of diplomatic effort flip some of these countries? It’s hard to know, given that Israel has never tried; for decades, its diplomacy has focused almost exclusively on the West and the Middle East. Nevertheless, another datum from the Goldstone vote is suggestive: the only Latin American country that did vote “no” on Goldstone — Panama — did so two weeks after its president met personally with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

And that’s the point: Most of these countries know little about Israel, and therefore care little. But if Israel made an effort to fill the knowledge gap, the caring gap might shrink, too. At the very least, it’s worth a try — especially when the alternative is for Israeli diplomats to waste their time battering their heads against a hostile Arab wall.

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Can the Palestinians Recite Them, Too?

In a letter to the International Herald Tribune, J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami urges the U.S. to finally close an Israeli-Palestinian deal, “the parameters of which we can all recite in our sleep.” So if everyone agrees on the parameters, how is it that 16 years of negotiations have yet to produce a deal?

The answer, of course, is that there is no such agreement — not on the parameters, and still less on the pesky details.

For instance, “everyone knows” — even Ben-Ami — that any deal requires the Palestinians to abandon their demand to resettle millions of descendants of refugees in Israel, as that would spell the end of the Jewish state. Everyone, that is, except the Palestinians, who have yet to budge on this demand.

And “everyone knows” that any deal must give the Palestinians control over the Temple Mount. (Well, actually, most Israelis disagree, but that doesn’t seem to matter to anyone — even their own prime ministers.) Yet every time Israel offers them the Mount, the Palestinians refuse to accept it, because they insist that it be accompanied by an Israeli renunciation of any Jewish connection to Judaism’s holiest site, to which Jews have prayed three times a day for millennia. In other words, they insist that Jews deny their history, religion, and cultural and spiritual heritage as the price of a deal.

Hence they rejected even the ridiculous and totally unenforceable Clinton compromise of Palestinian sovereignty atop the Mount and Israeli sovereignty underneath. That effectively gave the Palestinians full control, since if they control the top, nobody can prevent them from doing what they please underneath — nor can Israel gain access to exercise its underground rights. But since this compromise did acknowledge an Israeli connection to the Mount, even it was too much for the Palestinians.

They also rejected Ehud Olmert’s proposal last year that the Mount be controlled by a five-member international panel composed of “Palestine,” Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the U.S., and Israel, on which Israel would obviously be permanently and automatically outvoted. But its very membership would acknowledge an Israeli connection to the Mount, and that was unacceptable to the Palestinians.

And then there’s the issue of borders. “Everyone knows” (except the Israeli majority, which doesn’t count) that the border must be based on the 1967 lines, with 1:1 territorial swaps for a few settlement blocs, since relocating 300,000 settlers is unfeasible. Yet the Palestinians rejected exactly that when Olmert offered it last year. Olmert proposed swaps equivalent to 6 percent of the West Bank, but the Palestinians say their maximum is 2-3 percent. It’s not enough for them to get the equivalent of 100 percent of the territory; they want the satisfaction of making Israel suffer by having to throw hundreds of thousands of Israelis out of their homes.

So it really doesn’t matter whether “everyone” knows the parameters or not. Because until someone manages to convince the Palestinians that Israel’s cultural, spiritual, and physical suicide isn’t part of the deal, there isn’t going to be one.

In a letter to the International Herald Tribune, J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami urges the U.S. to finally close an Israeli-Palestinian deal, “the parameters of which we can all recite in our sleep.” So if everyone agrees on the parameters, how is it that 16 years of negotiations have yet to produce a deal?

The answer, of course, is that there is no such agreement — not on the parameters, and still less on the pesky details.

For instance, “everyone knows” — even Ben-Ami — that any deal requires the Palestinians to abandon their demand to resettle millions of descendants of refugees in Israel, as that would spell the end of the Jewish state. Everyone, that is, except the Palestinians, who have yet to budge on this demand.

And “everyone knows” that any deal must give the Palestinians control over the Temple Mount. (Well, actually, most Israelis disagree, but that doesn’t seem to matter to anyone — even their own prime ministers.) Yet every time Israel offers them the Mount, the Palestinians refuse to accept it, because they insist that it be accompanied by an Israeli renunciation of any Jewish connection to Judaism’s holiest site, to which Jews have prayed three times a day for millennia. In other words, they insist that Jews deny their history, religion, and cultural and spiritual heritage as the price of a deal.

Hence they rejected even the ridiculous and totally unenforceable Clinton compromise of Palestinian sovereignty atop the Mount and Israeli sovereignty underneath. That effectively gave the Palestinians full control, since if they control the top, nobody can prevent them from doing what they please underneath — nor can Israel gain access to exercise its underground rights. But since this compromise did acknowledge an Israeli connection to the Mount, even it was too much for the Palestinians.

They also rejected Ehud Olmert’s proposal last year that the Mount be controlled by a five-member international panel composed of “Palestine,” Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the U.S., and Israel, on which Israel would obviously be permanently and automatically outvoted. But its very membership would acknowledge an Israeli connection to the Mount, and that was unacceptable to the Palestinians.

And then there’s the issue of borders. “Everyone knows” (except the Israeli majority, which doesn’t count) that the border must be based on the 1967 lines, with 1:1 territorial swaps for a few settlement blocs, since relocating 300,000 settlers is unfeasible. Yet the Palestinians rejected exactly that when Olmert offered it last year. Olmert proposed swaps equivalent to 6 percent of the West Bank, but the Palestinians say their maximum is 2-3 percent. It’s not enough for them to get the equivalent of 100 percent of the territory; they want the satisfaction of making Israel suffer by having to throw hundreds of thousands of Israelis out of their homes.

So it really doesn’t matter whether “everyone” knows the parameters or not. Because until someone manages to convince the Palestinians that Israel’s cultural, spiritual, and physical suicide isn’t part of the deal, there isn’t going to be one.

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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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Three Scenarios for Olmert

Reports of Ehud Olmert’s demise have for many years been greatly exaggerated, but his latest scandal really does appear decisive. It is the beginning of the end for Olmert, and it seems to me that there are roughly three ways that all of this will play out in the coming months:

1. Olmert voluntarily steps down and allows his party to choose a new leader (almost certainly Livni), thereby preserving the government;

2. Olmert hangs tough and Barak makes good on his promise to leave the coalition, forcing elections;

3. Olmert hangs tough and Barak doesn’t leave the coalition.

Scenario #1 seems implausible but not impossible. Olmert, who has always insisted that technically he has done nothing wrong, may depart voluntarily, but only if his indictment becomes a certainty. But there is perhaps a deeper problem: the Shas party, which is currently part of Olmert’s coalition, has said that it will not join a government headed by Livni. If Shas makes good on this pledge, Livni’s only path to the premiership is through elections (scenario #2), which obviously represent an uncertain path to power.

Scenario #2 is the most likely, but also the most puzzling: Barak has set in motion a series of events that very well may not conclude in his taking the premiership, given Likud’s popularity. Why would he do that? He might believe that a unity government is in the offing, or that a new prime minister (assuming Barak remains at defense) would finally allow him to take the IDF into Gaza, which he has long wanted to do. Simply in terms of political calculation, Barak’s declaration yesterday would only seem to make sense if he felt that he has a good chance of coming to power through new elections. But perhaps something else is at work here, something extraordinarily rare in politics: maybe Barak really does feel that Israel is imperiled by Ehud Olmert, and that the requirements of national security and national honor compel him to unseat Olmert regardless of how such an upheaval will affect his own political fortunes.

Scenario #3 is the most implausible, with Barak ending up humiliated because he doesn’t follow his tough words with action.

Yossi Klein Halevy provides a final thought:

The end of Olmert needs to begin a process that will end Olmertism, the acceptance of corruption as an unavoidable part of Israeli politics. The current generation of politicians who grew up in the culture of Olmertism needs to be replaced by a new generation–young people in their 30s and 40s who, for example, helped transform the Israeli economy and high-tech sector. Precisely because they value excellence and dedication, those young people have shunned Israeli politics. But as the Olmert affair proves, the country can no longer leave its governance to the vain and merely ambitious men who have desecrated the name of Israel.

Update: my friend Carl in Jerusalem emails with some wise thoughts:

Barak did what he did yesterday in the hope that Kadima will throw Olmert out and that the Knesset will stay intact with Livni becoming Prime Minister. He underestimated Olmert’s resentment of Livni. He thought that Livni is a lightweight, and after 6-12 months of her as Prime Minister, the country will have had enough and he will be in a better position to challenge Netanyahu. His party is furious with him because all the polls show that they will get screwed and be left with about 12 seats and in third place (polls come out Friday morning – should be interesting tomorrow). He has no hope of being Prime Minister now regardless of what happens, but yes, he thinks he can go into a coalition with Likud and come out defense minister. Bibi may have other ideas like bringing back [Shaul] Mofaz or bringing in [Bogie] Yaalon.

Reports of Ehud Olmert’s demise have for many years been greatly exaggerated, but his latest scandal really does appear decisive. It is the beginning of the end for Olmert, and it seems to me that there are roughly three ways that all of this will play out in the coming months:

1. Olmert voluntarily steps down and allows his party to choose a new leader (almost certainly Livni), thereby preserving the government;

2. Olmert hangs tough and Barak makes good on his promise to leave the coalition, forcing elections;

3. Olmert hangs tough and Barak doesn’t leave the coalition.

Scenario #1 seems implausible but not impossible. Olmert, who has always insisted that technically he has done nothing wrong, may depart voluntarily, but only if his indictment becomes a certainty. But there is perhaps a deeper problem: the Shas party, which is currently part of Olmert’s coalition, has said that it will not join a government headed by Livni. If Shas makes good on this pledge, Livni’s only path to the premiership is through elections (scenario #2), which obviously represent an uncertain path to power.

Scenario #2 is the most likely, but also the most puzzling: Barak has set in motion a series of events that very well may not conclude in his taking the premiership, given Likud’s popularity. Why would he do that? He might believe that a unity government is in the offing, or that a new prime minister (assuming Barak remains at defense) would finally allow him to take the IDF into Gaza, which he has long wanted to do. Simply in terms of political calculation, Barak’s declaration yesterday would only seem to make sense if he felt that he has a good chance of coming to power through new elections. But perhaps something else is at work here, something extraordinarily rare in politics: maybe Barak really does feel that Israel is imperiled by Ehud Olmert, and that the requirements of national security and national honor compel him to unseat Olmert regardless of how such an upheaval will affect his own political fortunes.

Scenario #3 is the most implausible, with Barak ending up humiliated because he doesn’t follow his tough words with action.

Yossi Klein Halevy provides a final thought:

The end of Olmert needs to begin a process that will end Olmertism, the acceptance of corruption as an unavoidable part of Israeli politics. The current generation of politicians who grew up in the culture of Olmertism needs to be replaced by a new generation–young people in their 30s and 40s who, for example, helped transform the Israeli economy and high-tech sector. Precisely because they value excellence and dedication, those young people have shunned Israeli politics. But as the Olmert affair proves, the country can no longer leave its governance to the vain and merely ambitious men who have desecrated the name of Israel.

Update: my friend Carl in Jerusalem emails with some wise thoughts:

Barak did what he did yesterday in the hope that Kadima will throw Olmert out and that the Knesset will stay intact with Livni becoming Prime Minister. He underestimated Olmert’s resentment of Livni. He thought that Livni is a lightweight, and after 6-12 months of her as Prime Minister, the country will have had enough and he will be in a better position to challenge Netanyahu. His party is furious with him because all the polls show that they will get screwed and be left with about 12 seats and in third place (polls come out Friday morning – should be interesting tomorrow). He has no hope of being Prime Minister now regardless of what happens, but yes, he thinks he can go into a coalition with Likud and come out defense minister. Bibi may have other ideas like bringing back [Shaul] Mofaz or bringing in [Bogie] Yaalon.

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Obstacles to Peace

With embattled Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert all but out of office, attention has already turned to how the fallout will affect peace negotiations. In this vein, a spokesperson for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared that Olmert’s struggles “will leave a negative impact on negotiations,” while Syrian Minister of Information Mahdi Dahlallah stated that “Israel’s weak government may become an obstacle to a peace that Syria wants to achieve.”

Of course, the Palestinians and Syria are right. Indeed, how can there be any progress towards peace while Olmert has one foot out the door, and while a new round of elections would stall politics in Israel for at least three months? Yet Olmert’s scandal is hardly the biggest obstacle facing peace negotiations–particularly on the Syrian front, where the regime has shown a stubborn unwillingness to concede on either of two major issues that peace will require.

The first requirement is that Syria abandons its relationship with Iran and Hezbollah. As I’ve previously noted, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has already precluded this possibility, calling it “absurd” in an interview with the Italian weekly L’Espresso. But yesterday, Assad dug his heels in even further, reaching a defense deal with Iran that includes provisions for reciprocal visits by top military officials, joint military training, and cooperation on technical advancements. This deal is clearly intended to reassure Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was noticeably disappointed by news of possible Israeli-Syrian peace, and will further strengthen Hezbollah. These realities would preclude even the most desperate of Israeli leaders from pursuing peace.

The second requirement–which Israel has historically demanded of all its partners in peace negotiations–is that the Syrian regime ends its incitement against Israel. Yet, even as Assad has gone as far as supporting separate Lebanese-Israeli negotiations while addressing an English-language audience, he has barely spoken on Syrian-Israeli negotiations in his state-run media, dropping a few references deep in articles on peripheral diplomatic topics as if at random. Meanwhile, the top stories in the Syrian press included Jimmy Carter’s most recent assertion that Israel possesses 150 nuclear warheads, as well as a report that Israel intends to destroy 3000 Palestinian homes–stories that further condition the Syrian public against embracing peace with Israel.

The bottom line is that a number of obstacles will prevent Israel and Syria from reaching peace in the near future–with the Assad regime the biggest obstacle of them all.

With embattled Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert all but out of office, attention has already turned to how the fallout will affect peace negotiations. In this vein, a spokesperson for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared that Olmert’s struggles “will leave a negative impact on negotiations,” while Syrian Minister of Information Mahdi Dahlallah stated that “Israel’s weak government may become an obstacle to a peace that Syria wants to achieve.”

Of course, the Palestinians and Syria are right. Indeed, how can there be any progress towards peace while Olmert has one foot out the door, and while a new round of elections would stall politics in Israel for at least three months? Yet Olmert’s scandal is hardly the biggest obstacle facing peace negotiations–particularly on the Syrian front, where the regime has shown a stubborn unwillingness to concede on either of two major issues that peace will require.

The first requirement is that Syria abandons its relationship with Iran and Hezbollah. As I’ve previously noted, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has already precluded this possibility, calling it “absurd” in an interview with the Italian weekly L’Espresso. But yesterday, Assad dug his heels in even further, reaching a defense deal with Iran that includes provisions for reciprocal visits by top military officials, joint military training, and cooperation on technical advancements. This deal is clearly intended to reassure Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was noticeably disappointed by news of possible Israeli-Syrian peace, and will further strengthen Hezbollah. These realities would preclude even the most desperate of Israeli leaders from pursuing peace.

The second requirement–which Israel has historically demanded of all its partners in peace negotiations–is that the Syrian regime ends its incitement against Israel. Yet, even as Assad has gone as far as supporting separate Lebanese-Israeli negotiations while addressing an English-language audience, he has barely spoken on Syrian-Israeli negotiations in his state-run media, dropping a few references deep in articles on peripheral diplomatic topics as if at random. Meanwhile, the top stories in the Syrian press included Jimmy Carter’s most recent assertion that Israel possesses 150 nuclear warheads, as well as a report that Israel intends to destroy 3000 Palestinian homes–stories that further condition the Syrian public against embracing peace with Israel.

The bottom line is that a number of obstacles will prevent Israel and Syria from reaching peace in the near future–with the Assad regime the biggest obstacle of them all.

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“In a Word: Disgusting”

A follow-up to Olmert’s day of disgrace. Here’s the veteran political commentator Sima Kadmon, on the revelations about Ehud Olmert’s financial dealings:

In a word: Disgusting. And even that doesn’t serve to fully express the sense of nausea that emerges from the testimony of donor and fundraiser Morris Talansky, who for 15 years, it appears, made sure to maintain the lavish lifestyle of an Israeli mayor and minister.

The testimony that was heard Tuesday at the Jerusalem District Court is not only dramatic; it’s shocking. It is shocking that a public servant demands and receives cash donations, with no receipts, and without any records being kept. It is shocking to think that such senior public figure uses the credit card of an American Jew in order to finance his expenses.

It is shocking that an Israeli public servant receives a $25,000 gift in order to finance a family vacation. It is shocking that a public figure receives gifts worth tens of thousands of shekels for first class upgrades, luxury hotels, restaurants, and vacations. It is shocking to hear about huge loans that were never paid back, even though they loaner demanded payment.

It is possible that parts of the testimony we heard Tuesday are untrue. Other parts may be inaccurate. There are also things that must have an explanation. And perhaps it will turn out that there was no criminal offense here. Yet the behavior described by Talansky is embarrassing and revolting even if we weren’t talking about a public figure: There is nothing sexy about people who live at the expense of others only to satisfy their desires and ostentatious lifestyle. It is much more shocking and horrifying when we are talking about a minister in the Israeli government.

Kadmon’s feelings reflect a wave of revulsion currently sweeping the Israeli media over the Olmert affair. Yet there’s something a little strange about it. Maybe it’s because I live in Jerusalem, where Olmert reigned as mayor for eight years, and every cab driver seems to know about his corruption. Or maybe it’s just that everybody in Israel already knew that this stuff went on, but it never really made the newspapers, and the official public discourse insisted on being much more naive than the man-in-the-street conventional wisdom.

One hopeful sign of the effect of all this loathing: The Olmert affair has the potential to do for financial accountability among public officials what the Katzav affair did for sexual misconduct. As Haaretz commentator Uzi Benziman put it today:

Just as the revelation of how former president Moshe Katsav behaved toward his female subordinates led to a decline in sexual harassment in the public service, so too a peek at Olmert’s behavior with regard to Talansky may well generate a real turning point in the pattern of relationships between the country’s leaders and wealthy Jews from abroad. So far, this seems to be Olmert’s only salient contribution during his term as prime minister.

A follow-up to Olmert’s day of disgrace. Here’s the veteran political commentator Sima Kadmon, on the revelations about Ehud Olmert’s financial dealings:

In a word: Disgusting. And even that doesn’t serve to fully express the sense of nausea that emerges from the testimony of donor and fundraiser Morris Talansky, who for 15 years, it appears, made sure to maintain the lavish lifestyle of an Israeli mayor and minister.

The testimony that was heard Tuesday at the Jerusalem District Court is not only dramatic; it’s shocking. It is shocking that a public servant demands and receives cash donations, with no receipts, and without any records being kept. It is shocking to think that such senior public figure uses the credit card of an American Jew in order to finance his expenses.

It is shocking that an Israeli public servant receives a $25,000 gift in order to finance a family vacation. It is shocking that a public figure receives gifts worth tens of thousands of shekels for first class upgrades, luxury hotels, restaurants, and vacations. It is shocking to hear about huge loans that were never paid back, even though they loaner demanded payment.

It is possible that parts of the testimony we heard Tuesday are untrue. Other parts may be inaccurate. There are also things that must have an explanation. And perhaps it will turn out that there was no criminal offense here. Yet the behavior described by Talansky is embarrassing and revolting even if we weren’t talking about a public figure: There is nothing sexy about people who live at the expense of others only to satisfy their desires and ostentatious lifestyle. It is much more shocking and horrifying when we are talking about a minister in the Israeli government.

Kadmon’s feelings reflect a wave of revulsion currently sweeping the Israeli media over the Olmert affair. Yet there’s something a little strange about it. Maybe it’s because I live in Jerusalem, where Olmert reigned as mayor for eight years, and every cab driver seems to know about his corruption. Or maybe it’s just that everybody in Israel already knew that this stuff went on, but it never really made the newspapers, and the official public discourse insisted on being much more naive than the man-in-the-street conventional wisdom.

One hopeful sign of the effect of all this loathing: The Olmert affair has the potential to do for financial accountability among public officials what the Katzav affair did for sexual misconduct. As Haaretz commentator Uzi Benziman put it today:

Just as the revelation of how former president Moshe Katsav behaved toward his female subordinates led to a decline in sexual harassment in the public service, so too a peek at Olmert’s behavior with regard to Talansky may well generate a real turning point in the pattern of relationships between the country’s leaders and wealthy Jews from abroad. So far, this seems to be Olmert’s only salient contribution during his term as prime minister.

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A Prisoner Deal with Hezbollah?

The Israeli press is aflutter with reports that a deal has been struck with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, in which the terror group would return the two kidnapped soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser whose abduction in 2006 precipitated that summer’s war, in exchange for Israel’s releasing an unspecified number of terrorists. This batch would include Samir Kuntar, whose exploits include the murder of an Israeli family in the coastal town of Nahariya in 1979.

Though it’s not at all clear that this deal will go through–there have been such rumors in the past–there are reasons to be exceptionally cautious in this case. Both Ehud Olmert and Hassan Nasrallah need something, anything, to show their own people: Olmert faces the most serious criminal investigation any Israeli prime minister has ever faced, while Nasrallah has just violated years of promises to the Lebanese that his organization would never turn its weapons on fellow citizens.

Israel has always been prepared to pay a high price to return its captive soldiers. This is as it should be: A country that values life so strongly, that sends its children to defend it, should imbue its soldiers with the belief that if they are taken prisoner, their country will do everything in its power to bring them back alive. At this stage, however, it is not even clear whether they are alive. What is clear, however, is that Olmert’s situation is so desperate that he is likely to do virtually anything for a headline that will save him–including giving away the store to Hezbollah, to Syria, or to anyone else. A lousy bargaining position, and one which Israel’s enemies are likely to milk for all it’s worth.


The Israeli press is aflutter with reports that a deal has been struck with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, in which the terror group would return the two kidnapped soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser whose abduction in 2006 precipitated that summer’s war, in exchange for Israel’s releasing an unspecified number of terrorists. This batch would include Samir Kuntar, whose exploits include the murder of an Israeli family in the coastal town of Nahariya in 1979.

Though it’s not at all clear that this deal will go through–there have been such rumors in the past–there are reasons to be exceptionally cautious in this case. Both Ehud Olmert and Hassan Nasrallah need something, anything, to show their own people: Olmert faces the most serious criminal investigation any Israeli prime minister has ever faced, while Nasrallah has just violated years of promises to the Lebanese that his organization would never turn its weapons on fellow citizens.

Israel has always been prepared to pay a high price to return its captive soldiers. This is as it should be: A country that values life so strongly, that sends its children to defend it, should imbue its soldiers with the belief that if they are taken prisoner, their country will do everything in its power to bring them back alive. At this stage, however, it is not even clear whether they are alive. What is clear, however, is that Olmert’s situation is so desperate that he is likely to do virtually anything for a headline that will save him–including giving away the store to Hezbollah, to Syria, or to anyone else. A lousy bargaining position, and one which Israel’s enemies are likely to milk for all it’s worth.


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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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Blockading Iran

On Monday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert proposed a U.S. naval blockade of Iran. In talks with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, he also suggested that nations not allow the entry of Iranian business people and senior regime leaders. Both measures are intended to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons. “The present economic sanctions on Iran have exhausted themselves,” Olmert said, according to today’s Haaretz, the Israeli paper, in its online edition.

At about the same time that Haaretz reported the news of Olmert’s proposals, the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security released a May 13 letter from Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. In the letter, Iran proposed talks on its nuclear program and other topics, such as nuclear disarmament, the Palestinian issue, and democracy in the Balkans. “I see it as a way to start negotiations,” said Institute for Science and International Secutrity President David Albright, referring to Iran’s wide-ranging offer.

Is there anything left to negotiate at this point? After all, most everything that could be said about Iran’s enrichment of uranium has already been uttered. Most every proposal has already been made in one form or another. Mottaki, in his letter, notes his country wants “constructive interaction and reasonable and just negotiations, without preconditions and based on mutual respect.” Of course, what the foreign minister is really saying is that Iran will not stop enrichment as the Security Council has demanded.

So, despite Tehran’s defiance of U.N. demands, should we start discussions with its representatives on the problems of the world? I say, let’s talk. But let’s also impose the blockade before we sit down with the mullahs’ representatives. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates said yesterday,

The key here is developing leverage, either through economic or diplomatic or military pressures on the Iranian government so they believe they must have talks with the United States because there is something they want from us, and that is the relief of the pressure.

There’s nothing wrong about talking with repugnant and dangerous adversaries–as long as they come to surrender.

On Monday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert proposed a U.S. naval blockade of Iran. In talks with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, he also suggested that nations not allow the entry of Iranian business people and senior regime leaders. Both measures are intended to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons. “The present economic sanctions on Iran have exhausted themselves,” Olmert said, according to today’s Haaretz, the Israeli paper, in its online edition.

At about the same time that Haaretz reported the news of Olmert’s proposals, the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security released a May 13 letter from Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. In the letter, Iran proposed talks on its nuclear program and other topics, such as nuclear disarmament, the Palestinian issue, and democracy in the Balkans. “I see it as a way to start negotiations,” said Institute for Science and International Secutrity President David Albright, referring to Iran’s wide-ranging offer.

Is there anything left to negotiate at this point? After all, most everything that could be said about Iran’s enrichment of uranium has already been uttered. Most every proposal has already been made in one form or another. Mottaki, in his letter, notes his country wants “constructive interaction and reasonable and just negotiations, without preconditions and based on mutual respect.” Of course, what the foreign minister is really saying is that Iran will not stop enrichment as the Security Council has demanded.

So, despite Tehran’s defiance of U.N. demands, should we start discussions with its representatives on the problems of the world? I say, let’s talk. But let’s also impose the blockade before we sit down with the mullahs’ representatives. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates said yesterday,

The key here is developing leverage, either through economic or diplomatic or military pressures on the Iranian government so they believe they must have talks with the United States because there is something they want from us, and that is the relief of the pressure.

There’s nothing wrong about talking with repugnant and dangerous adversaries–as long as they come to surrender.

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Olmert the Etrog?

John wrote about this already, but I want to put in my two cents. Less than a day has passed since the Israeli Supreme Court dealt a major blow to Ehud Olmert’s bid to stay out of jail, by ruling that Israeli Police may take a deposition from the New York businessman who allegedly bribed him–and now we have the Prime Minister’s Office making a dramatic announcement that peace talks are under way with Syria.

Coincidence, you say? Unlikely. One of the most disturbing aspects of Ariel Sharon’s tenure as Prime Minister was the bizarre tendency for his criminal investigations to disappear from the public eye every time it seemed like he was about to do something that could be seen as leading to peace–especially the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. It has become something of an open secret in Israel that both the justice system and journalists bend for its leaders’ peace initiatives, and that a peace-seeking Prime Minister becomes, in the words of one commentator, an “etrog”–a beautiful fruit that must be handled with care and protected at all cost.

But there is reason to think that what worked for Sharon will not work for Olmert. Sharon knew how to cultivate his image, and he was far more respected by both the Israeli elites and the general public than is Olmert, whose popularity has dropped way below even Sharon’s lowest point as Prime Minister. But more importantly, Sharon’s government was, by all appearances at the time, far more likely to pull off the disengagement from Gaza than Olmert is to sign a peace accord with Syria. First, disengagement was a unilateral move, whereas a treaty with Syria will require that the Assad regime abandon the central cause it has rallied around for a generation: War with Israel. Second, the Golan Heights, which would be the necessary price Israel would pay for any peace deal, is seen by a far greater number of Israelis as an inseparable part of the Jewish state than the Gaza strip ever was. And third, Sharon always carried with him the mystique of a man who can be counted on to follow through with his plans, regardless of whether you agreed with him; while Olmert has proven time and again the triviality of his promises.

The biggest reason, however, might come from the sea of police and justice officials who have been working on the most important criminal investigation of their lives. After massive leaks have suggested that an indictment is on its way, and Olmert has pledged to resign if indicted–maybe this ball has too much momentum to be stopped by the unlikely prospect of peace with a member of the Axis of Evil? Maybe the etrog has already fallen?

John wrote about this already, but I want to put in my two cents. Less than a day has passed since the Israeli Supreme Court dealt a major blow to Ehud Olmert’s bid to stay out of jail, by ruling that Israeli Police may take a deposition from the New York businessman who allegedly bribed him–and now we have the Prime Minister’s Office making a dramatic announcement that peace talks are under way with Syria.

Coincidence, you say? Unlikely. One of the most disturbing aspects of Ariel Sharon’s tenure as Prime Minister was the bizarre tendency for his criminal investigations to disappear from the public eye every time it seemed like he was about to do something that could be seen as leading to peace–especially the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. It has become something of an open secret in Israel that both the justice system and journalists bend for its leaders’ peace initiatives, and that a peace-seeking Prime Minister becomes, in the words of one commentator, an “etrog”–a beautiful fruit that must be handled with care and protected at all cost.

But there is reason to think that what worked for Sharon will not work for Olmert. Sharon knew how to cultivate his image, and he was far more respected by both the Israeli elites and the general public than is Olmert, whose popularity has dropped way below even Sharon’s lowest point as Prime Minister. But more importantly, Sharon’s government was, by all appearances at the time, far more likely to pull off the disengagement from Gaza than Olmert is to sign a peace accord with Syria. First, disengagement was a unilateral move, whereas a treaty with Syria will require that the Assad regime abandon the central cause it has rallied around for a generation: War with Israel. Second, the Golan Heights, which would be the necessary price Israel would pay for any peace deal, is seen by a far greater number of Israelis as an inseparable part of the Jewish state than the Gaza strip ever was. And third, Sharon always carried with him the mystique of a man who can be counted on to follow through with his plans, regardless of whether you agreed with him; while Olmert has proven time and again the triviality of his promises.

The biggest reason, however, might come from the sea of police and justice officials who have been working on the most important criminal investigation of their lives. After massive leaks have suggested that an indictment is on its way, and Olmert has pledged to resign if indicted–maybe this ball has too much momentum to be stopped by the unlikely prospect of peace with a member of the Axis of Evil? Maybe the etrog has already fallen?

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