Commentary Magazine


Topic: Yitzhak Rabin

Bill Clinton: Bibi Derangement Syndrome’s Patient Zero

Ever since leaving office, Bill Clinton’s fabrications about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process have only become more fanciful and self-serving, the consistent element of which is his adamant refusal to tell the truth. But there’s another common thread to Clinton’s world of make believe: he is patient zero of the ensuing epidemic of Bibi Derangement Syndrome.

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Ever since leaving office, Bill Clinton’s fabrications about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process have only become more fanciful and self-serving, the consistent element of which is his adamant refusal to tell the truth. But there’s another common thread to Clinton’s world of make believe: he is patient zero of the ensuing epidemic of Bibi Derangement Syndrome.

The latest episode of Clinton’s condition took place at the Harkin Steak Fry in Iowa, when Clinton was goaded into defending his Middle East policy by a pro-Palestinian activist. Caleb Howe has the transcript of the video captured by C-Span cameras:

Activist: If we don’t force [Netanyahu] to make peace, we will not have peace.

Clinton: Wait, wait, wait. First of all, I agree with that. But in 2000, Ehud Barak, I got him to agree to something that I’m not sure I would have gotten Rabin to agree to, and Rabin was murdered for giving land to the Palestinians.

Activist: I agree. But Netanyahu is not the guy.

Clinton: So, they got … I agree with that, but we had, I had him a state, they would have gotten 96% of the West Bank, land swap in Gaza, appropriate water rights … and East Jerusalem! Something that hasn’t even been discussed since I left office.

And by the way, don’t forget, both Arafat and Abbas later said they would take it. They said, they said, ‘we changed our minds, we want it now’ and by then they had a government wouldn’t give it to them.

Let’s unpack this. First of all, Clinton agrees that Netanyahu must be forced by the U.S. to make peace. Presumably Clinton doesn’t agree with Samantha Power that the U.S. should invade Israel to force this peace, but he never says exactly which gun he’d prefer be held to Bibi’s head. (Perhaps holding up weapons resupply during wartime, as President Obama has done?)

He also agrees with the protester that Netanyahu is “not the guy” with whom such a peace agreement can be signed. This will likely not make Israelis too happy, because they know from experience that when Clinton doesn’t want an Israeli prime minister in office, he jumps right into the elections to try to arrange his preferred outcome.

In 1996, this meddling took the form of Clinton pretty much openly campaigning for Netanyahu’s opponent, Shimon Peres. In 1999, this meant Clinton’s advisors helping to run Ehud Barak’s campaign. The first time he was nearly successful–if memory serves, many Israelis went to sleep with Peres leading the election returns and woke to prime minister-elect Netanyahu. The second time he was successful.

But all along it was personal animus that guided Clinton–a deeply dangerous and thoroughly irresponsible way to conduct foreign policy, which helps explain why Clinton’s foreign policy was such a mess. Say what you will about George W. Bush’s case for regime change in Iraq, but it rested on more than “There’s something about this guy I just don’t like.” The same cannot be said for Clinton.

Indeed, it wasn’t as though Netanyahu was intransigent on matters of peace with the Palestinians. Once in office, Netanyahu too struck deals with Arafat. He agreed to the Wye River accords despite his belief that Clinton went back on a promise to free Pollard, and he agreed to redeploy troops from Hebron while continuing to implement Oslo.

Next, we have Clinton’s assertion that giving Palestinians sovereignty in East Jerusalem is “Something that hasn’t even been discussed since I left office.” This is obviously untrue. During the Bush presidency, Ehud Olmert made such an offer to Mahmoud Abbas, who walked away. Not only that, but even Netanyahu has hinted at a willingness to divide Jerusalem.

That also undercuts the latter part of that claim by Clinton, that Abbas regretted saying no but by the time he wanted such a deal it was off the table. It was not off the table; it was offered, again, to Abbas directly.

So is anything Clinton said true? Actually, there is a kernel of truth–no doubt purely accidental–in what he said about Barak and Rabin. But it further undermines his point. Rabin was far from the two-state-cheerleader the left makes him out to be. He was far more reluctant to consider dividing Jerusalem and establishing a fully independent Palestinian state than his later successors–including Benjamin Netanyahu. Bibi now is to the left of where Rabin was then on pretty much all the main issues.

So is Barak, of course, which was Clinton’s point. But the real story here is the fact that you can’t simply jump from Rabin to Barak: Netanyahu was in between, and he played a significant role by forcing the right to accept and implement Oslo in order to govern and by showing the Israeli right could be talked into withdrawing from territory, even places as holy and significant as Hebron. The rightist premiers that followed Barak continued withdrawing from territory and offering peace plans to the Palestinian leadership.

When it comes to Israel, liberal politicians tend to fall into one of two categories: either they’re ignorant of Israeli history and politics, or they assume their audience to be. For Clinton it’s almost surely the latter, which makes it all the more ignoble.

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The EU Offers Israel a Raw Deal

“The European Union gave a push to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks on Monday,” the Wall Street Journal reports, “pledging unprecedented aid to the two sides if they reach agreement on their final status.” The phrase “unprecedented aid” sounds like a great deal for both sides. Israel has repeatedly tried to strike a final-status agreement with the Palestinians at great cost and sacrifice, only to be rebuffed or met with violence every single time. Since Israel obviously already wants peace, this “aid” just sweetens the pot.

The Palestinians, too, might be tempted, since they depend so much on foreign aid. And for the EU as well it appears to have mostly upside: if there’s no deal, they don’t have to spend a dime of the promised aid, and if there is a deal, it would be well worth the cost. So: three (or even two) cheers for the EU? Not exactly. Widening the scope a bit reveals this to be something much closer to what the Journal reported around the Black Friday shopping rush: the deal is much less a bargain than the price tag would have shoppers believe. The Journal noted that companies long ago figured out that if they overinflated the initial price offering they could better lure bargain hunters amid all the competition. As a result:

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“The European Union gave a push to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks on Monday,” the Wall Street Journal reports, “pledging unprecedented aid to the two sides if they reach agreement on their final status.” The phrase “unprecedented aid” sounds like a great deal for both sides. Israel has repeatedly tried to strike a final-status agreement with the Palestinians at great cost and sacrifice, only to be rebuffed or met with violence every single time. Since Israel obviously already wants peace, this “aid” just sweetens the pot.

The Palestinians, too, might be tempted, since they depend so much on foreign aid. And for the EU as well it appears to have mostly upside: if there’s no deal, they don’t have to spend a dime of the promised aid, and if there is a deal, it would be well worth the cost. So: three (or even two) cheers for the EU? Not exactly. Widening the scope a bit reveals this to be something much closer to what the Journal reported around the Black Friday shopping rush: the deal is much less a bargain than the price tag would have shoppers believe. The Journal noted that companies long ago figured out that if they overinflated the initial price offering they could better lure bargain hunters amid all the competition. As a result:

In a 2012 presentation, Mr. Johnson, then still Penney’s CEO, said the company was selling fewer than one out of every 500 items at full price. Customers were receiving an average discount of 60%, up from 38% a decade earlier. The twist is they weren’t saving more. In fact, the average price paid by customers stayed about the same over that period. What changed was the initial price, which increased by 33%.

And so it is with the EU’s latest fit of magnanimity, at least with regard to Israel. That’s because the EU has been slowly, but unmistakably, seeking to punish Israel financially for the EU’s policy disagreements with the Israeli government. I wrote about this over the summer, when the EU released new guidelines intended to restrict grant access to Jews who lived in the West Bank or a large part of Jerusalem, the Jews’ eternal capital. The EU had not instituted a full-fledged trade boycott, to be sure. But it’s not clear if that was because EU officials oppose such a morally repugnant policy or because the denial of grants was a way to hurt Jewish Israelis without also damaging European economies. It was no less discriminatory, in other words; just unprincipled.

The EU’s behavior also gives tacit approval to more bigoted forms of boycotts on a continent with rising anti-Semitism. So when the EU says it can offer a major infusion of financial aid to Israel if it signs on the dotted line, it is not only proclaiming its belief that Israel can be bought but also to some degree offsetting the damage it is already trying to do to Israel’s economy. Perhaps in Brussels an offer of unprecedented financial aid is indistinguishable from a shakedown, but Israeli officials can tell the difference.

With regard to aid to the Palestinians, it might end up being more expensive for the EU than officials expect. The Oslo era saw Yitzhak Rabin sign a deal with Yasser Arafat, followed by Benjamin Netanyahu doing the same, followed by Ehud Barak making a generous offer to Arafat, followed by Ariel Sharon unilaterally disengaging from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, followed by Ehud Olmert offering Mahmoud Abbas the store, followed by Netanyahu accepting in principle the two-state solution and suggesting even that dividing Jerusalem would be on the table, and then willing to release terrorist murderers just to begin negotiations.

In other words, if you want a peace deal, talk to Ramallah; Jerusalem’s door is always open. So financial aid to the Palestinian Authority is a start–or, rather, a continuation, since they already receive such aid (which Israel fully supports). But all those years of rejection and/or violence in return for Israeli offers of peace should tell the Eurocrats something about the ability to induce the Palestinians to make peace. Each Palestinian rejection was followed by an eventual Israeli offer more generous than the last. The Palestinians have learned that all they have to do is keep saying no and eventually they’ll get whatever they want.

So the EU can offer generous financial aid. The Palestinians in all likelihood will reject the terms, but they won’t forget the EU offered them in the first place. The next time the EU wants to get involved, the offer will be sweeter, and after the Palestinians reject that one the next offer will be sweeter still. By that time, the EU’s financial action against Israel will have increased as well. The EU has begun rolling a snowball downhill. Good luck stopping it.

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Trouble on the Golan: Rabin’s Prescience

Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk begins his book on the Clinton administration’s Mideast diplomacy with the initial focus on brokering peace between Israel and Syria, then led by Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez. Assad’s demand was a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for a full peace. The Israeli prime minister at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, was open to it both because he wanted real peace with Syria–Israel already had a longstanding peace agreement with Egypt, a certain level of cooperation with Lebanese officials and armed forces, and a relationship with Jordan that was a peace agreement in all but name, which was finally signed in 1994–and because he thought it would encourage the Palestinians to want peace as well.

He was right about the latter point, though the Palestinians would end up hijacking the entire process and peace with Syria never happened. But ahead of a trip to Washington to meet with Clinton, Rabin wanted to know how the U.S. would guarantee the peace, as Indyk phrases it, “especially in the event of Asad’s death.” Would Clinton put American troops on the Golan, if it came to that and Israel was proscribed by the peace agreement from sending its own troops? Clinton asked Colin Powell for his advice. Indyk recounts the exchange:

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Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk begins his book on the Clinton administration’s Mideast diplomacy with the initial focus on brokering peace between Israel and Syria, then led by Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez. Assad’s demand was a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for a full peace. The Israeli prime minister at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, was open to it both because he wanted real peace with Syria–Israel already had a longstanding peace agreement with Egypt, a certain level of cooperation with Lebanese officials and armed forces, and a relationship with Jordan that was a peace agreement in all but name, which was finally signed in 1994–and because he thought it would encourage the Palestinians to want peace as well.

He was right about the latter point, though the Palestinians would end up hijacking the entire process and peace with Syria never happened. But ahead of a trip to Washington to meet with Clinton, Rabin wanted to know how the U.S. would guarantee the peace, as Indyk phrases it, “especially in the event of Asad’s death.” Would Clinton put American troops on the Golan, if it came to that and Israel was proscribed by the peace agreement from sending its own troops? Clinton asked Colin Powell for his advice. Indyk recounts the exchange:

“No military officer would want to give this up,” Powell replied. He then surprised everyone by arguing that the only way Israel could be convinced to withdraw from the Golan Heights would be if the United States were prepared to insert a brigade of American troops–some four thousand GIs–on the Golan. Unlike the Israel-Egypt peace treaty observer force deployed in the Sinai, which contained only one battalion of American troops, he said the Golan deployment would need to be a full-fledged fighting force to signal Syria and the Arab world that if they broke the peace agreement they would have to tangle with the U.S. Army.

“It would be worth it,” the president responded.

Obviously none of this ever came to pass, but Israeli withdrawal from the Golan has been sought by Assad the younger, as well as current Secretary of State John Kerry as of just before the Arab Spring. But on this, as on many aspects of Middle East policy, the Arab Spring has changed the calculus. Rabin, however, has proven prescient. Not only was he right about the Palestinians coming to the table when they thought they might be sold out or eclipsed by the Syrians, but he also understood that if Israel were to withdraw its civilians and troops and keep them out of the Golan, the peace treaty would need real teeth.

You can see from the Powell-Clinton conversation that Rabin also understood the danger of Golan withdrawal better than they did, though Powell was quite serious about what it would take to enforce it. The problem as Rabin saw it was not the worry that Assad would break the deal–though of course that was a concern–but rather that in Assad’s absence, and the possible resulting anarchy or new regime, the agreement would essentially be nullified.

Fast forward to today, as Reuters reports just why Israel has always worried about giving up the Golan in the event of the death or overthrow of the regime with whom they would have signed the deal:

Austrian U.N. peacekeepers, fearing their safety due to fighting in Syria, will assess on a daily basis if they can stay to monitor a truce between Israel and Syria, Austria’s foreign minister said on Friday.

Israel is anxious for the peacekeepers to remain, worried that the Golan will become a springboard for attacks on Israelis by Islamist militants fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The article notes that Japan and Croatia have both said they were going to withdraw their own soldiers from the peacekeepers. Austria’s absence would leave a void: Reuters says they make up 380 of the 1,000 peacekeepers. Additionally, how feasible would it be to replace them under these conditions? Peacekeepers have been attacked and kidnapped as the civil war has progressed, and Israel has already had to respond to shelling from Syrian territory.

All this, it should be noted, is happening with Israel still controlling the Golan. The threat is therefore extant but limited. Were the Golan in Syrian hands, the situation would be a chaotic security crisis for Israel, especially when combined with the tense border standoff with Hezbollah in south Lebanon (and Gaza to the south). Had Clinton’s plan been implemented, and all else equal–though I should stress the futility of playing “what if?”–American troops might now be involved in a land war in Syria trying to tamp down an insurgency. In such a case, could American troops withstand the attempts to draw them into nearby Lebanon as well, which would certainly come at some point?

Again, it’s all speculative. But it’s also clear that when Israeli leaders stress the need for defensible borders, they usually know exactly what they are talking about. And when they say that a durable peace agreement, especially in an era of falling dictators, must have popular support–as they do when they criticize Palestinian incitement and government-sponsored anti-Semitic indoctrination–they’re right about that too.

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Israel’s Next Defense Minister

In 1974, when Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were locked in an internal battle for the leadership of the Labor party and the Israeli premiership, Rabin reached out for an unlikely endorsement. “A declaration of support from Arik matters more than one from anyone else,” Rabin told the journalist Uri Dan, referring to the Likud’s Ariel Sharon. Dan relayed the request to Sharon, and Sharon agreed; he got up from his meeting with Dan, went over to a phone booth in the hotel lobby, and began calling journalists to tell them.

The endorsement made headlines, and Rabin became prime minister. Though that incident took place soon after the Yom Kippur War and years before Egypt and Israel signed a peace agreement, there is a cultural aspect to this story that remains relevant in 2013. To most of the world the there isn’t much difference between a “peacemaker” and a “peacenik”; to Israelis there is a Grand Canyon between them. And although the political parties are reversed, this distinction goes a long way to explaining the seeming indispensability of Ehud Barak to the man that took over the Likud after Sharon left it: Benjamin Netanyahu.

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In 1974, when Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were locked in an internal battle for the leadership of the Labor party and the Israeli premiership, Rabin reached out for an unlikely endorsement. “A declaration of support from Arik matters more than one from anyone else,” Rabin told the journalist Uri Dan, referring to the Likud’s Ariel Sharon. Dan relayed the request to Sharon, and Sharon agreed; he got up from his meeting with Dan, went over to a phone booth in the hotel lobby, and began calling journalists to tell them.

The endorsement made headlines, and Rabin became prime minister. Though that incident took place soon after the Yom Kippur War and years before Egypt and Israel signed a peace agreement, there is a cultural aspect to this story that remains relevant in 2013. To most of the world the there isn’t much difference between a “peacemaker” and a “peacenik”; to Israelis there is a Grand Canyon between them. And although the political parties are reversed, this distinction goes a long way to explaining the seeming indispensability of Ehud Barak to the man that took over the Likud after Sharon left it: Benjamin Netanyahu.

When Netanyahu earned the opportunity to form a governing coalition after the 2009 Israeli Knesset elections, he offered the major party leaders he vanquished an opportunity to join an expansive coalition, headed by his Likud. But it was universally understood that Netanyahu desperately wanted as his defense minister Barak, one of Israel’s most highly decorated soldiers and Netanyahu’s former commander in the elite unit known as Sayeret Matkal. Barak, at the time, was running the Labor party. Though Likud had a stronger reputation among foreign policy hawks than Labor, Netanyahu wanted–in addition to the appearance of bipartisanship–Barak’s stamp of approval for his own administration’s foreign policy. It would–as Sharon’s endorsement had done for Rabin four decades earlier–do much to put the public’s mind at ease.

Barak joined the coalition, but the party used that decision as the final straw to expel its leader (Barak technically “left” Labor, but the divorce was a long time coming). Barak took a few Laborites with him and formed a minor party. That party has disappeared, as did Barak’s chance to win a Knesset seat in this month’s elections. So he “retired” from political life. If Netanyahu’s party wins the elections, it would surprise exactly no one if Netanyahu reappoints Barak to be his defense minister–Barak wouldn’t have to own a Knesset seat to take the position–coaxing the supposedly reluctant old bull out of retirement to once again serve his country. (One can easily imagine how this will play out in the mind of the famously haughty Barak. The people need you, Hudi; how can you say no?)

One of the reasons Israelis expect this coming charade is because there are very few people, if any, who could provide the both the cross-party credibility and the public’s trust to serve as defense minister at a time when resolution of the Iranian threat one way or another seems right around the corner. But perhaps there is one obstacle, however remote, to this scenario. Times of Israel editor David Horovitz writes today that when blending his party with Likud, Israel Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman believed he could have his choice of plum portfolios if and when he is legally permitted to return to the government (it could be within months–but there is an outside chance it could be years). Horovitz writes:

Publicly, this least diplomatic of politicians had assured the electorate that he liked being foreign minister just fine, and would probably stay at the ministry after the elections as well. Privately, it was apparently vouchsafed to certain privileged journalists, he actually had his sights on the powerful Finance Ministry job. However, it has also been quite credibly suggested to me, Liberman didn’t want Finance and didn’t want Foreign. He intended to take the post of defense minister.

We should know immediately after the election where Lieberman intends to end up; as Horovitz writes, if Netanyahu, when doling out portfolios, keeps any of the important ones for himself, it may be a strong clue he’s safeguarding it for Lieberman. Additionally, Barak is no placeholder. If he’s offered the defense ministry and takes it, that’s exactly where he’ll stay.

Just because Lieberman wants the defense ministry doesn’t mean he’ll get it. Netanyahu presumably understands that giving that job to Lieberman would be the exact opposite of appointing Barak to the defense ministry. Rather than reaching across the isle, it would be viewed as a sop to those to Netanyahu’s right. And rather than the defense ministry being guided by a trusted hand, it would be run by an unpredictable and brusque politician a decade and a half younger than Barak. That age difference, however, is also why Lieberman can afford to be patient and not push for the defense portfolio. A savvy politician, Lieberman is more likely to bide his time than challenge Barak and Netanyahu. But the alternative will only increase the hopes of many Israelis–not to mention Western leaders–that Barak’s “retirement” is just for show.

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Liberal American Jews, Tzipi Livni, and the Israeli Consensus

Last week, Seth wrote an excellent post on the irreconcilability of European and Israeli visions for a two-state solution. What’s far more worrying, however, is that liberal American Jews appear to be on the European side of the divide. To grasp just how wide the gap yawns, compare the Union for Reform Judaism’s response to planned Israeli construction in the West Bank’s E-1 area to today’s remarks by one of Israel’s most dovish politicians, Tzipi Livni.

Last week, the URJ issued a statement condemning Israeli settlement activity, “especially in the E-1 area,” saying it “makes progress toward peace far more challenging, and is difficult to reconcile with the Government of Israel’s stated commitment to a two-state solution.” Now here’s what Livni–long the darling of liberal American Jews for her dovish views, and someone who has consistently blamed the Netanyahu government for the impasse in peace talks–told a gathering of foreign ambassadors today:

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Last week, Seth wrote an excellent post on the irreconcilability of European and Israeli visions for a two-state solution. What’s far more worrying, however, is that liberal American Jews appear to be on the European side of the divide. To grasp just how wide the gap yawns, compare the Union for Reform Judaism’s response to planned Israeli construction in the West Bank’s E-1 area to today’s remarks by one of Israel’s most dovish politicians, Tzipi Livni.

Last week, the URJ issued a statement condemning Israeli settlement activity, “especially in the E-1 area,” saying it “makes progress toward peace far more challenging, and is difficult to reconcile with the Government of Israel’s stated commitment to a two-state solution.” Now here’s what Livni–long the darling of liberal American Jews for her dovish views, and someone who has consistently blamed the Netanyahu government for the impasse in peace talks–told a gathering of foreign ambassadors today:

“It doesn’t matter what you think about settlements,” Livni said with uncharacteristic bluntness. “We have settlement blocs close to the Green Line and the only way for the conflict with the Palestinians to end is for Israel to keep them. Any pre-agreement by the international community to a withdrawal to 1967 borders before the talks occur, makes it difficult to negotiate. It was clear in the talks I conducted with the Palestinians that there would not be return to 1967 borders.”

Given that E-1 is the corridor that links one of those settlement blocs, Ma’aleh Adumim, to Jerusalem, it’s hard to reconcile those two views. After all, if the settlement blocs will be part of Israel under any agreement, then so will E-1–which, as Rick noted yesterday, is precisely why every peace plan every proposed, including former President Bill Clinton’s, in fact assigned E-1 to Israel. Indeed, the annexation documents for E-1 were signed by the patron saint of the peace process himself, Yitzhak Rabin, less than a year after he signed the Oslo Accords. Like everyone else who has seriously studied this issue, Rabin concluded both that it was vital for Israel’s security and–contrary to the widespread misconception today–that it would in no way preclude a viable and contiguous Palestinian state (a point Rich’s post also explains).

So if everyone knows that Israel is going to retain this area anyway, how can advancing construction within it possibly “make progress toward peace far more challenging”? In fact, as Livni noted, the opposite is true: The real impediment to negotiations is the Palestinian belief that the world will back their demand for a full withdrawal to the 1967 lines and eventually force Israel to comply. And that’s precisely the belief the URJ reinforced via its condemnation: After all, the Palestinians must be saying, if even American Jews won’t back Israel’s position, it will soon have no choice but to capitulate.

Back in 2008, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned the Palestinians that if they weren’t prepared to concede Ma’aleh Adumim, “Then you won’t have a state!” Livni said the same thing today. But the URJ effectively told the Palestinians the opposite: It’s not the Palestinian refusal to cede Ma’aleh Adumim that’s the problem, it said, but Israel’s insistence on acting as if Ma’aleh Adumim will remain Israeli.

And when liberal American Jews can’t support a wall-to-wall Israeli consensus that encompasses even its most dovish politicians, you have to wonder whether they support the real Israel at all–or only some idealized fantasy of it that exists only in their own minds.

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The Bitter End of Bitterlemons

If the White House ceremony bringing together Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat to put their commitment to the Oslo process in writing marked a boost of forward momentum on the peace process, the Camp David Summit of 2000 did the opposite. Arafat’s rejection—predetermined, it turned out—of the peace agreement without a counteroffer, followed by his initiation of the intifada, constituted a major warning sign to peace processers that the two-state solution was slipping away, and maybe already had.

The practicality gap between support for the two-state solution in the abstract and getting the plan through Arafat, who had chosen terror over dialogue, seemed to be widening. Ehud Barak, the Labor prime minister representing Israel at Camp David, lost his bid for re-election in 2001, and the state hasn’t had a Labor prime minister since. Into this breach came Barak advisor Yossi Alpher, who founded an online magazine with former Palestinian Authority legislator Ghassan Khatib, called Bitterlemons. The webzine was in many ways ahead of its time as an online forum, and it attempted to create a digital Israeli-Palestinian dialogue track as the respective governments moved further from reconciliation. Yesterday, Laura Rozen reported the webzine is closing. From Alpher’s announcement:

We are ceasing publication for reasons involving fatigue–on a number of fronts. First, there is donor fatigue. Why, donors ask, should we continue to support a Middle East dialogue project that not only has not made peace, but cannot “prove” to our satisfaction–especially at a time of revolution and violence throughout the region–that it has indeed raised the level of civilized discussion? Why fight the Israeli right-wing campaign against European and American state funding and the Palestinian campaign against “normalization”?

These last two negative developments also reflect local fatigue. There is no peace process and no prospect of one. Informal “track II” dialogue–bitterlemons might be described as a “virtual” track II–is declining. Here and there, writers from the region who used to favor us with their ideas and articles are now begging off, undoubtedly deterred by the revolutionary rise of intolerant political forces in their countries or neighborhood.

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If the White House ceremony bringing together Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat to put their commitment to the Oslo process in writing marked a boost of forward momentum on the peace process, the Camp David Summit of 2000 did the opposite. Arafat’s rejection—predetermined, it turned out—of the peace agreement without a counteroffer, followed by his initiation of the intifada, constituted a major warning sign to peace processers that the two-state solution was slipping away, and maybe already had.

The practicality gap between support for the two-state solution in the abstract and getting the plan through Arafat, who had chosen terror over dialogue, seemed to be widening. Ehud Barak, the Labor prime minister representing Israel at Camp David, lost his bid for re-election in 2001, and the state hasn’t had a Labor prime minister since. Into this breach came Barak advisor Yossi Alpher, who founded an online magazine with former Palestinian Authority legislator Ghassan Khatib, called Bitterlemons. The webzine was in many ways ahead of its time as an online forum, and it attempted to create a digital Israeli-Palestinian dialogue track as the respective governments moved further from reconciliation. Yesterday, Laura Rozen reported the webzine is closing. From Alpher’s announcement:

We are ceasing publication for reasons involving fatigue–on a number of fronts. First, there is donor fatigue. Why, donors ask, should we continue to support a Middle East dialogue project that not only has not made peace, but cannot “prove” to our satisfaction–especially at a time of revolution and violence throughout the region–that it has indeed raised the level of civilized discussion? Why fight the Israeli right-wing campaign against European and American state funding and the Palestinian campaign against “normalization”?

These last two negative developments also reflect local fatigue. There is no peace process and no prospect of one. Informal “track II” dialogue–bitterlemons might be described as a “virtual” track II–is declining. Here and there, writers from the region who used to favor us with their ideas and articles are now begging off, undoubtedly deterred by the revolutionary rise of intolerant political forces in their countries or neighborhood.

Khatib was a bit more willing to point fingers. In his own post on the closing of Bitterlemons, he wrote:

Two decades after the signing of the Declaration of Principles that many hoped would usher in the creation of a Palestinian state and independence, freedom and security, Palestinians and Israelis are barely conversational. The structures created by those agreements have atrophied, corrupted by an increasing imbalance in the Palestinian relationship with Israel. Every day, there is new word of land confiscations, arrests, demolitions, and legislative maneuvers to solidify Israel’s control. Israel’s political leaders are beholden to a tide of right-wing sentiment and Palestinian leaders are made to appear ever-smaller in their shrinking spheres of control.

We are now, it appears, at the lowest point in the arc of the pendulum, one that is swinging away from the two-state solution into a known unknown: an apartheid Israel.

The editors say they have had increasing trouble finding contributors to the site, but that may be less due to an unwillingness to engage and more to the proliferation of blogs and other media in the last decade. There is no lack of diversity of opinion in the Israeli press, so Bitterlemons began to need its contributors more than its contributors needed Bitterlemons.

The other hard truth for the Bitterlemons crowd is that the region’s major actors all seem less perturbed by the status quo than they do. Mahmoud Abbas refuses to even negotiate with Israel, amid reports that he and his family continue to enrich themselves at the expense of the population they are supposed to serve. Hamas in Gaza continues its quest to disrupt a deal–and why not? As the Economist reports, Saudi financiers are showering the Gaza Strip with cash to build fully-loaded public housing estates worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The largest–but not the only–Saudi donor expects to spend close to $500 million in the Strip by 2014 on such projects. The smuggling tunnels allow Gazan grocers to keep their shelves stocked while making a profit on the markup.

And when Yesha Council chairman Dani Dayan was interviewed by the Atlantic, he said European leaders have begun telling him to save his breath when he argues against the creation of a Palestinian state: they, too, believe that idea’s time has passed. This isn’t to argue against the two-state solution, but rather simply to acknowledge that what Alpher perceives as a deepening distrust and unwillingness to engage is really just an attempt by both sides to make the best of the status quo. Israelis and Palestinians are taking bitter lemons and making lemonade.

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Peres and the Pollard Petition

Israeli President Shimon Peres said today he would make an appeal to President Obama for the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard during his visit to Washington. Peres, who will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a ceremony on Wednesday, has previously spoken out on Pollard’s behalf. More than 70,000 Israelis have signed a petition calling for the release of the former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who is serving a life sentence for spying for Israel on the United States.

The appeal, as was the case with previous Israeli efforts on Pollard’s behalf, will probably result in yet another round of pro- and anti-Pollard opinion pieces and statements from his defenders and those in the U.S. defense and intelligence establishment who want to see him die in jail. But even if after more than 26 years of his imprisonment, the case for clemency based on what Peres called “humanitarian” grounds is getting stronger, it is no more likely to meet with success than previous appeals. As I wrote last year in a COMMENTARY feature on the subject, the Pollard affair has become a seemingly permanent distraction to the U.S.-Israel alliance. But if there is anyone who has a moral obligation to try to free Pollard, it is Peres.

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Israeli President Shimon Peres said today he would make an appeal to President Obama for the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard during his visit to Washington. Peres, who will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a ceremony on Wednesday, has previously spoken out on Pollard’s behalf. More than 70,000 Israelis have signed a petition calling for the release of the former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who is serving a life sentence for spying for Israel on the United States.

The appeal, as was the case with previous Israeli efforts on Pollard’s behalf, will probably result in yet another round of pro- and anti-Pollard opinion pieces and statements from his defenders and those in the U.S. defense and intelligence establishment who want to see him die in jail. But even if after more than 26 years of his imprisonment, the case for clemency based on what Peres called “humanitarian” grounds is getting stronger, it is no more likely to meet with success than previous appeals. As I wrote last year in a COMMENTARY feature on the subject, the Pollard affair has become a seemingly permanent distraction to the U.S.-Israel alliance. But if there is anyone who has a moral obligation to try to free Pollard, it is Peres.

It should be remembered that Pollard’s spying took place during the period in 1984 and 1985 when Israel’s government was run by a grand coalition in which the Likud Party led by Yitzhak Shamir and Labor, led by the late Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, shared power. Though in the aftermath of this fiasco, Israel claimed the intelligence operatives running Pollard were acting as part of a rogue operation, this was always absurd. Rafi Eitan, the head of the Defense Ministry Office of Scientific Liaison, was in charge of Pollard’s spying. But his close ties to both Rabin and Shamir, as well as the specific involvement of the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, made it clear that responsibility for this action as well as knowledge of the U.S. data procured from Pollard went all the way to the top. That means Peres was almost certainly in the loop on what was going on.

Pollard’s behavior was illegal and indefensible, but even worse can be said about the cynical way an obviously unstable individual was exploited by his handlers. The same holds true for those leaders who enabled this catastrophic error in judgment. Given the nearly sacrosanct way the intelligence apparatus is viewed by most Israelis, none of those involved in the Pollard affair were ever really held accountable for what must be termed as among the worst mistakes made in the country’s history. That is especially true of the Shamir-Rabin-Peres troika that continued to run the country for the next seven years, with Rabin and Peres governing on their own for three years after that. Indeed, Israel made no real effort to appeal for Pollard’s release until Benjamin Netanyahu came to office for the first time in 1996.

Thus, it is only fitting the octogenarian Peres should use the opportunity afforded by his receipt of the Medal of Freedom to speak of Pollard.

As to the merits of the case for clemency, they have been rehashed endlessly. Suffice to say that though Pollard does not deserve to be treated as any kind of hero, after this much passage of time, there is no rational argument to be made that the damage he did is still vital to U.S. intelligence or defense. Nor can it be claimed that after spending more time in prison than many murderers and far more than any spy for a friendly nation has ever served that his release would send the wrong message about the severity of his crime.

Nevertheless, even as one hopes that Peres’ message is well received, it should also be pointed out that the damage Pollard did to the U.S.-Israel relationship as well as to the many American Jews who have loyally served their country cannot be overestimated.

As I wrote in the March 2011 COMMENTARY:

Long after his release or death, Pollard’s behavior will still be used to bolster the slurs of those who wish to promote the pernicious myth that there is a contradiction between American patriotism and deep concern for the safety of the State of Israel. It is this damning epitaph, and not the claims of martyrdom that have been put forward to stir sympathy for his plight, that will be Jonathan Pollard’s true legacy.

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