Commentary Magazine


Topic: Tzipi Livni

Israeli Political Parties Find Their Voices

One of the more interesting aspects of the current Israeli political pre-election shuffling is the unsettled nature of every major political party to the left of Likud. Kadima and Labor, the two largest parties outside the current governing coalition, have each been going through identity crises. The third wild card, Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid party, has no record and Lapid has no real political experience, leaving the public guessing as to where they fit on the ideological spectrum.

But now, it seems, there is suddenly a great degree of clarity. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may be back in court, as the state is strongly considering appealing some of the acquittals in his corruption case, and such legal action may make it impossible for him to run. That would make it much more likely that Tzipi Livni would return to the political stage without having to compete with Olmert. (Though the two reached some sort of agreement not to compete against each other anyway. No one, however, seems to know exactly what that means in practice.) But even more interesting–if not surprising–is the emergence of an identity for Labor and for Lapid’s Yesh Atid.

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One of the more interesting aspects of the current Israeli political pre-election shuffling is the unsettled nature of every major political party to the left of Likud. Kadima and Labor, the two largest parties outside the current governing coalition, have each been going through identity crises. The third wild card, Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid party, has no record and Lapid has no real political experience, leaving the public guessing as to where they fit on the ideological spectrum.

But now, it seems, there is suddenly a great degree of clarity. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may be back in court, as the state is strongly considering appealing some of the acquittals in his corruption case, and such legal action may make it impossible for him to run. That would make it much more likely that Tzipi Livni would return to the political stage without having to compete with Olmert. (Though the two reached some sort of agreement not to compete against each other anyway. No one, however, seems to know exactly what that means in practice.) But even more interesting–if not surprising–is the emergence of an identity for Labor and for Lapid’s Yesh Atid.

Labor’s new leader, Shelly Yachimovich, has been hinting that her slate of candidates will move Labor to the left and incorporate leaders of Israel’s social protest movement. But it has also been courting the military to burnish the party’s national security credentials. The strategy of moving to the left is, as I wrote last week, a risky one, since the Israeli electorate has moved to the right on the peace process and has been in the habit of punishing Labor at the polls repeatedly.

But the ideological outlook of the party took another step to the left, as Peace Now Executive Director Yariv Oppenheimer announced he’ll run for a seat on the Labor slate. The Jerusalem Post reports:

“In addition to the social agenda, the Labor Party must raise the diplomatic flag and fight against the expansion of settlement construction and waves of anti-democratic legislation that the Israeli Right is leading,” Oppenheimer said after resigning from his post in Peace Now on Monday.

Thus far, Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich has focused almost exclusively on social issues.

An overwhelming focus on social issues with a dash of anti-settler, land-for-peace moral thundering is a recipe for a full reengagement of the culture wars. For Lapid, on the other hand, accommodation with Palestinians must be found without uprooting large Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria:

The Yesh Atid leader courted rightwing voters, saying “I’m not a lefty,” that settlement blocs, including the city of Ariel, must stay under Israeli sovereignty, and Jerusalem should not be divided.

As for the lack of peace talks in recent years, Lapid said “the Palestinians brought this upon themselves. If after the disengagement [from Gaza] they didn’t build hospitals and schools, but training sites, there is no doubt that it is their responsibility – but we also need negotiations for ourselves.”

Lapid quipped that his late father, former justice minister and Shinui leader Tommy Lapid, “did not leave the ghetto to live in a binational state.

This is the land of the Jews, and we have the right to finally get rid of the Palestinians. There won’t be a new Middle East, but we won’t have 3.5 million Palestinians in Israeli territory.”

I’m sure pundits will glom onto the typically nuanced phrase “get rid of the Palestinians,” but the overall sentiment—peace negotiations are stalled because of the Palestinians’ rejectionism, but necessary in the end to disentangle the two sides—is a common attitude among the Israeli electorate, and perfectly sums up the outlook of Avigdor Lieberman’s increasingly successful Israel Beiteinu party. Lapid also noted that he would not rule out sitting in a coalition with Orthodox parties, something his father refused to do. If Lapid even gains the seats he is projected to win in early polling (a big “if”), the right would be an absolutely dominant force in the Knesset. And that doesn’t even count Kadima, which began as a center-right party as well.

Lapid, by being so explicit about his views, is betting that despite the existence of a broad, center-right governing coalition, there are still more votes to be had for another rightist party. Labor is betting that if it can swell its ranks to include everyone to the left of the current governing coalition, it can at least return to prominence as the main, if not the only, electoral vehicle for left-leaning Israelis. That might mean a Labor that is increasingly successful electorally and increasingly marginal politically at the same time.

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Israeli Poll Shows Labor at a Crossroads

Earlier this month, I wrote about an Israeli news report suggesting former Kadima party leaders Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni were considering teaming up with former Israeli TV journalist Yair Lapid for the upcoming Knesset elections. One detail in that report was that Lapid had created his own party and was unwilling to leave it to join Kadima, no matter who leads the centrist opposition party. But what if he were willing to join Kadima?

That is the subject of a story in Haaretz today. The Israeli daily reports the results of a poll taken to determine how all the major parties would perform in January’s elections in three different possible scenarios. One of those scenarios had Lapid, Olmert, and Livni together in a “super-party.” And Haaretz reports that such a super-party would win the election. Sort of:

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Earlier this month, I wrote about an Israeli news report suggesting former Kadima party leaders Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni were considering teaming up with former Israeli TV journalist Yair Lapid for the upcoming Knesset elections. One detail in that report was that Lapid had created his own party and was unwilling to leave it to join Kadima, no matter who leads the centrist opposition party. But what if he were willing to join Kadima?

That is the subject of a story in Haaretz today. The Israeli daily reports the results of a poll taken to determine how all the major parties would perform in January’s elections in three different possible scenarios. One of those scenarios had Lapid, Olmert, and Livni together in a “super-party.” And Haaretz reports that such a super-party would win the election. Sort of:

A new centrist party formed by Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid would win more seats in the next Knesset than the Likud, according to a new Haaretz poll. Were such a party to be formed, it would grab 25 seats, compared to Likud’s 24. However, the survey also indicates that, whatever its composition, a right-wing bloc would not lose its Knesset majority….

According to the poll, even if former Prime Minister Olmert and former Kadima leader Livni join forces, or if Livni instead links up with Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich, they would face a right-wing bloc, a bloc of “natural partners,” that would retain its majority – meaning that Benjamin Netanyahu would remain prime minister after the January 22 elections. In a worst-case scenario from his perspective, he would just have to sweat a little more before reaching the finish line.

The third scenario would be if the current party composition remains unchanged. In that case, the poll projects a 65-seat governing coalition for the rightist bloc led by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu, and the Orthodox Shas party.

That first scenario, which projects a one-vote win for the centrist supergroup but a failure to form a coalition, leading Netanyahu’s Likud to put his coalition back together, is an almost exact replay of what actually happened the last time Livni led a party that challenged Netanyahu. In 2009, Livni’s Kadima garnered one more Knesset seat than Netanyahu’s Likud, but was unable to form a coalition. (The Kadima win was less than it seemed; voters wanted a rightist coalition, and they got one.)

But there is a fascinating side story to compliment this one, also on Haaretz’s website. The paper reports that the Labor party, now led by Shelly Yachimovich, is working hard to recruit young talent, leaders from Israel’s social protest movement, and popular military and media figures to run in this winter’s election on the Labor slate. This is fascinating in part because it stands in such contrast not only to the first story, but also to conventional wisdom. As the first Haaretz story shows, in Israel the electoral success of a political party is overwhelmingly dependent on the popularity of its leader. (Just for fun, ask a Western media personality who rails against the Orthodox and Russian immigrant parties to name anyone besides the leader of those parties. They probably can’t.)

And in fact, a Livni-Olmert-Lapid party is considered a supergroup despite the fact that poll respondents were given only three names. Who else is on the ticket? Who cares? Yet the Labor party, which until recently was led by Ehud Barak, is rebuilding from the ground up. It cannot trade on Yachimovich’s name or fame. And the strategy represents an honest grappling with the Israeli left’s freefall. Yachimovich is saying, in effect, this isn’t your father’s Labor party.

It is also, however, risky. The Israeli left has had its clock cleaned in Knesset elections over the past decade because the electorate has moved to the right–at least on the peace process. Yachimovich is branding Labor as being further to the left than it has been under the hawkish Barak. It she is successful, it will be a big victory for a rejuvenated left. If not, it will have been a massive missed opportunity to grab what’s left of the political center before someone else does.

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The Predictably Unpredictable Israeli Political Scene

Parliamentary democracy makes for strange alliances, and nowhere is this truer than Israel. Minor parties hold disproportionate sway, and the fragmentation of party politics means that even the largest parties rarely even get halfway to the number of Knesset seats they need to form a governing coalition. The other hard and fast rule of Israeli politics is that is that careers are never over; unlikely comebacks are a staple of the country’s political sphere, and often happen more quickly than expected.

But just how quickly Israeli politicians can return from the brink will seemingly be tested this winter en masse in a political experiment that sounds more like the pitch for an Israeli reality TV show than electoral strategy. Arutz Sheva is reporting that Tzipi Livni, Ehud Olmert, and Yair Lapid are strongly considering joining forces now that early Knesset elections appear likely—probably some time in February. Olmert was found guilty on one count in the corruption case against him just last month; Livni lost her Kadima party primary in the spring and resigned from the Knesset five months ago; and Lapid, a former journalist, looked ready to make a serious play for the Knesset in April until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struck a coalition deal (that promptly fell apart) with Kadima in May. All three were written off—at least for the time being.

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Parliamentary democracy makes for strange alliances, and nowhere is this truer than Israel. Minor parties hold disproportionate sway, and the fragmentation of party politics means that even the largest parties rarely even get halfway to the number of Knesset seats they need to form a governing coalition. The other hard and fast rule of Israeli politics is that is that careers are never over; unlikely comebacks are a staple of the country’s political sphere, and often happen more quickly than expected.

But just how quickly Israeli politicians can return from the brink will seemingly be tested this winter en masse in a political experiment that sounds more like the pitch for an Israeli reality TV show than electoral strategy. Arutz Sheva is reporting that Tzipi Livni, Ehud Olmert, and Yair Lapid are strongly considering joining forces now that early Knesset elections appear likely—probably some time in February. Olmert was found guilty on one count in the corruption case against him just last month; Livni lost her Kadima party primary in the spring and resigned from the Knesset five months ago; and Lapid, a former journalist, looked ready to make a serious play for the Knesset in April until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struck a coalition deal (that promptly fell apart) with Kadima in May. All three were written off—at least for the time being.

There is also the question of capability. Livni has always been well liked, but never evolved into a natural leader or even a particularly good politician. (She even tried, and failed, to oust Olmert when he seemed most politically vulnerable.) Since her rivals were Ehud Barak, Netanyahu, and Avigdor Lieberman–three masterful politicians–even winning national elections couldn’t get Livni into the prime minister’s office. As for Olmert: Jonathan noted recently that Olmert’s entire approval rating was once within the margin of error. In other words, it was statistically possible that zero percent of those polled approved of Olmert. And Lapid is a newcomer; he only registered his party in the spring, and it’s unclear how well he can play the game. Faced with the same Netanyahu-Barak-Lieberman competition that swept Livni out of the political scene, it’s entirely possible Lapid will have a welcome-to-the-NFL moment this year.

But there’s one caveat to that: Barak is now something of a wild card. In order to stay in Netanyahu’s government, in which he is defense minister and at times appears to be both co-premier and co-foreign minister, Barak had to leave the Labor party he led for years. He didn’t take enough Labor defectors with him to form a competitive party, so he is something of a paradox: tremendously powerful and influential but possibly without a party that could keep him in the Knesset.

It seemed that Barak’s initial strategy when defecting was to ingratiate himself enough with Netanyahu to earn a spot on the Likud’s next Knesset roster. But in order to do so and ensure he gets a Knesset seat and retains an influential portfolio, he would have to be given very high placement on that list (some speculated he was even angling for the No. 2 spot). But Likud has its own primary and internal elections, and Netanyahu would never risk his own position as leader of the Likud to face down the rebellion that Barak’s plan would surely bring.

Seen in that light, Barak’s decision to meet with Livni two weeks ago, and the evident displeasure it brought Netanyahu, begin to make more sense. Without his own party and without Likud, Barak stands to lose the most in early elections. So he needs a home, or at least a coalition partner. Would Livni and Olmert return to Kadima? Could they even return to Kadima after Shaul Mofaz’s commanding primary victory over Livni and given Olmert’s unpopularity and legal troubles? Would they form a new party?

In order to stop Netanyahu, they may have to form a blocking coalition–which is what Netanyahu did to Livni in 2009–to prevent Likud from being able to form a government even if it wins the elections outright. They would have to ally with Labor to do that, and would need Kadima as well. But without Lieberman, who has been something of a coalition kingmaker for years now, they would probably still fail. (Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party has held steady at about 15 seats; the Orthodox Shas party at about 10.)

But if Labor outpaces expectations, and Kadima puts the band back together, even the unlikely is still possible.

If this all sounds confusing now, just wait until it gets going. As Netanyahu and Mofaz demonstrated a few months ago, in Israel the political scene can change on a dime–and then change again before anyone has caught his breath. Considering the histories of Olmert and Livni, it could also all fall apart. But the player to watch will continue to be Barak—the most powerful defense minister since Ariel Sharon with a four-front foreign policy crisis looming and in search of a political home with elections four months away. Yet considering Barak’s clout and his recent ability to attract enough stragglers for a modest following, it’s entirely possible that despite everything, the governing coalition that emerges in February will be identical to the one currently governing Israel.

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The Lesson of Livni’s Resignation: Don’t Believe Media Reporting on Israel

Former opposition leader Tzipi Livni’s resignation from the Knesset today offers a good opportunity to reflect on just how unreliable mainstream media reporting about Israel often is.

Just two months ago, Newsweek and The Daily Beast put Livni on their lists of “150 women who shake the world,” describing her as “one of the most powerful women in the country.” Yet while that was undoubtedly true a few years ago, by the time the Newsweek list came out in March 2012, Livni was almost universally regarded as a has-been even by her erstwhile supporters.

In an editorial published later that month, for instance, Haaretz mourned that in the three years since her “praiseworthy” decision not to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in 2009, “she has not missed a single opportunity to make a mistake: She did not function as an opposition leader, she did not offer an alternative to the government’s policies and she did not lead her party wisely and set clear policy.” In a poll published just four days after the Newsweek list, the public ranked Livni dead last among 16 leading Israeli political figures, behind even such nonentities as Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini. And three weeks later, Livni’s own party unceremoniously dumped her: She lost Kadima’s leadership race by a landslide 25-point margin. Now, her political career in ruins, she is even quitting the Knesset.

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Former opposition leader Tzipi Livni’s resignation from the Knesset today offers a good opportunity to reflect on just how unreliable mainstream media reporting about Israel often is.

Just two months ago, Newsweek and The Daily Beast put Livni on their lists of “150 women who shake the world,” describing her as “one of the most powerful women in the country.” Yet while that was undoubtedly true a few years ago, by the time the Newsweek list came out in March 2012, Livni was almost universally regarded as a has-been even by her erstwhile supporters.

In an editorial published later that month, for instance, Haaretz mourned that in the three years since her “praiseworthy” decision not to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in 2009, “she has not missed a single opportunity to make a mistake: She did not function as an opposition leader, she did not offer an alternative to the government’s policies and she did not lead her party wisely and set clear policy.” In a poll published just four days after the Newsweek list, the public ranked Livni dead last among 16 leading Israeli political figures, behind even such nonentities as Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini. And three weeks later, Livni’s own party unceremoniously dumped her: She lost Kadima’s leadership race by a landslide 25-point margin. Now, her political career in ruins, she is even quitting the Knesset.

That Livni was a has-been by March 2012 was obvious to anyone who had even cursory familiarity with Israel. Thus, either Newsweek and The Daily Beast were completely ignorant of the Israeli reality, or they deliberately disregarded the facts in order to promote their own agenda: Livni, after all, is a darling of the international media, because as Newsweek said in its profile, she is “a steadfast proponent of the peace process” who has led final-status talks with the Palestinians and supported the 2005 pullout from Gaza. Regardless of which explanation is true, the bottom line is the same: Their reporting on Israel can’t be trusted.

Nor is this problem unique to Newsweek. Indeed, Jonathan cited another example  just yesterday: The New York Times’s decision to play up former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s verbal attack on Netanyahu earlier this week as something that “may add to recent pressure on Mr. Netanyahu to tack to the left.” Anyone with any knowledge of Israel knows that Olmert has virtually no political support, being widely viewed as both corrupt and incompetent. By treating him as someone whose opinions actually matter in Israel, the Times was either demonstrating cosmic ignorance or pushing its own political agenda at the expense of the facts.

The media’s job is supposed to be informing the public. But when it comes to Israel, it often seems to prefer misinforming the public. By portraying has-beens like Livni and Olmert as important and influential politicians, media outlets make it impossible for readers to understand the real Israel – the one that elected Netanyahu in 2009 and seems likely to reelect him this fall. And it thereby betrays its own calling.

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The Fall of Obama’s Favorite Israeli

For the past three years, figures in America’s foreign policy establishment as well as media kibbitzers who knew little about Israel had a constant refrain: Tzipi Livni, the glamorous head of the Kadmia Party, should replace Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister. In the aftermath of Netanyahu’s election in February 2009, the Obama administration openly plotted to topple the new leader and replace him with Livni, whom they viewed as more pliable on the Palestinian issue. Once that ploy failed as President Obama’s attacks on Netanyahu only strengthened him at home, Netanyahu’s American critics could only sit back and wait patiently until Livni defeated him on her own. But the wait is going to be a lot longer than many in Washington thought.

Last night, Livni lost her perch as opposition leader as the members of her rapidly shrinking party rejected her in favor of former General Shaul Mofaz in a primary to determine who will top the party’s list in  the next election that is currently scheduled for October 2013. That Livni, who was feted abroad and was prominently placed on lists of the world’s most important women, was defeated at all will come as a shock to her foreign admirers. But this was no ordinary defeat. The lady who only a couple of weeks ago was lauded as Israel’s “voice of reason” in a fawning piece by John Avlon in the Daily Beast, was slaughtered by Mofaz, 62-38 percent. The question now is whether Americans who were under the delusion that Livni represented a viable alternative to Netanyahu’s popular government will get the message.

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For the past three years, figures in America’s foreign policy establishment as well as media kibbitzers who knew little about Israel had a constant refrain: Tzipi Livni, the glamorous head of the Kadmia Party, should replace Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister. In the aftermath of Netanyahu’s election in February 2009, the Obama administration openly plotted to topple the new leader and replace him with Livni, whom they viewed as more pliable on the Palestinian issue. Once that ploy failed as President Obama’s attacks on Netanyahu only strengthened him at home, Netanyahu’s American critics could only sit back and wait patiently until Livni defeated him on her own. But the wait is going to be a lot longer than many in Washington thought.

Last night, Livni lost her perch as opposition leader as the members of her rapidly shrinking party rejected her in favor of former General Shaul Mofaz in a primary to determine who will top the party’s list in  the next election that is currently scheduled for October 2013. That Livni, who was feted abroad and was prominently placed on lists of the world’s most important women, was defeated at all will come as a shock to her foreign admirers. But this was no ordinary defeat. The lady who only a couple of weeks ago was lauded as Israel’s “voice of reason” in a fawning piece by John Avlon in the Daily Beast, was slaughtered by Mofaz, 62-38 percent. The question now is whether Americans who were under the delusion that Livni represented a viable alternative to Netanyahu’s popular government will get the message.

The Kadima that Mofaz will lead into the next election is vastly diminished from the juggernaut formed by Ariel Sharon when he left Likud in the wake of the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. Sharon skimmed the biggest opportunists in Labor and Likud to create what many imagined to be the first viable centrist political grouping in the country’s history. But after its bigger-than-life leader was removed from the scene by a stroke, Kadima was seen to be an empty shell whose only purpose was to find government posts for its leading personalities. Ehud Olmert led it to an election victory in 2006 in the immediate aftermath of Sharon’s illness but was soon proved to be hopelessly over his head.

Livni served as his foreign minister and hoped to replace him after the disastrous Lebanon war but was outmaneuvered by Olmert. That was an early sign she had no capacity for leadership. She got her chance to run for prime minister in 2009. As a fresh face with no corruption charges currently pending against her, Livni ran a good campaign and enabled Kadima to win the most seats. However Netanyahu’s coalition of center-right parties far eclipsed its total. But rather than serve under another rival, she made the fatal mistake of leading Kadima into the opposition. The problem was that Livni and Kadima lacked any coherent vision of a different approach to Israel’s problems. Though Americans who disliked Netanyahu saw her as the pro-peace alternative, Israelis were aware her views on the issues were almost indistinguishable from those of the Likud leader. Her only real disagreement with him was based in her conviction that she ought to be Israel’s prime minister, a point on which few of her countrymen, even the members of her own party, agreed.

Some Israeli pundits think the selection of Mofaz is a blow to Netanyahu, as he was obviously relishing a chance to trounce her at the polls. But the former general will be another disappointment to American Bibi-haters. The gruff former military man won’t win the hearts of Westerners longing for a weak Israeli leader. He will try to carve out a position slightly to the left of Netanyahu, but Israelis understand the Palestinians have no interest in negotiating a two-state solution under any terms they can live with. Though he may prevent Kadima from collapsing at the next ballot, the party is facing stiff competition from a newly revived Labor and another new centrist party led by Yair Lapid. Polls show that none have a ghost’s chance of beating Netanyahu and Likud.

Livni will, no doubt, have a successful career ahead of her speaking to liberal American Jewish groups for large speaking fees much as her former boss Olmert got cheers at the J Street conference last week that the former PM, who is a pariah in Israel, could never hope to get at home. But the lesson here is that Israelis who are more popular in Washington than in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are not to be taken seriously.

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The Real Danger Is that the Guardian’s Spin Could Mislead the West

The Guardian clearly has it in for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat. Not content with lambasting the concessions they actually made, it’s now accusing them of two concessions belied by the very “Palestine Papers” it cites as proof: recognizing Israel as a Jewish state and agreeing to resettle only 10,000 refugees in Israel.

The first assertion, as J.E. Dyer noted, relies on two Erekat quotes. In 2007, he told then-Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni, “If you want to call your state the Jewish state of Israel you can call it what you want.” And in 2009, he said, “I dare the Israelis to write to the UN and change their name to the ‘Great Eternal Historic State of Israel’. This is their issue, not mine.”

Yet neither of these constitutes Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, which is what Israel demands. They merely reiterate what Palestinian leaders have repeatedly said in public (here and here, for instance): that they can’t stop Israel from calling itself a Jewish state, but under no circumstances will they recognize it as such.

The refugees assertion relies on minutes of Erekat’s June 2009 meeting with the PA’s Negotiations Support Unit. One participant asked whether any Israeli government had expressed different positions than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did in a speech earlier that month. Erekat replied by detailing former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s offer, which included accepting “1000 refugees annually for the next 10 years.”

Nowhere, however, does the document say the Palestinians agreed to this. On the contrary, they refused to sign Olmert’s proffered deal. So how does the Guardian construe Palestinian acquiescence out of this? By quoting something Erekat told U.S. envoy George Mitchell four months earlier, in February 2009: “On refugees, the deal is there.”

The paper doesn’t source this quote, nor does it explain why it thinks Erekat was signifying acceptance of Olmert’s offer. Certainly, Erekat doesn’t say so, and the timing actually makes this interpretation unlikely.

Mitchell’s February 2009 visit occurred after Israel’s election but before Netanyahu took office. Netanyahu was opposed to Mitchell’s “borders first” agenda for talks, arguing that upfront territorial concessions would deprive Israel of leverage in subsequent talks on issues like the refugees. The PA backed it for the very same reason, and thus sought to counter Netanyahu’s objection. So Erekat gave Mitchell a generic assurance that the refugees wouldn’t be a deal-breaker. But since he didn’t commit to any particular number, that assurance is meaningless.

Several CONTENTIONS contributors have noted that the publication of the Palestine Papers will make it harder for the PA to make concessions essential for a deal. But since the Guardian’s spin has been mindlessly repeated by media outlets worldwide (including in Israel), an equally worrying possibility is that Western leaders may falsely believe it already has offered the necessary concessions, and therefore ease their already minimal pressure on the Palestinians to do so.

And since the talks’ failure to date stems mainly from the PA’s refusal to make these concessions, that would make the prospects for a deal even dimmer than they are now.

The Guardian clearly has it in for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat. Not content with lambasting the concessions they actually made, it’s now accusing them of two concessions belied by the very “Palestine Papers” it cites as proof: recognizing Israel as a Jewish state and agreeing to resettle only 10,000 refugees in Israel.

The first assertion, as J.E. Dyer noted, relies on two Erekat quotes. In 2007, he told then-Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni, “If you want to call your state the Jewish state of Israel you can call it what you want.” And in 2009, he said, “I dare the Israelis to write to the UN and change their name to the ‘Great Eternal Historic State of Israel’. This is their issue, not mine.”

Yet neither of these constitutes Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, which is what Israel demands. They merely reiterate what Palestinian leaders have repeatedly said in public (here and here, for instance): that they can’t stop Israel from calling itself a Jewish state, but under no circumstances will they recognize it as such.

The refugees assertion relies on minutes of Erekat’s June 2009 meeting with the PA’s Negotiations Support Unit. One participant asked whether any Israeli government had expressed different positions than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did in a speech earlier that month. Erekat replied by detailing former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s offer, which included accepting “1000 refugees annually for the next 10 years.”

Nowhere, however, does the document say the Palestinians agreed to this. On the contrary, they refused to sign Olmert’s proffered deal. So how does the Guardian construe Palestinian acquiescence out of this? By quoting something Erekat told U.S. envoy George Mitchell four months earlier, in February 2009: “On refugees, the deal is there.”

The paper doesn’t source this quote, nor does it explain why it thinks Erekat was signifying acceptance of Olmert’s offer. Certainly, Erekat doesn’t say so, and the timing actually makes this interpretation unlikely.

Mitchell’s February 2009 visit occurred after Israel’s election but before Netanyahu took office. Netanyahu was opposed to Mitchell’s “borders first” agenda for talks, arguing that upfront territorial concessions would deprive Israel of leverage in subsequent talks on issues like the refugees. The PA backed it for the very same reason, and thus sought to counter Netanyahu’s objection. So Erekat gave Mitchell a generic assurance that the refugees wouldn’t be a deal-breaker. But since he didn’t commit to any particular number, that assurance is meaningless.

Several CONTENTIONS contributors have noted that the publication of the Palestine Papers will make it harder for the PA to make concessions essential for a deal. But since the Guardian’s spin has been mindlessly repeated by media outlets worldwide (including in Israel), an equally worrying possibility is that Western leaders may falsely believe it already has offered the necessary concessions, and therefore ease their already minimal pressure on the Palestinians to do so.

And since the talks’ failure to date stems mainly from the PA’s refusal to make these concessions, that would make the prospects for a deal even dimmer than they are now.

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Palestinian DNA Won’t Accept Equality with Jews?

More documents detailing Palestinian negotiating stands with Israel were released last night by Al Jazeera, providing observers with more information about the negotiations that took place from 2007 to 2009 between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The latest bunch show that PA leader Mahmoud Abbas was realistic enough to understand that the notion of Israel’s accepting a million descendants of the original 1948 refugees was a non-starter.

The idea that Abbas was giving up on the Palestinian dream of swamping Israel with Palestinian Arabs is widely seen as a disgrace among his own people, as well as with their European cheerleaders at places such as the Guardian newspaper, which has also played a role in revealing the documents. Some critics of Israel are claiming that the PA’s willingness to acknowledge that hundreds of thousands of Jews were never going to be turned out of their homes in Jerusalem as part of a peace deal shows that Abbas was a true peace partner. But the furor over these documents reveals anew the insurmountable obstacles to an agreement that are created by Palestinian public opinion. The problem is that anything that smacks of recognition of the legitimacy of a Jewish state (something that even these documents show the PA was never willing to admit) is considered anathema to the Palestinian street, not to mention that the Guardian seems to be as appalled by Abbas’s willingness to dicker over Jerusalem and refugees as Hamas has been. That is why, despite all the excruciating negotiations that took place with the Olmert/Livni government, which offered the PA a state in virtually all the West Bank, Gaza, and part of Jerusalem, Abbas’s answer was still no.

Even amid all these supposed signs of moderation on the part of the PA, a glimpse of the extreme nature of Palestinian political culture still shines through. For example, during one session involving then Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni and PA negotiator Saeb Erekat, the two explored the possibility that Israelis living in the Jerusalem suburb Ma’ale Adumim might be allowed to stay there if it became part of a Palestinian state. When Livni asked Erekat how she could provide Israelis “living in Palestine with security,” his reply was telling: “Can you imagine that I have changed my DNA and accepted a situation in which Jews become citizens having the rights that I and my wife have,” asked Erekat. “Can you imagine that this will happen one day?”

The Israelis present had no such illusions, and it soon became clear that any Jews living in Palestinian territory after a proposed peace would wind up like the greenhouses of Gaza that were left behind when Israel evacuated that territory in 2005. They would have to flee since, unlike Arabs living in the State of Israel, who enjoy equal rights as citizens, such persons wouldn’t last a day. This should provide an explanation to anyone wishing to understand why the majority of Israelis appear to have given up on the idea of a real peace with the Palestinians. Under such circumstances and with such peace partners, what hope is there for peaceful coexistence in the foreseeable future?

More documents detailing Palestinian negotiating stands with Israel were released last night by Al Jazeera, providing observers with more information about the negotiations that took place from 2007 to 2009 between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The latest bunch show that PA leader Mahmoud Abbas was realistic enough to understand that the notion of Israel’s accepting a million descendants of the original 1948 refugees was a non-starter.

The idea that Abbas was giving up on the Palestinian dream of swamping Israel with Palestinian Arabs is widely seen as a disgrace among his own people, as well as with their European cheerleaders at places such as the Guardian newspaper, which has also played a role in revealing the documents. Some critics of Israel are claiming that the PA’s willingness to acknowledge that hundreds of thousands of Jews were never going to be turned out of their homes in Jerusalem as part of a peace deal shows that Abbas was a true peace partner. But the furor over these documents reveals anew the insurmountable obstacles to an agreement that are created by Palestinian public opinion. The problem is that anything that smacks of recognition of the legitimacy of a Jewish state (something that even these documents show the PA was never willing to admit) is considered anathema to the Palestinian street, not to mention that the Guardian seems to be as appalled by Abbas’s willingness to dicker over Jerusalem and refugees as Hamas has been. That is why, despite all the excruciating negotiations that took place with the Olmert/Livni government, which offered the PA a state in virtually all the West Bank, Gaza, and part of Jerusalem, Abbas’s answer was still no.

Even amid all these supposed signs of moderation on the part of the PA, a glimpse of the extreme nature of Palestinian political culture still shines through. For example, during one session involving then Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni and PA negotiator Saeb Erekat, the two explored the possibility that Israelis living in the Jerusalem suburb Ma’ale Adumim might be allowed to stay there if it became part of a Palestinian state. When Livni asked Erekat how she could provide Israelis “living in Palestine with security,” his reply was telling: “Can you imagine that I have changed my DNA and accepted a situation in which Jews become citizens having the rights that I and my wife have,” asked Erekat. “Can you imagine that this will happen one day?”

The Israelis present had no such illusions, and it soon became clear that any Jews living in Palestinian territory after a proposed peace would wind up like the greenhouses of Gaza that were left behind when Israel evacuated that territory in 2005. They would have to flee since, unlike Arabs living in the State of Israel, who enjoy equal rights as citizens, such persons wouldn’t last a day. This should provide an explanation to anyone wishing to understand why the majority of Israelis appear to have given up on the idea of a real peace with the Palestinians. Under such circumstances and with such peace partners, what hope is there for peaceful coexistence in the foreseeable future?

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Who’s Behind the Palestinian Papers?

As Noah and others have written, nearly all the supposed revelations in the Palestinian Papers were already public knowledge before yesterday. And while the media has unsurprisingly spun the story to make Israel look as bad as possible, the political fallout for the Israelis will be minimal.

In fact, as Noah pointed out, if the papers make any Israeli lawmaker look bad, it’s the current opposition party leader, Tzipi Livni. So if the point of the leak was to harm the Netanyahu administration, then this was a pretty brainless way to go about it.

One other possibility is that the papers were meant to undermine the peace process. But that would have been a failed strategy as well. The negotiations can’t get much deader than they are right now, so releasing the papers to that end is simply unnecessary.

The ones who have been most damaged by the papers so far are PA officials, who are perceived by hardliners in the West Bank as being too soft during negotiations. PA leaders have been extremely defensive about the leak today, claiming that the documents were doctored and that their statements were intentionally mischaracterized.

The Guardian noted the political consequences for the PA in an article yesterday, and pointed out that the leak could benefit Hamas:

Some Fatah leaders are likely to accuse al-Jazeera of having an anti-PA agenda by publishing the leaked documents, which they believe will benefit their Hamas rivals, backed by Iran — as shown in critical comments about the TV station in the documents themselves.

Al Jazeera, the news outlet the documents were released to, is also known to have a bias against the PA. So it seems reasonable that whoever released the papers may have been aiming to embarrass the current West Bank leadership. The question is who?

Hamas officials or sympathizers are one possibility. But there isn’t a strong likelihood that anyone like that would have had access to these government documents.

It’s also possible that the leak could have come from a current or former PA official who has an ax to grind with the present leadership. And while there are many possibilities, one name has been mentioned as a potential leaker: Muhammad Dahlan. Once an extremely powerful Fatah leader, Dahlan has undergone a steep fall from grace over the past few months. After clashing with President Mahmoud Abbas, Dahlan has been exiled from the Fatah movement, stripped of his government position, and is currently being investigated for allegedly plotting to overthrow Abbas.

It’s likely that Dahlan would have access to the types of documents that were released. And he certainly has a reason to want to weaken the current Fatah leadership.

Of course, there’s no serious evidence linking Dahlan to the leak. And there are undoubtedly many others in the PA government and elsewhere who would also have a motive to release the documents. But one thing seems to be obvious, based on the evidence so far. Despite the media spin, the Israelis were not the intended target.

As Noah and others have written, nearly all the supposed revelations in the Palestinian Papers were already public knowledge before yesterday. And while the media has unsurprisingly spun the story to make Israel look as bad as possible, the political fallout for the Israelis will be minimal.

In fact, as Noah pointed out, if the papers make any Israeli lawmaker look bad, it’s the current opposition party leader, Tzipi Livni. So if the point of the leak was to harm the Netanyahu administration, then this was a pretty brainless way to go about it.

One other possibility is that the papers were meant to undermine the peace process. But that would have been a failed strategy as well. The negotiations can’t get much deader than they are right now, so releasing the papers to that end is simply unnecessary.

The ones who have been most damaged by the papers so far are PA officials, who are perceived by hardliners in the West Bank as being too soft during negotiations. PA leaders have been extremely defensive about the leak today, claiming that the documents were doctored and that their statements were intentionally mischaracterized.

The Guardian noted the political consequences for the PA in an article yesterday, and pointed out that the leak could benefit Hamas:

Some Fatah leaders are likely to accuse al-Jazeera of having an anti-PA agenda by publishing the leaked documents, which they believe will benefit their Hamas rivals, backed by Iran — as shown in critical comments about the TV station in the documents themselves.

Al Jazeera, the news outlet the documents were released to, is also known to have a bias against the PA. So it seems reasonable that whoever released the papers may have been aiming to embarrass the current West Bank leadership. The question is who?

Hamas officials or sympathizers are one possibility. But there isn’t a strong likelihood that anyone like that would have had access to these government documents.

It’s also possible that the leak could have come from a current or former PA official who has an ax to grind with the present leadership. And while there are many possibilities, one name has been mentioned as a potential leaker: Muhammad Dahlan. Once an extremely powerful Fatah leader, Dahlan has undergone a steep fall from grace over the past few months. After clashing with President Mahmoud Abbas, Dahlan has been exiled from the Fatah movement, stripped of his government position, and is currently being investigated for allegedly plotting to overthrow Abbas.

It’s likely that Dahlan would have access to the types of documents that were released. And he certainly has a reason to want to weaken the current Fatah leadership.

Of course, there’s no serious evidence linking Dahlan to the leak. And there are undoubtedly many others in the PA government and elsewhere who would also have a motive to release the documents. But one thing seems to be obvious, based on the evidence so far. Despite the media spin, the Israelis were not the intended target.

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RE: Palestine Papers: 99 Percent Hype, 1 Percent News

I would rank the news percentage slightly higher than Noah’s penetrating post, at least by comparing a document released yesterday — the May 21, 2008, “Minutes from Plenary Session on Territory” — with the just-released Makovsky Report on possible borders for a Palestinian state.

In the May 21, 2008, session — six months into the Annapolis final status negotiation — Tzipi Livni (TL) had a significant exchange with Abu Ala (AA) after he said that Palestinians could not accept Israeli retention of Ma’ale Adumim and Ariel. Livni noted that there were 38,000 people in Ma’ale Adumim and insistence on dismantling it would be “a historic mistake.” That generated this colloquy:

AA: There are 30,000 people in Ma’ale Adumim. They can live under Palestinian rule.

TL: You know this is not realistic.

AA: So take them [out], like you did in Gaza.

Livni responded that, under the Israeli proposal, many other settlers would be removed, and she challenged the Palestinians to accept a state with everything they could reasonably expect:

TL: … My question is why you cannot have a state that represents most of your aspirations? You will get some compensation. … Why do you insist on 98%? … I know you are going to get — not most ––almost all of your desires, and compensation for things you don’t get. Saying there will be no state unless it’s 1967, would be a shame. [The ellipses reflect my editing of a back-and-forth conversation -- RR]

In the Makovsky Report, the map showing a contiguous Palestinian state on 95 percent of the West Bank leaves Israel with both Ma’ale Adumim and Ariel. Ma’ale Adumim, with 37,400 people, is considered by most Israelis not as a “settlement” but as a Jerusalem neighborhood. Ariel, with more than 31,000 people (including the bloc to its north), is home to Ariel University, one of Israel’s largest institutions of higher education, with around 9,500 Jewish and Arab students. Neither city — each established more than 30 years ago — is going to be dismantled in any realistic peace agreement, not only because that is not necessary for a contiguous Palestinian state, but also because, more important, each is located on strategic high ground essential to defensible borders for Israel.

So the news out of a comparison of the Minutes and the Report is that the Palestinians, given yet another chance to establish a state in 2008, passed one up yet again, insisting on dismantlement of places not necessary for a contiguous state, which would have been offset by a land swap. The news, in other words, is not the concessions the Palestinians were willing to make but rather the ones they were not.

I would rank the news percentage slightly higher than Noah’s penetrating post, at least by comparing a document released yesterday — the May 21, 2008, “Minutes from Plenary Session on Territory” — with the just-released Makovsky Report on possible borders for a Palestinian state.

In the May 21, 2008, session — six months into the Annapolis final status negotiation — Tzipi Livni (TL) had a significant exchange with Abu Ala (AA) after he said that Palestinians could not accept Israeli retention of Ma’ale Adumim and Ariel. Livni noted that there were 38,000 people in Ma’ale Adumim and insistence on dismantling it would be “a historic mistake.” That generated this colloquy:

AA: There are 30,000 people in Ma’ale Adumim. They can live under Palestinian rule.

TL: You know this is not realistic.

AA: So take them [out], like you did in Gaza.

Livni responded that, under the Israeli proposal, many other settlers would be removed, and she challenged the Palestinians to accept a state with everything they could reasonably expect:

TL: … My question is why you cannot have a state that represents most of your aspirations? You will get some compensation. … Why do you insist on 98%? … I know you are going to get — not most ––almost all of your desires, and compensation for things you don’t get. Saying there will be no state unless it’s 1967, would be a shame. [The ellipses reflect my editing of a back-and-forth conversation -- RR]

In the Makovsky Report, the map showing a contiguous Palestinian state on 95 percent of the West Bank leaves Israel with both Ma’ale Adumim and Ariel. Ma’ale Adumim, with 37,400 people, is considered by most Israelis not as a “settlement” but as a Jerusalem neighborhood. Ariel, with more than 31,000 people (including the bloc to its north), is home to Ariel University, one of Israel’s largest institutions of higher education, with around 9,500 Jewish and Arab students. Neither city — each established more than 30 years ago — is going to be dismantled in any realistic peace agreement, not only because that is not necessary for a contiguous Palestinian state, but also because, more important, each is located on strategic high ground essential to defensible borders for Israel.

So the news out of a comparison of the Minutes and the Report is that the Palestinians, given yet another chance to establish a state in 2008, passed one up yet again, insisting on dismantlement of places not necessary for a contiguous state, which would have been offset by a land swap. The news, in other words, is not the concessions the Palestinians were willing to make but rather the ones they were not.

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Palestine Papers: 99 Percent Hype, 1 Percent News

You wouldn’t expect Al-Jazeera and the Guardian newspaper in Britain to do anything but spin the “Palestine Papers” — the leaked transcripts of late Bush administration negotiations between Israeli, Palestinian, and American officials — to the max. And so they have, today, with shocked responses from foreign-policy types. Indeed, an editor at Foreign Policy magazine went so far as to declare on Twitter that the “two state solution is dead” as a result.

But the reality of the papers themselves turns out to be incredibly boring. Yes, during the months surrounding the Annapolis summit in 2008, there were negotiations. Yes, these negotiations concerned issues such as borders, Jerusalem, refugees, security, and settlements. Yes, the two sides discussed land swaps that would enable Israel to retain major settlement blocs. Yes, in private, the Palestinians acknowledged that the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem is not going to be handed over to them and that Israel will not consent to being flooded with millions of Arab refugees. Yes, in private, the negotiators treated each other with respect and even graciousness. No, the talks did not succeed. This is news?

The Palestine Papers, however, come off badly for the leader of Israel’s opposition, Tzipi Livni, who was then-PM Ehud Olmert’s foreign minister at the time and one of the dramatis personae of the negotiations. Livni’s political liability is that too many Israelis think she isn’t tough enough to be prime minister. She has a tendency to denigrate her own side as a way of ingratiating herself to hostile audiences. To this day, she forcefully criticizes her own country and government while abroad and in front of audiences who have little affection for Israel (see her recent appearance with ABC’s Christiane Amanpour). She seems to think this wins her points for impartiality.

The Palestine Papers show her doing much the same in private, offering to collude with the Palestinians to invent pretexts for letting terrorists out of jail and dismissing Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights (“We’re giving up the Golan”). These indulgences may stick in voters’ minds in Israel and make it that much harder for her to dispel the fear that if awarded the premiership, she’ll give the store away.

But the biggest loser in the Palestine Papers is someone who was not even on the scene at the time. That is President Obama, who chose to make Israeli settlements the centerpiece of the peace process. The papers show that one of the only areas on which the sides had come close to an agreement was the acceptability of land swaps as a solution to the settlements controversy. Today, at Obama’s behest, the Palestinians insist on a complete settlement freeze before they’ll even talk — including in areas that just two years ago they had agreed were already de facto Israeli. Thus did Obama turn back the clock on one of the only points of relative consensus and progress between the two sides. The opener to this Jerusalem Post story captures the absurdity of the situation:

With the Palestinian Authority making an international incident over every plan to build in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem beyond the Green Line, a cache of some 1,600 documents—mostly form [sic] the Palestinian Negotiating Unit—shows that in 2008 the PA was willing to recognize eventual Israeli control over all those neighborhoods, with the exception of Har Homa.

This is actually unfair to the Palestinians. They didn’t make construction in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem an “international incident.” That was Obama, who has criticized construction in these neighborhoods repeatedly. There is not much news in the Palestine Papers to anyone familiar with the Annapolis-era negotiations. But they do provide another example of how badly the Obama administration has handled the peace process.

You wouldn’t expect Al-Jazeera and the Guardian newspaper in Britain to do anything but spin the “Palestine Papers” — the leaked transcripts of late Bush administration negotiations between Israeli, Palestinian, and American officials — to the max. And so they have, today, with shocked responses from foreign-policy types. Indeed, an editor at Foreign Policy magazine went so far as to declare on Twitter that the “two state solution is dead” as a result.

But the reality of the papers themselves turns out to be incredibly boring. Yes, during the months surrounding the Annapolis summit in 2008, there were negotiations. Yes, these negotiations concerned issues such as borders, Jerusalem, refugees, security, and settlements. Yes, the two sides discussed land swaps that would enable Israel to retain major settlement blocs. Yes, in private, the Palestinians acknowledged that the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem is not going to be handed over to them and that Israel will not consent to being flooded with millions of Arab refugees. Yes, in private, the negotiators treated each other with respect and even graciousness. No, the talks did not succeed. This is news?

The Palestine Papers, however, come off badly for the leader of Israel’s opposition, Tzipi Livni, who was then-PM Ehud Olmert’s foreign minister at the time and one of the dramatis personae of the negotiations. Livni’s political liability is that too many Israelis think she isn’t tough enough to be prime minister. She has a tendency to denigrate her own side as a way of ingratiating herself to hostile audiences. To this day, she forcefully criticizes her own country and government while abroad and in front of audiences who have little affection for Israel (see her recent appearance with ABC’s Christiane Amanpour). She seems to think this wins her points for impartiality.

The Palestine Papers show her doing much the same in private, offering to collude with the Palestinians to invent pretexts for letting terrorists out of jail and dismissing Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights (“We’re giving up the Golan”). These indulgences may stick in voters’ minds in Israel and make it that much harder for her to dispel the fear that if awarded the premiership, she’ll give the store away.

But the biggest loser in the Palestine Papers is someone who was not even on the scene at the time. That is President Obama, who chose to make Israeli settlements the centerpiece of the peace process. The papers show that one of the only areas on which the sides had come close to an agreement was the acceptability of land swaps as a solution to the settlements controversy. Today, at Obama’s behest, the Palestinians insist on a complete settlement freeze before they’ll even talk — including in areas that just two years ago they had agreed were already de facto Israeli. Thus did Obama turn back the clock on one of the only points of relative consensus and progress between the two sides. The opener to this Jerusalem Post story captures the absurdity of the situation:

With the Palestinian Authority making an international incident over every plan to build in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem beyond the Green Line, a cache of some 1,600 documents—mostly form [sic] the Palestinian Negotiating Unit—shows that in 2008 the PA was willing to recognize eventual Israeli control over all those neighborhoods, with the exception of Har Homa.

This is actually unfair to the Palestinians. They didn’t make construction in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem an “international incident.” That was Obama, who has criticized construction in these neighborhoods repeatedly. There is not much news in the Palestine Papers to anyone familiar with the Annapolis-era negotiations. But they do provide another example of how badly the Obama administration has handled the peace process.

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Israeli Shakeup Another Setback for Obama

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s decision to break away from the Labor Party and form his own centrist faction is a boost to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. With the remaining members of Labor now shifted to the opposition, Netanyahu has rid his coalition of several Knesset members who are opposed to his policies. In the long run, Barak’s new party will, as David Hazony noted yesterday, provide unwanted competition for the largest opposition party, Kadima, making the path to power for it and its leader, Tzipi Livni, far more difficult.

Livni is understandably upset about this development and vented her spleen today in some over-the-top comments when she complained that Barak’s decision was “the dirtiest act in history.” Given the fact that party-jumping has been a staple of Israeli politics throughout the country’s short history, it’s hard to make an argument that this understandable breakup between the centrists and the old leftists in Labor is any kind of a scandal. It is just the belated recognition on the part of Barak that he is better off letting Labor’s far-left activists merge with what remains of those factions that were to Labor’s left rather than sticking with them. Labor was once Israel’s dominant and natural party of government, but today it is as bankrupt — and obsolete — as the kibbutzim that symbolized the country’s socialist dreams.

But while Livni is the biggest Israeli loser in this transaction, there’s little doubt that it is just as much of a blow to President Barak Obama and his unrealistic approach to the Middle East. Read More

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s decision to break away from the Labor Party and form his own centrist faction is a boost to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. With the remaining members of Labor now shifted to the opposition, Netanyahu has rid his coalition of several Knesset members who are opposed to his policies. In the long run, Barak’s new party will, as David Hazony noted yesterday, provide unwanted competition for the largest opposition party, Kadima, making the path to power for it and its leader, Tzipi Livni, far more difficult.

Livni is understandably upset about this development and vented her spleen today in some over-the-top comments when she complained that Barak’s decision was “the dirtiest act in history.” Given the fact that party-jumping has been a staple of Israeli politics throughout the country’s short history, it’s hard to make an argument that this understandable breakup between the centrists and the old leftists in Labor is any kind of a scandal. It is just the belated recognition on the part of Barak that he is better off letting Labor’s far-left activists merge with what remains of those factions that were to Labor’s left rather than sticking with them. Labor was once Israel’s dominant and natural party of government, but today it is as bankrupt — and obsolete — as the kibbutzim that symbolized the country’s socialist dreams.

But while Livni is the biggest Israeli loser in this transaction, there’s little doubt that it is just as much of a blow to President Barak Obama and his unrealistic approach to the Middle East.

From the moment he took office, Obama has sought to overturn the cozier relationship that existed between Washington and Jerusalem under his predecessor. Throughout his first year in office, Obama seemed to be aiming at unseating Netanyahu, who had been elected weeks after the president was sworn in. By picking pointless fights over settlements and Jewish building in Jerusalem, Obama sought to destabilize Netanyahu’s coalition and hoped Livni would soon replace him. But his ill-considered attacks merely strengthened Netanyahu, who wisely sought to avoid a direct confrontation with his country’s only ally. It was already obvious that, far from collapsing, Netanyahu’s government would survive to the end of its four-year term or close to it. While the outcome of the next Israeli election that will probably occur in 2013 is as difficult to predict as that of Obama’s own re-election effort in 2012, Barak’s move renders the hopes of Livni — the Israeli leader whom both Obama and Secretary of State Clinton continue to treat as America’s favorite Israeli — less likely.

That means Obama is going to have to spend the rest of his term continuing to try to learn to live with the wily Netanyahu. Both Obama and the Palestinian Authority have spent the past two years acting as if they were just waiting around for a new weaker-willed Israeli government to materialize that would then magically create the circumstances under which peace would be achieved. As Barak-faction member Einat Wilf told the New York Times today, “I don’t belong to the camp that believes Israel is solely responsible for the failure of these negotiations. The Palestinians bear responsibility for not entering the talks. Some people have sent them a message to wait around for a new government.”

Barak’s move makes it clear that isn’t going to happen. While Israel’s critics will lament this development, it is high time that Americans accept the fact that the verdict of the Jewish state’s voters must be respected and that the Israeli consensus that has developed about the futility of further unilateral concessions to the Palestinians is entirely justified.

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Barak Pulls a Sharon

As Evelyn has noted, and in a move that surprised nobody except members of his own party, Ehud Barak today took a page from Ariel Sharon’s playbook, splitting from the ideologically founded movement he was leading to create a new centrist political party. Along with four other Labor members, the new party — it still doesn’t have a name — will remain committed to the current government, while in all likelihood the remaining members of Labor will, sooner or later, leave the coalition.

Before we dismiss the new party as yet another soon-forgotten splinter in Israeli politics, it’s worth considering the electoral reality Ehud Barak currently faces. When Sharon broke from Likud in 2005, he founded Kadima as a new centrist faction that would approve the disengagement from Gaza. Although he was joined by a few Labor icons like Shimon Peres and Chaim Ramon, many people saw in Kadima an incoherent collection of mostly moderate right-wingers and a few from the left. After Sharon’s stroke-induced departure from politics in early 2006, most people thought the party wouldn’t survive the next election.

They were wrong. Two leaders later, Kadima’s 28 seats is the largest single faction in the Knesset. This despite having few ranking members with serious governing experience, and despite the disgrace of its second leader, Ehud Olmert, and its finance minister, Avraham Hirschson, on corruption charges.

Why has Kadima survived? The answer should give pause to those who think Ehud Barak is on his last legs as an Israeli politician. For despite being essentially a Likud spin-off, Kadima has survived on the strength of a fairly large base of voters who traditionally saw themselves on the left — not the peace-process left of Yossi Beilin and Yossi Sarid, but rather the enlightened, heavily Ashkenazic, traditionally social-leaning yet nationalist left of David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin. These are the voters who turned to Kadima in droves after the intifada made security more pressing, and more plausible, than peace — people who could never vote Likud for cultural reasons, even if they embraced most of its principles.

Nobody stands to lose more votes to Barak’s new party than Kadima. For if disaffected Laborites turned to Kadima as the closest expression of their political will, they may find a far more congenial home in the new party. As former IDF chief of staff and current defense minister, Barak suddenly embodies the pro-security, classic-Labor stance that neither the more dovish, pro-business, still-in-Labor types nor Kadima’s leader, Tzipi Livni, can hope to offer. To emphasize this, he’s taken with him a top former IDF general, Matan Vilnai. And he’s declared that his party “will follow David Ben-Gurion’s legacy.”

Much of how this turns out depends on the kind of people Barak can pull together around himself before the next election. If former-Labor people in Kadima start defecting to his new party, Israeli politics may see a major shift on the center-left. Barak’s personality has historically made it hard to keep the loyalty of those around him. But the field is open for him. Stay tuned.

As Evelyn has noted, and in a move that surprised nobody except members of his own party, Ehud Barak today took a page from Ariel Sharon’s playbook, splitting from the ideologically founded movement he was leading to create a new centrist political party. Along with four other Labor members, the new party — it still doesn’t have a name — will remain committed to the current government, while in all likelihood the remaining members of Labor will, sooner or later, leave the coalition.

Before we dismiss the new party as yet another soon-forgotten splinter in Israeli politics, it’s worth considering the electoral reality Ehud Barak currently faces. When Sharon broke from Likud in 2005, he founded Kadima as a new centrist faction that would approve the disengagement from Gaza. Although he was joined by a few Labor icons like Shimon Peres and Chaim Ramon, many people saw in Kadima an incoherent collection of mostly moderate right-wingers and a few from the left. After Sharon’s stroke-induced departure from politics in early 2006, most people thought the party wouldn’t survive the next election.

They were wrong. Two leaders later, Kadima’s 28 seats is the largest single faction in the Knesset. This despite having few ranking members with serious governing experience, and despite the disgrace of its second leader, Ehud Olmert, and its finance minister, Avraham Hirschson, on corruption charges.

Why has Kadima survived? The answer should give pause to those who think Ehud Barak is on his last legs as an Israeli politician. For despite being essentially a Likud spin-off, Kadima has survived on the strength of a fairly large base of voters who traditionally saw themselves on the left — not the peace-process left of Yossi Beilin and Yossi Sarid, but rather the enlightened, heavily Ashkenazic, traditionally social-leaning yet nationalist left of David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin. These are the voters who turned to Kadima in droves after the intifada made security more pressing, and more plausible, than peace — people who could never vote Likud for cultural reasons, even if they embraced most of its principles.

Nobody stands to lose more votes to Barak’s new party than Kadima. For if disaffected Laborites turned to Kadima as the closest expression of their political will, they may find a far more congenial home in the new party. As former IDF chief of staff and current defense minister, Barak suddenly embodies the pro-security, classic-Labor stance that neither the more dovish, pro-business, still-in-Labor types nor Kadima’s leader, Tzipi Livni, can hope to offer. To emphasize this, he’s taken with him a top former IDF general, Matan Vilnai. And he’s declared that his party “will follow David Ben-Gurion’s legacy.”

Much of how this turns out depends on the kind of people Barak can pull together around himself before the next election. If former-Labor people in Kadima start defecting to his new party, Israeli politics may see a major shift on the center-left. Barak’s personality has historically made it hard to keep the loyalty of those around him. But the field is open for him. Stay tuned.

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Israel’s Opposition Leader Puts Politics Before Pollard

Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni hit a new low yesterday when she ordered her Knesset faction to vote against a letter from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging President Barack Obama to pardon Jonathan Pollard — and then had the nerve to take the podium and declare: “I will not turn Pollard into a political issue. We will give our support to every effort to free him.”

Ever since Pollard’s 1985 arrest for spying on Israel’s behalf, successive Israeli governments have quietly sought a pardon for him. Never before, however, has Israel publicly appealed for his release.

But if there was ever any chance of Obama granting this request, Livni has just killed it by her disgraceful show of partisanship. After all, the Obama administration has made no secret of its preference for Livni over Netanyahu: see, for instance, Hillary Clinton’s ostentatious hour-long meeting with Livni at the State Department last month, even as she allotted only 30 minutes in a side room of the Saban Forum that same weekend to the government’s representative, Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Thus Obama is highly unlikely to do anything that could be perceived as a victory for Netanyahu over Livni.

Had Livni’s faction backed the letter in the vote that Kadima itself requested, this wouldn’t be an issue: it would be clear that Netanyahu’s request was backed by a wall-to-wall Israeli consensus. But now that claim is impossible. By its vote, Kadima has made it clear that it views freeing Pollard as a lower priority than scoring points off Netanyahu. Livni’s assertion of support for “every effort to free him” is worse than meaningless when her party has just torpedoed the one serious effort actually in train.

This isn’t the first time Livni has displayed gross irresponsibility as opposition leader. Her joint interview to ABC with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad last month, at which the two of them teamed up to blame Netanyahu for the lack of progress in the peace process, was also a new low. I can’t remember any previous Israeli opposition leader staging a joint press conference with an adversary in order to smear her own country to the American public — especially when said adversary, rather than her government, is the one who has actually been refusing to negotiate for the past two years.

But at least there she attacked Netanyahu over an issue on which they ostensibly disagreed. In the Pollard vote, Livni sabotaged him over an issue on which they ostensibly agreed.

The pity is that Livni actually began her stint as opposition leader by demonstrating impressive national responsibility. Unfortunately, the statesmanlike veneer didn’t last long.

Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni hit a new low yesterday when she ordered her Knesset faction to vote against a letter from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging President Barack Obama to pardon Jonathan Pollard — and then had the nerve to take the podium and declare: “I will not turn Pollard into a political issue. We will give our support to every effort to free him.”

Ever since Pollard’s 1985 arrest for spying on Israel’s behalf, successive Israeli governments have quietly sought a pardon for him. Never before, however, has Israel publicly appealed for his release.

But if there was ever any chance of Obama granting this request, Livni has just killed it by her disgraceful show of partisanship. After all, the Obama administration has made no secret of its preference for Livni over Netanyahu: see, for instance, Hillary Clinton’s ostentatious hour-long meeting with Livni at the State Department last month, even as she allotted only 30 minutes in a side room of the Saban Forum that same weekend to the government’s representative, Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Thus Obama is highly unlikely to do anything that could be perceived as a victory for Netanyahu over Livni.

Had Livni’s faction backed the letter in the vote that Kadima itself requested, this wouldn’t be an issue: it would be clear that Netanyahu’s request was backed by a wall-to-wall Israeli consensus. But now that claim is impossible. By its vote, Kadima has made it clear that it views freeing Pollard as a lower priority than scoring points off Netanyahu. Livni’s assertion of support for “every effort to free him” is worse than meaningless when her party has just torpedoed the one serious effort actually in train.

This isn’t the first time Livni has displayed gross irresponsibility as opposition leader. Her joint interview to ABC with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad last month, at which the two of them teamed up to blame Netanyahu for the lack of progress in the peace process, was also a new low. I can’t remember any previous Israeli opposition leader staging a joint press conference with an adversary in order to smear her own country to the American public — especially when said adversary, rather than her government, is the one who has actually been refusing to negotiate for the past two years.

But at least there she attacked Netanyahu over an issue on which they ostensibly disagreed. In the Pollard vote, Livni sabotaged him over an issue on which they ostensibly agreed.

The pity is that Livni actually began her stint as opposition leader by demonstrating impressive national responsibility. Unfortunately, the statesmanlike veneer didn’t last long.

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Livni’s Hypocrisy and Israel’s PR Problem

Israel was a sideshow in the latest WikiLeaks document dump, but the leaked cables did include one noteworthy nugget from Jerusalem: in January 2007, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who today is leader of the opposition, told two U.S. senators that following some exploratory talks with the Palestinians, she didn’t believe a final-status agreement could be reached with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

This is significant because publicly, Livni always says a peace deal is achievable and lambastes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his failure to produce one. Even yesterday, confronted with the WikiLeaks cable, she continued this line, insisting that a deal wasn’t achievable in 2007, but in 2010 “a peace agreement is possible and it needs to done.”

She didn’t explain this about-face, for the very good reason that no convincing explanation exists: Abbas is no more willing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, agree to defensible borders, or cede the “right of return” than he ever was. But this mantra has paid off for her politically, making her the West’s favorite Israeli.

A politician being hypocritical for political gain is nothing new. But in this case, Livni’s personal gain has come at the price of grave damage to her country. If a leading Israeli politician — the woman whose party won the most seats in the last election — claims that Abbas is ready to make a deal, that obviously carries weight overseas. But if Abbas is indeed ready to deal, then it’s clearly Israel’s fault that no deal has ever been signed. And so Israel is painted worldwide as the obstacle to peace, with all the opprobrium that entails.

Livni’s hypocrisy, however, is merely one facet of a much larger problem: virtually the entire Israeli governing class adopts the same tactic. Despite privately believing that Abbas isn’t ready for peace, it publicly insists that he is — and thereby implicitly paints Israel as the party responsible for the ongoing lack of peace. And it does so not only for political gain but also at its own political cost.

Netanyahu, for instance, repeatedly claims that Abbas is his “partner for peace,” with whom he could reach a deal in a year (if only Abbas would agree to negotiate with him). But having insisted that Abbas isn’t the obstacle, the obvious conclusion is that Netanyahu himself must be the problem. After all, some obstacle must exist, since peace clearly hasn’t broken out.

The Palestinians suffer no such pathology: Palestinian leaders blame Israel nonstop for the lack of peace. And since Israel never offers a competing narrative — namely, that Palestinian rejectionism is the real reason for the absence of peace — the Palestinian narrative has inevitably gained worldwide currency.

Thus if Israel is ever to extricate itself from the global dock, its leaders must start telling the truth: that Palestinians aren’t ready to make the compromises peace requires, that they still don’t accept the Jewish state’s right to exist, and that this is why they have rejected every single Israeli offer to date. You can’t win a public relations war by refusing to fight it.

Israel was a sideshow in the latest WikiLeaks document dump, but the leaked cables did include one noteworthy nugget from Jerusalem: in January 2007, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who today is leader of the opposition, told two U.S. senators that following some exploratory talks with the Palestinians, she didn’t believe a final-status agreement could be reached with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

This is significant because publicly, Livni always says a peace deal is achievable and lambastes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his failure to produce one. Even yesterday, confronted with the WikiLeaks cable, she continued this line, insisting that a deal wasn’t achievable in 2007, but in 2010 “a peace agreement is possible and it needs to done.”

She didn’t explain this about-face, for the very good reason that no convincing explanation exists: Abbas is no more willing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, agree to defensible borders, or cede the “right of return” than he ever was. But this mantra has paid off for her politically, making her the West’s favorite Israeli.

A politician being hypocritical for political gain is nothing new. But in this case, Livni’s personal gain has come at the price of grave damage to her country. If a leading Israeli politician — the woman whose party won the most seats in the last election — claims that Abbas is ready to make a deal, that obviously carries weight overseas. But if Abbas is indeed ready to deal, then it’s clearly Israel’s fault that no deal has ever been signed. And so Israel is painted worldwide as the obstacle to peace, with all the opprobrium that entails.

Livni’s hypocrisy, however, is merely one facet of a much larger problem: virtually the entire Israeli governing class adopts the same tactic. Despite privately believing that Abbas isn’t ready for peace, it publicly insists that he is — and thereby implicitly paints Israel as the party responsible for the ongoing lack of peace. And it does so not only for political gain but also at its own political cost.

Netanyahu, for instance, repeatedly claims that Abbas is his “partner for peace,” with whom he could reach a deal in a year (if only Abbas would agree to negotiate with him). But having insisted that Abbas isn’t the obstacle, the obvious conclusion is that Netanyahu himself must be the problem. After all, some obstacle must exist, since peace clearly hasn’t broken out.

The Palestinians suffer no such pathology: Palestinian leaders blame Israel nonstop for the lack of peace. And since Israel never offers a competing narrative — namely, that Palestinian rejectionism is the real reason for the absence of peace — the Palestinian narrative has inevitably gained worldwide currency.

Thus if Israel is ever to extricate itself from the global dock, its leaders must start telling the truth: that Palestinians aren’t ready to make the compromises peace requires, that they still don’t accept the Jewish state’s right to exist, and that this is why they have rejected every single Israeli offer to date. You can’t win a public relations war by refusing to fight it.

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Netanyahu’s Lieberman-Livni Trap

In an ideal world, a foreign minister who publicly repudiated his prime minister’s positions on a key foreign-policy issue from the podium of the UN General Assembly would be fired instantly. So why didn’t Benjamin Netanyahu fire Avigdor Lieberman when the latter repudiated his boss’s Palestinian policy in his UN address yesterday? There’s a two-word answer: Tzipi Livni.

Firing Lieberman would push his 15-man faction out of the coalition, leaving Netanyahu with a minority government. Even if such a government survived, it couldn’t accomplish anything. And it certainly wouldn’t have either the moral authority to conduct delicate and controversial negotiations or the political power to sell any deal to the public.

But the only possible replacement for Lieberman’s party is Kadima: the other non-coalition parties are five splinter factions, one far-left, one far-right, and three Arab. And Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni’s conditions for joining are so outrageous that even public humiliation by Lieberman is preferable.

When Netanyahu was elected last year, Kadima was actually his preferred coalition partner, because its views on many domestic issues resemble his. Since the “peace process” seemed to be going nowhere, he hoped Kadima would ally with his Likud to address crucial domestic problems that had been neglected for years as successive governments devoted themselves either to fruitless peace talks or to coping with the terror they inevitably spawned.

But in the ensuing coalition talks, Livni posed two unacceptable demands.

One was that she and Netanyahu should rotate the prime minister’s job, with each serving part of the term. Israel has had rotation governments before, when neither major party could form a coalition on its own. But in this case, the center-right bloc led by Netanyahu trounced Livni’s leftist bloc, 65 seats to 44. Thus Livni was essentially demanding that Netanyahu throw away his victory, overturn the will of the voters, and crown her prime minister instead — something no self-respecting politician could do.

Her second condition, however, was even worse: she demanded that during Netanyahu’s stint as prime minister, she, as foreign minister, should have sole and exclusive authority over Israeli-Palestinian talks. In other words, she wanted the elected prime minister to abdicate control over one of the most important issues in the government’s portfolio: negotiations that will determine Israel’s border, the status of its capital, security arrangements, and more.

That, too, is something to which no prime minister could consent — especially when Kadima’s views on the peace process are so radically opposed to Likud’s: The last Kadima-led government, in which Livni served as foreign minister, even offered to cede the Western Wall!

And if these were Livni’s demands when she knew Netanyahu had a viable alternative (the government he eventually formed), one can only imagine what her demands would be should Netanyahu oust Lieberman, leaving himself utterly dependent on her.

It’s a pity that Israel’s opposition leader is too egomaniacal, even by political standards, to be a viable partner. But in a reality where his only alternative is Livni’s exorbitant and dangerous substantive demands, Netanyahu has no choice but to swallow Lieberman’s insults and try to contain the diplomatic fallout.

In an ideal world, a foreign minister who publicly repudiated his prime minister’s positions on a key foreign-policy issue from the podium of the UN General Assembly would be fired instantly. So why didn’t Benjamin Netanyahu fire Avigdor Lieberman when the latter repudiated his boss’s Palestinian policy in his UN address yesterday? There’s a two-word answer: Tzipi Livni.

Firing Lieberman would push his 15-man faction out of the coalition, leaving Netanyahu with a minority government. Even if such a government survived, it couldn’t accomplish anything. And it certainly wouldn’t have either the moral authority to conduct delicate and controversial negotiations or the political power to sell any deal to the public.

But the only possible replacement for Lieberman’s party is Kadima: the other non-coalition parties are five splinter factions, one far-left, one far-right, and three Arab. And Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni’s conditions for joining are so outrageous that even public humiliation by Lieberman is preferable.

When Netanyahu was elected last year, Kadima was actually his preferred coalition partner, because its views on many domestic issues resemble his. Since the “peace process” seemed to be going nowhere, he hoped Kadima would ally with his Likud to address crucial domestic problems that had been neglected for years as successive governments devoted themselves either to fruitless peace talks or to coping with the terror they inevitably spawned.

But in the ensuing coalition talks, Livni posed two unacceptable demands.

One was that she and Netanyahu should rotate the prime minister’s job, with each serving part of the term. Israel has had rotation governments before, when neither major party could form a coalition on its own. But in this case, the center-right bloc led by Netanyahu trounced Livni’s leftist bloc, 65 seats to 44. Thus Livni was essentially demanding that Netanyahu throw away his victory, overturn the will of the voters, and crown her prime minister instead — something no self-respecting politician could do.

Her second condition, however, was even worse: she demanded that during Netanyahu’s stint as prime minister, she, as foreign minister, should have sole and exclusive authority over Israeli-Palestinian talks. In other words, she wanted the elected prime minister to abdicate control over one of the most important issues in the government’s portfolio: negotiations that will determine Israel’s border, the status of its capital, security arrangements, and more.

That, too, is something to which no prime minister could consent — especially when Kadima’s views on the peace process are so radically opposed to Likud’s: The last Kadima-led government, in which Livni served as foreign minister, even offered to cede the Western Wall!

And if these were Livni’s demands when she knew Netanyahu had a viable alternative (the government he eventually formed), one can only imagine what her demands would be should Netanyahu oust Lieberman, leaving himself utterly dependent on her.

It’s a pity that Israel’s opposition leader is too egomaniacal, even by political standards, to be a viable partner. But in a reality where his only alternative is Livni’s exorbitant and dangerous substantive demands, Netanyahu has no choice but to swallow Lieberman’s insults and try to contain the diplomatic fallout.

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The Real Demographic Threat

As Israel celebrates its 62nd Independence Day this evening, is the country actually independent? Judging by the remarks of some of its leading politicians, one would have to conclude that the answer is no.

Speaking at a Memorial Day ceremony yesterday, for instance, Defense Minister and Labor-party chairman Ehud Barak declared that only by signing a peace agreement with the Palestinians could Israel preserve its Jewish majority. Ehud Olmert made this claim even more bluntly in 2007, when he was prime minister, declaring that if “the two-state solution collapses … the State of Israel is finished.” Olmert’s successor as head of the Kadima party, opposition leader Tzipi Livni, has made similar remarks.

In other words, Israel has no control over its own fate; its continued existence depends entirely on the goodwill of a nation that would like nothing better than to see it disappear. Moreover, all the Palestinians have to do to secure this outcome is to continue doing exactly what they have done for the past 17 years: say “no” to every peace offer Israel makes. If that is true, Israel really is finished.

In reality, of course, the Barak-Olmert-Livni conclusion is ridiculous even if one believes the demographic doomsayers (there are grounds for skepticism, but that’s another story). Should Israel someday decide the status quo is untenable, it doesn’t need a peace agreement to leave; it can always quit the West Bank unilaterally, just as it did Gaza. After decades of condemning Israel’s “illegal occupation” and demanding its end, the world could hardly object if Israel complied.

Unfortunately, “ridiculous” is not the same as “harmless.” This credo is actually deadly dangerous, on at least four levels.

First, it encourages Palestinian intransigence: if Palestinians can destroy the Jewish state just by saying no, they have no incentive to ever say yes.

Second, it could lead Israeli leaders to make concessions that truly do endanger the state’s survival.

Third, it encourages world leaders to pressure Israel into such concessions, by enabling them to claim they’re really doing it for Israel’s own good. After all, if Israel’s own leaders say the state can’t survive without a peace deal, isn’t any concession that might appease the Palestinians, however dangerous, better than the alternative of certain death?

Finally, it demoralizes Israel’s own citizens, most of whom know perfectly well that no peace agreement is attainable in the foreseeable future. If Israel’s continued existence really depends on an unachievable peace, then Israelis have no reason to remain here and no reason to continue sending their sons to fight and die in the state’s defense. And should enough Israelis reach that conclusion, the state really will collapse.

Thus if Israel is to survive another 62 years, it desperately needs its leaders to relearn the wisdom that guided its founders in 1948, when the demographic situation was much worse: that the purpose of independence is precisely to enable the Jewish people to shape Israel’s fate, rather than being the helpless hostages of a hostile nation. The “demographic threat” cannot destroy Israel. But its leaders’ own folly can.

As Israel celebrates its 62nd Independence Day this evening, is the country actually independent? Judging by the remarks of some of its leading politicians, one would have to conclude that the answer is no.

Speaking at a Memorial Day ceremony yesterday, for instance, Defense Minister and Labor-party chairman Ehud Barak declared that only by signing a peace agreement with the Palestinians could Israel preserve its Jewish majority. Ehud Olmert made this claim even more bluntly in 2007, when he was prime minister, declaring that if “the two-state solution collapses … the State of Israel is finished.” Olmert’s successor as head of the Kadima party, opposition leader Tzipi Livni, has made similar remarks.

In other words, Israel has no control over its own fate; its continued existence depends entirely on the goodwill of a nation that would like nothing better than to see it disappear. Moreover, all the Palestinians have to do to secure this outcome is to continue doing exactly what they have done for the past 17 years: say “no” to every peace offer Israel makes. If that is true, Israel really is finished.

In reality, of course, the Barak-Olmert-Livni conclusion is ridiculous even if one believes the demographic doomsayers (there are grounds for skepticism, but that’s another story). Should Israel someday decide the status quo is untenable, it doesn’t need a peace agreement to leave; it can always quit the West Bank unilaterally, just as it did Gaza. After decades of condemning Israel’s “illegal occupation” and demanding its end, the world could hardly object if Israel complied.

Unfortunately, “ridiculous” is not the same as “harmless.” This credo is actually deadly dangerous, on at least four levels.

First, it encourages Palestinian intransigence: if Palestinians can destroy the Jewish state just by saying no, they have no incentive to ever say yes.

Second, it could lead Israeli leaders to make concessions that truly do endanger the state’s survival.

Third, it encourages world leaders to pressure Israel into such concessions, by enabling them to claim they’re really doing it for Israel’s own good. After all, if Israel’s own leaders say the state can’t survive without a peace deal, isn’t any concession that might appease the Palestinians, however dangerous, better than the alternative of certain death?

Finally, it demoralizes Israel’s own citizens, most of whom know perfectly well that no peace agreement is attainable in the foreseeable future. If Israel’s continued existence really depends on an unachievable peace, then Israelis have no reason to remain here and no reason to continue sending their sons to fight and die in the state’s defense. And should enough Israelis reach that conclusion, the state really will collapse.

Thus if Israel is to survive another 62 years, it desperately needs its leaders to relearn the wisdom that guided its founders in 1948, when the demographic situation was much worse: that the purpose of independence is precisely to enable the Jewish people to shape Israel’s fate, rather than being the helpless hostages of a hostile nation. The “demographic threat” cannot destroy Israel. But its leaders’ own folly can.

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Obama’s Hopes for Israeli ‘Regime Change’ Will Backfire

Veteran peace processor Aaron David Miller gets it half right in today’s Los Angeles Times when he dissects the apparent desire of the Obama administration to drive Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from office.

Miller, a functionary who helped carry out the State Department’s failed Middle East policy during the administrations of both the first president Bush and Clinton, is correct when he points out that American attempts to treat Israel as a banana republic don’t always work out as Washington intends. While the elder George Bush may have successfully undermined Yitzhak Shamir’s re-election in 1992, Bill Clinton’s all-out effort to help Shimon Peres beat Netanyahu in 1996 was a failure that helped sour relations between the two countries. For all of the fact that the United States is Israel’s only ally, not surprisingly Israelis don’t enjoy being dictated to, especially when the issues at stake are their own rights and security. Obama’s transparent attempt to overturn the outcome of an election that was held only a few weeks after his own inauguration doesn’t sit well with the Israeli public and has increased Netanyahu’s popularity. That Jerusalem is the issue over which Obama has sought to ditch Netanyahu is as wrongheaded as it is foolish. No Israeli prime minister is likely to accept Obama’s demand that Jews not be allowed to build in existing Jewish neighborhoods in their own capital.

Miller is also correct when he points out that if Obama were really interested in making progress toward Middle East peace, he’d be far better off cozying up to Netanyahu than attempting to somehow impose a left-wing government on Israel. Only right-wingers or former military leaders have the standing to persuade Israelis to take risks for peace. Obama’s notion that Israel’s opposition leader Tzipi Livni would be more susceptible to American pressure might be true. But there’s little chance that she could rally the country behind the disastrous peace plan that the administration is reportedly planning to try to impose on Israel at some point. Miller’s also right when he points out, albeit reluctantly, that Bibi has in fact been far from intransigent. He has signed several peace accords, including the Hebron agreement and the Wye Plantation deal during his first term in office, and in the last year he has formally agreed to a two-state solution and a building freeze in Jewish communities in the West Bank.

But what Miller leaves out of his piece is a basic fact about Middle East peacemaking: not even the most accommodating Israeli government can make peace if the Palestinians won’t take yes for an answer. Left-wing Israeli governments in the 1990s that gave all that Bill Clinton asked them to give to the Palestinians were still unable to persuade the Arabs to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state within any borders. Nor was the Left-leaning government in which Livni served as foreign minister just two years ago able to persuade the supposedly moderate Palestinian Authority leadership to accept a Palestinian state in Gaza, virtually all of the West Bank and half of Jerusalem.

Miller wisely counsels that where Obama is headed in the Middle East will lead only to more failure: “A no-win fight over settlements, the threat of pushing its own peace plan — or worse: too-clever-by-half meddling in Israeli politics. Such an approach will only waste time and energy the United States doesn’t have, and risk failure at a time when America is trying to protect its own interests in an angry, complex and turbulent region.” But what Miller leaves out of this sage lecture is that the basic premise of Obama’s policies — that Israeli intransigence is the primary obstacle to peace — is itself the great myth of current American foreign policy that needs to be debunked.

Veteran peace processor Aaron David Miller gets it half right in today’s Los Angeles Times when he dissects the apparent desire of the Obama administration to drive Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from office.

Miller, a functionary who helped carry out the State Department’s failed Middle East policy during the administrations of both the first president Bush and Clinton, is correct when he points out that American attempts to treat Israel as a banana republic don’t always work out as Washington intends. While the elder George Bush may have successfully undermined Yitzhak Shamir’s re-election in 1992, Bill Clinton’s all-out effort to help Shimon Peres beat Netanyahu in 1996 was a failure that helped sour relations between the two countries. For all of the fact that the United States is Israel’s only ally, not surprisingly Israelis don’t enjoy being dictated to, especially when the issues at stake are their own rights and security. Obama’s transparent attempt to overturn the outcome of an election that was held only a few weeks after his own inauguration doesn’t sit well with the Israeli public and has increased Netanyahu’s popularity. That Jerusalem is the issue over which Obama has sought to ditch Netanyahu is as wrongheaded as it is foolish. No Israeli prime minister is likely to accept Obama’s demand that Jews not be allowed to build in existing Jewish neighborhoods in their own capital.

Miller is also correct when he points out that if Obama were really interested in making progress toward Middle East peace, he’d be far better off cozying up to Netanyahu than attempting to somehow impose a left-wing government on Israel. Only right-wingers or former military leaders have the standing to persuade Israelis to take risks for peace. Obama’s notion that Israel’s opposition leader Tzipi Livni would be more susceptible to American pressure might be true. But there’s little chance that she could rally the country behind the disastrous peace plan that the administration is reportedly planning to try to impose on Israel at some point. Miller’s also right when he points out, albeit reluctantly, that Bibi has in fact been far from intransigent. He has signed several peace accords, including the Hebron agreement and the Wye Plantation deal during his first term in office, and in the last year he has formally agreed to a two-state solution and a building freeze in Jewish communities in the West Bank.

But what Miller leaves out of his piece is a basic fact about Middle East peacemaking: not even the most accommodating Israeli government can make peace if the Palestinians won’t take yes for an answer. Left-wing Israeli governments in the 1990s that gave all that Bill Clinton asked them to give to the Palestinians were still unable to persuade the Arabs to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state within any borders. Nor was the Left-leaning government in which Livni served as foreign minister just two years ago able to persuade the supposedly moderate Palestinian Authority leadership to accept a Palestinian state in Gaza, virtually all of the West Bank and half of Jerusalem.

Miller wisely counsels that where Obama is headed in the Middle East will lead only to more failure: “A no-win fight over settlements, the threat of pushing its own peace plan — or worse: too-clever-by-half meddling in Israeli politics. Such an approach will only waste time and energy the United States doesn’t have, and risk failure at a time when America is trying to protect its own interests in an angry, complex and turbulent region.” But what Miller leaves out of this sage lecture is that the basic premise of Obama’s policies — that Israeli intransigence is the primary obstacle to peace — is itself the great myth of current American foreign policy that needs to be debunked.

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AIPAC Panel: The Sands of Change Here in D.C.

A mesmerizing discussion Sunday afternoon was held among Elliott Abrams, Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal, and Asher Susser of the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University as they examined the “sands of change in the Middle East.” Both Stephens and Susser traced the emergence of non-Arab states like Iran and Turkey (which is pivoting away from Europe as it becomes increasingly more Islamist in domestic policy and anti-Israel in its foreign policy), the decline of secular pan-Arabism, the tension between radicals and moderates, and the ascendancy of Shia regimes, which are displacing aging Sunni leaders as the region’s powerhouses.

Abrams made a different case: “The most important shift is in Washington.” He noted that in 1967, Israel won a tremendous, and the British left Aden, opening an era in which the U.S.-Israel alliance dominated the region. (“It took the 1973 war for the Arabs to learn that lesson.”) The question Arabs are asking now, Abrams said, is about what the American policy is on maintaining its dominance in the region. They want to know “whether the U.S. is prepared to maintain its position or let the region slip into a period of Iranian dominance.” On Iran’s nuclear ambitions specifically, Abrams reminded the crowd that the Obama administration says it is “unacceptable” if Iran gets a nuclear weapon. “But do they mean it’s unacceptable or just that it is a bummer?”

As for the Obami’s effort to separate the U.S. from Israel to increase our credibility with the Arabs, it is “no accident” Abrams said, that the Saudi’s 2002 peace plan, while not the basis for any viable peace agreement,  would have ended with the recognition of Israel. When the Arab states realize that the U.S. commitment to Israel is unyielding and that they “can’t do anything about Israel, they begin to make peace.” If the U.S. should begin to change its position, Abrams cautioned, their attitude toward Israel will change as well. Then, Abrams added, citing Lee Smith’s book The Strong Horse, they will decide which is the weak and which is the strong horse in the region and act accordingly. How we act toward Israel affects how Arab states regard us. As we distance ourselves from Israel, the Arabs see that we “are proving to be an undependable ally.” So the place to determine the fate of the Middle East, he summed up, is “here.”

All the panelists in their presentations and the Q & A discussed the recent conflict and the “peace process.” Stephens noted that putting the “squeeze on our friends while coddling our enemies comes with a cost. Israel will take less risks for peace. The Palestinians are encouraged to make maximalist demands. Radicals in the region take comfort that the U.S. is slowly withdrawing.” Susser deemed the ruckus raised by the administration over a Jersulem housing project ”ludicrous.” The Obama team is focused on the “1967 file” — settlements and Jerusalem. But the Palestinians are still stuck on the “1948 file” — the right of return of refugees and “Israel’s being.” What’s working against us and serving as the reason that status quo is unsustainable, he says, are both the demography and the movement internationally to try to delegitimize Israel.

What to do about that international effort? Abrams: “It is not an accident that the worst challenges to Israel’s legitimacy have occurred in the last two years.” When the U.S. “condemns” Israel over a housing permit, the Quartet rushes in to do the same. The way to stop this, he said bluntly, is “for the U.S. to get 100% behind Israel.” Stephens took it up from there, arguing that Israel’s efforts at peace and its withdrawal from Gaza and Lebanon have not gained it applause. “The depth of the hatred increased with proof of Israel’s good intentions.” We need, he says, not to make a “defense case” but a “prosecutorial case” against powers that would find it acceptable to welcome Robert Mugabe with open arms but that would arrest Tzipi Livni, and against entities like the UN Human Rights Council, which is stocked with the likes of Libya, Egypt, and other human rights abusers. “Who are they to point fingers at Israel?”

The panel was greeted with great enthusiasm, as if a dose of reality had finally been served up after days and days of administration flailing and the resulting furor within the Jewish community. But if this crowd surely shares the Abrams-Stephens-Susser view, what then is to be done about the Obami? The issue isn’t a housing flap, but the Obami’s dangerous notion that distancing itself from Israel is “smart diplomacy.” It is anything but, and the AIPAC activists will have to devise a smart response for combating a dangerous and ill-advised approach.

A mesmerizing discussion Sunday afternoon was held among Elliott Abrams, Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal, and Asher Susser of the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University as they examined the “sands of change in the Middle East.” Both Stephens and Susser traced the emergence of non-Arab states like Iran and Turkey (which is pivoting away from Europe as it becomes increasingly more Islamist in domestic policy and anti-Israel in its foreign policy), the decline of secular pan-Arabism, the tension between radicals and moderates, and the ascendancy of Shia regimes, which are displacing aging Sunni leaders as the region’s powerhouses.

Abrams made a different case: “The most important shift is in Washington.” He noted that in 1967, Israel won a tremendous, and the British left Aden, opening an era in which the U.S.-Israel alliance dominated the region. (“It took the 1973 war for the Arabs to learn that lesson.”) The question Arabs are asking now, Abrams said, is about what the American policy is on maintaining its dominance in the region. They want to know “whether the U.S. is prepared to maintain its position or let the region slip into a period of Iranian dominance.” On Iran’s nuclear ambitions specifically, Abrams reminded the crowd that the Obama administration says it is “unacceptable” if Iran gets a nuclear weapon. “But do they mean it’s unacceptable or just that it is a bummer?”

As for the Obami’s effort to separate the U.S. from Israel to increase our credibility with the Arabs, it is “no accident” Abrams said, that the Saudi’s 2002 peace plan, while not the basis for any viable peace agreement,  would have ended with the recognition of Israel. When the Arab states realize that the U.S. commitment to Israel is unyielding and that they “can’t do anything about Israel, they begin to make peace.” If the U.S. should begin to change its position, Abrams cautioned, their attitude toward Israel will change as well. Then, Abrams added, citing Lee Smith’s book The Strong Horse, they will decide which is the weak and which is the strong horse in the region and act accordingly. How we act toward Israel affects how Arab states regard us. As we distance ourselves from Israel, the Arabs see that we “are proving to be an undependable ally.” So the place to determine the fate of the Middle East, he summed up, is “here.”

All the panelists in their presentations and the Q & A discussed the recent conflict and the “peace process.” Stephens noted that putting the “squeeze on our friends while coddling our enemies comes with a cost. Israel will take less risks for peace. The Palestinians are encouraged to make maximalist demands. Radicals in the region take comfort that the U.S. is slowly withdrawing.” Susser deemed the ruckus raised by the administration over a Jersulem housing project ”ludicrous.” The Obama team is focused on the “1967 file” — settlements and Jerusalem. But the Palestinians are still stuck on the “1948 file” — the right of return of refugees and “Israel’s being.” What’s working against us and serving as the reason that status quo is unsustainable, he says, are both the demography and the movement internationally to try to delegitimize Israel.

What to do about that international effort? Abrams: “It is not an accident that the worst challenges to Israel’s legitimacy have occurred in the last two years.” When the U.S. “condemns” Israel over a housing permit, the Quartet rushes in to do the same. The way to stop this, he said bluntly, is “for the U.S. to get 100% behind Israel.” Stephens took it up from there, arguing that Israel’s efforts at peace and its withdrawal from Gaza and Lebanon have not gained it applause. “The depth of the hatred increased with proof of Israel’s good intentions.” We need, he says, not to make a “defense case” but a “prosecutorial case” against powers that would find it acceptable to welcome Robert Mugabe with open arms but that would arrest Tzipi Livni, and against entities like the UN Human Rights Council, which is stocked with the likes of Libya, Egypt, and other human rights abusers. “Who are they to point fingers at Israel?”

The panel was greeted with great enthusiasm, as if a dose of reality had finally been served up after days and days of administration flailing and the resulting furor within the Jewish community. But if this crowd surely shares the Abrams-Stephens-Susser view, what then is to be done about the Obami? The issue isn’t a housing flap, but the Obami’s dangerous notion that distancing itself from Israel is “smart diplomacy.” It is anything but, and the AIPAC activists will have to devise a smart response for combating a dangerous and ill-advised approach.

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A Lesson for London

Meeting with Israeli officials in Jerusalem this morning, British Attorney General Baroness Scotland reiterated her government’s pledge to amend the “universal jurisdiction” law under which British courts have repeatedly issued arrest warrants against Israeli officers and politicians. That pledge, first made by Prime Minister Gordon Brown last month, outraged the Muslim Council of Britain, which accused the government of being “partisan” and “compliant to [Israeli] demands.”

But if Britain keeps its word, the pro-Palestinian activists who keep seeking, and getting, those warrants will have only themselves to blame. After all, British courts have issued such warrants for years without the British government batting an eye, despite vociferous Israeli protests, and could probably have continued doing so had activists only picked their targets a little more carefully. The British couldn’t care less if Israeli army officers canceled planned visits for fear of being arrested, as yet another group did last week. Ditto for right-of-center politicians such as Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who aborted a planned trip in November: Britain would rather not hear from Israelis who think peace with the Palestinians is currently impossible.

But the activists overreached last month by securing a warrant against former foreign minister and current opposition leader Tzipi Livni. Livni is the Great White Hope of peace-processors worldwide, the Israeli deemed most likely to sign a deal with the Palestinians. She won praise from her Palestinian interlocutors during a year of final-status negotiations in 2008; she publicly declares that any Israeli premier’s primary responsibility, far above such trivialities as preventing Iran from getting the bomb, is to create a Palestinian state. And, not coincidentally, she is the most left-wing Israeli who could conceivably become prime minister. If even Livni can’t travel to Britain, London would be left with no Israelis to talk to at all.

And for the pro-Palestinian radicals who seek these warrants, that’s precisely the point. In their view, there are no “good” Israelis; all Israelis (except those who favor abolishing their own country) are evil and deserve to be in jail. There’s no difference between Livni, passionately committed to Palestinian statehood, and a right-wing extremist, because Livni and the extremist are equally guilty of the cardinal sins: both believe Israel should continue to exist as a Jewish state, and both are willing to fight to defend it.

In truth, Britain ought to amend the law for its own sake: while Israelis can live without visiting London, a country whose soldiers are in combat from Iraq to Afghanistan has much to lose from encouraging universal jurisdiction, which allows any country to try any other country’s nationals for “war crimes” committed anywhere in the world, even if neither crime nor criminal has any connection to the indicting country. Hence if the Livni warrant does finally spur London to action, Britain will benefit no less than Israel does.

But it would be even more useful if the case finally prompted Britons to recognize the pro-Palestinian radicals’ true goal: not “peace,” but the end of Israel.

Meeting with Israeli officials in Jerusalem this morning, British Attorney General Baroness Scotland reiterated her government’s pledge to amend the “universal jurisdiction” law under which British courts have repeatedly issued arrest warrants against Israeli officers and politicians. That pledge, first made by Prime Minister Gordon Brown last month, outraged the Muslim Council of Britain, which accused the government of being “partisan” and “compliant to [Israeli] demands.”

But if Britain keeps its word, the pro-Palestinian activists who keep seeking, and getting, those warrants will have only themselves to blame. After all, British courts have issued such warrants for years without the British government batting an eye, despite vociferous Israeli protests, and could probably have continued doing so had activists only picked their targets a little more carefully. The British couldn’t care less if Israeli army officers canceled planned visits for fear of being arrested, as yet another group did last week. Ditto for right-of-center politicians such as Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who aborted a planned trip in November: Britain would rather not hear from Israelis who think peace with the Palestinians is currently impossible.

But the activists overreached last month by securing a warrant against former foreign minister and current opposition leader Tzipi Livni. Livni is the Great White Hope of peace-processors worldwide, the Israeli deemed most likely to sign a deal with the Palestinians. She won praise from her Palestinian interlocutors during a year of final-status negotiations in 2008; she publicly declares that any Israeli premier’s primary responsibility, far above such trivialities as preventing Iran from getting the bomb, is to create a Palestinian state. And, not coincidentally, she is the most left-wing Israeli who could conceivably become prime minister. If even Livni can’t travel to Britain, London would be left with no Israelis to talk to at all.

And for the pro-Palestinian radicals who seek these warrants, that’s precisely the point. In their view, there are no “good” Israelis; all Israelis (except those who favor abolishing their own country) are evil and deserve to be in jail. There’s no difference between Livni, passionately committed to Palestinian statehood, and a right-wing extremist, because Livni and the extremist are equally guilty of the cardinal sins: both believe Israel should continue to exist as a Jewish state, and both are willing to fight to defend it.

In truth, Britain ought to amend the law for its own sake: while Israelis can live without visiting London, a country whose soldiers are in combat from Iraq to Afghanistan has much to lose from encouraging universal jurisdiction, which allows any country to try any other country’s nationals for “war crimes” committed anywhere in the world, even if neither crime nor criminal has any connection to the indicting country. Hence if the Livni warrant does finally spur London to action, Britain will benefit no less than Israel does.

But it would be even more useful if the case finally prompted Britons to recognize the pro-Palestinian radicals’ true goal: not “peace,” but the end of Israel.

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Calling a Crime a Crime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Less