Commentary Magazine


Topic: settlements

Israel’s Waiting Game

These days, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must feel like Jim Carrey’s character in the Truman Show when, while he’s sitting on a beach, it suddenly starts to rain only on Truman. Once he steps out of the rain, it follows him until the rain-control glitch is fixed and the “sky” opens up, soaking Truman in the ensuing, and inescapable, downpour. But at least by that time he had incontrovertible proof that, yes, they were out to get him.

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These days, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must feel like Jim Carrey’s character in the Truman Show when, while he’s sitting on a beach, it suddenly starts to rain only on Truman. Once he steps out of the rain, it follows him until the rain-control glitch is fixed and the “sky” opens up, soaking Truman in the ensuing, and inescapable, downpour. But at least by that time he had incontrovertible proof that, yes, they were out to get him.

Yesterday, the Times of Israel reported that ultra-Orthodox political leaders claimed to have been approached to join an alternative coalition with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and Labor, which would replace the current coalition. In other words, rearrange the government to exclude Likud. Lapid denies that such a move is afoot, and it’s likely the leaking of the story was meant more as a warning than an imminent threat.

Meanwhile, Jerusalem continues to simmer. More clashes in the city took place over the weekend, and an Arab driver of an Egged bus appeared to have committed suicide. There is no evidence to the contrary, but Palestinians nonetheless have circulated rumors that the Jews were somehow involved, raising the prospect of “retaliation” of some sort and now apparently an Arab Egged strike.

And then today Haaretz’s Barak Ravid got his hands on an internal European Union document that outlines sanctions against Israel that EU countries could take if Israel continues to build homes for Jews in Jerusalem and makes land designations that confuse ignorant Eurocrats. It doesn’t matter that Israel isn’t doing quite what the EU accuses it of, nor that the EU is wrong about what will bring peace and what will prevent it.

The real news of the EU document is that the EU has foreclosed the possibility that facts and rationality will determine Israel-Europe relations. Brussels is getting quite serious about being completely unserious. Today’s EU “red lines” are just that–today’s. Once conceded, they’ll find some more demands to chip away at Israeli sovereignty and further restrict Jewish rights.

After Haaretz published the leak, the EU explained to Ravid that they were not ready to deploy that threat just yet, in an utterly unconvincing (perhaps intentionally so?) response:

“It certainly was not on the ministers’ table today and it was not at the heart of today’s discussion,” Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs said, adding that she had read the report in Haaretz. “There was certainly no question of isolating or sanctioning anybody, rather how can we re-motivate people to get into a dialogue again, how to start a positive process with the Israelis and Palestinians to re-launch a peace process.”

Nonetheless, the foreign ministers’ meeting ended with a formal condemnation of Israeli building of settlements over the Green Line and a hint regarding punitive measures against Israel.

“Recalling that settlements are illegal under international law, the EU and its Member States remain committed to ensure continued, full and effective implementation of existing EU legislation and bilateral arrangements applicable to settlement products,” read the announcement. “The EU closely monitors the situation and its broader implications and remains ready to take further action in order to protect the viability of the two-state solution.”

When it rains, it pours, and when it pours, the UN is usually there to toss a bucket of water as well. Today Assistant Secretary-General Jens Toyberg-Frandzen got in on the act, warning that more violence in and around Jerusalem “is never too far below the surface.” He was happy to place the blame on Israel for settlements etc. (the standard way to excuse Palestinian terrorism), doing his part to contribute to the conflict’s self-fulfilling prophecy: if you excuse Palestinian terrorism, there will be more of it. But on the bright side, the esteemed assistant secretary-general had some good news–sort of:

On a positive note, Toyberg-Frandzen said a UN-brokered agreement to get building materials into Gaza to rebuild the territory following this summer’s war between Israel and Hamas allowed 1,086 Gazans to purchase construction materials by Nov. 13. He said it is also encouraging that Israel plans to increase the number of trucks with construction materials entering Gaza from the current 300 to 800 daily.

Of course construction materials help Hamas in two ways: they either resell them at a premium to those who actually need them, or they take them for themselves to build terror tunnels and other threats to Israel. Again, that’s the supposed “positive note”: the UN is helping Hamas get back on its feet.

So what is Netanyahu to do? Not much, in fact. The numbers still favor his Likud party even if early elections are called. And there won’t be a national consensus over specific action because it’s unclear what action can or should be taken to put Jerusalem at ease. Mahmoud Abbas either can’t or won’t get Palestinians in Jerusalem to stop the violence, so there’s no partner on the Palestinian side. And there does not appear to be a way to dislodge the political right from its perch, so Israelis know that they are unlikely to find an alternative to Netanyahu who brings more upside without substantial downside as well.

Israeli governments aren’t known for their stability. That was thought to only get worse as the two major parties lost their respective virtual monopolies on the right and left. But surprisingly enough, Israeli democracy is proving resilient. It turns out that Israelis are much harder to intimidate and bully than the Palestinians, the UN, and the EU thought.

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Why Does the State Department Endorse Palestinian Fight to Exclude Jews?

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu made headlines around the world again today with his assertion in the Knesset that he will defend the right of Jews to live in any part of his country’s capital. The statement and the expedited plans to build 1,000 new apartments in Jerusalem is drawing the usual condemnations from the international community as both an unnecessary provocation and a new obstacle to Middle East peace. But what Israel’s critics are missing is that the threats and actual violence coming from Palestinians about Jewish homes, is the best indicator that the sort of mutual coexistence that is essential to peace is currently not in the cards.

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Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu made headlines around the world again today with his assertion in the Knesset that he will defend the right of Jews to live in any part of his country’s capital. The statement and the expedited plans to build 1,000 new apartments in Jerusalem is drawing the usual condemnations from the international community as both an unnecessary provocation and a new obstacle to Middle East peace. But what Israel’s critics are missing is that the threats and actual violence coming from Palestinians about Jewish homes, is the best indicator that the sort of mutual coexistence that is essential to peace is currently not in the cards.

As the New York Times reports:

“If Israel wants to live in a peaceful society, they need to take steps that will reduce tensions,” Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, told reporters in a briefing. “Moving forward with this sort of action would be incompatible with the pursuit of peace.”

The Israeli move is being blasted as yet another example of Netanyahu worsening the already tense relationship between Israel and the United States. But Psaki’s willingness to jump on Netanyahu after repeatedly refusing in the last week to condemn statements from Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in which he openly incited violence against Israelis, the State Department stand could easily be interpreted as an implicit approval of the PA position.

If so, then it should be understood that what the United States is doing here is saying that Palestinians are in the right when they demand that Jews be kept out of certain parts of Jerusalem. But far from disturbing the peace, the idea of building new apartments in existing Jewish neighborhoods in the city or moving into mixed or Arab majority areas not only repudiates the formula of territorial swaps that President Obama has repeatedly endorsed but also reinforces the notion that the Palestinian state that the State Department envisions will be one in which no Jew is allowed to live. That means the U.S. is backing a vision of a Palestinian apartheid state that is itself incompatible with any notion of peace and rationalizing the recent wave of Arab violence against Jewish targets in Jerusalem.

Just this last week, another terrorist incident in Jerusalem took the lives of two persons including an infant. Others were injured in incidents in which Palestinians threw Molotov cocktails — gasoline firebombs — at soldiers and police seeking to restore order after violent protests about Jews moving into the Silwan section of the city. One such bomb thrower — a 14-year-old Palestinian who was born in New Orleans — was killed by Israeli troops while in the process of trying to incinerate them or motorists on a highway. But the State Department didn’t acknowledge that the deceased was killed while committing what would be considered an act of terrorism were the target Americans. Instead, it merely extended condolences to the family of the teenager and to demand explanations from Israel about his death. In doing so, it seems insensible to the fact that by continuing to back up Abbas’ complaints, it is helping to incite the violence that is taking lives on both sides and making the prospects of peace even more remote.

From the point of the view of Netanyahu’s detractors, today’s announcement and the refusal of Israeli authorities to stop Jews from moving into properties that they have legally purchased in East Jerusalem is upsetting the status quo in the city. This is not just a function of the ongoing U.S. refusal to recognize that it is neither possible nor desirable to return to the status quo on June 4, 1967 when half of the city was under illegal Jordanian occupation. The U.S. position also seems to accept the idea that Palestinians have a right to be angry over Jews moving into both Jewish majority neighborhoods and Arab majority neighborhoods in parts of Jerusalem. But both positions are problematic.

On the one hand, the U.S treating more apartments going up in areas that, dating back to the Clinton administration, the U.S. has acknowledged would be retained by Israel in the event of a peace agreement, as either provocative or an obstacle to peace makes no sense. Why should the Palestinians be encouraged to make an issue out of Jews living in places that no one thinks will ever part of a Palestinian state? In doing so, Washington is inciting Abbas to use the existence of places where hundreds of thousands of Jews currently live as an excuse not to negotiate with Israel or even to countenance more acts of terror.

Just as mistaken is the idea that Jews moving into Arab neighborhoods is a good reason for Palestinians to get riled up. If Abbas had accepted any of the peace deals that Israel has previously offered, those places would even now be part of the Palestinian state that he professes to want but refuses to do anything to make it a reality. Had he done so then or even if he were willing to do so now as part of a deal in which the Palestinians agreed to end the conflict for all time and recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state alongside them no matter where its borders are drawn, then it wouldn’t matter if there were a few Jews living in Silwan or anywhere else. Since Arabs are currently allowed to live in West Jerusalem as equal citizens under Israeli law why shouldn’t the Palestinians extend the same offer to the so-called settlers who have moved into apartments in the shadow of the Old City walls?

The reason is that their goal is to create a Jew free state whose purpose will be to perpetuate the conflict against Israel, not end it. The state they envision will be, as I wrote last week, the true apartheid state in the Middle East in which parts of Jerusalem will become legal no go zones for Jews in much the same way, white South Africans made it illegal for blacks to live in parts of their own country. It is exactly for this perverted vision that Palestinians are taking to the streets to lob lethal weapons at Jews while the State Department treats the perpetrators as innocent victims and the actual victims as aggressors.

That is the racism that the U.S. is endorsing by making an issue of Jews building in Jerusalem. Peace doesn’t have a chance until the Palestinians stop being offended by Jews living in the holy city or thinking they are justified in fighting for an apartheid vision in which they are excluded.

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The Settlements Dodge

Responding to Monday’s Palestinian statehood vote in Britain’s parliament, Times of Israel editor David Horovitz penned an op-ed provocatively titled “It’s the Settlements, Stupid.” Horovitz argues that the erosion of Israel’s diplomatic standing that made Monday’s vote possible has in large part been on account of Israel’s settlement policy. If true, then we live in strange times, where building homes for Jews can cause more outrage than Hamas stockpiling rockets and Iran developing nuclear weapons with which to murder those same Jews. And yet the following day, Sir Alan Duncan, Britain’s envoy to Yemen and Oman, gave a shocking speech asserting that those endorsing settlements should be considered on par with racists and hounded from Britain’s public life. The reality is, it is not the settlements that have eroded Israel’s standing, but rather the completely warped narrative that now surrounds them. And what’s worse, many Israelis have in no small part helped to create that narrative.

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Responding to Monday’s Palestinian statehood vote in Britain’s parliament, Times of Israel editor David Horovitz penned an op-ed provocatively titled “It’s the Settlements, Stupid.” Horovitz argues that the erosion of Israel’s diplomatic standing that made Monday’s vote possible has in large part been on account of Israel’s settlement policy. If true, then we live in strange times, where building homes for Jews can cause more outrage than Hamas stockpiling rockets and Iran developing nuclear weapons with which to murder those same Jews. And yet the following day, Sir Alan Duncan, Britain’s envoy to Yemen and Oman, gave a shocking speech asserting that those endorsing settlements should be considered on par with racists and hounded from Britain’s public life. The reality is, it is not the settlements that have eroded Israel’s standing, but rather the completely warped narrative that now surrounds them. And what’s worse, many Israelis have in no small part helped to create that narrative.

As Horovitz points out, settlement building was referenced some 40 times during the Westminster debate. That is certainly testament to the extent to which this issue has been turned into the weapon of choice for those looking to pour scorn on Israel. Horovitz also gives examples of the kind of talk about settlements that he’s referring to. One Conservative MP, who began by professing his deep friendship for Israel, went on to say that the recent “annexation” by Israel of 950 acres of West Bank land had outraged him more than anything else in his entire political life. He explained that, given all his support for Israel in the past, this move had made him appear the fool. But the truth is, many people had been fooled by the way that this event was willfully misrepresented, first by the Israeli left, and then by the international media. For as Eugene Kontorovich pointed out here at the time, there had in reality been no annexation whatsoever. Israel had simply come to a factual administrative finding about the status of the land in question (much of it purchased by Jews before Israel’s founding), but the world was encouraged to imagine privately owned Palestinian property being appropriated for colonization.

This sense of alien colonization of Palestinian land sits at the core of what many feel about the settlements. That was certainly the notion promoted in the other statement referenced by Horovitz, this time from Labor’s Andy Slaughter. “Who can defend settlement building — the colonization of another country? We are talking about 600,000 Israeli settlers planted on Palestinian soil,” declared Slaughter. But this is pretty astounding stuff. Would Slaughter describe an Arab living in Israel as “planted on Jewish soil”? Indeed, he’d cause a minor crisis within British politics if he started describing Pakistani immigrants to Britain as colonizers “planted on English soil.” Presumably, Slaughter’s belief that the very soil of the West Bank is somehow intrinsically and exclusively Palestinian stems from his equally misguided view that the West Bank is a foreign country.

There is of course an argument for turning the West Bank into a Palestinian state one day, but like the misbelief that the green line holds some sacrosanct status under international law, it is hard to understand why the territory seized and occupied by Jordan for just 19 years represents the precise boundaries for any future Palestinian state. Besides, long before anyone starts trying to determine exactly which areas should constitute a Palestinian state, someone has to come up with a model for making the land-for-peace transaction workable. So far this exchange has proved catastrophic. Gaza is the most obvious example, although there are several others. But in Gaza the Israeli experience has been one of removing settlements and getting a security nightmare in return.

If British parliamentarians are going to make an issue of settlements, then they at least owe it to Israelis to explain what they think would happen to Israel’s security if it reversed its settlement policy and evacuated the West Bank just as it did Gaza. But then the prevailing narrative on this subject, as conveyed by the international media, is supplied by Israelis themselves. For years large parts of the Israeli establishment have dismissed the realities of Palestinian intransigence and convinced themselves that ending the conflict is within Israel’s grasp, if only it can rein in Netanyahu and the settlements. By ignoring the need for–and indeed lack of–genuine Palestinian moderation, these Israelis inhabit a far more comforting paradigm, in which Israel can solve everything just as soon as it chooses. So tenaciously do some cling to this view that we recently saw how the far-left Peace Now group was even willing to manufacture a mini diplomatic crisis in U.S.-Israel relations just as Netanyahu was about to meet with Obama, inducing the media and state department into condemnation of a new settlement announcement … that wasn’t a new settlement, and had actually already been announced months previously.

Writing about the Westminster vote, Jonathan Tobin questioned what kind of Palestinian state British lawmakers imagine they are supporting. This is where the popular narrative about settlements really becomes twisted. Any Palestinian state worthy of being brought into existence, and that could be trusted to live peacefully alongside Israel, would be capable of tolerating a Jewish minority, just as Israel safeguards its Arab minority. If that was the Palestinian state the world was aiming for then settlements would hardly present an obstacle. But if that’s not the state being aimed for, well then peacemakers face a far greater headache than settlements.

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Obama, Media Call for Segregation in Israel

The most concerning aspect to the periodic arguments between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is not that they fight, but what they fight about. No one expects a disagreement about how to approach the Iranian nuclear program not to raise the temperature a bit; it’s something many Israelis consider an existential threat and it would shift the balance of power in global politics further away from the West while isolating Israel even more. If the two are going to argue, in other words, argue over something important.

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The most concerning aspect to the periodic arguments between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is not that they fight, but what they fight about. No one expects a disagreement about how to approach the Iranian nuclear program not to raise the temperature a bit; it’s something many Israelis consider an existential threat and it would shift the balance of power in global politics further away from the West while isolating Israel even more. If the two are going to argue, in other words, argue over something important.

But you can tell the relationship is really on the rocks by the fights the Obama administration chooses to pick, most recently on two issues: Jewish construction in Givat Hamatos, a Jerusalem community just over the green line, and the private sale of existing homes in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan from Arabs to Jews. The case of Givat Hamatos is standard fare for fights over settlements: although the Obama administration is wrong here (as usual), it’s a petty but classic fight to pick for American officials looking to take potshots at Israel. (Though the optics of telling black Ethiopian immigrants they must live in substandard housing is not the Obama administration’s proudest moment, to be sure.)

The Givat Hamatos tiff, therefore, doesn’t speak well of Obama, but doesn’t really break any new ground. That’s not true of Silwan. Obama’s objection to a Jew legally buying a home from an Arab in Jerusalem is nothing less than ethnic segregationism, and press secretary Josh Earnest’s classification of such a home as an “occupation” is the kind of pro-Palestinian propaganda the parroting of which is, quite frankly, evidence of a level of surpassing ignorance shocking even for the Obama administration. (Discrimination which the New York Times endorsed as well.) On that note, this nugget from an earlier Times of Israel story about the controversy jumps out:

When asked about Netanyahu’s allegations that the US was telling Jews that they could not buy houses in the Arab East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, which several Jewish families moved into earlier the week, Psaki did not clarify Washington’s position regarding the Ir David group’s independent purchase of Arab-owned houses there.

Instead, Psaki said that there were questions involving building permits and construction — an answer that seemed to address the municipality’s involvement in Givat Hamatos rather than the private initiative in Silwan.

It wasn’t clear that Jen Psaki even knew what she was being asked about. The degree to which this administration’s advisors and spokesmen are uninformed about issues on which they pronounce judgment is simply incredible.

It’s indefensible, so it’s strange for the Obama administration and its allies in the press to continue pushing the segregationist line. Netanyahu can’t quite believe it either, saying over the weekend that ethnic segregationism is “against the American values.” This is obviously true. But it caused a bit of a stir in part because of how news organizations chose to play the story. And here we have a great example of the split in Israel over journalistic ethics, between honest publications and publications like Haaretz. Both Haaretz and the Times of Israel ran the AP story on Netanyahu’s comments. Here’s the Times of Israel’s headline:

PM: US East Jerusalem critique is ‘against American values’

Accurate and precise. And here’s Haaretz’s headline:

Netanyahu: It’s un-American to rebuke Israel over Jewish homes in Jerusalem

Clearly false and intentionally provocative. Now, to be fair to Haaretz, they weren’t the only ones to run with a false headline. They appear to have run a modified version of the original headline but keeping the formulation. The Times of Israel chose to say something true instead. The Associated Press did not exactly cover itself in glory this weekend.

But Netanyahu’s comments were less an attempt to escalate a bizarre diplomatic incident and more a way of throwing up his hands, as if to say, “Mr. President, what do you honestly expect me to do about this?” Can the Israeli prime minister possibly–assuming he even wants to comply with the American president’s order–intervene to overturn a legal sale because it was made from an Arab to a Jew? What on earth could Obama be expecting here? That Israel be the one Western country to legally restrict Jewish property rights? In the year 2014? In Jerusalem? Does the president even understand what he’s asking here?

The safe bet is generally to answer such questions in the negative: no, Obama does not understand what he’s saying. That is usually the case, especially with regard to the Middle East, where his knowledge of history and politics has always been alarmingly limited. But at some point, ignorance ceases to be an excuse. These are important issues, and they have immediate ramifications not just for geopolitics but also for the safety of those involved, the Middle East being the tinderbox it is. It’s time for the president to swallow his pride, crack open a book and a map, and start making sense.

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The Peace Camp’s Recycled Outrage

Defining “settlements” has always been difficult. The relevant international law instruments speak only of people being “transferred or deported” by an occupying power. However, most Jews in the West Bank have not been moved there by the Israeli government (that is why they are called settlers, not transferees and deportees).

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Defining “settlements” has always been difficult. The relevant international law instruments speak only of people being “transferred or deported” by an occupying power. However, most Jews in the West Bank have not been moved there by the Israeli government (that is why they are called settlers, not transferees and deportees).

But recent months have seen an unprecedented broadening of the concept of settlement activity to include things that do not involve Jews moving and, in this week’s dust-up, things that have already happened. The peace camp has been defining settlements down.

The Israeli government has not issued new authorizations for the building of new homes in the “settlements” since before the collapse of negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas. Even Peace Now grudgingly concedes a “semi-freeze.” Yet the absence of new tenders creates a problem for peace processors: they traditionally blame any foot-dragging by Abbas on these tenders, and insist that if Israel desisted, the primary obstacles to fruitful negotiations would be removed.

Yet as the moratorium grows longer, Abbas has, contrary to peace-process predictions, only moved farther away from negotiations. Indeed, he has fully adopted a new strategy of using international pressure to give him his demands without the trouble of having to make compromises.

Unable to blame “new settlement activity,” the peace camp, uncritically parroted by the media, has defined settlements down. Anything is now called “new” settlement activity. Last month, Peace Now treated a surveying decision that certain lands were not owned by private parties–Jewish or Arab–as a massive outrage, though the technical and administrative action would not result in a single hut being built for a single Jew.

Now, lacking new activity to decry, the peace camp seizes on old projects, planned by prior governments, and passes them off as new. This is the story behind this week’s outrage over the Givat Hamatos neighborhood in Jerusalem. The area is one where Jews already live, and immediately abuts the huge neighborhood of Gilo. It is “over” the Green Line by a few meters.

However, this project received final approval in 2012. This week’s outrage is literally a rewarming of the statements from two years ago.

Daniel Seidemann is an influential European-funded activist focusing on keeping Jews out of parts of Jerusalem formerly occupied by Jordan. His NGO said this when the plan was adopted back then:

Givat Hamatos is happening NOW, and approval of just the first part of the plan – Givat Hamatos A – suffices in having the full detrimental impact of the scheme… Construction of Givat Hamatos, whether private or public. (sic) can take place within a few short months, since building permits may be issued at any time.

Perhaps the action two years ago was not final? No, the NGO reported back then that it was indeed “final.” So by definition no new decision of substance has been taken since–but that has not stopped Peace Now and Seidemann from recycling the outrage, which resulted in raining the ire of the U.S. down on Israel, or as they see it, on Netanyahu.

Part of the problem is the permanent industry of European-funded settlement snoops. They count every new shack and every new permit (whereas ironically the EU has a limited grasp on how many Turkish settlers are on its own territory). They will not be silent simply for lack of what to report. One wonders if they will be even silent if all their political demands were realized, or whether they would, as has happened in Gaza, define occupation down.

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The Ignorance Driving Coverage of Israel and American Policy

I can’t quite decide if the headline and framing of this recent dispatch from the Washington Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief is further evidence of everything that is wrong about the media’s reporting on the conflict or if it’s a modest step in the right direction. The headline is: “Here’s what really happened in the Gaza war (according to the Israelis).”

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I can’t quite decide if the headline and framing of this recent dispatch from the Washington Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief is further evidence of everything that is wrong about the media’s reporting on the conflict or if it’s a modest step in the right direction. The headline is: “Here’s what really happened in the Gaza war (according to the Israelis).”

The point of the article is that a group of journalists met with an Israeli intelligence official to get Israel’s side of the story. On the one hand, I suppose the media can be commended for at least recognizing that there’s a side other than that churned out by Hamas flacks. On the other hand, the war is over. Perhaps, I don’t know, during the war would have been a good time to figure out that there are two sides to the story? Just a thought. Additionally, isn’t the fact that basic information about Hamas fighters and weaponry is considered a major scoop a massive indictment of the press?

Here’s another question: should the Jerusalem bureau chief of a major American newspaper show his surprise at finding out information he should have known long before? The tone of the report, then, doesn’t help either. For example:

The intelligence chief said it is not important how lethal the rockets were. He said the aim was to instill terror, to force a million Israelis to run into shelters.

So Hamas succeeded, in part.

Of the 4,500 rockets fired by Hamas and allies, 875 fell inside Gaza. Many were lobbed at Israeli soldiers during the ground offensive, but others were duds or misfires that landed short, meaning Hamas dropped explosives on its own people.

It is even possible, the intelligence chief said, that some of that fire was intentional.

Yes, some of the damage to Gaza was inflicted directly by Hamas. If you have the resources of the Washington Post behind you and you need this pointed out to you after the war, you might want to consider it not a revelation but a piece of constructive professional criticism.

What we discovered–or, rather, confirmed yet again–during this latest war was that the Palestinian leadership, and especially Hamas, relies on the ignorance of the Western press. The lack of knowledge about Palestinian politics is crucial to Hamas’s strategy and it should be a source of agitation for newspapers providing the resources to cover the conflict and getting this lump of coal in return.

But it’s not just ignorance of Palestinian politics; it’s ignorance of Israeli politics too–far less justifiable since English is so broadly spoken there and the country allows freedom of the press. And that ignorance is not just on the part of the press; it’s also from national governments, including the current occupants of the White House.

This was brought to light again by another excellent piece debunking settlement myths by Elliott Abrams and Uri Sadot, who have returned to this topic again to address the manifold falsities inspired by the recent land designation, which we covered on the blog here and here. Not only were the press and foreign leaders wrong about this particular land, but Abrams and Sadot also point out it’s part of a larger misunderstanding about Israel’s broader settlement policy under Benjamin Netanyahu.

The prime minister continues to rein in settlement growth. For that, he is denounced by the settler movement for restricting settlements and by Western governments for expanding settlements. Only one of those is right–and it’s not the Western governments:

It’s a lose-lose situation for Bibi, as nasty attacks from settler leaders coincide with those from prime ministers, foreign ministers, and presidents across the globe. The Israeli prime minister deserves credit, under these circumstances, for sticking to what he has said and appears to believe: Israel must build where it will stay, in Jerusalem and the major blocks, and it is foolish to waste resources in West Bank areas it will someday leave.

At this point, the mindless refrain on settlement construction seems to have assumed a life of its own. But anyone who’s serious about addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should ignore the speeches and the rote condemnations, and study the numbers. The vast expansion of Israeli settlements in the future Palestinian state is simply not happening.

Newspapers may have resources, but nobody has the resources of the American government. And yet, the Obama administration’s pronouncements on Israeli politics and policy reveal a stunning, all-encompassing ignorance. Even worse, that ignorance is voluntary: it is very easy to get the real story. The president and his Cabinet don’t seem to want the real story. It’s no wonder their policies toward the conflict are so destructive and their diplomacy so thoughtlessly harmful.

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Defining Settlements Down: the False “Appropriation” Hysteria

Israel’s declaration of certain open, uncultivated areas near the 1949 Armistice Line as “state land” has been widely mischaracterized as an “appropriation” of private Palestinian land, and a promotion of settlement activity. It is neither.

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Israel’s declaration of certain open, uncultivated areas near the 1949 Armistice Line as “state land” has been widely mischaracterized as an “appropriation” of private Palestinian land, and a promotion of settlement activity. It is neither.

A determination that land is “state land” is a factual, administrative finding that does not change the ownership of land. In the West Bank–like in the American West–massive amounts of land have no private owners. There is nothing unusual about this; indeed, it is even truer inside the Green Line. Moreover, if Israel is indeed an occupying power, it has a duty to administer and maintain the rule of law, and oversee public resources, both of which require the authorities to know what land has private owners and what does not.

An “appropriation” involves taking something that is someone’s. A designation of land as “state land” requires a determination, based on extensive investigation, that it does not have a private owner. The determination can be challenged administratively and judicially, as Palestinian claimants often do, and sometimes prevail.

In other words, nothing has been taken from anyone, or given to anyone. Thus a “state land” determination does not create any new facts or change ownership.

Moreover, designating an area state land does not mean that a Jewish community can be built on it. Both illegal Jewish and Arab building on state land is often demolished. Authorizing a new residential community would require a vast number of additional administrative and political permissions, none of which appear to be remotely forthcoming. Indeed, those who object to Israel’s recent action also object Jews living or even studying on undisputedly private Jewish-owned land in the West Bank.

The hysteria over this announcement illustrates several points. First, it reflects how detached discussions of “illegal settlements” are from international law. The entire legal argument against settlements rests on one sentence of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits an “occupying power” to “deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population” into the territory it occupies.

Assume the treaty even applies to this situation–and there is good reason to think it does not. Further assume that Israelis moving across the Green Line can be considered a “deportation or transfer” committed by the Israeli government, though it does not appear the government is moving anyone. None of that has anything to do with the occupying power determining the ownership status of the land, an action which does not transfer or help transfer, and indeed, has nothing to do with the movement of people.

On the other hand, Israel also announced this week the construction of thousands of housing units in eastern Jerusalem for Arab Israelis. If the Geneva Convention indeed forbids building apartments in occupied territory for one’s nationals, it does so without any ethnic discrimination. The question would not be whether the “settlers” are Jews or Arabs, but whether they are part of Israel’s “civilian population.” Yet on this action, the international community was entirely silent.

The outrage over Israel’s “settlement” actions has no basis in law. Moving people is settlement activity, but only when done by Jews. Not moving people is also settlement activity. “Settlement activity” has just become a term of opprobrium with legal pretensions.

Second, the outrage over Israel’s “state land” declaration must be seen on the background of the six-month moratorium on new settlement construction that the Netanyahu government has been quietly implementing. Indeed, even a plan to allow for some building in blocs in response to the murder of the boys was scrapped.

Bibi has quietly done exactly what all his critics in the peace camp have long demanded. But instead of bringing Abbas to the table, it has sent him on unilateral attacks at the UN and ICC.

So instead of giving Netanyahu credit for his silent freeze–credit which would raise serious questions about Abbas’s sincerity–Peace Now and the international community simply define settlements down.

In short, Netanyahu’s moratorium has only encouraged more extreme international attacks on any Jewish presence in the territories.

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“Parallel States” Plan for Israeli-Palestinian Peace Is a Recipe for Disaster

I have long argued that the Oslo framework holds back the two-state solution by tying each side to a rigid set of parameters that “everybody knows” and yet nobody seems to want. The process can be disrupted and reshaped without giving up on the idea of two states for two peoples. In fact, I imagine a bit of creativity would help things along.

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I have long argued that the Oslo framework holds back the two-state solution by tying each side to a rigid set of parameters that “everybody knows” and yet nobody seems to want. The process can be disrupted and reshaped without giving up on the idea of two states for two peoples. In fact, I imagine a bit of creativity would help things along.

With that said, solutions that are radically different are not automatically preferable just because of their radicalism. At Tablet, Mathias Mossberg has published an adaptation from the new book on the conflict he edited, One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States. It is a long read, but interesting and imaginative. It is also, however, deeply misguided, unrealistic, and a formula for trouble as far as the eye can see.

Mossberg’s basic idea is one of “Parallel States,” in which both Israel and the Palestinian territories would become part of one state structure but divide sovereignty among the individuals of this modified “condominium” based on religion, ethnicity, or personal preference. It’s worth reading the whole piece to see how Mossberg has fleshed out the plan, but here is the crux:

In a Parallel States structure, one Israeli state and one Palestinian would both cover the whole area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. In such a scenario, military, political, and economic barriers would be lifted, and a joint security and defense policy, a common and equitable economic policy, and joint and harmonized legislation would replace existing divisions. Such a structure would allow both for an independent Palestinian state and for Israel to be both Jewish and democratic at the same time. It would bring an end to occupation and would permit free movement over the whole area for both peoples, as well as providing a vision for an end of conflict.

There are a few points to make in response. The first is that the bureaucracy such a structure would create would be a nightmare–it would make the current Israeli bureaucracy look like a floating libertarian utopia in comparison. How to adjudicate a neighborly dispute when each is a “citizen” of a different state authority on the same land? What if someone changes citizenship, since personal choice is an option here? Which law applies to their past contracts? Employment terms? Accumulated physical and intellectual property?

Second, Mossberg relies on a few tropes to sign the two-state solution’s death certificate, such as discredited demographic time bomb fears and the idea that settlements contribute to a state of affairs that is making a Palestinian state in the West Bank virtually impossible, which is not remotely true and glosses over the lack of outward expansion of the settlements over the last decade-plus. Any solution to the conflict that’s based on false premises, as Mossberg’s is, should raise red flags immediately.

Third, Mossberg doesn’t–at least in this lengthy essay–really grapple with the toughest obstacles. Here is his section on security:

Security and defense would be of paramount importance in a Parallel States structure, as well as in a more conventional two-state structure. This poses particularly vital questions, in that security is a basic need for each side in existential and concrete ways. To craft a common Israeli-Palestinian security strategy, outlining how Israelis and Palestinians could cooperate and ultimately join forces in a common security system, covering external borders as well as internal order, is a challenge that should not be underestimated.

A joint external security envelope, with a high degree of cooperation on external security and with joint or coordinated external border control, has to be envisaged. It is worth noting, though, that already today there are elements of an internal security structure that contains separate institutions and security forces, but also a high degree of coordination.

Yes, it would be a challenge. How might it be solved? Not with academic platitudes, that’s for sure.

Fourth, Mossberg all but cheers the end of the Westphalian order. This strikes me as a mistake. Just because the nation state is struggling in the modern era does not mean it deserves to perish. It’s true that Mossberg is not removing sovereignty when he removes the nation state. But it would be a step backward in global order–possibly with major repercussions elsewhere.

Finally, there is the reason we are having this discussion, at least according to Mossberg: Gaza. The recent Gaza war, he says, probably signals the end of the traditional two-state solution. But his Parallel State structure calls for the erasure of borders. Israel and the PA in the West Bank have established some very constructive avenues for security cooperation, though they would be challenged significantly by this state condominium-esque arrangement.

Gaza, on the other hand, is a different entity entirely. Yet Mossberg mostly treats Gaza as a question of economic integration, with not nearly enough energy devoted to the much greater question of security. Gaza is led by Hamas. The terrorist group won’t disappear just by having its official authority taken away. How could Hamas be integrated into a borderless Israeli-Palestinian state project? The answer is: it couldn’t, not in a way that would enable the survival of the state structure.

If the answer is, then, that Hamas has to be routed and replaced in Gaza, then that seems to be an argument for the rejuvenation of the two-state solution, not its abandonment. In any case, the Parallel States structure is not the answer.

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Peace Process Gets a Boost: Indyk Quits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Two More Myths About Israeli Settlements Bite the Dust

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is apparently troublesome, though, because:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is apparently troublesome, though, because:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Rubber Man Meets the Peace Process

As I noted yesterday, there’s no lack of evidence that even “moderate” Palestinians aren’t interested in ending their war on Israel. Yet most of the world will go through contortions worthy of the rubber man rather than admit it. A classic example is the interview a “senior American official” (widely reputed to be special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian talks Martin Indyk) gave to Yedioth Ahronoth earlier this month.           

The official spent about 3,000 words blaming the talks’ breakdown on Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, and specifically its authorization of settlement construction during the negotiations. Only then did he describe what actually happened during those crucial final months when Secretary of State John Kerry was trying to broker a framework agreement:

“In February, Abbas arrived at a Paris hotel for a meeting with Kerry … He rejected all of Kerry’s ideas. A month later, in March, he was invited to the White House. Obama presented the American-formulated principles verbally – not in writing. Abbas refused.”

Then, in the very next sentence, came this astonishing defense: “The claim on your side that Abbas was avoiding making decisions is not true. He wasn’t running away.”

So long before the announcement of 700 new housing units that Kerry later termed the “poof” moment when everything blew up, Abbas had rejected all Kerry’s ideas and all President Barack Obama’s ideas. Yet he wasn’t “avoiding making decisions” or “running away”; he was a committed and engaged peace partner. Then who is to blame for his serial rejections? Why, Netanyahu, of course: Those “announcements of new housing tenders in settlements limited Abbas’ ability to show flexibility.”           

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As I noted yesterday, there’s no lack of evidence that even “moderate” Palestinians aren’t interested in ending their war on Israel. Yet most of the world will go through contortions worthy of the rubber man rather than admit it. A classic example is the interview a “senior American official” (widely reputed to be special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian talks Martin Indyk) gave to Yedioth Ahronoth earlier this month.           

The official spent about 3,000 words blaming the talks’ breakdown on Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, and specifically its authorization of settlement construction during the negotiations. Only then did he describe what actually happened during those crucial final months when Secretary of State John Kerry was trying to broker a framework agreement:

“In February, Abbas arrived at a Paris hotel for a meeting with Kerry … He rejected all of Kerry’s ideas. A month later, in March, he was invited to the White House. Obama presented the American-formulated principles verbally – not in writing. Abbas refused.”

Then, in the very next sentence, came this astonishing defense: “The claim on your side that Abbas was avoiding making decisions is not true. He wasn’t running away.”

So long before the announcement of 700 new housing units that Kerry later termed the “poof” moment when everything blew up, Abbas had rejected all Kerry’s ideas and all President Barack Obama’s ideas. Yet he wasn’t “avoiding making decisions” or “running away”; he was a committed and engaged peace partner. Then who is to blame for his serial rejections? Why, Netanyahu, of course: Those “announcements of new housing tenders in settlements limited Abbas’ ability to show flexibility.”           

In other words, if Netanyahu is intransigent, it’s Netanyahu’s fault. And if Abbas is intransigent, it’s also Netanyahu’s fault. Under this administration’s definition of “honest brokerage,” only one side is ever to blame; the Palestinians have no agency of their own.

But it gets even worse–because it turns out Netanyahu wasn’t intransigent. As interviewer Nahum Barnea noted, even chief Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni–whom the American official termed a “heroine” who “fought with all of her might to promote the agreement”–says Netanyahu “showed flexibility.” The American pooh-poohed this, insisting Netanyahu hadn’t moved “more than an inch.” Yet addressing the Washington Institute the following week, Indyk admitted that Netanyahu actually evinced dramatic flexibility and was in “the zone of a possible agreement” when he met Obama in early March.            

So the bottom line is that Abbas rejected every proposal Kerry and Obama offered, while Netanyahu was in “the zone of a possible agreement.” Yet the administration nevertheless blames the breakdown on Netanyahu. In short, no matter what happens, the Palestinians will never be blamed.           

The reasons for this are numerous. As Jonathan Tobin noted last week, it helps deflect blame from the administration’s own mistake of wasting so much time and diplomatic energy on a dead end. Additionally, as Michael Doran perceptively argued this week, keeping Netanyahu on the defensive over the Palestinian issue undermines his ability to pressure the administration over Iran’s nuclear program. Nor can anti-Israel animus be ruled out, given the American official’s shocking claim, when Barnea drew a comparison to China’s occupation of Tibet, that “Israel is not China. It was founded by a UN resolution”–the clear implication being that unlike other countries, Israel’s right to exist is revocable.           

The most important reason, however, is simply that if the main barrier to peace is the settlements, then the problem is easily solvable and peace is achievable. But if the main barrier is Palestinian unwillingness to end their war on Israel, the problem is unsolvable and peace is unachievable. And to most of the world, blaming Israel unjustly is infinitely preferable to acknowledging that unpleasant truth.

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Remembering Kfar Etzion

“Massacre that Marred the Birth of Israel” reads a headline in the Guardian, and your heart sinks. This is the last thing one feels like reading as Israel enters into forty-eight hours of commemoration, celebration, mourning, and remembrance; today is Israel’s memorial day for fallen soldiers and terror victims, tomorrow Israel’s independence day marking sixty-six years since the reestablishment of the Jewish state. Yet, on closer inspection the headline might be thought a little misleading.

This column by the Guardian’s Peter Beaumont turns out not to be just another hit piece laden with the usual allegations of Zionist crimes against forlorn Palestinians. In a newspaper typically more inclined to give over its pages to stories about what Israel’s opponents call the Nakba—the catastrophe of Israel’s creation—it is rather disorienting, if refreshing, to find a piece so sympathetically recounting the macabre events of the Kfar Etzion massacre.

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“Massacre that Marred the Birth of Israel” reads a headline in the Guardian, and your heart sinks. This is the last thing one feels like reading as Israel enters into forty-eight hours of commemoration, celebration, mourning, and remembrance; today is Israel’s memorial day for fallen soldiers and terror victims, tomorrow Israel’s independence day marking sixty-six years since the reestablishment of the Jewish state. Yet, on closer inspection the headline might be thought a little misleading.

This column by the Guardian’s Peter Beaumont turns out not to be just another hit piece laden with the usual allegations of Zionist crimes against forlorn Palestinians. In a newspaper typically more inclined to give over its pages to stories about what Israel’s opponents call the Nakba—the catastrophe of Israel’s creation—it is rather disorienting, if refreshing, to find a piece so sympathetically recounting the macabre events of the Kfar Etzion massacre.

Supporters of Israel still regularly try to remind the world of how the surrounding nations attempted to strangle Israel at its birth, yet they rarely do so with any reference to the specifics. By contrast those seeking to paint Israel’s creation as the original sin of an illegitimate state have long been equipped with arguments provided by Israel’s revisionist historians, with their allegations of orchestrated ethnic cleansing on the part of the nascent Jewish state.

A closer inspection of the events as they actually unfolded reveals how Israel’s precarious war of independence was the culmination of an ongoing conflict which reached its most frenetic point as the British Mandatory forces prepared to pull out and the surrounding countries invaded in an effort to undo the United Nations’ decision to back the establishment of the Jewish state. Messy and disorganized battles followed as the ill-equipped Jewish forces—with their poorly trained ranks of newly arrived immigrants and holocaust survivors—tried to repel five invading armies.

Talk by Arab leaders at the time of “driving the Jews into the sea” has since been dismissed by some as mere rhetoric. The events at Kfar Etzion, however, should serve as a reminder of how things might have looked had Israel lost in its fight for independence. Beaumont recounts the massacre that took place on May 13, 1948 when Jordanian forces were responsible for killing some 127 Jewish captives who had been holding out in Kibbutz Kfar Etzion. Among this number were some twenty women who had been hiding in the cellar of the adjacent German monastery. Beaumont’s piece focuses on the story of Yossi Ron, whose parents Yecheil and Tzipora Rosenfeld, both Holocaust survivors, were among those murdered following the fall of the Kibbutz.

These events were in fact the second massacre involving Kfar Etzion. In January 1948 a convoy set out from Jerusalem to bring supplies to the four besieged kibbutzim of the Gush Etzion region south of Bethlehem. Their fate became apparent when the Irgun intercepted an Arab radio communication apparently celebrating some kind of attack on Jewish forces. All thirty-five of the young men in the group had been killed by local Arab villagers, many mutilated beyond recognition. What happened to this group was not unique for the time, with Jewish convoys often serving as easy targets. During the early stages of the civil war, many young people lost their lives accompanying convoys bringing aid from Tel Aviv to the desperately encircled Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem. And perhaps most shocking of all was the ambush of a Jewish medical convoy on its way to Hadassah hospital on Mount Scopus. Among the seventy-nine people murdered in that attack were doctors, nurses, patients, students, and a British soldier.

Beaumont’s piece notes that it was out of the memory of Kfar Etzion that the settlement movement would be born. The kibbutz was the first settlement to built after the 1967 Six-Day War when Hanan Porat and the other children of Kfar Etzion—who had been evacuated prior to the massacre—reestablished the community. Today the Gush Etzion region is one of the quieter parts of the West Bank and arguably one of the settlement movement’s greatest success stories. Its pastural landscape dotted with Kibbutzim, vineyards, seminaries, and a number of small towns has been envisaged as remaining part of Israel even by those proposing the most extensive Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank.

The easygoing Kfar Etzion of today is just one expression of the Israeli tendency to redeem sites of loss and tragedy with new life. With some 23,169 Israelis having fallen in combat in the course of Israel’s short history, and with another 2,495 civilian victims of terrorism, it seems unjust to highlight some cases over others. Yet while it may be surreal to be reminded from the pages of the Guardian of all places, the events at Kfar Etzion are a particularly harrowing testament of what could have been Israel’s fate, and of all that has been achieved instead.  

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A Tale of Two Letters: Why the Peace Process Went Poof

Last week Zbigniew Brzezinski, joined by five other foreign-policy experts from the past, issued an open letter entitled “Stand Firm, John Kerry,” calling for “clarity” on “the critical moral and political issues” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The letter castigated Israeli settlements and proposed “halting the diplomatic process” to “help stop this activity.” At “Pressure Points,” Elliott Abrams dismantled the letter, noting that, among other things, it ignored history.  

As it happens, tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of one of the more important items of history the Brzezinski group ignored: the April 14, 2004 letter from President George W. Bush to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Abrams recounts how the letter went through “many drafts, as words, phrases, and paragraphs came in and out,” ending with a “headline” that was clear: “There would be no return to 1967 and Israel could keep the major settlement blocks.” In her  own memoir, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recounted spending three hours on the letter with Sharon the night before it was issued, and described the agreement to apply a “Google Earth test” for settlements: no new ones, no expanding the boundaries of them, but allowing building within existing settlements, since that would not reduce the land available for a Palestinian state. In his recent biography of Sharon, David Landau writes:

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Last week Zbigniew Brzezinski, joined by five other foreign-policy experts from the past, issued an open letter entitled “Stand Firm, John Kerry,” calling for “clarity” on “the critical moral and political issues” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The letter castigated Israeli settlements and proposed “halting the diplomatic process” to “help stop this activity.” At “Pressure Points,” Elliott Abrams dismantled the letter, noting that, among other things, it ignored history.  

As it happens, tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of one of the more important items of history the Brzezinski group ignored: the April 14, 2004 letter from President George W. Bush to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Abrams recounts how the letter went through “many drafts, as words, phrases, and paragraphs came in and out,” ending with a “headline” that was clear: “There would be no return to 1967 and Israel could keep the major settlement blocks.” In her  own memoir, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recounted spending three hours on the letter with Sharon the night before it was issued, and described the agreement to apply a “Google Earth test” for settlements: no new ones, no expanding the boundaries of them, but allowing building within existing settlements, since that would not reduce the land available for a Palestinian state. In his recent biography of Sharon, David Landau writes:

The American-Israeli diplomacy culminated in a hugely significant exchange of letters between Bush and Sharon in April 2004. In his letter, Sharon committed to carry out the [Gaza] disengagement. In his response, President Bush committed to back Israel on two vital issues: the Palestinian refugees would not return en masse to the State of Israel; and – by clear implication – the large settlement blocs on the West Bank, close to the 1967 line, would remain part of Israel in a final status agreement. Sharon regarded the exchange of letters as his most salient achievement as prime minister. He was probably right.

Last year, as Secretary Kerry was in Israel seeking to restart peace negotiations, an Israeli reporter asked him about “a guarantee from the past”–“telling that blocs of settlements can stay.” His question was straightforward: “does [the guarantee] exist?” Kerry responded: “I remember that commitment very well because I was running for president then, and I personally have supported the notion that the situation on the ground has changed.” Indeed, four days after the Bush letter was issued, Kerry was asked directly about it on Meet the Press:

MR. RUSSERT: On Thursday, President Bush … said that Israel can keep part of the land seized in the 1967 Middle East War and asserted the Palestinian refugees cannot go back to their particular homes. Do you support President Bush?

SEN. KERRY: Yes.

MR. RUSSERT: Completely?

SEN. KERRY: Yes.

The 2004 Bush letter was not simply a statement of policy; it was a negotiated deal, on which Israel relied in carrying out the Gaza disengagement, dismantling every settlement there and four others in the disputed territories as well. Sharon made the Bush letter part of the formal disengagement plan submitted to the Knesset for its approval. The U.S. Congress also endorsed the letter, in joint resolutions by the Senate (95-3) and House (407-9). The letter was endorsed in unambiguous terms by the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, who in 2013 as secretary of state correctly called it a “commitment.”

The Obama administration, when it took office in 2009, repeatedly refused to answer whether it was bound by the Bush letter. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denied there were any “enforceable” understandings with Israel. The day before Palestinian President Abbas met with President Obama, Clinton told the press Obama had been “very clear” with Prime Minister Netanyahu that he “wants to see a stop to settlements – not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions”–and that this had been “communicated very clearly, not only to the Israelis but to the Palestinians and others.” The same day, Abbas told the Washington Post he would do nothing but watch the Obama administration pressure Netanyahu. The administration eventually got a ten-month construction freeze, which both Clinton and Obama envoy George Mitchell called “unprecedented.” It produced nothing from the Palestinians other than a demand in the tenth month that it be continued.

Now flash forward five years, to Secretary of State Kerry’s April 8, 2014 Senate Foreign Relations Committee testimony, in which he said “both sides … wound up in positions where things happened that were unhelpful,” but that “when they were about to maybe [resume negotiations], 700 settlement units were announced in Jerusalem, and poof, that was sort of the moment.” Kerry knew the 700 “settlement units” [sic] were in a longstanding Jewish area in the capital of the Jewish state; that the area will be retained by Israel in any conceivable peace agreement; that Israel had made no commitment to Kerry to stop any construction there; and that Israel was working on an expanded prisoner release when the Palestinians went to the UN.

The peace process went “poof” not because of 700 units in Jerusalem, but because–for the third time in three years–the Palestinians violated the foundational agreement of the process, which obligates them not to take “any step” outside bilateral negotiations to change the status of the disputed territories. For the third time, the Palestinians went to the UN; for the third time, there was no American response; for the third time, there was no penalty for the violation; and on April 8, there was not even an honest assessment of the situation by the secretary of state.

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EU, UN Blame Settlements, not Palestinian Violence

In recent days both the European Union and the United Nations have issued statements condemning Israel for issuing housing permits to build additional homes in West Bank Jewish communities. Naturally, both statements equated these moves to Israel sabotaging the peace process, a completely dishonest claim that only makes it easier for the Palestinian side to use these moves as the very pretext that they are looking for to flee negotiations. In opposing the building of homes for Jews in communities that under just about any conceivable arrangement would remain part of Israel, these international bodies utterly ignore the most critical threat to peace in the area: the growing levels of Islamist violence in the territories, and the Palestinian Authority’s total neglect of its responsibility to confront this.

Indeed, the same Office of the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO), which issued the statement condemning the settlement construction, issued another statement only days earlier criticizing the activities of Israeli security forces operating in the West Bank, calling for investigations of any violations of international law.

In response to the publication of Israeli plans to move ahead with the construction of new housing projects in existing West Bank settlements, the EU’s Catherine Ashton said she was “deeply disappointed by the Israeli plans to expand settlements” and bemoaned how “unilateral action prejudging final status issues threatens the current peace negotiations.” Yet this is simply a misrepresentation of what is actually happening here. The talk of “expanding” settlements gives the sense of more territory being enveloped by Israel. In reality all building in these communities takes place within the existing perimeter boundaries of already established settlements. And the suggestion that creating more homes in these towns in any way prejudges “final status issues” is no less problematic. It has long been understood that the major settlement blocks would be annexed to Israel under any peace agreement.

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In recent days both the European Union and the United Nations have issued statements condemning Israel for issuing housing permits to build additional homes in West Bank Jewish communities. Naturally, both statements equated these moves to Israel sabotaging the peace process, a completely dishonest claim that only makes it easier for the Palestinian side to use these moves as the very pretext that they are looking for to flee negotiations. In opposing the building of homes for Jews in communities that under just about any conceivable arrangement would remain part of Israel, these international bodies utterly ignore the most critical threat to peace in the area: the growing levels of Islamist violence in the territories, and the Palestinian Authority’s total neglect of its responsibility to confront this.

Indeed, the same Office of the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO), which issued the statement condemning the settlement construction, issued another statement only days earlier criticizing the activities of Israeli security forces operating in the West Bank, calling for investigations of any violations of international law.

In response to the publication of Israeli plans to move ahead with the construction of new housing projects in existing West Bank settlements, the EU’s Catherine Ashton said she was “deeply disappointed by the Israeli plans to expand settlements” and bemoaned how “unilateral action prejudging final status issues threatens the current peace negotiations.” Yet this is simply a misrepresentation of what is actually happening here. The talk of “expanding” settlements gives the sense of more territory being enveloped by Israel. In reality all building in these communities takes place within the existing perimeter boundaries of already established settlements. And the suggestion that creating more homes in these towns in any way prejudges “final status issues” is no less problematic. It has long been understood that the major settlement blocks would be annexed to Israel under any peace agreement.

For those who support the two-state proposal, there is a fundamental question to be answered about why settlements are indeed so problematic for their plan. Two-state plans almost always envisage the settlements either being annexed to Israel or otherwise evacuated. Yet, the need for such arrangements only highlights the fact that just as the Palestinians are refusing to agree to live alongside a Jewish state, they even refuse to live peacefully alongside Jewish neighbors. They have made it very clear that they have absolutely no intention of tolerating a Jewish minority within their state in the same way that Israel has always embraced having an Arab minority within its borders. When Ashton addresses the settlement issue, it seems she does not stop for a moment to ask herself why she is backing the establishment of a Jew-free state.    

Even if EU and UN officials genuinely believe that unilateral actions will hurt prospects for an agreement, where are all their statements giving equal condemnation of Palestinian moves? It would seem that they are deaf to what are now almost daily statements coming from president Abbas, declaring his refusal to sign up to the U.S.-sponsored framework and his intention to end the talks and return to pursuing Palestinian statehood unilaterally.

Given that Palestinian schools and broadcast media (in many instances funded by both the EU and the UN) put out a never-ending stream of incitement against Israel, in direct contravention of agreements that the PA is signed up to, wouldn’t you expect to occasionally hear some protest about this from Ashton or the UN’s special Middle East envoy Robert Serry? Instead, both of these figures pave Abbas’s way to fleeing talks by endorsing his narrative that settlement construction warrants just such a reaction.

These international diplomats live in a topsy-turvy version of reality in which homes for Jews are antithetical to peace, while the proliferation of Islamist terror groups in the West Bank are unworthy of comment. Indeed, in his Bloomberg interview President Obama repeatedly described settlements as “aggressive” so as to create the sense that building homes for Jews is comparable with acts of violence. Meanwhile Obama praised Abbas as having rejected violence. In truth Abbas’s PA continues to glorify and honor terrorism, but it also now seems that Abbas has adopted a parallel policy of inaction that only makes the proliferation of terrorism against Israelis more likely.

The growing threat of terror coming from the West Bank has become ever more apparent in recent months. It appears that, under pressure from a Palestinian public supportive of jihadist groups, the PA security forces have simply stopped policing certain neighborhoods of such radicalized cities as Jenin and Nablus. This has obliged the Israeli military to step up its involvement in these areas and over the weekend the IDF was engaged in a firefight in Jenin as they pursued Hamas operative Hamza Abu al-Hija, having already attempted to arrest him back in December. Despite the fact that these measures were necessitated by PA inaction, the Palestinian Authority actually condemned this incursion by Israel.

On Sunday Israeli border police officers were also injured by Palestinian rioters during a violent flare-up close to the Jewish holy site of Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem. Meanwhile Palestinians assaulted an Israeli man near a Nablus village after PA police dispersed a group of Israelis visiting the site of the former Jewish community of Homesh. These are the kinds of activities that by their very nature break the peace and yet while Robert Serry apparently chooses to remain silent about the activities of terrorist groups, his office has no such qualms about chastising the Israeli security forces that have to try and deal with this threat.

Ashton accuses Israel of “squandering” opportunities for peace. What word, then, would she use to describe Abbas’s policy of presiding over a government that at once promotes and permits this kind of violence?   

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Oxfam-Johansson Saga Takes Sinister Turn

When Scarlett Johansson came under pressure from the charity Oxfam to sever her ties with the Israeli company SodaStream, Johansson took the high-profile move of ending her longstanding relationship with the charity instead. For this stand, Johansson was pilloried by critics. The BBC’s Charlie Brooker portrayed the young actress as having essentially jettisoned a benevolent humanitarian group so as to side with the forces of uncompromising evil.

Now, however, it turns out that it may be the likes of Brooker who is owed some parodying in return. It has become apparent that not only is Oxfam guilty of highly politicized moves against Israel, but that Oxfam also stands accused of indirectly supporting the Palestinian terrorist organization the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). In a letter sent to Oxfam by the Israel Law Center, the charity is accused of having given support and funding to what are essentially satellite groups of the PFLP who then channel that funding back to the terror group itself.

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When Scarlett Johansson came under pressure from the charity Oxfam to sever her ties with the Israeli company SodaStream, Johansson took the high-profile move of ending her longstanding relationship with the charity instead. For this stand, Johansson was pilloried by critics. The BBC’s Charlie Brooker portrayed the young actress as having essentially jettisoned a benevolent humanitarian group so as to side with the forces of uncompromising evil.

Now, however, it turns out that it may be the likes of Brooker who is owed some parodying in return. It has become apparent that not only is Oxfam guilty of highly politicized moves against Israel, but that Oxfam also stands accused of indirectly supporting the Palestinian terrorist organization the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). In a letter sent to Oxfam by the Israel Law Center, the charity is accused of having given support and funding to what are essentially satellite groups of the PFLP who then channel that funding back to the terror group itself.

The letter calls on Oxfam to sever its ties with the groups in question–the Union of Health Workers Committees and the Union of Agricultural Workers Committees–or face the prospect of legal proceedings against it. Indeed, the PFLP is categorized as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government; responsible for some of most gruesome and calculated attacks on Israeli civilians in recent memory. As such, Oxfam could well find itself to be in breach of a number of European and American laws concerning the support of terrorism.

Oxfam has a long record of using its position as a charity to smear Israel and advance the political causes of Palestinians. The charity’s alignment with the boycott campaign that targets companies like SodaStream betrays a total disregard for the welfare of the Palestinians that these companies employ, and that Oxfam claims to care about assisting. Yet, it had already become apparent that Oxfam’s political agenda against Israel trumped any concern for the needs of Palestinians simply trying to make an honest living. They were to be sacrificed as part of the greater campaign to damage the State of Israel and Israelis who had the misfortune of being on the “wrong side” of a defunct and briefly maintained armistice line.

Now these latest allegations suggest that Oxfam may have actually been willing to go much further still to support the war on Israelis. The way in which a group supposedly championing human rights could so invert the values it claimed to stand for is a disturbing statement on just how all-consuming the hatred of Israel appears to become for those who first choose to dabble in it. More gratifying, however, is that those who wished to mock Johansson as having forsaken a much deserving and benign charity have been made to look the most farcical of all in this whole saga. 

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The Rising Cost of Kerry’s Peace Charade

Listening to Palestinian officials bemoan the condition of the peace process can be disorienting, given that that they are the ones who have played no small part in sabotaging that very same process. Ahead of Secretary of State Kerry’s meeting with Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, an unnamed PA official has been warning that the peace talks are in “real crisis.” The two are due to meet in Paris today, but to suggest that the negotiations are in crisis now would be to falsely imply that they were in a happier state at some previous point.

If they have taken on a particularly unpromising appearance in recent weeks it is because Abbas keeps issuing lists of demands so outlandish as to threaten the entire proceedings, which is precisely what such demands are intended to do. Ironically, despite this, Kerry is seeking a way to have the negotiation period extended for up to another year.

All of this, however, creates a serious headache for Israel. Since the Palestinians are currently saying that they will not remain at the negotiating table unless a framework is agreed upon by the end of April—while themselves saying that they reject Kerry’s current framework—it is likely that Israel will come under further pressure to concede still more. The Israeli press is reporting that as part of the framework the State Department is to request that Israel implement a partial settlement freeze on those Israeli communities in isolated parts of the West Bank.

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Listening to Palestinian officials bemoan the condition of the peace process can be disorienting, given that that they are the ones who have played no small part in sabotaging that very same process. Ahead of Secretary of State Kerry’s meeting with Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, an unnamed PA official has been warning that the peace talks are in “real crisis.” The two are due to meet in Paris today, but to suggest that the negotiations are in crisis now would be to falsely imply that they were in a happier state at some previous point.

If they have taken on a particularly unpromising appearance in recent weeks it is because Abbas keeps issuing lists of demands so outlandish as to threaten the entire proceedings, which is precisely what such demands are intended to do. Ironically, despite this, Kerry is seeking a way to have the negotiation period extended for up to another year.

All of this, however, creates a serious headache for Israel. Since the Palestinians are currently saying that they will not remain at the negotiating table unless a framework is agreed upon by the end of April—while themselves saying that they reject Kerry’s current framework—it is likely that Israel will come under further pressure to concede still more. The Israeli press is reporting that as part of the framework the State Department is to request that Israel implement a partial settlement freeze on those Israeli communities in isolated parts of the West Bank.

Some might argue that this demand is not a particularly unreasonable one, although the families living in the communities in question can hardly be expected to see it this way. Yet, this is beside the point. The point is that yet again, the Obama administration is moving to pressure Israel to make real concessions in return for nothing more than the Palestinians continuing to maintain the veneer of participating in the charade of negotiations. And as has now been pointed out by so many, one of the primary beneficiaries of keeping up appearances on the peace front is Kerry himself.

This has become a recurring theme under this administration’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. In what has become a cyclical and self-perpetuating pattern, Israel is pressured by America into making real and difficult concessions in exchange for the Palestinians agreeing to participate in what only ever turn out to have been symbolic negotiations. These negotiations are inevitably restricted to a limited time frame; by the time each round comes to a close Abbas has spent the political capital he managed to extract from the previous Israeli concessions and begins to demand further concessions if he is to keep going through the motions of the peace process.

We saw how in 2009 Obama forced the Israelis to implement a nine-month settlement freeze just to get Abbas to the table. Then Abbas demanded that the freeze be extended to Jerusalem, and indeed it appeared that Israel unofficially capitulated to this too. Yet, only in the closing weeks of that nine-month period did Abbas finally arrive at the negotiating table, and by all accounts once there was only interested in talking about one thing: having the freeze and Israel’s concessions extended further. When it came to the current series of negotiations, this time around Israel refused to put life on hold for the half million of its citizens living over the green line. Instead it was compelled to release Palestinian terrorists, something which understandably caused the Israeli public great anguish, and surely cast doubt on Abbas’s credentials as a man of peace.

Now Abbas is once again threatening to walk. According to Israel’s chief negotiator Tzipi Livni, hardly someone with a vested interest in derailing the peace process, the Palestinians have blocked all attempts at progress with a string of impossible demands. With Abbas having contributed nothing useful to the conversation, it seems that the State Department is now trying to bribe him into remaining in negotiations by pressuring Israel into making yet more concessions. As with their floundering negotiations with Iran, and indeed Syria, the administration is attempting to appease the unappeasable. Unwilling to take the tough actions necessary to achieve concrete end results, all that Kerry can do is keep up the façade of a process. There is something almost Buddhist in all this; the journey has become the destination. But all the while, it’s America’s allies that are paying an ever-higher price for this administration’s indulgences. 

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Europe’s Unhinged Assault on Israel

If diplomacy is war by other means, the Europeans have been taking to the diplomatic warpath amidst an increasingly strident attitude toward Israel and its policies on Jewish communities over the 1949 armistice lines. The European position on Israel’s settlements has often been tagged as hypocritical and replete with double standards, but in recent days the European reaction to announcements of new homes for Jews living over the green line, including in eastern parts of Jerusalem, has been so disproportionate as to appear almost unhinged.  

On Thursday, Israeli diplomats in London, Paris, Rome, and Madrid were all hauled in by government officials to be subjected to protest and rebuke at the news that the Israeli government had issued housing permits for 600 new homes in Jerusalem and 800 in the settlement blocks, which under just about any conceivable re-drawing of the borders would remain part of Israel.

It is a rather strange turn of history to find that even in the 21st century European governments are still trying to tell Jews where they can and cannot live. Strange, that in a manner that almost smacks of old-style colonialism, Europeans are still trying to determine the borders of other peoples in other parts of the world.

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If diplomacy is war by other means, the Europeans have been taking to the diplomatic warpath amidst an increasingly strident attitude toward Israel and its policies on Jewish communities over the 1949 armistice lines. The European position on Israel’s settlements has often been tagged as hypocritical and replete with double standards, but in recent days the European reaction to announcements of new homes for Jews living over the green line, including in eastern parts of Jerusalem, has been so disproportionate as to appear almost unhinged.  

On Thursday, Israeli diplomats in London, Paris, Rome, and Madrid were all hauled in by government officials to be subjected to protest and rebuke at the news that the Israeli government had issued housing permits for 600 new homes in Jerusalem and 800 in the settlement blocks, which under just about any conceivable re-drawing of the borders would remain part of Israel.

It is a rather strange turn of history to find that even in the 21st century European governments are still trying to tell Jews where they can and cannot live. Strange, that in a manner that almost smacks of old-style colonialism, Europeans are still trying to determine the borders of other peoples in other parts of the world.

These moves by European diplomats sit alongside the European Union’s latest policy of issuing funding restrictions on Jewish businesses and organizations operating over the green line. So far this boycott policy is being held off while negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are underway. Yet, the message from Brussels has been clear, should talks fail, such policies will be brought to bear against Israel, signifying that even if the Palestinians walk away from a deal, Europeans will blame the Jewish state.

Indeed, the level of hypocrisy from European diplomats over the recent settlement announcement is breathtaking. For one thing, Israel is under no obligation to freeze building in the territories while negotiations take place. Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas demanded a series of concessions before deigning to join peace talks, but rather than put life on hold for Israelis living in Jerusalem and the West Bank, Israel instead opted to release a number of Palestinian terrorists. Now it seems the Europeans are demanding both the release of terrorists and a freeze on Jews living in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The real double standard, however, concerns European silence in the face of countless Palestinian breaches of the terms set down for the negotiation process. As I’ve written about here previously, the Palestinians have recently made moves to pursue membership in UN bodies, in direct contravention of their obligations under the negotiation framework. And as Jonathan Tobin has also noted in these pages, far from educating their population for peace as the Oslo agreements require them to, the Palestinian Authority continues mass incitement against Jews and Israel.

Nor should we forget, although it seems the Europeans already have, that in recent days a stream of rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israeli civilian areas. Yet, we can rest assured that if and when the Israeli military is forced to mount a ground incursion into Gaza, the streets of European capitals will fill with protesters, the airwaves will become deafening with furious condemnation of Israeli “aggression,” and European governments will call for Israel to show restraint.  

To their credit, the Israelis have not taken this latest diplomatic assault lying down. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has responded boldly stating, “When did the EU call in the Palestinian ambassadors to complain about the incitement that calls for Israel’s destruction? I think it is time to stop this hypocrisy. I think it is time to inject some balance and fairness to this discussion. Because I think this imbalance and this bias against Israel doesn’t advance peace.” And quite rightly the Israeli prime minister went on to say, “I think it pushed peace further away because it tells the Palestinians, ‘Basically you can do anything you want, say anything you want and you won’t be held accountable.’”

Israel’s foreign minister has gone further still and has requested meetings between Israeli officials and the ambassadors of the same European countries that summoned their Israeli ambassadors in for rebuke. No doubt the mood will be tense, the conversation somewhat uncomfortable, but something has to make the Europeans rethink their increasingly unhinged attitude toward Israel and those of its citizens who happen to live over the 1949 armistice lines.  

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Murderers or Houses: Kerry’s V.A.T. on Peace

The release of unrepentant Jew-killers from Israeli prisons to keep the engine of the peace process running has left many, even those sympathetic with the Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria, angrily wondering why Prime Minister Netanyahu did not accept a settlement freeze instead. There is a good reason, even for those not generally sympathetic to the Jewish presence: unlike the other concessions, a settlement freeze implicitly concedes Israel’s chief negotiating positions before even sitting down at the table.

The first thing to say is that the position Israel was put in by Secretary of State John Kerry and the Palestinians was fundamentally unjust. Israel is forced to make sacrifices even for the “privilege” of participating in peace negotiations to whose ultimate goal is “painful sacrifices” by Israel. In Israel, politicians talk about paying “the price” for peace. Kerry has put a price on paying the price: a value-added tax on peace.

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The release of unrepentant Jew-killers from Israeli prisons to keep the engine of the peace process running has left many, even those sympathetic with the Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria, angrily wondering why Prime Minister Netanyahu did not accept a settlement freeze instead. There is a good reason, even for those not generally sympathetic to the Jewish presence: unlike the other concessions, a settlement freeze implicitly concedes Israel’s chief negotiating positions before even sitting down at the table.

The first thing to say is that the position Israel was put in by Secretary of State John Kerry and the Palestinians was fundamentally unjust. Israel is forced to make sacrifices even for the “privilege” of participating in peace negotiations to whose ultimate goal is “painful sacrifices” by Israel. In Israel, politicians talk about paying “the price” for peace. Kerry has put a price on paying the price: a value-added tax on peace.

Moreover, if the occupation were so terrible (or real) one would think Abbas would be in a hurry to get to the bargaining table without any preliminaries. This suggests Abbas is not in such a hurry to get an “end of the occupation” so much as particular tactical wins. Moreover, the fact that a top priority for Abbas is the release of mass murders so they can be feted and remunerated shows that “peace” is not vaguely on the horizon, regardless of whether a Kerry diplomatic achievement is. If Bibi partied down with Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein, it would be the end of his career.

Still, why did Bibi take this option, of all the bad ones presented to him? We know he is not a slave of the settlers: he has imposed a construction freeze before, for 10 months, simply to entice Abbas to the table. It did not work, Abbas ran down the clock, and demanded an extension. So that has been tried.

But aren’t houses less important than justice for the murdered? Of course. However, unlike the release of terrorists, a construction freeze is fundamentally related to the substance of the negotiations themselves. That is, of all the proposed “gestures,” the freeze would not only be problematic in itself, but would have Israel start negotiations on its back foot.

Not allowing Jews to build houses in most of Jerusalem, in settlement blocs like Gush Etzion, Maale Adumim, and elsewhere that would surely remain under Israel sovereignty sends one message: we have absolutely no right to be here. We are trespassers. It is one thing to say the Palestinians can have a state because of demographic reasons, international pressure, and so forth. It is another thing to say we are trespassers in the Old City of Jerusalem and Hebron, where Jews lived until being expelled by Arab armies and mobs. A settlement freeze in effect agrees to the 1967 lines as the basis for negotiations–which even if it were a good idea, is a lot more than a “gesture of good faith.” It is one thing to say these territories should become Palestinian territory. It is another to say Israel took them from the Palestinians, that they always were, as Abbas claims, Palestinian territory.

Of course, the way the narrative of the peace process is structured, Israel should not be surprised at the pay-to-play. And for this situation, the tireless proponents of “peace” bear primary responsibility. If, as the left argues, Israel needs peace more than the Palestinians need it, no wonder the Palestinians will charge Israel heavily for the privilege of giving them a state.

That is indeed why the Palestinian demands go far beyond the end of occupation or having an independent state. The right of return? What does that have to do with the end of occupation? A capital in Jerusalem, which no Arab state has had? An end to Jewish control over the Holy Basin? Nothing to do with an independent state. These are additional political add-ons. Sovereignty over the Jordan Valley? Ditto; almost no Arabs (or Jews) live there; control over it is a territorial demand rather than an independence-related one.

Interestingly, the Labor Party, while favoring a two-state solution, was until recently against icing the cake–against the division of Jerusalem, ceding sovereignty over Jerusalem, and a right of return. Yet in succeeding rounds of peace negotiations, they have accepted all three in some form. This erosion of their position is natural. Once peace is defined as an existential Israeli interest–once Israeli politicians have resorted to the cheap tactic of threatening apartheid and illegitimacy–there is nowhere back to go, only forward with endless concessions.

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What Threatens Peace? Houses or Terror?

The news that Israel is preparing to announce permissions for new housing starts in Jerusalem and the West Bank settlement blocs is causing predictable consternation in the international community. The Palestinian Authority is claiming the building of these homes threatens the peace process. European nations are expressing their unhappiness with rumblings about a “harsh response” that may go beyond their previous efforts to restrict economic cooperation with the Jewish state so as to exclude anything to do with the settlements. Prime Minister Netanyahu can also expect U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to be upset since he has gone on record as branding the Jewish presence beyond the cease-fire lines of June 4, 1967 as “illegitimate.”

Why is Netanyahu doing it? The consensus answer is domestic politics. Having agreed to release more convicted Palestinian terrorists next month, he is hoping to keep his coalition together by throwing a bone to his right-wing supporters in the form of housing starts. But even settlement movement supporters are no more thrilled with a policy that somehow equates building homes with sending unrepentant murderers of Jews back to a hero’s welcome than is the PA about an announcement of new houses within existing settlements. Considering that it is unlikely that these homes will be built any time soon, if ever, the announcement seems to be a lose-lose proposition for the prime minister and his government. But before you join in the chorus of critics lambasting his decision, it is worthwhile to re-examine the question of what is and what is not an obstacle to Middle East peace.

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The news that Israel is preparing to announce permissions for new housing starts in Jerusalem and the West Bank settlement blocs is causing predictable consternation in the international community. The Palestinian Authority is claiming the building of these homes threatens the peace process. European nations are expressing their unhappiness with rumblings about a “harsh response” that may go beyond their previous efforts to restrict economic cooperation with the Jewish state so as to exclude anything to do with the settlements. Prime Minister Netanyahu can also expect U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to be upset since he has gone on record as branding the Jewish presence beyond the cease-fire lines of June 4, 1967 as “illegitimate.”

Why is Netanyahu doing it? The consensus answer is domestic politics. Having agreed to release more convicted Palestinian terrorists next month, he is hoping to keep his coalition together by throwing a bone to his right-wing supporters in the form of housing starts. But even settlement movement supporters are no more thrilled with a policy that somehow equates building homes with sending unrepentant murderers of Jews back to a hero’s welcome than is the PA about an announcement of new houses within existing settlements. Considering that it is unlikely that these homes will be built any time soon, if ever, the announcement seems to be a lose-lose proposition for the prime minister and his government. But before you join in the chorus of critics lambasting his decision, it is worthwhile to re-examine the question of what is and what is not an obstacle to Middle East peace.

This is a moment when terrorism against the Jewish state is on the rise. Rockets are flying from Gaza into southern Israel. And Israel’s supposed peace partners continue to say they will never recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. Yet the world is about to pounce on Israel for having the temerity to state its intention to build houses. If that doesn’t tell you all you have to know about the skewed moral compass of Israel’s critics and the lopsided morality of Middle East peace processing, nothing will.

Let’s first walk back the assumption that is treated as self-evident by the Obama administration and the rest of the foreign-policy establishment: that building these homes makes peace less likely. This is simply false.

Furthermore, the existence of settlements over the green line would not prevent their removal if the Palestinians were ever to make the leap the world has been waiting for them to make for decades: to renounce the conflict and recognize that Israel is the Jewish state which will never be toppled so as to create another Arab majority state. Until the PA renounces the “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees and stops treating pre-1967 Israel as “occupied territory,” there is nothing to talk about.

It should also be understood that Israel is not building more settlements, merely allowing natural growth inside the communities that have existed for decades.

Even more to the point, the peace agreement that Kerry, liberal pundits, and others all say is well known is one in which the areas where these homes will be built will remain inside Israel. The accord that “everybody knows” and which we are endlessly told merely has to be acknowledged by Israel isn’t going to be one where the 40-year-old Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem are handed over to the Palestinians. Nor are the major settlement blocs going to be razed and their population evicted. Even President Obama has said that they will be accommodated by territorial swaps.

The Palestinians can have their state in almost all of the West Bank and even part of Jerusalem without having a single one of these homes or most of the settlements touched. Why then is there such consternation about building in an area that won’t change hands even in the unlikely event that peace is achieved?

Unless the administration and the Europeans are as committed to the proposition that hundreds of thousands of Jews will be tossed out of their homes in Jerusalem, its suburbs, and the other blocs close to the ’67 lines, making a fuss about building in these places is a red herring designed to obfuscate the real problems of the region rather than focusing on a matter of vital interest.

Far more troubling for the future of the region is the current surge in terrorism taking place in the West Bank as well as the increase in missile firings from Gaza. Contrary to the conventional wisdom about the Middle East that is routinely published in the mainstream media, this is not part of a cycle of violence for which both Israelis and Palestinians are equally to blame. Rather it is a function of Palestinian politics in which the Islamists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad are competing with equally radical segments of PA leader Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah Party. None of these groups is prepared to accept true peace with Israel on any terms, even if not a single Jew were left on the other side of the 1967 lines. Until a sea change in Palestinian politics occurs that will enable their leaders to embrace peace—something that Hamas control of Gaza currently makes impossible—diplomacy doesn’t have a chance.

By threatening Israel with another intifada if it does not make more concessions to the Palestinians, Kerry has set in motion a train of events in which Palestinian rejectionists feel justified, indeed encouraged, in engaging in violence. A U.S. policy that treats houses as more of a threat to peace than terrorism is one that is not only bound to fail but is also likely to make the situation worse.

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France’s Peace Process Innovation

For the second time in two weeks, France has proven itself the most serious foreign-policy player the West currently has. First, it thwarted an abysmal nuclear deal with Iran. Now, it’s come up with the most creative idea for advancing Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy that I’ve heard in years.

Speaking in Ramallah yesterday, French President Francois Hollande essentially told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas the following: You think Israeli settlement construction is destroying prospects for a two-state solution, and therefore want it halted. I agree. But the Israelis think these prospects are being destroyed by your demand to relocate millions of Palestinians to Israel (aka the “right of return”). So why not trade concessions on the right of return for a settlement freeze?

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For the second time in two weeks, France has proven itself the most serious foreign-policy player the West currently has. First, it thwarted an abysmal nuclear deal with Iran. Now, it’s come up with the most creative idea for advancing Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy that I’ve heard in years.

Speaking in Ramallah yesterday, French President Francois Hollande essentially told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas the following: You think Israeli settlement construction is destroying prospects for a two-state solution, and therefore want it halted. I agree. But the Israelis think these prospects are being destroyed by your demand to relocate millions of Palestinians to Israel (aka the “right of return”). So why not trade concessions on the right of return for a settlement freeze?

The first innovation in this proposal is that someone in Paris actually seems to have read the Oslo Accords–a rarity among Western diplomats–and discovered that they explicitly designate settlements as a final-status issue, just like refugees; Israel has no interim obligation to stop building them. Once this is understood, it’s obvious that an unrequited settlement freeze is a nonstarter: No sane negotiator would make major, upfront, unrequited concessions on a significant final-status issue. Hollande therefore proposed a substantive trade in which both sides would make concessions on a major final-status issue.

Granted, the issues aren’t equivalent. Flooding Israel with over five million Palestinians really would render a two-state solution impossible, by turning the Jewish state into a second Palestinian one. Settlements, by contrast, don’t preclude a Palestinian state; even chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat admits that they occupy only 1.1 percent of the West Bank. But since Palestinians have repeatedly declared a settlement freeze a top priority, such a trade would give both sides something they claim to want.

And that is the even greater innovation in Hollande’s proposal: For the first time in 20 years of Israeli-Palestinian talks, a Western leader is suggesting mutual concessions instead of demanding that Israel make unilateral ones.

Contrast this with some of the Obama administration’s “peacemaking” proposals:

  • Israel should agree in advance to a border based on the 1967 lines. In other words, Israel should concede all the Palestinians’ territorial demands upfront without getting anything in exchange.
  • Israel and the PA should negotiate a deal on borders and security only, without resolving issues like Jerusalem and the refugees or ending the conflict. In other words, instead of trading territory for peace, Israel should trade territory for no peace. Moreover, it should forfeit its only bargaining chip–territory–in the first stage of negotiations, thereby leaving itself with nothing to trade for Palestinian concessions on vital issues like the refugees.
  • Israel should free 104 Palestinian murderers just so the Palestinians will deign to negotiate–a move Israeli negotiating expert Moty Cristal aptly termed paying “with hard currency for nothing.” Palestinians also temporarily halted their campaign against Israel in international agencies, but that will resume in nine months. The prisoners won’t be rearrested.

To be fair, Hollande’s proposal won’t actually bring peace any more than Obama’s ideas have, because the Palestinians aren’t willing to make any concessions: Abbas told Hollande he has no authority to deviate from the Arab League’s stance on the refugees, begging the obvious question of what the point of the current talks are if he has no power to actually negotiate.

Nevertheless, the French proposal at least acknowledges the obvious fact that peace requires concessions by both sides, not just one. And that is a necessary first step. For as long as the world keeps pandering to Palestinian rejectionism by not demanding any concessions, as the Obama administration has, the Palestinians will never have an incentive to make any.

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