Commentary Magazine


Topic: Yitzhak Shamir

Peres, Pollard, and a Special Place in Hell

While the debate about whether the United States should finally free convicted spy Jonathan Pollard after nearly 30 years in jail continues, Israelis were given an interesting insight into the case today when the country’s Channel 2 network broadcast an interview with the man who was most responsible for one of the most colossal misjudgments in the history of the Jewish state. Rafael Eitan, the head of the Israeli spy unit that employed the U.S. Navy analyst, broke a long silence about his involvement when he spoke of his decision to abandon Pollard as U.S. security closed in on him. Even more importantly, he confirmed what I have written previously when he said that there was no question that both Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were aware of Pollard’s activities. The revelation raises serious questions about their judgment and their cynical decision to let the spy pay for their mistake. The fact that none of those involved were ever held to account for their blunders illustrates a key problem in Israeli political culture that applies to more than the question of Pollard.

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While the debate about whether the United States should finally free convicted spy Jonathan Pollard after nearly 30 years in jail continues, Israelis were given an interesting insight into the case today when the country’s Channel 2 network broadcast an interview with the man who was most responsible for one of the most colossal misjudgments in the history of the Jewish state. Rafael Eitan, the head of the Israeli spy unit that employed the U.S. Navy analyst, broke a long silence about his involvement when he spoke of his decision to abandon Pollard as U.S. security closed in on him. Even more importantly, he confirmed what I have written previously when he said that there was no question that both Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were aware of Pollard’s activities. The revelation raises serious questions about their judgment and their cynical decision to let the spy pay for their mistake. The fact that none of those involved were ever held to account for their blunders illustrates a key problem in Israeli political culture that applies to more than the question of Pollard.

As I wrote in my 2010 COMMENTARY essay on the saga, there is no doubt that the three men who ran Israel during the period that Pollard spied–Yitzhak Shamir, Yitzhak Rabin, and Shimon Peres, who served together in the uneasy national unity coalition of the mid-1980s–had to know about the massive volume of intelligence data that was pouring into Israel’s hands due to Pollard’s espionage. Eitan’s confirmation of this is no surprise but it does remove any lingering doubt that may remain, especially those who would prefer to view Peres—the sole survivor of the troika—as a figure who transcends this sordid affair.

Does any of this matter? Peres’s long political career that eventually saw him acclaimed as Israel’s pre-eminent statesman is over. Rabin became a secular saint because of his assassination by a radical opponent of the Oslo peace process. And Shamir, whose steady hand leading Israel for much of this period was underestimated at the time by critics on both the left and the right, is already nearly forgotten. Eitan’s intelligence career also ended long ago and his time as a political figure at the head of a party dedicated to supporting pensioners had brief success before it just as quickly faded from view.

Nor is it clear that any of this will impact any deliberations that may or may not be going on inside the Obama administration to finally end Pollard’s imprisonment. But it ought to make Israelis and those who care about the Jewish state angry about the fact that none of these figures were ever truly held accountable for their roles in this fiasco. Just as importantly, it bears asking whether their continued presence in the government in the decade following Pollard’s arrest set back efforts to free Pollard.

It should be remembered that the initial response to American inquiries about Pollard’s espionage were met with denials and protestations that Eitan’s spy operation was a “rogue” unit. This was patently untrue and the U.S. government knew it. Moreover, Israel’s offers of cooperation with U.S. investigators were not fully observed.

The reasons for this are obvious. In the years following Pollard’s arrest and conviction, Shamir, Rabin, and Peres were primarily interested in disassociating themselves from an embarrassing case that undermined the U.S.-Israel alliance and the position of loyal American Jews working for the U.S. defense establishment. Had they admitted their blunder quickly rather than trying to hold onto the signal data and other intelligence they received, it’s possible that a deal could have been struck to free Pollard. But doing so would have exposed them to ridicule if not the stern verdict of Israel’s voters. It was not until a new generation of Israeli leaders took over with the rise of Benjamin Netanyahu that the Jewish state began active efforts to free Pollard that have proven unsuccessful to date.

The moral of the story isn’t that Eitan and Peres left a hero to suffer for their mistakes. Pollard is, as I have often written, no hero. In fact, he did vastly more damage to Israel than any good the stolen intelligence did for it. The U.S.-Israel alliance was also hurt by this folly, as were those American Jews who unfairly came under the accusation of dual loyalty as a result of Pollard’s violation of his oath. If he deserves clemency it is because of the unfair and disproportionate nature of the sentence he was given.

But what happened here was that the vaunted Israeli intelligence establishment and the political establishment of the country closed ranks behind its titular leaders and allowed the people who made the decisions and those that were complicit in them to escape the scrutiny that the gravity of this case should have mandated. As Israeli leaders try to come to grips with other intelligence failures, such as the events that led to last summer’s war with Hamas, they should remember this as they try to seek the truth.

Those who lived happy and successful lives while the fool they used as a spy rotted in jail deserve a special place hell. The cynical Eitan has no qualms about his stupid decision to use an American Jew to spy on the U.S. or to let him be captured even as his Israeli handlers made sure they weren’t made to suffer. But whatever we may think of him, the Pollard story should weigh far more heavily in Peres’s biography than it does. Peres did much good service for Israel during his long career. But Israelis have a right to ask why he and his colleagues acted so irresponsibly and, in effect, sacrificed Pollard to ensure their own political longevity. And no amount of effort on Pollard’s behalf now that he’s retired should allow Peres to continue getting a pass on this terrible mistake. That is a disgrace that should never be forgotten or entirely forgiven.

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The Economist’s Revisionist Israeli History

On Friday afternoon, Tablet’s Yair Rosenberg posted a corrective calling the Economist to account for its latest falsehood about Jews. In a review of a book about the British Mandate authorities’ hunt for Avraham Stern, the leader of the “Stern gang,” or Lehi, the reviewer made the following claims:

Stern still commands a striking hold over many of Israel’s ruling right-wingers, including the successors of the mandate-era Jewish underground who continue to perpetrate attacks on Palestinian civilians. Many still choose his nom de guerre, Yair, for their sons, including Israel’s current prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. One of the most fanatical settlements, Kochav Yair, is named after him.

Rosenberg patiently explains that there are two kinds of falsehoods in this paragraph. The obvious one, which the Economist has since corrected, is its characterization of Kochav Yair as a “fanatical settlement.” Rosenberg notes that readers quickly pushed back on the Economist, since Kochav Yair is neither fanatical nor a settlement. The other falsehood is that Jews named Yair are named for a terrorist.

Rosenberg admits he’s not impartial here; his name is Yair and, as he joked on Twitter, claiming that Yair is not a Jewish terrorist’s name is exactly what you’d expect a Jew named Yair to say. But kidding aside: “To the more literate, however, ‘Yair’–which means ‘will illuminate’–is of course a famous biblical name that has been popular among Jews for centuries,” Rosenberg writes. “It is one of the few names possessed by multiple characters in the Hebrew Bible.”

Rosenberg also notes that the Economist has yet to correct this mistake. But it’s worth pondering why the Economist would pass along an odd and verifiably false smear that paints Jews as the choosing heirs of a terrorist–and which slanders Netanyahu specifically. The answer, I’d wager, is contained in the last three sentences of the review, which demonstrate the potent combination of astounding ignorance and spectacular malice. Here’s the magazine describing Stern’s legacy:

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On Friday afternoon, Tablet’s Yair Rosenberg posted a corrective calling the Economist to account for its latest falsehood about Jews. In a review of a book about the British Mandate authorities’ hunt for Avraham Stern, the leader of the “Stern gang,” or Lehi, the reviewer made the following claims:

Stern still commands a striking hold over many of Israel’s ruling right-wingers, including the successors of the mandate-era Jewish underground who continue to perpetrate attacks on Palestinian civilians. Many still choose his nom de guerre, Yair, for their sons, including Israel’s current prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. One of the most fanatical settlements, Kochav Yair, is named after him.

Rosenberg patiently explains that there are two kinds of falsehoods in this paragraph. The obvious one, which the Economist has since corrected, is its characterization of Kochav Yair as a “fanatical settlement.” Rosenberg notes that readers quickly pushed back on the Economist, since Kochav Yair is neither fanatical nor a settlement. The other falsehood is that Jews named Yair are named for a terrorist.

Rosenberg admits he’s not impartial here; his name is Yair and, as he joked on Twitter, claiming that Yair is not a Jewish terrorist’s name is exactly what you’d expect a Jew named Yair to say. But kidding aside: “To the more literate, however, ‘Yair’–which means ‘will illuminate’–is of course a famous biblical name that has been popular among Jews for centuries,” Rosenberg writes. “It is one of the few names possessed by multiple characters in the Hebrew Bible.”

Rosenberg also notes that the Economist has yet to correct this mistake. But it’s worth pondering why the Economist would pass along an odd and verifiably false smear that paints Jews as the choosing heirs of a terrorist–and which slanders Netanyahu specifically. The answer, I’d wager, is contained in the last three sentences of the review, which demonstrate the potent combination of astounding ignorance and spectacular malice. Here’s the magazine describing Stern’s legacy:

He called for holy war and the building of a third temple, and espoused a Davidic kingdom rather than a democratic state. And he championed rejection of the prevailing superpower, even when it was a patron. A fringe discourse in the 1940s, Stern’s language is increasingly echoed by the activists on the religious right, Israel’s most potent grassroots force.

The Economist seeks to tar Israel’s right-of-center polity with the brush of Lehi terrorism, and in order to make such a claim you would have to falsify the entire political history of Israel from before its founding to the present day. So that is what the Economist has done.

The magazine wants to warn the United States, it seems, that Israelis are perhaps once again on the verge of “champion[ing] rejection of the prevailing superpower, even when it was a patron.” To characterize the British Mandate as merely a “patron” is, especially by the 1940s, getting more mileage out of the term than its warrantee will cover. But comparing it to the U.S. today (the world’s only “superpower”) is absurd. As the Economist has surely by now heard–to its evident chagrin–Israel is actually an independent state. The government against which pre-state Jews rebelled was Britain; the current Israeli government is the current Israeli government. A rebellion against it in the name of Jewish sovereignty would be strange indeed; it would also have nothing to do with Washington D.C.

More broadly, however, the idea that the Israeli right are the inheritors of Stern’s Lehi is an irredeemable distortion of Israeli history. Here’s what actually happened: Stern’s fringe group was opposed not just by Ben-Gurion (back to him in a moment) and the Haganah; it was opposed by its rival, Menachem Begin’s Irgun. Begin–the actual leader of the Israeli right for most of the state’s first forty years–did not support the indiscriminate violence of Lehi, nor its terroristic attacks on civilians. As such, he did not support Lehi’s assassination of Lord Moyne, for example.

Back to Ben-Gurion. He saw Begin, not Stern, as his true rival. So the crackdown in the wake of Moyne’s assassination cast a net wide enough to be aimed at the Irgun too. After Moyne’s killing, the British wanted both justice and to establish deterrence. Ben-Gurion, however, used the incident as an opportunity to help the British squash Begin and the Irgun. Begin was the one in this particular incident who arguably showed the most restraint, since he neither supported Moyne’s killing nor engaged Ben-Gurion in the civil war Ben-Gurion was intent on starting and winning, with British assistance.

Ben-Gurion surely deserves his hard-earned reputation and gratitude from the Jewish nation. But it’s worth noting that his opportunistic attacks on Begin did lasting damage to the nascent state. The coalition of the left ruled Israel until Begin was able to finally win a national election in 1977. In that time, the Israeli ruling establishment sought to exclude anyone with the slightest connection to Begin or the right. It was antidemocratic, and it was wrong. But either way, Begin’s eventual triumph, which earned the Israeli right its place in the state’s political equilibrium, was the triumph of Stern’s rival, not Stern’s heir.

Of course some moderately less ignorant partisans will claim that Yitzhak Shamir’s succession of Begin in the late 1980s was the rise of a Lehi-nik, since Shamir was part of the group. But as everyone knows, Shamir cast aside the ideology of Lehi for the pragmatism of democratic governance when he joined the Mossad and then the state’s political class in the years after Israel became independent. The Economist’s portrayal of Stern and modern Israel is indefensible, and plainly false.

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One More Lesson From Shamir

Jonathan did a great service to our readers in his eulogy of Yitzhak Shamir. I would like to add one more lesson we, in the West, should take from this great man’s lifelong political career.

Since Shamir left office in 1992, for the last 20 years of his life, he kept quiet. Politicians and statesmen who lose elections these days well before their meeting with fate have the tendency to teach politics to their successors. Think of Jimmy Carter, in America; Jacques Delors, in Europe; Gareth Evans, in Australia; and Yossi Sarid or Avrum Burg, in Israel. None of these men had the decency to confront their political defeat as graciously as Shamir did. None accepted the ineluctable verdict of the poll as evidence that, whatever the merit of their convictions, the zeitgeist was against them.

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Jonathan did a great service to our readers in his eulogy of Yitzhak Shamir. I would like to add one more lesson we, in the West, should take from this great man’s lifelong political career.

Since Shamir left office in 1992, for the last 20 years of his life, he kept quiet. Politicians and statesmen who lose elections these days well before their meeting with fate have the tendency to teach politics to their successors. Think of Jimmy Carter, in America; Jacques Delors, in Europe; Gareth Evans, in Australia; and Yossi Sarid or Avrum Burg, in Israel. None of these men had the decency to confront their political defeat as graciously as Shamir did. None accepted the ineluctable verdict of the poll as evidence that, whatever the merit of their convictions, the zeitgeist was against them.

Shamir did. He withdrew, like his predecessor Menachem Begin, and did not dispense wisdom or settle scores from the column of a magazine or the chairmanship of a foundation for the years he was out of office. And heaven knows he might still have had much to say. But he understood that a defeated statesman must acknowledge his loss and graciously withdraw from sight. His silence, for 20 years, is a testimony to the respect he had for the democratic process and his profoundly humbling recognition that his time as leader had passed.

This is perhaps his greatest lesson – that no leader is indispensable, that nothing can change or challenge the will of the people, and that even if time proves a leader right, it is still his duty, once office is left, to stand aloof and let others steer the ship of state.

May his memory be for a blessing.

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The Lessons of Yitzhak Shamir

With the hindsight that comes from looking at history from a distance, the struggle to create the state of Israel can seem as if it was a process whose outcome was inevitable. The victory of the Zionist movement was, however, won despite long odds, desperate hardships and grievous costs in blood. The men and women who battled those odds did so in the face of the conventional wisdom of their day that told them they had no chance of forcing the British Empire to make good on its promise to create a National Home for the Jews or to defeat an Arab and Muslim world determined to crush the newborn State of Israel. They needed not only courage but also an iron will and the patience to bear great suffering while never losing sight of their goal. No person embodied those attributes more than Yitzhak Shamir, the underground resistance fighter who would one day become Israel’s seventh prime minister.

Shamir, who died yesterday at the age of 96 after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, left the prime minister’s office 20 years ago. In the time that has passed since then, Israel has changed greatly as its economy expanded and transformed a once poor country into an economic dynamo. It has also endured a failed peace process, fought wars and dealt with terrorist offensives as a subsequent generation of political leaders took up the mantle of power and sometimes succumbed to illusions about the country’s neighbors that never afflicted Shamir. His time in power as well as the period of the great struggles in his life seem like a very long time ago, and it is more than possible most Israelis, let alone foreign friends of the Jewish state, have largely forgotten him or regard him as merely a figure who connects the periods when it was governed by the more famous Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin. But he is no mere footnote to history. The lessons of Shamir’s life and his tenure in power (he served longer as Israel’s prime minister than anyone other than David Ben-Gurion) could serve the country well today and in the future.

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With the hindsight that comes from looking at history from a distance, the struggle to create the state of Israel can seem as if it was a process whose outcome was inevitable. The victory of the Zionist movement was, however, won despite long odds, desperate hardships and grievous costs in blood. The men and women who battled those odds did so in the face of the conventional wisdom of their day that told them they had no chance of forcing the British Empire to make good on its promise to create a National Home for the Jews or to defeat an Arab and Muslim world determined to crush the newborn State of Israel. They needed not only courage but also an iron will and the patience to bear great suffering while never losing sight of their goal. No person embodied those attributes more than Yitzhak Shamir, the underground resistance fighter who would one day become Israel’s seventh prime minister.

Shamir, who died yesterday at the age of 96 after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, left the prime minister’s office 20 years ago. In the time that has passed since then, Israel has changed greatly as its economy expanded and transformed a once poor country into an economic dynamo. It has also endured a failed peace process, fought wars and dealt with terrorist offensives as a subsequent generation of political leaders took up the mantle of power and sometimes succumbed to illusions about the country’s neighbors that never afflicted Shamir. His time in power as well as the period of the great struggles in his life seem like a very long time ago, and it is more than possible most Israelis, let alone foreign friends of the Jewish state, have largely forgotten him or regard him as merely a figure who connects the periods when it was governed by the more famous Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin. But he is no mere footnote to history. The lessons of Shamir’s life and his tenure in power (he served longer as Israel’s prime minister than anyone other than David Ben-Gurion) could serve the country well today and in the future.

Though he was prime minister for a total of seven years, like Begin, Shamir (who was born Yitzhak Yezernitzky in Poland in 1915) looked back to his days as a young man fighting for Israel’s independence as the most important period of his life. And it is this period that will, no doubt, allow Israel’s enemies and Shamir’s detractors to merely dismiss him as a terrorist. As one of the leaders of the group known in Israel as the Lechi (the acronym in Hebrew for the Freedom Fighters of Israel) but better known abroad as the Stern Gang (after its founder Avraham Stern), it is true Shamir participated in and ordered terrorist attacks on British soldiers and civilian leaders who were carrying out the policies that were preventing Jews seeking to escape the Holocaust from coming to Palestine.

It is hard to defend the decision of Stern and Shamir to kill the British, even as they were standing alone against the Nazis in the first years of the Second World  War. Most Jews — including most of the nationalist movement led by Vladimir Jabotinsky to which they belonged — thought as much. In retrospect, Shamir defended these tactics as justified. That is an arguable point, but to analogize what he did to the sort of mass murder of innocent civilians who are deliberately targeted by Palestinian and Islamist killers in our own time is to make the Lechi seem like Boy Scouts. To compare Shamir to Yasir Arafat or any contemporary terrorist is an absurd injustice and tells us more about how terrorism has changed in the last 70 years than anything else. Nevertheless, the assassinations carried out by the Lechi were widely condemned by most Jews and were certainly ill-advised if not counter-productive.

Yet by the end of World War II, the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine was united in their determination to fight the British, who were determined not to let the Jewish state emerge. The political differences between the three groups struggling against the British and the Arabs: the mainstream Haganah controlled by the Labor Party, the Irgun Zvai Leumi led by Menachem Begin and Shamir’s Lechi, were enormous at the time, but they are rightly all seen as having contributed each in their own way to the great battle.

After the War of Independence, Shamir’s underground skills were made good use of by the country’s Mossad intelligence agency where, among other exploits, he helped lead those who killed some of the former Nazi rocket scientists who were working in Egypt to create new weapons to kill Jews. His political career began in the 1970s as Begin united the nationalist and centrist parties, creating the Likud, and finally ending Labor’s monopoly on power in 1977. He became foreign minister in 1980 and held that post until 1986. He served two separate stints as foreign minister beginning in 1983 and left office for the last time in 1992.

That such a quiet, even secretive person should hold such high public offices for so long seems incredible. And he was often criticized during his time in power for his lack of inspirational rhetoric and his unwillingness to play the role of a great man. His political vision was as low key as his manner of speaking. He simply sought to defend Israel against its enemies and to not allow its friends to weaken it for the sake of the hope of peace. This was a formula that infuriated the left, which preferred Shimon Peres’ high-flown talk about peace in a “new Middle East” as well as his own right-wing which looked to articulate spokesmen such as the young Benjamin Netanyahu as better leaders for the country. It also angered Americans such as President George H.W. Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker.

Yet in retrospect, Shamir’s cool, patient leadership style seems to have been far wiser than either Peres’ dreamy belief in the Palestinians’ desire for peace or those on the right who thought their rhetoric could persuade the West to see things from Israel’s point of view.

Shamir was a man whose life experience had been forged by European anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and the War of Independence. But rather than this limiting his understanding of the world as his critics charged, it gave him the foresight to avoid the traps that snare more idealistic leaders. For that he was accused of living in the past, of lacking imagination and of seeing only enemies and struggle. Yet rather than living in an imaginary world in which the Arabs would give up their war against Israel’s existence or where the West could be beguiled into embracing the cause of the Jewish state, Shamir preferred to dwell in the more bleak reality in which Israel actually existed. Though he made mistakes as all leaders do, Israel benefitted from his leadership. Indeed, when you compare his missteps to the blunders some of his more popular and dynamic successors committed (the Oslo Accords and the misbegotten process that empowered Arafat, the withdrawal from Gaza and the second Lebanon war, to name just a few), Shamir seems like a genius.

Looking back on Shamir over the passage of time, his patient stewardship of Israel and his refusal to indulge in the starry-eyed rhetoric of peace or even the muscular rhetoric that the right loves to cheer, seems like the height of wisdom and statecraft.

A courageous fighter for Israel’s freedom in his youth, he lived long enough to bring forth that valor again as its prime minister. There is much Israel’s current generation of leaders as well as those who will follow can learn by the way this small, taciturn man operated. May his memory be for a blessing.

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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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Israel’s Right Discovers Political Sanity

Anyone familiar with Israeli politics knows that the Israeli right’s worst enemy is itself. Small right-of-center factions toppled both Yitzhak Shamir’s Likud-led government in 1992 and Benjamin Netanyahu’s first government in 1999; those decisions led, respectively, to Yitzhak Rabin’s election and the Oslo Accords, and to Ehud Barak’s election and the second intifada.

Moreover, it was rightist voters who ensured Rabin’s victory by wasting thousands of votes on splinter parties that failed to enter the Knesset. Had all those votes gone to the main center-right party, Likud, Shamir would have formed the next government and not Rabin. Yet instead of learning the lesson, rightists continued wasting thousands of votes on unelectable splinter parties in subsequent elections.

So it was encouraging to read the following notice in a local newsletter (Hebrew only) published by the West Bank settlement of Eli: “After much thought, it has been decided by the [Givat Hayovel neighborhood] committee, the town council and rabbis, with backing from senior officials involved in the matter, to register people for Likud. Likud is the ruling party, and that is where we need to have an influence. … Joining Likud is the most effective way of influencing ministers and Knesset members to work with us on both the court case and other matters of importance to the town.”

Granted, Eli is only one settlement, and its decision stems from a very specific problem: the aforementioned court case, in which Peace Now is seeking a court order to raze Givat Hayovel on the grounds that it was built illegally. Eli contends that the neighborhood, built with massive government support, was always slated for legalization and needs only the final government permits — hence its quest for lobbying clout.

Nevertheless, this is a revolution. During Likud’s last membership drive, in 2008, a party activist who canvassed Eli and other settlements using this very same argument told me despairingly that most people didn’t get it. Now it is being promoted by the town’s entire political and religious leadership.

Moreover, many other settlements face similar problems with permits. So if Eli has reached this conclusion, it’s likely that other settlements are or will be doing the same.

This still doesn’t solve the problem of splinter voting, since joining Likud doesn’t oblige one to vote for it. Yet large-scale party membership carries its own dynamic: if those rightists who previously shunned Likud instead start working from within it, the party will presumably become more responsive to their needs, thus encouraging more of them to vote for it.

That in turn could promote more effective government. Israel’s current governing coalition comprises six different parties, with Likud commanding barely a third of its seats, and these parties’ disagreements have led to paralysis on many issues. A government composed of a larger Likud with fewer coalition partners would presumably find it easier to push through vital domestic initiatives.

That still remains a distant dream. But the first step is for rightists to understand that they need to work from within Likud rather than outside it. And it seems that is finally starting to happen.

Anyone familiar with Israeli politics knows that the Israeli right’s worst enemy is itself. Small right-of-center factions toppled both Yitzhak Shamir’s Likud-led government in 1992 and Benjamin Netanyahu’s first government in 1999; those decisions led, respectively, to Yitzhak Rabin’s election and the Oslo Accords, and to Ehud Barak’s election and the second intifada.

Moreover, it was rightist voters who ensured Rabin’s victory by wasting thousands of votes on splinter parties that failed to enter the Knesset. Had all those votes gone to the main center-right party, Likud, Shamir would have formed the next government and not Rabin. Yet instead of learning the lesson, rightists continued wasting thousands of votes on unelectable splinter parties in subsequent elections.

So it was encouraging to read the following notice in a local newsletter (Hebrew only) published by the West Bank settlement of Eli: “After much thought, it has been decided by the [Givat Hayovel neighborhood] committee, the town council and rabbis, with backing from senior officials involved in the matter, to register people for Likud. Likud is the ruling party, and that is where we need to have an influence. … Joining Likud is the most effective way of influencing ministers and Knesset members to work with us on both the court case and other matters of importance to the town.”

Granted, Eli is only one settlement, and its decision stems from a very specific problem: the aforementioned court case, in which Peace Now is seeking a court order to raze Givat Hayovel on the grounds that it was built illegally. Eli contends that the neighborhood, built with massive government support, was always slated for legalization and needs only the final government permits — hence its quest for lobbying clout.

Nevertheless, this is a revolution. During Likud’s last membership drive, in 2008, a party activist who canvassed Eli and other settlements using this very same argument told me despairingly that most people didn’t get it. Now it is being promoted by the town’s entire political and religious leadership.

Moreover, many other settlements face similar problems with permits. So if Eli has reached this conclusion, it’s likely that other settlements are or will be doing the same.

This still doesn’t solve the problem of splinter voting, since joining Likud doesn’t oblige one to vote for it. Yet large-scale party membership carries its own dynamic: if those rightists who previously shunned Likud instead start working from within it, the party will presumably become more responsive to their needs, thus encouraging more of them to vote for it.

That in turn could promote more effective government. Israel’s current governing coalition comprises six different parties, with Likud commanding barely a third of its seats, and these parties’ disagreements have led to paralysis on many issues. A government composed of a larger Likud with fewer coalition partners would presumably find it easier to push through vital domestic initiatives.

That still remains a distant dream. But the first step is for rightists to understand that they need to work from within Likud rather than outside it. And it seems that is finally starting to happen.

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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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No Denying White House Animus Toward Israel

This White House likes symbolism. After Barack Obama moved in, one of the first things his staff did was to unceremoniously remove the bronze bust of Winston Churchill that had been in the Oval Office and return it to Great Britain, thus signaling that this president no longer valued the special relationship with the UK, which had been a cornerstone of American diplomacy from the days of FDR to those of George W. Bush. And when Obama finally met with the Dalai Lama last month, the visit was kept low key, with no official welcome and no media allowed to witness the event for fear of offending China. The one picture that was released of the meeting appeared to show the president lecturing the exiled Tibetan so no one might think that a former editor of the Harvard Law Review had anything to learn from a legendary spiritual leader.

But the cold reception of the Dalai Lama now seems like a wild party compared to the way Obama received Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House this week. Oh, I know, Bibi is in the doghouse because we’re all supposed to think that Israel gravely insulted Vice President Joe Biden by allowing the announcement of a housing-project start in an existing Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem to coincide with his recent visit there. But the reason this is such a “big f@!%ing deal,” as the vice president might put it, is not because it was a real insult but because it was an excuse for the administration to renew its war on Netanyahu.

This is not the first president to dislike an Israeli prime minister or even Israel itself. The elder George Bush and his secretary of state, James “f@!% the Jews” Baker despised Yitzhak Shamir. But never has the leader of America’s ally Israel been treated with such open contempt as shown by Obama to Netanyahu. The Israeli’s visit to the White House was closed to the press — with not even one photo released of their encounter. The fact is that Obama didn’t even want his picture taken with Netanyahu. That’s particularly strange since the president has never any qualms about getting snapped next to a wide variety of international leaders on his travels. In yesterday’s press briefing, spokesman Robert Gibbs was quizzed on this startling behavior by Jake Tapper. In response to repeated questions as to why the White House chose to treat a democratically elected head of the government of a close U.S. ally in this manner, Gibbs did not try very hard to pretend that it was anything but an indication of Obama’s dislike for the Israeli and the country he represents. Coming from a president that has spent his time in office making non-stop efforts to reach out to and engage America’s enemies around the world, this open hostility to Israel is breathtaking in its brazenness.

As for the policy fallout of the meetings, the whole point of the get-together was to bludgeon Netanyahu into conceding that Jews may no longer build homes in parts of their capital. Wisely, the prime minister did not give in to this unprecedented demand, which is something that not even the elder Bush and James Baker ever tried to shove down Shamir’s throat. There was no joint statement released after the talks ended but the White House let it be known that they expected the Israelis to make further concessions as an indication of their willingness to build confidence. Pointedly, the Palestinians, who have refused to even negotiate directly with Israel and who refused only a year and a half ago to accept an Israeli offer of an independent state that would have included part of Jerusalem, have not been asked by Obama to make any gestures of their own to enhance the non-existent chances of peace.

This White House’s cold shoulder to Netanyahu may be just an act of symbolism but not even the most shameless Obama apologist can pretend that it was anything but an indication of the president’s hostility. When the first president Bush used the occasion of an AIPAC conference in Washington in 1991 to show his contempt for Israel, even Jewish Republicans were aghast. Many deserted him at the next election — the GOP’s share of the Jewish vote dropped to a record low in 1992. The question for Jewish Democrats and other liberal friends of Israel is whether they are prepared to hold Barack Obama accountable in the same fashion.

This White House likes symbolism. After Barack Obama moved in, one of the first things his staff did was to unceremoniously remove the bronze bust of Winston Churchill that had been in the Oval Office and return it to Great Britain, thus signaling that this president no longer valued the special relationship with the UK, which had been a cornerstone of American diplomacy from the days of FDR to those of George W. Bush. And when Obama finally met with the Dalai Lama last month, the visit was kept low key, with no official welcome and no media allowed to witness the event for fear of offending China. The one picture that was released of the meeting appeared to show the president lecturing the exiled Tibetan so no one might think that a former editor of the Harvard Law Review had anything to learn from a legendary spiritual leader.

But the cold reception of the Dalai Lama now seems like a wild party compared to the way Obama received Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House this week. Oh, I know, Bibi is in the doghouse because we’re all supposed to think that Israel gravely insulted Vice President Joe Biden by allowing the announcement of a housing-project start in an existing Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem to coincide with his recent visit there. But the reason this is such a “big f@!%ing deal,” as the vice president might put it, is not because it was a real insult but because it was an excuse for the administration to renew its war on Netanyahu.

This is not the first president to dislike an Israeli prime minister or even Israel itself. The elder George Bush and his secretary of state, James “f@!% the Jews” Baker despised Yitzhak Shamir. But never has the leader of America’s ally Israel been treated with such open contempt as shown by Obama to Netanyahu. The Israeli’s visit to the White House was closed to the press — with not even one photo released of their encounter. The fact is that Obama didn’t even want his picture taken with Netanyahu. That’s particularly strange since the president has never any qualms about getting snapped next to a wide variety of international leaders on his travels. In yesterday’s press briefing, spokesman Robert Gibbs was quizzed on this startling behavior by Jake Tapper. In response to repeated questions as to why the White House chose to treat a democratically elected head of the government of a close U.S. ally in this manner, Gibbs did not try very hard to pretend that it was anything but an indication of Obama’s dislike for the Israeli and the country he represents. Coming from a president that has spent his time in office making non-stop efforts to reach out to and engage America’s enemies around the world, this open hostility to Israel is breathtaking in its brazenness.

As for the policy fallout of the meetings, the whole point of the get-together was to bludgeon Netanyahu into conceding that Jews may no longer build homes in parts of their capital. Wisely, the prime minister did not give in to this unprecedented demand, which is something that not even the elder Bush and James Baker ever tried to shove down Shamir’s throat. There was no joint statement released after the talks ended but the White House let it be known that they expected the Israelis to make further concessions as an indication of their willingness to build confidence. Pointedly, the Palestinians, who have refused to even negotiate directly with Israel and who refused only a year and a half ago to accept an Israeli offer of an independent state that would have included part of Jerusalem, have not been asked by Obama to make any gestures of their own to enhance the non-existent chances of peace.

This White House’s cold shoulder to Netanyahu may be just an act of symbolism but not even the most shameless Obama apologist can pretend that it was anything but an indication of the president’s hostility. When the first president Bush used the occasion of an AIPAC conference in Washington in 1991 to show his contempt for Israel, even Jewish Republicans were aghast. Many deserted him at the next election — the GOP’s share of the Jewish vote dropped to a record low in 1992. The question for Jewish Democrats and other liberal friends of Israel is whether they are prepared to hold Barack Obama accountable in the same fashion.

Read Less




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