Archive for March, 2010

US anger at Israel is misplaced, insulting

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

The American reaction to the announcement that Israel would continue to build in Jewish East Jerusalem puts several things in sharp focus. What does it tell us that Joe Biden ‘condemned’ it, Hillary Clinton found it ‘insulting’ and White House political advisor David Axelrod called it both an ‘affront’ and an ‘insult’?

Let’s look at both the substance and the tone of these remarks.

The substance: as many commentators have pointed out, Israel has been building in East Jerusalem since 1967, and negotiated with the Palestinian Authority for 15 years while building there. When Israel agreed to the Obama Administration’s demand for a settlement freeze in Judea and Samaria, it pointedly did not agree to include Jerusalem, which Israel has never considered a ‘settlement’. At that time, the US praised Israel for taking a positive step to resolve the conflict. Israel has indicated that it would cede some Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem as part of a peace agreement, but has never accepted any prior limitation of its sovereignty over all of Jerusalem.

Israel has credibly maintained that there was a verbal commitment by the Bush Administration that construction in areas beyond the 1949 lines which were expected to become part of Israel in a final agreement was not a problem for the US. The Obama Administration disavowed this understanding, with the cagey Hilary Clinton saying that there was no “enforceable” agreement.

The Ramat Shlomo neighborhood has about 20,000 Jewish residents today; it is close to the northern part of West Jerusalem and further construction there does not change the status quo or create ‘facts on the ground’ that would threaten a future settlement in which Arab areas become part of an Arab state.

As I wrote on Friday, the Palestinians are looking for excuses to not negotiate, because serious negotiations would expose the fact that it is their hardline positions — particularly on ‘refugees’ — that have prevented an agreement, not Israel.

Anger has been directed at Israel because it took a step that contradicted Palestinian demands that it never accepted as reasonable, and which the US suddenly appears to approve. Tomorrow Mahmoud Abbas might say that construction must stop in “Tel Arabiyya” (i.e., Tel Aviv, a city founded by Jews on sand dunes in 1909). Would that, too, need to be taken seriously?

The tone: it seems to that who has been ‘insulted’, ‘slapped down’, ‘affronted’, etc. was not the US Vice President, but rather Israel. Israel is a sovereign state, not an American colony.  Can you imagine language like this being applied to another US ally, like the UK or Canada, for example? Can you imagine the US officially speaking like this to Saudi Arabia? I can’t.

Much as I admire PM Netanyahu, I felt that his apologetic response, to say that he was unaware of the decision (which I’m sure is true) and to appoint a committee to prevent such a thing from happening again, was inappropriate. By doing this, no matter how carefully his statement is worded, he is implying that the US is right to be upset that Israel exercised sovereignty in Jerusalem. This is absolutely the wrong message to send.

Here is how Mr. Netanyahu should have responded to Mr. Biden and Ms. Clinton (court Jew Axelrod can be ignored):

With all due respect, in keeping with accepted diplomatic principles, stay out of Israel’s internal affairs.

Update [1014 PST]: Here’s an great explanation of why the media are jumping on this story from the opposite angle.

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What have we been fighting for?

Friday, March 12th, 2010

If ever there was an example of throwing the baby out with the bath water, the frantic desire of the ‘progressive’ camp to make an agreement — any agreement at any cost — with the Palestinians is it.

Look at what the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) is sending to its base as its “Ten Minutes of Torah” [!] offering today. It’s an article from a (where else?) San Francisco Jewish newsweekly called J. It begins with a false equivalence:

One would be hard pressed to find Jews who do not value the Torah and the Holy Land. Every square inch of biblical Israel is significant to the Jewish people. But many of those same biblical sites are just as important to Palestinians. And there’s the rub.

One could easily argue that in fact these sites are not as important to Islam as to Judaism, and that the Palestinians have just created another club to beat Israel with.  But why bother; making them “Jewish Heritage sites” does not assert that they are exclusively Jewish. Arab objections, on the other hand, imply — and in many cases explicitly assert — that they wholly belong to Islam.

The Palestinians have consistently denied Jewish claims to any holy sites, including and especially in Jerusalem. Yasser Arafat claimed — and today, Islamic Movement leader Raed Salah insists — that there never was a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Backing down on this issue lends credence to these absurd and insulting claims, just like backing down on the issue of building in East Jerusalem buttresses the Arab and American claim that Israel is not sovereign in Jerusalem.

We understand why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently declared the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb as Jewish historical sites warranting new funding for upkeep. However, we question his timing. Because both sites are in the West Bank, the declaration deepened Palestinian suspicions that Israel is insincere about a peace deal that would transfer parts of the West Bank to a new Palestinian state.

Israel should be doing everything reasonable to bring the Palestinians to the table. This just gives them an easy excuse to say “no.”

They have no problem finding excuses to say “no.” They grabbed at the opportunity to say “no” after the Obama Administration raised the issue of the settlement freeze. They are saying “no” because they know that the Obama Administration has not yet gone far enough to agree with them that the Arab refugees may ‘return’ to Israel proper, and they are not prepared to compromise on this in negotiations.

The Palestinians are doing everything they can to do nothing while putting the blame on Israel, so that the US and the rest of the ‘international community’ will force more and more concessions out of Israel. Thus they jumped on the settlement  freeze, thus they jumped on construction of any kind in East Jerusalem, and thus they have chosen to make an issue of the holy places — what could be better, a religious issue, to inflame their constituency even more, and to score fervor-points against Hamas.

Israel has long understood that the bumpy road to peace has required painful sacrifices. Giving up the Sinai and the Gaza Strip, not to mention the release of hundreds of jailed Palestinian terrorists over the years, attest to that.

Thus it makes little sense to make this declaration now. Not because we dispute the historical significance of the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb. That is beyond measure. But such a declaration has real consequences on the ground. Israel would certainly renovate the sites, spurring tourism and perhaps prompting more Jewish settlement. Despite a government spokesman saying the declaration does not change the status quo, in fact it does.

Palestinian protests quickly erupted in Hebron, and they may spread. In the near term, this could cause Israel security headaches. Or worse.

Yes, Israel has given up a lot in the past, and the results have been zero or negative. One would think that this would be an argument that Israel should not give up anything further until it begins to get something in return. The writer, though, draws the opposite conclusion. He or she thinks that Israel should make almost any concession — even if the significance of what is demanded is “beyond measure” — because it would be a pity if all the previous sacrifices were shown to be in vain.

A very poor argument, which implies that one should always throw good money after bad.

And what determines when Israel should fold? Clearly not the ‘historical’ significance — note that the writer studiously avoids the words ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ — but only the reaction of the Palestinians! Although the significance of these places is “beyond measure,” the minute the rocks and firebombs start flying, we are expected to surrender.

Do we really want to enshrine as an axiom the principle that the Palestinians get to define what is important to us by their bad behavior?

In truth, this is the worst kind of issue to give in on. By doing so, Israel grants the Arabs possession of the historic and spiritual tradition of the land of Israel. It’s true that most Israelis are secular, and apparently it’s true that Reform Judaism — or at least the “Ten Minutes of Torah” editor — thinks that these sites are irrelevant to the claim of modern, high-tech Israel to exist. But then there’s no longer a reason for the Jewish state to be here, rather than, say, Uganda. And if the tomb of Rachel is really only the ‘Bilal Mosque’ then maybe there isn’t a Jewish people at all, and we can all go live in Los Angeles and Brooklyn.

What have we been fighting for for the past century?

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Nobody deserves a murderer-state

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

News item:

US Vice President Joe Biden said Wednesday the Palestinians deserve a “viable” independent state with contiguous territory, seeking to reassure them of US support after the Interior Ministry on Tuesday approved a plan to expand the Jewish Ramat Shlomo neighborhood in east Jerusalem…

“The United States pledges to play an active as well as a sustainable role in these talks,” Biden said. He stressed the Palestinians deserve an independent state that is “viable and contiguous,” meaning the territory should not be broken up by Israeli settlement enclaves.

Although this AP report doesn’t provide the complete quotation, I presume that Biden actually used the word ‘deserve’. Now, I will agree that all human beings, including Palestinian Arabs, deserve a secure existence and to live in an environment that’s not oppressive and where their political, economic and other aspirations can be realized. The question is, “does the Palestinian Authority or Hamas deserve the leadership role in the state that is to be created for them?” and the answer is “certainly not.” And that’s because both of these organizations have, as part of their fundamental self-definition, the violent negation of another state. Nobody ‘deserves’ a murderer-state. How could the logic be any simpler?

Let’s look at another word, ‘contiguous’. I think the AP’s interpretation of Biden’s statement, “the territory should not be broken up by Israeli settlement enclaves,” is misleading at best. In English, ‘contiguous’ means ‘touching’ or ‘connected to’. It means that you can get from any point in a contiguous area to any other point without leaving the area. It does not mean that there aren’t ‘enclaves’, it just means that they don’t break the territory into disconnected parts.

In fact, the use of the word ‘contiguous’ by the US has always referred to the Arab demand for a chunk of Israel to provide passage between Gaza and Judea/Samaria. Is Biden making a new demand, that there can’t be ‘enclaves’ or that the 1949 lines are sacrosanct? Something new that they ‘deserve’?

Biden said that the approval of a plan to build 1,600 new housing units in the east Jerusalem neighborhood “undermines peace efforts.”

Israel never agreed to a freeze on construction in East Jerusalem. Certainly there is no freeze on Palestinian construction there! So why does construction of apartments in an already existing Jewish neighborhood of 20,000 residents, a neighborhood which is located next to the northern boundary of West Jerusalem and other Jewish areas (not really an ‘enclave’), and which will have zero effect on ‘contiguity’, so unacceptable? Simply because the Palestinians say so.

But all this is beside the point. As I wrote yesterday, the bottom line for a Palestinian state which is other than a platform to threaten Israel is that its leadership commits to the basic principles that will distinguish it as a legitimate vehicle for Palestinian Arab sovereignty rather than a murderer-state:

  • Recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people
  • Agreement that there is no right of return to Israel for ‘refugees’
  • Agreement to finally give up all claims against Israel and end the conflict

These principles cannot be byproducts to a negotiation about boundaries. They ought to be demanded by Israel as absolute preconditions to negotiation.

The Palestinian Arabs want a sovereign state; well, so do we. Let’s start from there.

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Why Israeli Arabs oppose land swaps

Sunday, March 7th, 2010

Nothing irritates Israeli Arabs more than talk of land and population swaps, and it’s interesting to see why.

The idea of a swap, promoted by Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu party, seems like a practical solution to a difficult problem.

Implementing a partition of the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean — the so-called two-state solution —  by simply returning to the 1949 cease-fire lines would not be acceptable to Israel, and indeed very unfair. Since the Palestinians are not prepared to permit Jews to live in ‘Palestine’, all 300,000 Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria (for the purposes of this article, I’m ignoring the very difficult issue of Jerusalem) would have to be moved. Considering the difficulty and expense of evacuating 8,000 people from Gaza, this kind of population movement is unimaginable.

I am not going to belabor the irony that the Palestinians, who insist that Israel’s policy in the territories constitutes ‘racist apartheid’ find no difficulty themselves in proposing a racist apartheid state!

In any event, UN Security Council resolution 242, generally considered the legal foundation for the two-state solution, does not call for a reversion to the pre-1967 status quo. Rather, it says that in the framework of a peace agreement, Israel will return territories (but not all the territories — see here for interpretations by the original drafters of the resolution) to Arab control in return for an end of the conflict and “secure and recognized boundaries.” Since then many observers have pointed out that the 1949 lines are not at all secure.

Most of the two-state proposals, such as those made at Camp David and by former Israeli PM Olmert in 2007, envision  an agreement based on the 1949 lines, with adjustments for security reasons and to incorporate into Israel large Jewish settlements near the line. In return, Israel has offered to compensate the Palestinians with land west of the boundary. The official Palestinian position has always been that only a strict return to the 1949 lines, along with a complete evacuation of ‘settlers’ would be acceptable, but it’s said that they have indicated a willingness to consider such adjustments in private.

Note that adjustments proposed in the past refer to swaps of land occupied by Jewish settlements for land that’s sparsely populated, from the Negev for example.

The kind of swap proposed by Israel Beiteinu is different: they propose that Israel compensate the Palestinians with land occupied by ‘Israeli Arabs’:

“Israeli Arabs will not lose anything by joining the Palestinian state. Instead of giving the Palestinians empty land in the Negev, we are offering them land full of residents, who will not have to leave their homes,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon in an interview to London-based al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper published [in early February]…

When asked if he was referring to the concentration of Arab towns and villages known as the Triangle region, he said: “Yes. Why not? If the Arabs in Israel say they are proud of being Palestinian, why shouldn’t they be proud of being part of the Palestinian state?

“They will lose nothing by joining it, and in addition, this will be in the interest of the Palestinian state, since they are economically and socially developed and will be able to use their experience to help build the state…”

“…The important thing is to accept the idea that the majority of Jews live in Israel and the majority of Arabs live in Palestine.”  — YNet

The reaction from Arab Knesset members was swift and furious:

MK Ahmad Tibi dismissed Ayalon’s remarks, saying that the deputy FM and his boss, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, “have a basic flaw in understanding the fundamental values of democracy and civil rights.”

“We are not chess pawns. We did not arrive in the country on planes and we did not immigrate here,” Tibi said. “We do not wish to expel anyone…but if someone wishes to expel us, I’ll say this: Whoever got here last will be leaving first. That way, there will be fewer fascists in Israel…”

Hadash’s Chairman, MK Mohammad Barakeh, also slammed Ayalon’s remarks, suggesting that both him and Lieberman move to France and replace ultranationalist leader Jean-Marie Le Pen…

Barakeh added that Israel’s Arabs are residing on their land legally.  “We did not immigrate from anywhere. This land is ours,” he said. “To my regret, most of this land had been robbed over the course of dozens of years. We are no settlers and there is no room for comparison between us and the thieving settlers in the West Bank, including in Jerusalem.”

“Ayalon’s words are yet another chapter in Liebermanism’s new book of racism,” he concluded. — YNet

Keep in mind that Israeli Arabs would not leave their homes under Ayalon’s proposal. The only ‘transfer’ involved would be a transfer of sovereignty over Arab-populated areas from Israel to ‘Palestine’. The Arab MK’s are generating indignation by deliberately misunderstanding, it seems. Why?

After all, if the goal is to end the conflict, one way to do so is to separate the two peoples. That’s been the idea of every partition proposal since the Peel commission of 1937, including the original 1947 UN resolution and the Oslo accord. If it can be accomplished without making anybody leave their homes, isn’t that a win-win solution?

Not from an Arab point of view it isn’t.

There is, of course, the fact that Israeli Arabs prefer the Israeli economy, government benefits, education, health care, etc. to the corrupt, kleptocratic and gangster-ridden Palestinian Authority (PA), but that’s not the main reason for their opposition to swaps.

The real issue is that Arab and Israeli or Western goals for the process are not the same. While the object of Israeli policy has been and continues to be to live at peace with its neighbors — and with its Arab citizens — the Palestinian Arabs have not given up the idea that a sovereign Jewish state anywhere in historic Palestine represents a theft of their property and a blemish on their honor which must be redressed. There is a fundamental asymmetry here which many in the West don’t recognize, tending to see the conflict as amenable to compromise.

From the Arab point of view, the more Arabs who are Israeli citizens, the more effective they can be in the process of changing Israel from a Jewish state into … something else. The Arab goal is not to end the conflict, at least not at this stage and not on the terms offered — an independent Palestine alongside a Jewish Israel. Rather, the idea is that internal pressure, couched in terms of civil rights, democracy and anti-racism, concepts that are very popular in the West, will work together with external forces to bring about the end of the Jewish state and its replacement with an Arab state.

So the PA continues to insist on strict 1949 lines in order to maximize the disruption of Jewish Israel that would be caused by the expulsion of massive numbers of Jews from Judea and Samaria, and of course they refuse to give up the vision of a ‘right of return’ to Israel for millions of Arabs. Meanwhile the various Israeli Arab organizations push for ‘de-Judaization’ of Israel.

Nothing illustrates the Palestinian mindset better than the fact that they will not countenance Jewish ‘settlers’, while they insist on right of return for ‘refugees’. These are not contradictory positions for one who thinks that all the land belongs to Arabs.

Interestingly, ‘progressive’ thought, in the US at least, seems to support the Palestinian project. Recently Rabbi David Saperstein of the Union for Reform Judaism spoke here. He said that two out of the three issues that should be Israel’s top priority were 1) the need to make a deal with the Palestinians while a two-state solution is still possible, and 2) the need to grant ‘civil rights’ to the Israeli Arabs (the third issue was the religious monopoly held by the Orthodox establishment).

My response to the first was was that the worst thing Israel could do would be to make a deal with the Palestinians without a commitment to recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people, to give up the idea of a ‘right of return’, and to end the conflict.  With regard to the second, I have no problem with civil rights for everyone; but ‘civil rights’ do not include the conversion of Israel into a binational state.

Some analysts think that  everything else is just a sideshow and the real issue is the military threat from Iran and its proxies. Without minimizing the external danger, issues surrounding Palestinian Arabs in the territories and inside Israel — especially if their objectives are misunderstood and in effect supported by the US and other external forces — are becoming more and more significant.

Update [10 Mar 1034 PST]: Corrected the number of Judea / Samaria residents to 300,000.

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Turkey picks the strong horse

Sunday, March 7th, 2010

Yesterday I mentioned the phenomenon of Turkey, under the ‘moderate’ Islamist AKP party, distancing itself from Israel and the US. As part of the process, Turkish PM Erdoğan never misses an opportunity to attack Israel:

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Sunday continued his verbal assault on Israel, according to Saudi paper Al Wattan, which quoted him as saying that that al Aksa Mosque, the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb “were not and never will be Jewish sites, but Islamic sites…”

Speaking to Palestinian journalists, Erdoğan reportedly said, “Palestine [was] always at the top of Turkey’s priorities.” He expressed his support for the renewal of indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Donning a cloak of pan-Islamic identity, Erdoğan told Al Wattan that he “loves my brothers in Fatah and my brothers in Hamas to the same degree, because they are my Muslim brothers and I cannot distinguish between them.”

Israel in the past enjoyed a close collaboration with Turkey in military matters, but this has been reduced recently. It’s likely that if the AKP continues with its efforts to reduce the influence of the army (by arresting and prosecuting officers for treason), that this trend will continue.

Relations between Turkey and the US have cooled since the Iraq war (which Turkey opposed because it strengthened the Kurdish PKK forces in the north in their desire to establish an independent state partly on Turkish territory) and more recently because of the genocide resolution.

At the same time, Turkey is collaborating more closely with Iran and Syria. Two weeks ago, Iran’s President Ahmadinejad visited Damascus. Barry Rubin noted an editorial in the state newspaper, al-Baath:

The editorial speaks of people in the Middle East who are coming together in an alliance rejecting Westernization, artificial borders, America, Israel, and various conspiracies. What countries are in this new alliance?

“Syria, Iran and Turkey, with their great peoples and their lively peoples and their rejectionist [the Syrian term for radical and anti-Israel, anti-American] policies are moving toward brotherhood….Welcome, President Ahmadinejad, in Syria.”

The Syrian regime is thus publicly trumpeting an Iran-Syria-Turkey alliance. The Turkish government’s policy, in theory, is one of getting along with everyone. But while one should not exaggerate how far this has gone—and, of course, this is a Syrian, not a Turkish statement—the fact is that Ankara is now politically as well as geographically much closer to Damascus and Tehran than to Washington DC.

If this is correct, then Turkey’s traditional Western-looking stance may be coming to an end, because it is not possible to align with the US and Iran at the same time.

My thinking is that Erdoğan has simply asked himself where the regional power is going to reside in the future and made his choice.

This is really a historic moment for the Middle East. After WWII the US took up the mantle of former colonial power Britain, and faced off for control of the region with the Soviet Union. The Soviets lost, and the turning point was when Anwar Sadat expelled Russian military advisers in 1973, later moving Egypt into the US orbit.

Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia were the pillars of US strategy from then on, although American support for Israel was by no means as one-sided as the Arabs suggest. The US neutralized hostile Iran during the 1980’s by supporting Iraq — until Saddam overreached himself by invading Kuwait. But even after that, the US allowed him to remain in power as a counterbalance to Iran.

When Saddam was removed in 2003, Iran and Syria seized the opportunity to foment Sunni-Shiite violence; at the same time, the US had no coherent plan to create a stable government in a country without a democratic tradition, where elections were understood as a sectarian popularity contest, and where bombings are an accepted form of electioneering. It’s hard to see any outcome after the US leaves other than Iraq sliding into Iranian orbit.

At the same time, Iran is moving forward on several other fronts. Israel has been unable to prevent arms transfer to Hizballah in Lebanon via Syria, and the US has failed in getting diplomatic support for sanctions that might prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons (if indeed any form of sanctions could accomplish this). Iran has even bought itself influence on the Sunni Palestinian Hamas movement.

Meanwhile, the US is seriously strapped economically, partly because of the expensive wars it is fighting against radical islamists (although it will not name the enemy). Iran, on the other hand, is moving toward finally fully developing its massive oil reserves with Chinese help.

I don’t know if the US will be able to reverse the trend and reassert its power in the Mideast, or if, like Britain, be pushed aside, this time by Iran. This will be determined by the actions of the present and perhaps the next administration. This administration hasn’t yet shown the ability, will, or even much desire to maintain the US position.

But it looks like Erdoğan thinks he knows the outcome, and has lined himself up with what he sees as the “strong horse” in the race.

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