Commentary Magazine


Topic: Netanyahu

Friedman’s Unilateral Delusion

In today’s New York Times, op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman tries to come to grips with reality when he acknowledges that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vanquished all of his domestic foes and has built a government with an overwhelming majority and the support of the country’s electorate. Friedman can’t help but be snide about what is to him a disheartening turn of events. He notes that “there are Arab dictators who didn’t have majorities that big after rigged elections.” But at least he has the sense to admit “Bibi is prime minister for a reason. He was elected because many Israelis lost faith in the peace process and see chaos all around them.”

The prime minister’s priority will be to keep the country unified in the face of the nuclear threat from Iran. And rather than spend too much time chasing after the fantasy that the Palestinians will agree to make peace, most Israelis hope he will use his huge majority to enact electoral reform, an idea that has the potential to diminish the influence of the ultra-Orthodox and thereby resolve the problem caused by that sector of the population not doing their fair share of military service. However, Friedman and other Netanyahu critics have other ideas. Not surprisingly, they want Netanyahu to use his power not to pursue his own ideas but to implement an unrealistic peace scheme of their devising.

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In today’s New York Times, op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman tries to come to grips with reality when he acknowledges that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vanquished all of his domestic foes and has built a government with an overwhelming majority and the support of the country’s electorate. Friedman can’t help but be snide about what is to him a disheartening turn of events. He notes that “there are Arab dictators who didn’t have majorities that big after rigged elections.” But at least he has the sense to admit “Bibi is prime minister for a reason. He was elected because many Israelis lost faith in the peace process and see chaos all around them.”

The prime minister’s priority will be to keep the country unified in the face of the nuclear threat from Iran. And rather than spend too much time chasing after the fantasy that the Palestinians will agree to make peace, most Israelis hope he will use his huge majority to enact electoral reform, an idea that has the potential to diminish the influence of the ultra-Orthodox and thereby resolve the problem caused by that sector of the population not doing their fair share of military service. However, Friedman and other Netanyahu critics have other ideas. Not surprisingly, they want Netanyahu to use his power not to pursue his own ideas but to implement an unrealistic peace scheme of their devising.

The bait that Friedman wishes to use to catch Netanyahu is the prospect that he will become a historic figure. Friedman backs the idea promoted by Ami Ayalon in a recent Times op-ed that Netanyahu will join Theodor Herzl and David Ben-Gurion as the most significant figures in modern Jewish history. I’m sure Netanyahu wouldn’t mind the comparison, but he’s too smart to be flattered into doing something foolish.

Ayalon’s scheme is a reconfigured version of Ariel Sharon’s unilateralism experiment in which he thought he could bypass a hopelessly stalled peace process by simply withdrawing from territories that Israel didn’t want to keep and thereby ridding the country of the burden of governing the Palestinians against their will. It sounded like a good idea at the time in part because Sharon’s toughness gave him some credibility when he warned that if the land given up were used to attack Israel, he would undo the measure.

But after Israel withdrew every single settlement, soldier and Jew from Gaza, the Palestinians turned the place into one big missile launching pad that pounded southern Israel for years. With Sharon incapacitated by a stroke and replaced by the ineffectual Ehud Olmert, Israel waited years before responding to the attacks. But the problem was not just that the Israelis waited too long before hitting back. It was that, contrary to Sharon’s formulation, not only did the Palestinians not keep the quiet; the international community gave Israel little or no credit for the withdrawal.

Far from the move undermining criticisms of Israel, like the Oslo Accords more than a decade earlier, the withdrawal only seemed to legitimize attacks on the Israelis as the possessors of “stolen property.” Nor did the pullout create more support for Israel’s right to self-defense even after territory they gave up was used for attacks.

That’s why Ayalon’s plan, endorsed by Friedman, to duplicate the Gaza withdrawal in the West Bank has no support among Israelis. Granted, Ayalon says after stating it will not keep any land on the wrong side of the security fence and starting to remove settlers, Israel should keep its army in the West Bank until a peace deal with the Palestinians is signed. Friedman claims this “would radically change Israel’s image in the world” and “dramatically increase Palestinian incentives to negotiate.” But it would do nothing of the kind.

So long as Israeli troops are in the West Bank, the international chorus of critics will continue to assail the “occupation” and declare that Jews have no right to live in the heart of their ancestral homeland. And rather than serve as an incentive for the Palestinians, unilateral withdrawals will merely confirm their opinion that if they wait long enough the Israelis will either lose heart and surrender, or the West will hand them their victory on a silver platter without any effort.

The vast majority of Israelis would gladly trade most of the West Bank for a real peace, but the Netanyahu majority is the product of a widespread realization that until there is a sea change in the political culture of the Palestinians, there isn’t going to be peace. Until that sea change happens, Israelis are prepared to hunker down and wait while continuing to build their own economy and hopefully resolve some other tricky domestic problems. Friedman may deprecate that as merely “doing nothing,” but Netanyahu was elected to avoid the mistakes of his predecessors, not to duplicate them.

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Obama’s Iranian Rubicon

As we noted yesterday, the celebratory tone of a senior Iranian figure about all his country has achieved in the negotiations with the West should scare those Americans who have been speaking with confidence about the Obama administration’s determination to prevent Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Despite the brave talk from the president, the Iranians are right to think they’ve got him on the run. Since the Iranians have crossed every red line intended to halt their progress, they can’t be blamed for thinking that the next round of talks or the ones that follow as the process drags out over the summer will ultimately lead to Western recognition of not only the legitimacy of their nuclear program but also their right to refine uranium. Indeed, with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in charge of the talks and with France no longer led by a president who is committed to a strong policy on Iran, it is difficult to imagine any other outcome at this point.

All of which puts the public concerns expressed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the negotiating process that provoked the scorn of President Obama and much of the chattering classes in both the United States and Israel and in a very different light. Though the consensus in the foreign policy establishment is that much more time must be given to let diplomacy work, if this is the direction in which the talks are heading, Netanyahu is to be forgiven for thinking the Iranians have played the West for suckers.

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As we noted yesterday, the celebratory tone of a senior Iranian figure about all his country has achieved in the negotiations with the West should scare those Americans who have been speaking with confidence about the Obama administration’s determination to prevent Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Despite the brave talk from the president, the Iranians are right to think they’ve got him on the run. Since the Iranians have crossed every red line intended to halt their progress, they can’t be blamed for thinking that the next round of talks or the ones that follow as the process drags out over the summer will ultimately lead to Western recognition of not only the legitimacy of their nuclear program but also their right to refine uranium. Indeed, with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in charge of the talks and with France no longer led by a president who is committed to a strong policy on Iran, it is difficult to imagine any other outcome at this point.

All of which puts the public concerns expressed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the negotiating process that provoked the scorn of President Obama and much of the chattering classes in both the United States and Israel and in a very different light. Though the consensus in the foreign policy establishment is that much more time must be given to let diplomacy work, if this is the direction in which the talks are heading, Netanyahu is to be forgiven for thinking the Iranians have played the West for suckers.

President Obama took umbrage when Netanyahu said that it appeared that the first round of the P5+1 talks resulted in negotiators giving away “freebies” to Tehran’s envoys. But with Iran virtually declaring victory even before the next scheduled gathering in Baghdad later this month, that may turn out to be a generous evaluation.

This also lends credence to those who believe President Obama never had any attention of taking action on the nuclear threat but was merely talking tough for the benefit of pro-Israel voters while the diplomatic process enabled him to stall until he is re-elected and thereby have the “flexibility” to accept a policy of containment. This thesis holds that the only purpose of the talks was to prevent Israel from attacking Iran on its own.

However, if we accept the premise that the president is sincere in his desire to forestall an Iranian bomb (the point of view championed by Jewish Democrats and other Obama admirers), the coming talks present a peculiar challenge for the administration.

President Obama has taken great pride in having assembled an international coalition to oppose Iran, but now that this group is involved in talks with Iran, he is also its prisoner. The United States may have no intention of acquiescing to Iran’s demands about refinement or stepping back from the harsh sanctions that were belatedly placed on Tehran. But if the EU, Russia and China are all prepared to accept a deal that will enable Iran to continue its nuclear program, the president is going to be faced with a difficult choice. He will either have to repudiate the deal that Ashton and the other parties want to cut with Iran (and thereby embrace the sort of American unilateralism that he sought to replace when he succeed President Bush) or go along with something that he knows will present a grave threat to U.S. security. And, contrary to both the hopes of his friends and the fears of his detractors, he may not be able to put off crossing his Iranian Rubicon until after the election.

The only way to avoid such a choice is to do something that the president is equally uncomfortable with: exercising international leadership. Allowing Ashton it run the show in Baghdad is very much in keeping with the president’s predilection for “leading from behind.” But unless he gets directly involved in this process, he is going to be stuck with an indefensible deal that will give the lie to every statement he’s ever made on Iran. The coming weeks will tell us a lot about whether the president meant what he said about Iran or if he is able or willing to derail a negotiation that is heading inexorably toward an Iranian triumph.

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Palestinians Short of Ideas, Not Guns

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is complaining that Israel is making it difficult for his security forces to obtain weapons. As the New York Times reports, Abbas claimed yesterday in a meeting with members of the left-wing J Street group that the problems his police have been encountering recently is due to their difficulty importing arms. He also dismissed the letter Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent him imploring the Palestinian to return to direct peace talks without preconditions.

However, the claim that any holdup in arms shipments is making it impossible for the PA to fulfill its commitments to keep the peace is absurd. As a senior Israeli source told the Times, there is no shortage of guns or ammunition in the West Bank. The various PA security forces are all armed to the teeth. The material Abbas wants to import from Russia and Egypt is not police equipment but armaments that would transform the PA’s forces into the sort of army the Oslo peace accords specifically forbid. Moreover, because the PA is making an alliance with the radical Islamists of Hamas rather than fighting them, what possible purpose would Abbas have for heavy weapons?

Abbas has a sympathetic audience in J Street. It has supported his effort to evade blame for refusing to talk peace in order to justify its opposition to Israel’s government. Such a stance treats the Palestinians as being without any responsibility for their actions. The PA has long tried to claim it was powerless, but this latest rejection of peace talks demonstrates anew that what they are short of is ideas, not guns.

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Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is complaining that Israel is making it difficult for his security forces to obtain weapons. As the New York Times reports, Abbas claimed yesterday in a meeting with members of the left-wing J Street group that the problems his police have been encountering recently is due to their difficulty importing arms. He also dismissed the letter Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent him imploring the Palestinian to return to direct peace talks without preconditions.

However, the claim that any holdup in arms shipments is making it impossible for the PA to fulfill its commitments to keep the peace is absurd. As a senior Israeli source told the Times, there is no shortage of guns or ammunition in the West Bank. The various PA security forces are all armed to the teeth. The material Abbas wants to import from Russia and Egypt is not police equipment but armaments that would transform the PA’s forces into the sort of army the Oslo peace accords specifically forbid. Moreover, because the PA is making an alliance with the radical Islamists of Hamas rather than fighting them, what possible purpose would Abbas have for heavy weapons?

Abbas has a sympathetic audience in J Street. It has supported his effort to evade blame for refusing to talk peace in order to justify its opposition to Israel’s government. Such a stance treats the Palestinians as being without any responsibility for their actions. The PA has long tried to claim it was powerless, but this latest rejection of peace talks demonstrates anew that what they are short of is ideas, not guns.

The PA leader is still under the mistaken impression that he needn’t talk to Prime Minister Netanyahu. He believes President Obama, left-wing Jews like J Street and an international community deeply hostile to the Jewish state will eventually bludgeon Israel into granting his demands that it surrender on every point of contention before negotiations even begin. But as his failed attempt to get the United Nations to recognize Palestinian independence — the diplomatic “tsunami” that was supposed to overwhelm Israel but instead merely demonstrated that the world had little interest in the Palestinians — without the PA first making peace with Israel should have taught him this strategy is not going to work. Nor should he hold his breath waiting for President Obama to risk the ire of Americans voters by picking another fight with Israel this year.

It is unfortunate that groups like J Street feed into his delusions about the world’s interest in forcing Israel into granting his desires. Abbas may harbor hopes a re-elected Obama will return to the pattern of his first three years in office and again seek to pressure Netanyahu to give in to Palestinian demands. But even if that comes to pass, there is only so much his foreign friends can do for him if he isn’t willing to talk to the Israelis. Abbas has demonstrated time and again that he isn’t willing or capable of signing a peace agreement that would recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.

Rather than whining to groups that aren’t willing to hold him responsible for his inability to import Russia munitions, what Abbas needs to do is to signal his willingness to make peace on realistic terms. Until that happens, neither Netanyahu — who enjoys the support of the vast majority of Israelis — or even a re-elected Obama are going to pay much attention to his complaints.

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Kadima Back to the Likud?

A day is a long time in politics. In Israel, apparently so are a few hours. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s new coalition, comprising an extraordinary 94 MKs (of 120), leaves Israel’s unprecedented election campaign…unprecedented. Inevitably, the flights of these fowl have been scrutinized to divine the causes and forecast the effects of this rather stunning development.

One regrettable feature of the coverage is the tiresome obsession of the punditocracy with interpreting every move Netanyahu makes as clearing the path to attack Iran (holding elections makes it easier; cancelling elections makes it easier). There is more to Israel than Iran.

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A day is a long time in politics. In Israel, apparently so are a few hours. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s new coalition, comprising an extraordinary 94 MKs (of 120), leaves Israel’s unprecedented election campaign…unprecedented. Inevitably, the flights of these fowl have been scrutinized to divine the causes and forecast the effects of this rather stunning development.

One regrettable feature of the coverage is the tiresome obsession of the punditocracy with interpreting every move Netanyahu makes as clearing the path to attack Iran (holding elections makes it easier; cancelling elections makes it easier). There is more to Israel than Iran.

Indeed, the new grand-super-uber coalition is a big opportunity for Netanyahu. He is now the king of Israeli politics (as if he wasn’t before), and with an irredeemably opportunistic and vacuous Kadima behind him, he can do great things: the Tal Law, the power of the rabbinate, the budget deficits, the socio-economic inequality, electoral reform, the Supreme Court, the basic laws, religion and state – conversations on each of these were going to take place during the election campaign. Instead, they can take place within the government.

But – speculation warning! – there may be an ulterior factor at play here. And it concerns Kadima, the centrist party founded by Ariel Sharon and populated mainly by then-Likudniks to implement his Disengagement Plan back in 2005. A darling of Western liberals, it is a party born of necessity and lived by opportunism. Indeed, by the admission of one of its own MKs, whether due to its members or its centrism, it ‘’has no clear ideology on almost any topic.’’ Such a faction is a wonderfully malleable addition to any coalition, as far as any prime minister is concerned.

But Netanyahu may have something else in mind. The rightist factions in Israeli politics, recognizing their limited success with fringe parties, have set their eyes on the Likud, looking to increase their power within that mainstream party. (This has also been going on with the Arabs and fringe Left in the Labor Party.) Netanyahu knew he would have to face this Likud Party at the party’s convention before the general election, and, though his own position was not in doubt, he was concerned about what sort of list his party would elect for him to lead to elections and bring to the Knesset. Even on the night this last minute coalition deal was struck, there was some indication of this schism: upon being pressed to assert sovereignty over the Ulpana Hill neighborhood of Bet-El in the West Bank which the Supreme Court has opposed, he responded that the elections have been postponed. That is, without impending elections, he has no need to pander to his more conservative base.

But he knows the time will soon come that he will have to face that base again. Is it possible he would prefer to do so with the old Likudniks of Kadima (including Shaul Mofaz) at his side back within the party? It is obvious why Mofaz wanted to delay elections – because he and his party would be consigned to the margin. But is it possible that Netanyahu sees an opportunity to moderate his party by – in Israeli political parlance – ‘‘bringing home’’ its unfaithful?

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No Iran Dissension Within Israeli Coalition

With the dust settling from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s brilliant political maneuver in which he vastly expanded his coalition and his power, the question remains what will he do with it in the next year? While Israelis seem more interested in domestic political implications of the move, not surprisingly, most foreign observers are focused on the impact of the new coalition on the issue of Iran’s nuclear threat. Some of Netanyahu’s frustrated critics are holding on to the hope that somehow the addition of Kadima head Shaul Mofaz will moderate the prime minister’s stand on the issue. But this is not only a misreading of Mofaz but of Netanyahu’s position.

As the prime minister demonstrated today in his meeting with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, far from Mofaz’s entry into the Cabinet acting as a restraint on him, the creation of a government that can count on nearly 80 percent of the Knesset means that when Netanyahu speaks now there can be no doubt that he represents a strong consensus within his country on the issue. By bringing Mofaz as well as Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to speak to Ashton, Netanyahu demonstrated that there is across-the-board support for his demands that Iran’s nuclear program be stopped dead in its tracks.

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With the dust settling from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s brilliant political maneuver in which he vastly expanded his coalition and his power, the question remains what will he do with it in the next year? While Israelis seem more interested in domestic political implications of the move, not surprisingly, most foreign observers are focused on the impact of the new coalition on the issue of Iran’s nuclear threat. Some of Netanyahu’s frustrated critics are holding on to the hope that somehow the addition of Kadima head Shaul Mofaz will moderate the prime minister’s stand on the issue. But this is not only a misreading of Mofaz but of Netanyahu’s position.

As the prime minister demonstrated today in his meeting with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, far from Mofaz’s entry into the Cabinet acting as a restraint on him, the creation of a government that can count on nearly 80 percent of the Knesset means that when Netanyahu speaks now there can be no doubt that he represents a strong consensus within his country on the issue. By bringing Mofaz as well as Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to speak to Ashton, Netanyahu demonstrated that there is across-the-board support for his demands that Iran’s nuclear program be stopped dead in its tracks.

Ashton, a virulent critic of Israel who has been ceded control of the P5+1 talks with Iran by President Obama, may have intended her visit to Israel as an opportunity to mend fences so as to allow her to continue the diplomatic minuet she is dancing with the Islamist regime to continue unimpeded by Israeli actions. But Netanyahu used the meeting to lay down the guidelines for the upcoming negotiations in Baghdad. As Haaretz reported today:

During the meeting, the Israelis presented a rigid set of demands for the Iranians, a senior Israeli official said. Netanyahu and the three ministers told Ashton that Israel’s position leading up to the Baghdad talks is that the talks will be considered as progress only if they would yield an Iranian guarantee – with a clear timetable – to halt uranium enrichment, to remove all enriched uranium out of Iranian soil, and to dismantle the underground enrichment facility in Fordo, which is near Qom.

In doing so, Netanyahu is attempting to box in the Western negotiators who have given every indication that they will be happy to allow the Iranians to drag out the talks and would be satisfied with a deal that would leave their nuclear program intact. These terms were delivered to Ashton, but the real audience for Israel’s position is in Washington.

Three years ago, President Obama may have entertained hopes about toppling Netanyahu, but now he is faced with the fact that the Israeli is stronger than ever. Though fears about a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran are probably exaggerated — Netanyahu would almost certainly not contemplate such an option while Western talks with Iran are ongoing — the new coalition will force the administration to stop listening to dissident Israeli voices carping at Netanyahu for his tough stance on Iran. As Haaretz also notes, the idea that Mofaz disagrees with the prime minister on Iran is a misperception fueled by Israeli political maneuvering:

According to a report published by Israeli newspaper Maariv on Wednesday, several officials who took part in the coalitional negotiations between Mofaz and Netanyahu said the two are “coordinated” over the issue of Iran and are “of one mind” when it comes to stopping Iran’s nuclear program.

Netanyahu knows Iran has no intention of giving up its nuclear chips in the current talks. He now has a broad government that will back him on any decision to take action. That places more pressure than ever on Obama not to allow the U.S. to be dragged into an unsatisfactory deal by Ashton that will have negative political repercussions at home and might force Israel to act on its own. Though the president may hope to kick the Iranian can down the road until after the fall U.S. elections, Netanyahu’s coup may have made it more difficult for the president to do so.

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Israel Continues to Politically Inspire

In recent decades it became a common trope to bemoan Israel’s inability to inspire politically. As opposed to the state’s early decades of scrappy existence against long odds, the images of Israeli tanks staring down Arab rock-throwers supposedly denuded Israel’s capacity to arouse anything much other than discomfort.

Yesterday’s late night political drama at the Knesset is a shining counterpoint. It demonstrates the continued ability of Israel’s politicians not to be victims of their circumstances but to actively shape them, something we in the United States (and the entire Western world for that matter) should take heed of.

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In recent decades it became a common trope to bemoan Israel’s inability to inspire politically. As opposed to the state’s early decades of scrappy existence against long odds, the images of Israeli tanks staring down Arab rock-throwers supposedly denuded Israel’s capacity to arouse anything much other than discomfort.

Yesterday’s late night political drama at the Knesset is a shining counterpoint. It demonstrates the continued ability of Israel’s politicians not to be victims of their circumstances but to actively shape them, something we in the United States (and the entire Western world for that matter) should take heed of.

The most important issue the new super coalition government headed by Likud and Kadima (the largest party in the current government by seats) allows Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu to confront is the draft exemption for haredi youth. Currently known as the Tal Law, it is an element of a range of concessions first made by David Ben-Gurion (Israel’s first prime minister) with religious parties that enabled the dominant Israeli left to form a government without including their rivals on the right. The basic premise of the provision is that 18-year-old Jewish males who would normally be eligible for conscription into the Israeli army can receive an exemption if they are studying in a religious yeshiva.

At the time the original deal was struck, the law exempted only around 400 people. Ben-Gurion was also likely comforted by his belief in the eventual extinction of traditional religious life in the new Jewish state, which would over time make the issue moot.

On this point however he proved shortsighted, as the exempted population has grown to now around 60,000. Moreover, haredi Jews make up an increasing percentage of Israeli society that remains in many ways disconnected from the larger public, precisely because they do not participate in the Israeli-identity forming experience of IDF service. Despite a growing recognition that the exemption is no longer tenable (and even after the Israeli Supreme Court’s recent decision that the law in its current form is unconstitutional) there was widespread feeling the situation could not be changed, because to do so would require the main competing political factions to partner together, thereby forming a government that could exclude the still relatively small religious parties and make changes to the exemption whether or not they approve.

This has created a sense of impending doom in the country, as it seemed destined to watch a growing haredi population capture ever larger shares of government support without contributing to or sharing in the burdens of the larger society.

The coalition deal is a big deal because it potentially breaks that doom. There is now a sufficiently large coalition that it can pass legislation without any support from religious parties. In fact, the three largest parties (Kadima, Likud, and Yisrael Beitenu, which has gained in support in part because of its focus on changing the draft exemption) now have a majority on their own.

From a country with its own intractable problems that seem insolvable due to the inability of the two major political parties to work substantively together, the example set last night by Israel’s leaders should inspire.

No doubt there are less then pristine factors at play. Shaul Mofaz, Kadima’s leader, delays impending electoral calamity by entering the government. Netanyahu for his part delays the entrance of Yair Lapid, a potential rival, to the Knesset. One cannot hope for politics to be entirely noble.

Nevertheless, American Jews, Americans, and the West should take note and find inspiration in Israel’s demonstration today that no political problem does not have its solution.

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Heads: Bibi Wins; Tails: His Rivals Lose

For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the last-minute deal concluded yesterday to put off elections and bring the Kadima Party into his coalition is another instance of his crafty strategy producing a heads, I win, tails, you lose moment in Israeli politics. Though the scenario in which he went to the polls in September to get a new and larger mandate from the people would have put him in a very strong position, adding Kadima and its new leader Shaul Mofaz to the Cabinet serves him just as well. The 94-seat majority (out of 120 seats in the Knesset) that he will now have for the next year and a half with elections postponed until the originally scheduled date in October 2013 will be strong enough to withstand any possible challenge from both allies like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu Party and foes on the left.

Though most foreign observers will jump to the conclusion that the Tehran-born Mofaz will provide Netanyahu with the internal backing needed to attack Iranian nuclear targets sometime in the next year, most Israelis are thinking more about the possibility of the largest secular parties now being able to unite to deal with question of military service for the ultra-Orthodox. This ought to make clear to even the dimmest of American observers of the Middle East — especially those so-called “liberal Zionists” who harbor unrealistic ambitions to remake the Jewish state in the image of American Jewry —not only the strength of Netanyahu’s ascendancy but how little the left counts in Israeli politics anymore.

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For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the last-minute deal concluded yesterday to put off elections and bring the Kadima Party into his coalition is another instance of his crafty strategy producing a heads, I win, tails, you lose moment in Israeli politics. Though the scenario in which he went to the polls in September to get a new and larger mandate from the people would have put him in a very strong position, adding Kadima and its new leader Shaul Mofaz to the Cabinet serves him just as well. The 94-seat majority (out of 120 seats in the Knesset) that he will now have for the next year and a half with elections postponed until the originally scheduled date in October 2013 will be strong enough to withstand any possible challenge from both allies like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu Party and foes on the left.

Though most foreign observers will jump to the conclusion that the Tehran-born Mofaz will provide Netanyahu with the internal backing needed to attack Iranian nuclear targets sometime in the next year, most Israelis are thinking more about the possibility of the largest secular parties now being able to unite to deal with question of military service for the ultra-Orthodox. This ought to make clear to even the dimmest of American observers of the Middle East — especially those so-called “liberal Zionists” who harbor unrealistic ambitions to remake the Jewish state in the image of American Jewry —not only the strength of Netanyahu’s ascendancy but how little the left counts in Israeli politics anymore.

This will make Labor the main opposition party, a position it would likely have assumed after September elections anyway. But it does so in a position of tremendous weakness in which its voice will count for next to nothing. The new Yesh Atid Party led by former TV journalist Yair Lapid that would probably have stolen many of Kadima’s centrist voters will similarly have to wait to get its moment in the sun.

As for Mofaz, the move will set off speculation that his ultimate goal is to integrate what’s left of the party Ariel Sharon founded back into the Likud. Whether that happens or not, the new coalition reflects the basic consensus that has emerged in Israeli politics over the peace process. While there are some differences between Netanyahu, Mofaz and Lieberman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the four have much more in common on the question of dealing with the Palestinians than they differ. All support in principle a two-state solution and all understand that the only real obstacle to such a deal is the Palestinian refusal to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. The creation of the unity government in which the supposedly pro-peace Kadima (at least that’s what some Americans though while it was led by Tzipi Livni before Mofaz defeated her in a primary) joins the government should remind liberal American critics of Netanyahu just how far out of step they are with political reality in Israel.

Similarly, the current government is generally on the same page on the need to head off a nuclear Iran, giving Netanyahu the domestic backing he will need no matter what decision he ultimately makes on whether the country should strike on its own.

As for relations with the United States, while this development puts an end to the October surprise scenario in which a re-elected Netanyahu would have had two months to hit Iran while President Obama was still running for re-election, as I had already written, there wasn’t much chance that would happen. But with a unity government and the polls giving him overwhelming approval, Netanyahu has all the backing he needs to fend off any pressure from Washington in the next year and a half on either the Palestinian or the Iranian front. Liberal Zionists and Obama administration officials who have dreamed of Netanyahu’s defeat are just going to need to learn to live with him.

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Iran, Obama and Bibi’s October Surprise

On Friday, a commentator on Israel’s Channel 2 said aloud what others had been whispering in recent days. The Times of Israel reports that commentator Amnon Abramovich claimed today’s announcement that new Israeli elections will be scheduled for September 4 may set in motion a chain of events that could lead to an Israeli attack on Iran sometime between that date and the U.S. presidential election in November. The scenario makes sense on the surface in that if, as expected, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu wins an easy victory in September, he theoretically would have two months to strike Iran while President Obama was campaigning for re-election and therefore unlikely to condemn or punish Israel for ignoring his wishes about the use of force to fend off Tehran’s nuclear threat.

That isn’t likely to happen for a number of reasons, but the mere fact that it might is a positive development. As much as there is good reason to doubt that even under such seemingly favorable circumstances Israel would attack Iran on its own, the election announcement will have the salubrious effect of concentrating the minds of President Obama and his shaky allies in the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran. The only reason the West has stepped up its previously weak sanctions on Iran that led to the current lackluster negotiations is that they believed Israel would act unless they started behaving as if they cared about the problem. As most informed observers have noted, the chances of the talks achieving anything that would actually lessen the danger are slim. But if the Iranians as well as Obama and his partners think Israel will strike in the fall that could put tremendous pressure on both sides to do more than diplomatic game playing.

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On Friday, a commentator on Israel’s Channel 2 said aloud what others had been whispering in recent days. The Times of Israel reports that commentator Amnon Abramovich claimed today’s announcement that new Israeli elections will be scheduled for September 4 may set in motion a chain of events that could lead to an Israeli attack on Iran sometime between that date and the U.S. presidential election in November. The scenario makes sense on the surface in that if, as expected, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu wins an easy victory in September, he theoretically would have two months to strike Iran while President Obama was campaigning for re-election and therefore unlikely to condemn or punish Israel for ignoring his wishes about the use of force to fend off Tehran’s nuclear threat.

That isn’t likely to happen for a number of reasons, but the mere fact that it might is a positive development. As much as there is good reason to doubt that even under such seemingly favorable circumstances Israel would attack Iran on its own, the election announcement will have the salubrious effect of concentrating the minds of President Obama and his shaky allies in the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran. The only reason the West has stepped up its previously weak sanctions on Iran that led to the current lackluster negotiations is that they believed Israel would act unless they started behaving as if they cared about the problem. As most informed observers have noted, the chances of the talks achieving anything that would actually lessen the danger are slim. But if the Iranians as well as Obama and his partners think Israel will strike in the fall that could put tremendous pressure on both sides to do more than diplomatic game playing.

For all of the hysterical criticism being aimed at Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak for their supposed messianism about dealing with Iran, they have actually gone about their business on this issue in a rational manner. By making it clear to the world that Israel would not allow the Islamist regime to pose an existential threat to its existence, they have forced Obama to ratchet up his own rhetoric and to foreswear any policy of “containing” a nuclear Iran. They have also managed to pressure the European Union to threaten an oil embargo of Iran that would have been unimaginable without their fear that an Israeli attack would overturn the entire Middle East chessboard.

But Netanyahu and Barak are also keenly aware of the danger of pushing too far. That’s why it is equally unimaginable they would order a strike on Iran while the West was actively conducting nuclear negotiations. Though no one should think they would not use force as a last resort, they have throughout this crisis made it clear they understood it is far better for the West — whose interests are involved in this matter as much as that of Israel — to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat.

However, once the talks started last month, it seemed as if Israel had lost its leverage. The Iranians are past masters of playing diplomatic hide and seek with credulous Western negotiators. This round of talks started off no different than previous futile attempts to make the ayatollahs see reason. With European Union foreign policy chief Catherin Ashton in charge of the negotiations, there seemed little chance the West would push the Iranians hard. With both sides more intent on preventing an Israeli attack than on actually coming up with a deal that would shut down Iran’s nuclear program, it seemed likely that they would be dragged out until the end of the year when a re-elected President Obama might have the “flexibility” to take a less harsh view of the issue than when the votes of the pro-Israel community were up for grabs.

But if Obama believes there is a window for an Israeli attack in the fall prior to November, that might scare him into forcing Ashton and the negotiators to get tough. Though there is no reason to believe any amount of Western pressure, sanctions or threats will persuade Iran to give up its ambition of a nuclear weapon, Netanyahu’s election schedule might be enough to get the West to follow through on its oil embargo and to refuse to allow the Islamist regime to play them for the suckers in the P5+1 talks. Rather than the September 4 election making a unilateral Israeli strike more likely, it just might be the thing that could stiffen the spines of Obama and his European partners during the next six months.

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Israel’s Unprecedented Election Campaign

Despite the barrage of foreign criticism suffered by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu during his three-year, second term in office, his political achievements are considerable: his has been perhaps the most stable government in living memory, and that government has managed to relegate foreign and security policy to an unprecedented degree.

After all, despite the protestations of several former politicians and security officials (including Olmert, Dagan, Diskin, and Halevy), there is consensus on the Iranian nuclear question (Israel must continue to do everything necessary), and there is consensus on the Palestinian Arab question (the ball is in their court). This means that Israel can finally have the election campaign it has long deserved: a domestic policy election, which will focus on the role of religion in Israel and on socio-economic inequality.

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Despite the barrage of foreign criticism suffered by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu during his three-year, second term in office, his political achievements are considerable: his has been perhaps the most stable government in living memory, and that government has managed to relegate foreign and security policy to an unprecedented degree.

After all, despite the protestations of several former politicians and security officials (including Olmert, Dagan, Diskin, and Halevy), there is consensus on the Iranian nuclear question (Israel must continue to do everything necessary), and there is consensus on the Palestinian Arab question (the ball is in their court). This means that Israel can finally have the election campaign it has long deserved: a domestic policy election, which will focus on the role of religion in Israel and on socio-economic inequality.

The government has dissolved in anticipation of the expiration in August of the Tal Law, which grants ultra-Orthodox/haredi Jews exemptions from military service. The question of how to replace this law will feature prominently in this electoral campaign, as will the more general conversation about the roles of the haredim and Israeli Arabs in Israeli society, and the related, ongoing controversies about conversion (and marriage, burial, etc.), haredi treatment of women, and the power of the chief rabbinate.

Indeed, the voices on these issues have already mobilized. Yair Lapid, a media personality and son of a former well-known minister, has launched a new party to run on such issues. And so has Rabbi Chaim Amsellem, who was expelled from the Sephardic haredi party, Shas, for pressing for a more lenient approach to conversion – though one still within the parameters of Orthodox Jewish law. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beteinu party will also weigh in on these questions, which are of interest to its rightist and Russian immigrant constituencies. And the ultra-Orthodox and Arab parties will, naturally, pursue their predictable positions as well.

Meanwhile, with one of the few economies in the world to have withstood the global recession, Israel is able to focus more closely from a position of strength on inequities in its society. And with last summer’s tent protests still fresh in the Israeli memory, Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich will make these socio-economic issues the center of her party’s campaign. It is a testament to the bankruptcy of leftist approaches to the Arab-Israeli conflict that she has been elevated to her party’s leadership. The ultra-Orthodox and Arab parties – both representing poorer and more peripheral areas and groups (remember Shas has broader Sephardic support beyond its haredi base) – may also insert themselves into this conversation as well.

Not only will these parties campaign on their niche issues, but the big parties (Likud, Kadima, and Labor) will have to answer on them as well, and this may give the electorate an idea of what governing coalition will emerge – for although Netanyahu’s Likud may be poised for a big victory come September, the constitution of the Knesset as a whole will determine which policies will ultimately be enacted.

Regardless of one’s opinions on the role of religion and on the reality and resolution of socio-economic concerns in Israeli society, it is about time Israel had a real electoral conversation on these matters. Israel has Netanyahu to thank for it. And, if the polls are indicative, they will.

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Netanyahu’s Overwhelming Mandate

With the approval of the outgoing Knesset, Israel is moving toward early elections that will send its people to the polls on September 4. The decision will allow a new government to be in place in advance of the U.S. presidential contest that will take place two months later. If Israeli opinion polls are correct that will mean even if President Obama is re-elected, he still will be faced with his old antagonist Benjamin Netanyahu as his counterpart in the U.S.-Israel alliance.

Since Obama spent much of his first term seeking to undermine if not oust Netanyahu from office, the timing of the elections may be no coincidence. Past American presidents such as the elder George Bush and Bill Clinton sought to intervene in Israeli elections to procure a more pliant Israeli negotiating partner. But with Obama fighting hard to hold onto Jewish votes by assuming the pose of Israel’s best friend, he dare not take a swipe at Netanyahu before the September vote. Given the lopsided result that pollsters expect, it might not make a difference even if he did try it.

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With the approval of the outgoing Knesset, Israel is moving toward early elections that will send its people to the polls on September 4. The decision will allow a new government to be in place in advance of the U.S. presidential contest that will take place two months later. If Israeli opinion polls are correct that will mean even if President Obama is re-elected, he still will be faced with his old antagonist Benjamin Netanyahu as his counterpart in the U.S.-Israel alliance.

Since Obama spent much of his first term seeking to undermine if not oust Netanyahu from office, the timing of the elections may be no coincidence. Past American presidents such as the elder George Bush and Bill Clinton sought to intervene in Israeli elections to procure a more pliant Israeli negotiating partner. But with Obama fighting hard to hold onto Jewish votes by assuming the pose of Israel’s best friend, he dare not take a swipe at Netanyahu before the September vote. Given the lopsided result that pollsters expect, it might not make a difference even if he did try it.

Some kibbitzers have asserted that Israeli polls that show Netanyahu’s coalition gaining seats should not be misinterpreted as a personal mandate for the prime minister, as his Likud Party is likely to get only 30 or 31 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. That’s a foolish argument. If that is how the voting goes, such a result would still place Likud as the largest party by far and in position to command an easy majority with its normal coalition partners. Due to its proportional voting system, no party has ever won a majority on its own. But a new poll sponsored by the left-wing Haaretz newspaper shows Netanyahu is also the overwhelming choice of Israelis to be their prime minister.

In the poll, Israeli voters were asked which of the several party leaders they wanted to see become prime minister. Despite the multiple choices available, nearly a majority — 48 percent — chose Netanyahu. His closest competitor was Labor Party head Shelly Yacimovich at 15 percent. The only others to register anything beyond minimal support were Yisrael Beitenu’s Avigdor Lieberman (who serves as Netanyahu’s foreign minister) at 9 percent and Kadima’s new leader Shaul Mofaz, who got only 6 percent despite his claim to be the only viable alternative to the incumbent.

The survey also asked Israelis what they thought of the criticisms of former Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin that Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak were “messianics” who aren’t fit to lead the country. That result will also give no comfort to Netanyahu’s foreign and domestic critics who have hyped the story about Diskin as it noted Israelis disagree with the assertion by a 51-25 percent margin.

While four months can be a lifetime in politics, given the utter lack of support for Netanyahu’s putative rivals, his re-election is close to a lock. This has to frustrate Obama, who has made his distaste for Netanyahu no secret. It also sets up a possible timetable for the confrontation with Iran that may not conform to the president’s plans.

As some of Netanyahu’s Israeli critics have noted, the timing of the Israeli election probably takes an attack on Iran off the table until after September. But that was the case anyway. An Israeli strike while the P5+1 talks with Iran were ongoing was always unthinkable. But that does leave a window of two months between the two elections that might allow an Israeli offensive against Iranian nuclear targets in advance of the U.S. elections, a juxtaposition that would make it difficult, if not impossible, for Obama to oppose or punish Israel for such a decision.

Count me among the skeptics that Israel would choose to act unilaterally under those seemingly favorable circumstances. But Iran notwithstanding, by securing his re-election in advance of 2013, Netanyahu is ensuring that a U.S. president will not be able to use his clout to try and get him defeated the way Clinton did in both 1996 and 1999. Netanyahu’s overwhelming democratic mandate will largely insulate him against U.S. pressure even if Obama is also re-elected.

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Elections Will Clarify Zionism’s “Crisis”

So-called “liberal Zionists” like author Peter Beinart have been mounting an all-out campaign to undermine any notion that the proper attitude of American Jews toward Israel is support of its current government. Beinart and others on the left don’t like Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and believe their sensibilities rather than his judgment ought to be regarded as the proper path for the Jewish state. Though Beinart and other foreign liberals tend to regard the realities of the conflict with the Palestinians as mere details that only serve as an impediment to the implementation of their vision of peace, they are entitled to their opinions. But should it take precedence over that of the Israeli people?

Beinart and others who think Zionism is in “crisis” are about to get another lesson in Zionist democracy. With it becoming increasingly clear that Netanyahu will agree to move up the date for the next parliamentary elections to perhaps as early as September 4, those carping about the direction Israel has taken on the peace process, settlements, the Iranian threat, the religious-secular divide or any other issue will have an opportunity to watch Israeli democracy in action. The voters will have the opportunity to throw out Netanyahu and elect a government more in line with the views of Beinart and J Street. But, if as widely expected, they return Netanyahu to power with an even larger majority, shouldn’t there be some expectation these “liberal Zionists” will respect the will of the people?

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So-called “liberal Zionists” like author Peter Beinart have been mounting an all-out campaign to undermine any notion that the proper attitude of American Jews toward Israel is support of its current government. Beinart and others on the left don’t like Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and believe their sensibilities rather than his judgment ought to be regarded as the proper path for the Jewish state. Though Beinart and other foreign liberals tend to regard the realities of the conflict with the Palestinians as mere details that only serve as an impediment to the implementation of their vision of peace, they are entitled to their opinions. But should it take precedence over that of the Israeli people?

Beinart and others who think Zionism is in “crisis” are about to get another lesson in Zionist democracy. With it becoming increasingly clear that Netanyahu will agree to move up the date for the next parliamentary elections to perhaps as early as September 4, those carping about the direction Israel has taken on the peace process, settlements, the Iranian threat, the religious-secular divide or any other issue will have an opportunity to watch Israeli democracy in action. The voters will have the opportunity to throw out Netanyahu and elect a government more in line with the views of Beinart and J Street. But, if as widely expected, they return Netanyahu to power with an even larger majority, shouldn’t there be some expectation these “liberal Zionists” will respect the will of the people?

The problem for these left-wing critics is that although they think Israel is in need of being saved from itself, most Israelis disagree. The majority there appears ready to vote for the parties that make up the current coalition because they believe there is no viable alternative on either security or domestic issues. Netanyahu is far from perfect, but his positions reflect the broad consensus of the Israeli public on the key issues of the day.

That puts people like Beinart in something of a bind. You can’t preach about preserving Israeli democracy while at the same time claim elections there mean nothing. Friends of Israel, even those who style themselves critics of its government’s policies, are not obligated to become Netanyahu cheerleaders. But once the voters have decided, there is some obligation to respect the democratic process.

Many on the Jewish left have spent the last three years since Netanyahu’s election in 2009 acting as if his win was an accident that can be set aside by President Obama with their support. The problem with Beinart and those who agree with him is not so much that they would like Netanyahu replaced, but that they believe Washington should override the verdict of the Israeli electorate on the peace process. While Israelis take the views of its only superpower ally seriously, the notion that they should be dictated to on matters of war and peace is intolerable. So, too, is the idea that American Jews like Beinart, whose grasp of the nuances of Israeli society and politics is minimal, have a unique understanding of how to reform the country so as to have it conform to their own liberal vision of Zionism. As much as world Jewry has a vital stake in the preservation of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, policy decisions must be left in the hands of the people who live there.

It can be argued that the current consensus renders early elections an unnecessary distraction. But they do serve the purpose of reminding Beinart and other American Jews that Israel’s people will be presented with a clear set of choices and will then make their decisions. Liberals who would prefer a different outcome than a Netanyahu victory can go on preaching that Israel would be better served by his defeat. But once he is re-elected, they are also obligated to recognize that in a democracy, the losing side accepts the outcome. No one can claim to be a Zionist, even someone of the liberal or progressive persuasion, and claim he can reject not just the government but the Israeli people who elected it.

Israel is not perfect, and the peculiar compromises on the religious/secular divide may grate on the sensibilities of Americans. But contrary to the gloom and doom scenarios envisioned by Beinart and others who think it is heading for destruction, it is a vibrant, successful and thriving democracy. Most Israelis don’t think they need to be saved by the likes of Beinart. After the next election, he should take the hint.

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Obama’s Goal is to Avoid Conflict With Iran

In the latest in a series of New York Times front-page features on U.S. policy toward Iran based on anonymous sources within the administration, the newspaper proclaimed today the chances of armed conflict with the Islamist state had markedly declined. The unnamed American officials did no more than state the obvious when they noted that the current diplomatic process initiated this month in Istanbul which will recommence in Baghdad after a long break in late May has made it less likely that anyone would attack Iran anytime soon. However, presenting this conclusion as an objective analysis begs the point. The reason why “the temperature has cooled,” as one anonymous Obama administration put it, is not because the West is any closer to actually persuading the Iranians to desist from their nuclear ambitions. Rather, it is the result of policies that have no larger goal than to ensure that there will be no confrontation over the nuclear issue during the president’s campaign.

None of the factors the administration officials put forward as evidence of a cooling of tensions give much hope of securing a non-nuclear Iran. The sanctions, diplomacy and the encouragement of dissent within Israel against the Netanyahu government aren’t likely to convince the Iranians they have no choice but to give up. Though the sanctions are taking their toll on the Iranian economy, that hasn’t stopped Iran’s nuclear program, and its Islamist leadership have every confidence they can outfox Obama and his partners in the P5+1 talks as they have in the past without giving up anything valuable. These factors all have a more immediate goal: rendering any attack on Iran out of the question, and thus enabling the president to face the voters without either a huge spike in oil prices or another Middle East conflict.

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In the latest in a series of New York Times front-page features on U.S. policy toward Iran based on anonymous sources within the administration, the newspaper proclaimed today the chances of armed conflict with the Islamist state had markedly declined. The unnamed American officials did no more than state the obvious when they noted that the current diplomatic process initiated this month in Istanbul which will recommence in Baghdad after a long break in late May has made it less likely that anyone would attack Iran anytime soon. However, presenting this conclusion as an objective analysis begs the point. The reason why “the temperature has cooled,” as one anonymous Obama administration put it, is not because the West is any closer to actually persuading the Iranians to desist from their nuclear ambitions. Rather, it is the result of policies that have no larger goal than to ensure that there will be no confrontation over the nuclear issue during the president’s campaign.

None of the factors the administration officials put forward as evidence of a cooling of tensions give much hope of securing a non-nuclear Iran. The sanctions, diplomacy and the encouragement of dissent within Israel against the Netanyahu government aren’t likely to convince the Iranians they have no choice but to give up. Though the sanctions are taking their toll on the Iranian economy, that hasn’t stopped Iran’s nuclear program, and its Islamist leadership have every confidence they can outfox Obama and his partners in the P5+1 talks as they have in the past without giving up anything valuable. These factors all have a more immediate goal: rendering any attack on Iran out of the question, and thus enabling the president to face the voters without either a huge spike in oil prices or another Middle East conflict.

As the Times points out, a couple of months ago when the president said he did not consider containment of a nuclear Iran a viable policy, speculation about the use of force against Iran skyrocketed. But by holding out hope for a “window of diplomacy,” Obama has given himself a convenient escape hatch from his ringing rhetoric on the topic. The negotiations merely provide Iran more time to continue refining uranium with impunity so long as the talks continue. The reports emanating from Tehran about the ayatollahs being willing to compromise is exactly what the person who is running the talks — E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton — wants to hear. All the positive atmospherics may make it possible to drag out the process all through the spring and summer if not the fall.

The Europeans are desperate for any sign of give on the Iranians’ part that will provide them with the excuse to back off their threat of an embargo of Iranian oil. And both the administration and the Iranians have the shared goal of keeping the talking going until after the November election when the president might have the “flexibility” to reconsider his promises.

As for the criticism against Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu from within his country’s security establishment, that is not something that is likely to affect his decision making process for a couple of reasons.

First, though Netanyahu’s concerns about the futility of the P5+1 talks are justified, there is very little chance that he would order a strike on Iran while they continue. An Israeli attack on Iran, assuming one ever happens, will only be possible during a period when there is no ongoing diplomatic process. Second, even if he were free to act now, it isn’t likely that the carping of a few disgruntled former officials would stop him. While the Israeli public would prefer an international coalition to take on Iran rather than to do it alone, Netanyahu knows he has public support for a proactive policy so long as he can show there is no alternative.

In this context, it is important to note that Netanyahu may choose to move up Israel elections to the fall from next year. With another mandate from the people (and polls show him to be an overwhelming favorite to lead the next government), he will have even more freedom to do as he thinks best.

But as even the Times noted this morning, Obama has potentially laid a trap for himself by embracing the P5+1 talks. Though it is possible the Iranians will be clever enough to string the West along for many months, they have also shown they are just as fond of embarrassing their diplomatic partners by reneging on their commitments or by simply refusing to go on negotiating. Though a break in diplomacy is seemingly not in their interests, it wouldn’t be unusual for them to seek to confuse or flummox the West by cutting the process off at some point. If they do, then Obama will be faced with the choice of reneging on his promises to stop Iran or to act. If that moment comes before November, it will be a very difficult choice indeed.

 

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Netanyahu Isn’t Worried About Olmert

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke in New York yesterday at a conference organized by the Jerusalem Post. In his speech, Olmert attacked the policies of his successor Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, defended President Obama against criticism and also called for dividing Jerusalem, which he once served as mayor. According to the New York Times, this is yet another blow to Netanyahu, coming as it did after similar statements from disgruntled former security officials who also trashed Israel’s current government. The Times devoted a fair amount of space to the story this morning and even speculated that Olmert’s remarks “reflected domestic political calculations of his own.”

But the idea that Olmert’s criticism means much in Israel is farcical. As the Times noted in a sentence tucked away in the middle of the story, Olmert is under indictment for corruption charges and faces prison if convicted. What they left out is that he left office in 2009 without even attempting to run for re-election not just because of his legal problems but because he was widely perceived as perhaps the most incompetent and unpopular prime minister in the country’s history. At a time when Netanyahu is riding high in the polls at home and considering moving up elections to strengthen his already tight grip on power for another four years, Olmert is a political pariah with no influence, no following and no future in public life. The only place he can get a hearing these days is in the United States where left-wing audiences enjoy his carping about those who do enjoy the confidence of the Israeli public who rejected him. The general lack of interest in this story on the part of the Israeli press confirms this.

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Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke in New York yesterday at a conference organized by the Jerusalem Post. In his speech, Olmert attacked the policies of his successor Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, defended President Obama against criticism and also called for dividing Jerusalem, which he once served as mayor. According to the New York Times, this is yet another blow to Netanyahu, coming as it did after similar statements from disgruntled former security officials who also trashed Israel’s current government. The Times devoted a fair amount of space to the story this morning and even speculated that Olmert’s remarks “reflected domestic political calculations of his own.”

But the idea that Olmert’s criticism means much in Israel is farcical. As the Times noted in a sentence tucked away in the middle of the story, Olmert is under indictment for corruption charges and faces prison if convicted. What they left out is that he left office in 2009 without even attempting to run for re-election not just because of his legal problems but because he was widely perceived as perhaps the most incompetent and unpopular prime minister in the country’s history. At a time when Netanyahu is riding high in the polls at home and considering moving up elections to strengthen his already tight grip on power for another four years, Olmert is a political pariah with no influence, no following and no future in public life. The only place he can get a hearing these days is in the United States where left-wing audiences enjoy his carping about those who do enjoy the confidence of the Israeli public who rejected him. The general lack of interest in this story on the part of the Israeli press confirms this.

As it happens, Olmert was heckled and booed yesterday by some in his audience. Uncivil behavior like that is unfortunate, and Olmert was right to chide those Americans who did so for trying to be more Israeli than the Israelis. But it should also be pointed out that Olmert, a former member of the Likud, spent decades making a good living (if the corruption charges against him are proven to be true) pandering to such audiences of American Jews and encouraging them to be as fervent as possible in their backing for Likud’s stands on settlements, a united Jerusalem and peace negotiations, so it’s more than a bit hypocritical for him to now tell them to shut up.

As for the some of the substance of his remarks, Olmert contradicted himself about the peace plan he offered to the Palestinians in 2008. He claimed Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas did not say “no” to the plan, saying that others in his government told him not to accept. But then he went on to say that the “Palestinians are guilty.” He went on to explain that, “They should have answered my plan, and they should have answered Barak’s plan” referring to the similarly generous peace offers made in 2000 and 2001 that would have given the Palestinians an independent state in Gaza, almost all of the West Bank and a share in Jerusalem. But because there is no difference between a “no” and simply walking away from the negotiations without an answer, this is a distinction without a difference.

Later in an interview with the Times, he also made the following astonishing statement in connection with Israel’s efforts to bring attention to the nuclear threat from Iran:

“America is not a client state of Israel — maybe the opposite is true,” he said. “Why should we want America to be put in a situation where whatever they do will be interpreted as if they obeyed orders from Jerusalem?”

Now when a former prime minister of Israel suggests his country is a “client state” of the United States and seeks to undermine the efforts of those who have pushed for a tougher stance on Iran, that is curious. Conspiracy theorists and anti-Semites are likely to validate Olmert’s concerns, but since when does an Israeli leader seek to make policy based on such considerations? But then perhaps that’s the point. Olmert isn’t an Israeli leader in any real sense anymore, and it’s ridiculous for the Times or anyone else to treat him as if he were.

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Israeli Spook Revolt is Politics as Usual

The international press is doing its best to hype critical remarks about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu uttered by Yuval Diskin, the retired head of the Shin Bet security service, into a sign the government is in trouble. Diskin, a respected figure who retired last year, is the latest veteran spook to express his disdain for Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak and their stance on the nuclear threat from Iran. That there is a debate in the highest intelligence circles about the best strategy for dealing with Iran has never been a secret. But what Diskin’s comments and other attacks on Netanyahu from former Mossad chief Meir Dagan reflect is not so much a revolt of the experts against the politicians but a standard trope of Israeli politics in which those who are frustrated about the fact that their ideas have not won the support of the Israeli public seek to overturn the verdict of democracy by appealing to the press and international opinion. It is no more likely to succeed now than in the past.

Though foreign news outlets treated Diskin’s remarks as a huge story that can be spun as part of a negative trend for Netanyahu, even the left-wing press in Israel is skeptical about that. Haaretz’s Yossi Verter noted that the personal nature of Diskin’s rant against Netanyahu and Barak at what he termed a “gathering of defense establishment pensioners” undermined their credibility. Unlike the foreign press, most Israelis are aware that Dagan’s animus against Netanyahu and Barak stems from the fact that he was fired from his post. That Diskin was passed over to replace Dagan may also explain his hard feelings. Moreover, the utter lack of public support for alternatives to Netanyahu or his policies makes farcical the claim in today’s New York Times that there is an “avalanche” of criticism about his stand on Iran.

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The international press is doing its best to hype critical remarks about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu uttered by Yuval Diskin, the retired head of the Shin Bet security service, into a sign the government is in trouble. Diskin, a respected figure who retired last year, is the latest veteran spook to express his disdain for Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak and their stance on the nuclear threat from Iran. That there is a debate in the highest intelligence circles about the best strategy for dealing with Iran has never been a secret. But what Diskin’s comments and other attacks on Netanyahu from former Mossad chief Meir Dagan reflect is not so much a revolt of the experts against the politicians but a standard trope of Israeli politics in which those who are frustrated about the fact that their ideas have not won the support of the Israeli public seek to overturn the verdict of democracy by appealing to the press and international opinion. It is no more likely to succeed now than in the past.

Though foreign news outlets treated Diskin’s remarks as a huge story that can be spun as part of a negative trend for Netanyahu, even the left-wing press in Israel is skeptical about that. Haaretz’s Yossi Verter noted that the personal nature of Diskin’s rant against Netanyahu and Barak at what he termed a “gathering of defense establishment pensioners” undermined their credibility. Unlike the foreign press, most Israelis are aware that Dagan’s animus against Netanyahu and Barak stems from the fact that he was fired from his post. That Diskin was passed over to replace Dagan may also explain his hard feelings. Moreover, the utter lack of public support for alternatives to Netanyahu or his policies makes farcical the claim in today’s New York Times that there is an “avalanche” of criticism about his stand on Iran.

It’s important to reiterate that the disagreements in Israel about Iran policy are not about the nature of the threat or even whether anything should be done about it as is often claimed by those seeking to downplay the issue. The question is about the timing of an attack, with Netanyahu’s critics claiming he is wrong to push for one now.

But this is an entirely false issue. It is highly unlikely that Israel would attack Iran while the U.S. is negotiating with it even if Netanyahu rightly suspects the current P5+1 talks are an Iranian ruse. The attacks on Netanyahu are merely a way for disgruntled former employees to vent their spleen at the prime minister’s political success and to try and hurt his standing abroad.

The animus against Netanyahu and his center-right government from the defense establishment and the government bureaucracy as well as most of the country’s traditional media outlets is well-known. Their frustration about his survival in power is compounded by the fact that he appears to be set for a cakewalk in the next elections which, incredibly, some opposition parties are pushing to be advanced from their scheduled date next year. As journalist Amir Mizroch writes, Dagan and Diskin — two men with axes to grind against the prime minister – may be “smelling elections in the air.”

Although the Dagan and Diskin affairs are in a sense unprecedented, because until now Israeli defense and security officials have not misbehaved in this manner, what is going on is just Israeli politics as usual. If these men and those Israeli and foreign journalists who are trying to make this into a major story are frustrated and angry now, just imagine how they’ll feel after Netanyahu is re-elected.

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Iran Using Spin to Divide and Conquer

While President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have attempted to talk tough about the ongoing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, by agreeing to the P5+1 talks that were launched last week in Istanbul, the administration has set in motion a process that is clearly lurching out of their control. The Iranians scored a not insignificant victory by convincing the West to wait several weeks until the next meeting in late May. And as Laura Rozen reported in Al Monitor last week, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, a fierce critic of Israel, is in clear charge of the negotiations and may be steering the talks toward a deal that will fall well short of an agreement that would force an end to the Iranian program. But a key element to the creation of such an unsatisfactory conclusion to this process will be to convince the West that the Iranians are genuinely interested in a deal. And as Rozen notes today, the Islamist regime is working hard to give onlookers the impression that accommodation is their priority.

If all this sounds to good to be true it’s because it almost certainly is. The spin coming out of Tehran is aimed at creating false confidence in their willingness to abandon their nuclear ambitions and sign a deal that would allow the Europeans, as well as Iran’s Russian and Chinese friends to pretend that worries about the ayatollahs getting their hands on a nuke are put to rest. But since the Iranians have already successfully played this cat and mouse game with Western negotiators before, the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn from the “positive signals” coming out Iran is that the regime is aiming at driving a wedge between the United States and the other members of the P5+1 delegation.

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While President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have attempted to talk tough about the ongoing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, by agreeing to the P5+1 talks that were launched last week in Istanbul, the administration has set in motion a process that is clearly lurching out of their control. The Iranians scored a not insignificant victory by convincing the West to wait several weeks until the next meeting in late May. And as Laura Rozen reported in Al Monitor last week, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, a fierce critic of Israel, is in clear charge of the negotiations and may be steering the talks toward a deal that will fall well short of an agreement that would force an end to the Iranian program. But a key element to the creation of such an unsatisfactory conclusion to this process will be to convince the West that the Iranians are genuinely interested in a deal. And as Rozen notes today, the Islamist regime is working hard to give onlookers the impression that accommodation is their priority.

If all this sounds to good to be true it’s because it almost certainly is. The spin coming out of Tehran is aimed at creating false confidence in their willingness to abandon their nuclear ambitions and sign a deal that would allow the Europeans, as well as Iran’s Russian and Chinese friends to pretend that worries about the ayatollahs getting their hands on a nuke are put to rest. But since the Iranians have already successfully played this cat and mouse game with Western negotiators before, the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn from the “positive signals” coming out Iran is that the regime is aiming at driving a wedge between the United States and the other members of the P5+1 delegation.

These “positive signals” from regime figures about their desire for an end to the confrontation are exactly what those who were never really interested in pushing the Iranians hard want to hear. The Iranian happy talk is the bait needed to draw Ashton into prolonged negotiations that serve a double purpose for Tehran.

On the one hand, the effort to build confidence in Iran’s desire to peace helps undermine any sense of urgency on the part of the West as well as sapping support for increasing sanctions on the regime this summer. So long as the talks are being conducted the Iranians know they are safe from attack from Israel. But if they can convince gullible Western diplomats as well as the so-called experts about Iran that the process is leading toward an agreement, then it is possible the EU will back down on its promise to embargo Iranian oil. This holds out the hope that the West will gradually back away from sanctions and make it more difficult to make credible threats even after the Iranians inevitably disappoint their negotiating partners as they have repeatedly.

But the Iranian tactic has another more fundamental purpose. The Iranians benefit from dragging out the negotiations as long as possible since that allows their nuclear program extra time to keep refining uranium in order to get closer to their goal of a bomb. As Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said this week, their centrifuges were spinning before the talks started, they were spinning during the talks and have not stopped since.

It is a hopeful sign that, as Rozen reports, the State Department is dismissing the Iranian signals that others are so determined to interpret positively. However, by going down the garden path with the P5+1 group, the Obama administration is no longer in control of the effort to pressure Tehran. If, as the Iranians not unreasonably believe, the Chinese and Russians can be wooed into supporting their stand in the talks, all the president’s “diplomatic window” will have accomplished will be to buy the Islamist regime more precious time to get closer to their nuclear goal as his shaky international coalition unravels.

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Haaretz, NYTimes Play Telephone With IDF

Reading the New York Times account of an interview with Benny Gantz, the chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Force, that was first published in Haaretz is like a children’s game of “telephone.” What Gantz actually said wasn’t reflected in the misleading headline of the Israeli newspaper. That headline, rather than the actual content of the piece, was repeated in the Times article, so what comes out in America’s so-called newspaper of record had more to do with the editorial agenda of the press than the reality of Israel’s security dilemma.

The Haaretz headline was an attention-grabber: “IDF Chief to Haaretz: I do not believe Iran will decide to develop nuclear weapons.” Yet nowhere in the piece was there a quote that matched this startling assertion that was repeated in the Times headline that read: “Israeli Army Chief Says He Believes Iran Won’t Build a Bomb.” What Gantz tells Haaretz is that while the Iranians are actively working on a nuclear program, they have yet to activate the final stage of the project that would convert the material to a nuclear bomb. This is no revelation, as not even the most alarmist account of Iran’s efforts has stated that this final stage has been reached. Nor did Gantz express a belief that Iran wouldn’t build a bomb. Rather, he said the Iranians would do it only if they felt themselves “invulnerable.” He said he thought the ayatollahs were “rational,” but added that a weapon in their hands would be “dangerous.”

So while the tone of Gantz’s interview was not as sharp as the statements made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the substance isn’t very different. Which makes the claims made by the Times and the misleading headline in Haaretz a transparent attempt to portray a stark division within the councils of Israel’s leaders where there may be none.

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Reading the New York Times account of an interview with Benny Gantz, the chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Force, that was first published in Haaretz is like a children’s game of “telephone.” What Gantz actually said wasn’t reflected in the misleading headline of the Israeli newspaper. That headline, rather than the actual content of the piece, was repeated in the Times article, so what comes out in America’s so-called newspaper of record had more to do with the editorial agenda of the press than the reality of Israel’s security dilemma.

The Haaretz headline was an attention-grabber: “IDF Chief to Haaretz: I do not believe Iran will decide to develop nuclear weapons.” Yet nowhere in the piece was there a quote that matched this startling assertion that was repeated in the Times headline that read: “Israeli Army Chief Says He Believes Iran Won’t Build a Bomb.” What Gantz tells Haaretz is that while the Iranians are actively working on a nuclear program, they have yet to activate the final stage of the project that would convert the material to a nuclear bomb. This is no revelation, as not even the most alarmist account of Iran’s efforts has stated that this final stage has been reached. Nor did Gantz express a belief that Iran wouldn’t build a bomb. Rather, he said the Iranians would do it only if they felt themselves “invulnerable.” He said he thought the ayatollahs were “rational,” but added that a weapon in their hands would be “dangerous.”

So while the tone of Gantz’s interview was not as sharp as the statements made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the substance isn’t very different. Which makes the claims made by the Times and the misleading headline in Haaretz a transparent attempt to portray a stark division within the councils of Israel’s leaders where there may be none.

Here’s the text published by Haaretz:

Asked whether 2012 is also decisive for Iran, Gantz shies from the term. “Clearly, the more the Iranians progress the worse the situation is. This is a critical year, but not necessarily ‘go, no-go.’ The problem doesn’t necessarily stop on December 31, 2012. We’re in a period when something must happen: Either Iran takes its nuclear program to a civilian footing only or the world, perhaps we too, will have to do something. We’re closer to the end of the discussions than the middle.”

Iran, Gantz says, “is going step by step to the place where it will be able to decide whether to manufacture a nuclear bomb. It hasn’t yet decided whether to go the extra mile.”

As long as its facilities are not bomb-proof, “the program is too vulnerable, in Iran’s view. If the supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants, he will advance it to the acquisition of a nuclear bomb, but the decision must first be taken. It will happen if Khamenei judges that he is invulnerable to a response. I believe he would be making an enormous mistake, and I don’t think he will want to go the extra mile. I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people. But I agree that such a capability, in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists who at particular moments could make different calculations, is dangerous.”

While Gantz expressed some hope that international sanctions might work to influence Iran’s decisions, he said nothing that could be construed as a belief that Iran’s goal wasn’t a nuclear weapon or that Israel could live with the Islamist regime possessing such a capability. Indeed, he made it very clear that it was his job to prepare a “credible” military threat to Iran the purpose of which would be to convince Tehran to back down.

All that can be said of this interview is that Gantz did not mention the Holocaust and that his tone was calm and professional with more attention to the technical business of his specific military responsibility than an emotional call to action. But why would we expect a military leader to sound like a politician even if the substance of his approach left little daylight between his position and that of his boss?

It is true that this sounded a lot different from Netanyahu’s interview on CNN, where he made it clear that international sanctions on Iran had better work quickly lest the Iranians use the time they are gaining from protracted negotiations to get closer to their nuclear goal. But nothing Gantz said contradicted Netanyahu’s assertion that an Iranian nuke was an existential threat to Israel that must be stopped.

There is no basis to claim, as the Times does, that Gantz’s interview meant he agreed with Netanyahu’s critics and others who take a more relaxed view of the Iranian threat. Nor does the paper point out that even former Mossad chief Meyer Dagan, who is among the most vocal of those disagreeing with Netanyahu, believes Iran must be stopped from gaining a nuclear weapon.

The effort to hype Gantz’s interview is part of a campaign on the part of Israel’s critics to portray Netanyahu as being “hysterical” — the term used by the Times — about Iran. But as Gantz said, Israelis “aren’t two oceans away from the problem — we live here with our civilians, our women and our children, so we interpret the extent of the urgency differently.”

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Hamas: We’ll Never Recognize Israel

For those optimists who continue to believe peace with the Palestinians is possible, the focus in the Middle East continues to be on Israel. The fact that even the supposedly hard-line government of Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed to a two-state solution and proposed peace talks without preconditions is ignored. Instead, the world focuses on the wayward behavior of a single Israeli officer who assaulted protesters in the country to demand its destruction. That officer’s actions were wrong, but they were not, as the New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier incorrectly claimed, a reflection of Netanyahu’s “contempt” for world opinion. Rather, they were an individual’s response, albeit wrong-headed, to the contempt that those who hate Israel have for it. However, today brings a reminder that those who view Middle East peace as something that only is about Israeli decision-making are looking at the situation through the wrong end of the telescope.

The Forward’s Larry Cohler-Esses snagged an interview with Mussa Abu Marzook, the second-highest ranking official in Hamas, and what he found out was something that caused him, as the journalist later told Haaretz, to view the situation with less optimism. Though apologists for Hamas claim the group is moving toward peace with Israel, Abu Marzook made it plain that the best that could be hoped for is “hudna,” or truce, rather than a peace that would end the conflict. He also defended Hamas’s right to continue attacks on Jewish civilians.

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For those optimists who continue to believe peace with the Palestinians is possible, the focus in the Middle East continues to be on Israel. The fact that even the supposedly hard-line government of Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed to a two-state solution and proposed peace talks without preconditions is ignored. Instead, the world focuses on the wayward behavior of a single Israeli officer who assaulted protesters in the country to demand its destruction. That officer’s actions were wrong, but they were not, as the New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier incorrectly claimed, a reflection of Netanyahu’s “contempt” for world opinion. Rather, they were an individual’s response, albeit wrong-headed, to the contempt that those who hate Israel have for it. However, today brings a reminder that those who view Middle East peace as something that only is about Israeli decision-making are looking at the situation through the wrong end of the telescope.

The Forward’s Larry Cohler-Esses snagged an interview with Mussa Abu Marzook, the second-highest ranking official in Hamas, and what he found out was something that caused him, as the journalist later told Haaretz, to view the situation with less optimism. Though apologists for Hamas claim the group is moving toward peace with Israel, Abu Marzook made it plain that the best that could be hoped for is “hudna,” or truce, rather than a peace that would end the conflict. He also defended Hamas’s right to continue attacks on Jewish civilians.

Pressed by Cohler-Esses to define what even a hudna, rather than peace would mean, Abu Marzook said it would be similar to Israel’s relationship with Syria and Lebanon. Both countries remain in a state of war with Israel.

Some optimists will claim the mere fact that the interview took place at all and that a man like Abu Marzook is talking about a truce is positive and a sign the Fatah-Hamas unity agreement is moving the Palestinians toward peace. But it is far more likely that what this shows is how Hamas will use its new influence over the Palestinian Authority to render any hopes for peace ephemeral.

In particular, Abu Marzook took issue with the idea that Hamas is dropping its legacy of violence to take up Gandhi-like non-violence. The Hamas leader stands by his group’s charter that, as Cohler-Esses points out, contains blatantly anti-Semitic material including “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and passages of the Koran that call for the death of the Jews.

Whatever changes may be happening inside Hamas, as Abu Marzook jockeys with his rivals for the leadership of the group, it remains an Islamist terrorist group committed to Israel’s destruction. If the Fatah-Hamas agreement is finalized and men like Abu Marzook assume power in the West Bank while continuing their tyrannical rule over Gaza, it will mean the end of any hopes for a Western-style Palestinian government dedicated to cooperation with Israel and economic development. With the Muslim Brotherhood–the group that inspired the creation of Hamas–on the brink of assuming power in Egypt, the “new” Hamas may sound a bit more presentable to Western audiences but, as a close reading of Abu Marzook’s interview with the Forward shows, its substance is unchanged.

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Don’t Strand the Holocaust in History

This evening, Jews in Israel and around the world will mark Yom HaShoah, the day of remembrance of the Holocaust. For most, it will be a moment of mourning as well as an occasion to ponder the lessons of history and to ask whether humanity has learned anything in the 67 years since the end of the Second World War. But for some on the left, the Holocaust has become a political liability that must be drained of all relevance to the contemporary world.

That’s the gist of today’s editorial in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper that demands that “Netanyahu stop hiding behind Holocaust warnings.” Haaretz, which articulates the opinion of the minority of Israelis who espouse the views of the hard left about the conflict with the Palestinians as well as the potential confrontation with Iran, has come to negatively view any attempt to ground the country’s security policies in the historical experience of the Jewish people. Thus, for them it’s not merely enough to chide the prime minister for what they wrongly believe is the promiscuous use of Holocaust analogies. Instead, their goal, as well as that of others who pay lip service to the idea of proper commemoration of the Six Million who died at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators, is to strand the event in history.  Doing so serves their immediate political purpose but, in fact, confounds the entire concept of remembrance of the Holocaust.

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This evening, Jews in Israel and around the world will mark Yom HaShoah, the day of remembrance of the Holocaust. For most, it will be a moment of mourning as well as an occasion to ponder the lessons of history and to ask whether humanity has learned anything in the 67 years since the end of the Second World War. But for some on the left, the Holocaust has become a political liability that must be drained of all relevance to the contemporary world.

That’s the gist of today’s editorial in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper that demands that “Netanyahu stop hiding behind Holocaust warnings.” Haaretz, which articulates the opinion of the minority of Israelis who espouse the views of the hard left about the conflict with the Palestinians as well as the potential confrontation with Iran, has come to negatively view any attempt to ground the country’s security policies in the historical experience of the Jewish people. Thus, for them it’s not merely enough to chide the prime minister for what they wrongly believe is the promiscuous use of Holocaust analogies. Instead, their goal, as well as that of others who pay lip service to the idea of proper commemoration of the Six Million who died at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators, is to strand the event in history.  Doing so serves their immediate political purpose but, in fact, confounds the entire concept of remembrance of the Holocaust.

This is a familiar theme from the left, which in recent years has come to view mentions of the Holocaust as a dodge that has allowed Israel to avoid coming to grips with the tough issues of war and peace as well as its social cohesion. But it’s not Netanyahu and others who are in the wrong; it is those who wish to isolate the destruction of European Jewry in history and to avoid drawing conclusions from it who are profoundly misguided.

Though the Holocaust has universal significance, its particular meaning relates to what happens when Jews are rendered powerless in the face of powerful foes bent on their destruction. While there are those who wish to discuss it only in the most general terms about bias, the Holocaust was a specific event that happened to a people who had been demonized for 2,000 years and lacked the ability to adequately defend themselves.

Netanyahu is not injecting a political agenda into commemoration of this tragedy. It is actually those who wish to ban mentions of Iran’s nuclear program, the genocidal intent of Hamas and other Islamist terrorists as well as the rising tide of European anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism from the discussion of the Shoah who are distorting the debate.

The notion that Israelis or American Jews are so distracted by fears rooted in the Holocaust that they have ignored other problems or exaggerated the present threats to Jewish existence is rooted in a foolish assumption that Islamist forces who speak of their desire to eradicate Israel don’t mean what they say. Netanyahu isn’t, as Haaretz charges, irresponsibly “feeding the fear” of a second Holocaust to the detriment of his country. He is merely acknowledging the reality that Jewish history has the ability to inform our understanding of today’s conflicts, and that we must act on the conclusions we must draw from the past.

Every slur or example of hate speech is not a potential Holocaust. But the efforts of a powerful Islamist state to obtain nuclear weapons that might be used to make good on its pledge to eradicate Israel is as much of an existential threat as that of the Nazis. That doesn’t mean that Iran is Germany or that Khamenei or Ahmadinejad is Hitler, but the analogy doesn’t have to be perfect to make sense. The same applies to those Islamist terrorists, often funded by Iran, who have similar hopes about cleansing the Middle East of the one Jewish state.

What we must understand is that any commemoration of the Holocaust that does not speak of the need to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons or of preserving Israel’s security against the threat of Palestinian terrorism is not worthy of the name. Far from there being too much talk about Iran when discussing the Holocaust, there is not enough. Though today’s situation is not akin to that of 1939 when there was no Jewish state ready to defend itself or an America that despite the ambivalence of its president is united in support of Israel, the peril is nonetheless real.

The mere recital of expressions of sorrow for the Six Million is not enough. Acts of remembrance that do not cause us to draw conclusions about the present are of little use. For all the effort and resources that have gone into the proliferation of Holocaust memorials around the United States, it must be understood that the best and only true memorial to the Shoah is to be found in the creation and the survival of the State of Israel and of the Jewish people itself. Those who weep today about the fate of the Six Million but say nothing about the possibility that the West will not act to stop Iran or seek to discourage Israel from defending its people have learned nothing.

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Blame Palestinians, Not Netanyahu, for Shalit Prisoner Recidivism

Critics of Israel’s decision to exchange 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit predicted it would happen. And they were right. Israel’s Shin Bet — the country’s national security agency — announced today that two of those released in order to gain Shalit’s freedom were rearrested on terrorism-related charges. One was brought up on charges of buying illegal weapons while the other was part of a plot to commit more kidnappings of Israelis. This will, no doubt, lead to a chorus of “I told you so’s” from those who blasted Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for agreeing to the lopsided exchange.

These two are probably just the tip of the iceberg in terms of recidivism. As was the case with past prisoner exchanges, there is every expectation that many more of those released in order to save Shalit will be back trying to kill Israelis before long. But though this will lead many of those who were opposed to the trade to believe this discredits Netanyahu’s choice, they will discover the vast majority of Israelis who approved it probably won’t change their minds. The possibility that many, if not most, of the released prisoners would not abide by the terms of the deal was raised in advance of the exchange and acknowledged by its supporters, if not Netanyahu himself. Yet the same reasons that led this point to be discounted last year still apply.

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Critics of Israel’s decision to exchange 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit predicted it would happen. And they were right. Israel’s Shin Bet — the country’s national security agency — announced today that two of those released in order to gain Shalit’s freedom were rearrested on terrorism-related charges. One was brought up on charges of buying illegal weapons while the other was part of a plot to commit more kidnappings of Israelis. This will, no doubt, lead to a chorus of “I told you so’s” from those who blasted Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for agreeing to the lopsided exchange.

These two are probably just the tip of the iceberg in terms of recidivism. As was the case with past prisoner exchanges, there is every expectation that many more of those released in order to save Shalit will be back trying to kill Israelis before long. But though this will lead many of those who were opposed to the trade to believe this discredits Netanyahu’s choice, they will discover the vast majority of Israelis who approved it probably won’t change their minds. The possibility that many, if not most, of the released prisoners would not abide by the terms of the deal was raised in advance of the exchange and acknowledged by its supporters, if not Netanyahu himself. Yet the same reasons that led this point to be discounted last year still apply.

The first is that although the return of these terrorists to their deadly trade tells us a lot about the Palestinians, it is not as if these two or all thousands of those given up for Shalit are filling a void in the ranks of Hamas or any other group. Though their experience may be helpful as veteran cadres, there was and is no shortage of recruits to join them. That means that any casualties incurred by the actions of the freed terrorists would probably have happened even if they had never been let go. It simply isn’t fair to assert that Shalit’s life was bought with the blood of others.

Even more importantly, most Israelis still believe Shalit’s life was worth even an exorbitant price. The idea of a leaving an ordinary youngster who had been drafted into the service of his country to die was simply unacceptable. Though these imbalanced exchanges may make no sense to the rational dispassionate observer who may well say they only encourage future kidnappings (such as those the released prisoner was plotting), Israelis believe it is immaterial to the main question of doing everything to ensure that no solider is ever left behind.

A better question to be asked today is why the Palestinian leadership continues to encourage such activities. The general celebration of the release of convicted killers by the Palestinian population illustrated that their devotion to a culture of violence is unchanged. So long as that is true, they will continue to produce such killers. That fact gives the lie to the charges that the lack of peace is Israel’s fault. It is this awful insight into the mindset of the Palestinians that will determine whether future generations of Israelis will be forced to fight and their leaders presented with unpalatable dilemmas such as that faced by Netanyahu.

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Did Israel Overreact to Flytilla?

The Israeli and Jewish left is excoriating the Netanyahu government for what it is calling an overreaction to yesterday’s “flytilla.” The event was an attempt by foreign supporters of the Palestinians to create a public relations triumph for their cause by flying in to the country and creating incidents that would embarrass Israel. But though they claimed their intent was a week of peaceful protest, their real agenda was on display when those who made into the country yesterday unfurled signs that read “Welcome to Palestine” when they landed at Ben-Gurion Airport.

It can be argued that any attention paid by the Israeli government to these people is too much. Their goal is publicity and to paint the Jewish state in the worst possible light, so the scenes of security personnel bundling these people into custody as they landed served their purpose. That it coincided with a deplorable incident over the weekend in which an Israeli army officer assaulted another foreign activist was merely a bonus. But it cannot be emphasized enough that the goal of the Palestine Solidarity Movement and related groups that organized this stunt is not peace. Their program is support for efforts to dismantle Israel as a Jewish state. Whether the flytillians got a boost from their hijinks is actually beside the point. The idea that any sovereign state ought to be required to facilitate the entry of such persons or to refrain from deporting them is unprecedented. But then again, so is the malevolent campaign pursued by people masquerading as human rights activists to single Israel out for destruction.

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The Israeli and Jewish left is excoriating the Netanyahu government for what it is calling an overreaction to yesterday’s “flytilla.” The event was an attempt by foreign supporters of the Palestinians to create a public relations triumph for their cause by flying in to the country and creating incidents that would embarrass Israel. But though they claimed their intent was a week of peaceful protest, their real agenda was on display when those who made into the country yesterday unfurled signs that read “Welcome to Palestine” when they landed at Ben-Gurion Airport.

It can be argued that any attention paid by the Israeli government to these people is too much. Their goal is publicity and to paint the Jewish state in the worst possible light, so the scenes of security personnel bundling these people into custody as they landed served their purpose. That it coincided with a deplorable incident over the weekend in which an Israeli army officer assaulted another foreign activist was merely a bonus. But it cannot be emphasized enough that the goal of the Palestine Solidarity Movement and related groups that organized this stunt is not peace. Their program is support for efforts to dismantle Israel as a Jewish state. Whether the flytillians got a boost from their hijinks is actually beside the point. The idea that any sovereign state ought to be required to facilitate the entry of such persons or to refrain from deporting them is unprecedented. But then again, so is the malevolent campaign pursued by people masquerading as human rights activists to single Israel out for destruction.

As it happens, Israel’s strategy in dealing with this effort to infiltrate provocateurs into the country was largely successful. Watch lists of supporters of extreme anti-Israel groups were compiled and airlines were warned that such persons would be immediately deported upon arrival and that the carriers would be responsible for the cost of their return. That meant that only a couple of dozen trickled in and few made it past security. Those who did arrive were handed a sarcastic note from their temporary hosts that pointed out their hypocrisy:

Dear activist:

We appreciate your choosing to make Israel the object of your humanitarian concerns. We know there were many other worthy choices.

You could have chosen to protest the Syrian regime’s daily savagery against its own people, which has claimed thousands of lives. You could have chosen to protest the Iranian regime’s brutal crackdown on dissent and support of terrorism throughout the world.

You could have chosen to protest Hamas rule in Gaza, where terror organizations commit a double war crime by firing rockets at civilians and hiding behind civilians.

But instead you chose to protest against Israel, the Middle East’s sole democracy, where women are equal, the press criticizes the government, human rights organizations can operate freely, religious freedom is protected for all and minorities do not live in fear.

We therefore suggest that you first solve the real problems of the region, and then come back and share with us your experience. Have a nice flight.

While the prime minister’s office that was the source of the note could be accused of paying these foes the compliment of taking them seriously, it also deserves credit for not worrying too much about the publicity. The idea that Israel will persuade wavering foreign observers to take its side by making nice with people who wish to destroy it is foolish. Changing the narrative requires making a case for the justice of Israel’s cause, and the note is a step in that direction.

As the New York Times pointed out, the Palestinians are actually unmoved by the efforts by these foreign cheerleaders for their cause. It is only the Israelis who get worked up about them. They shouldn’t bother, but if so, then the prime minister’s message is actually the one that they and anyone else interested in these affairs should be getting.

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