+972 Magazine » Roi Maor http://972mag.com Independent commentary and news from Israel & Palestine Wed, 04 May 2016 19:45:53 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8 A most determined occupation and its cursed victory http://972mag.com/a-most-determined-occupation-and-its-cursed-victory/96731/ http://972mag.com/a-most-determined-occupation-and-its-cursed-victory/96731/#comments Tue, 16 Sep 2014 13:07:06 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=96731 It is not momentum or errors or personality quirks which have sustained the occupation, but a clear determination by Israel’s elite to maintain control of the West Bank and Gaza. Those who are willing to openly examine how Israel – and the pre-state Zionist Jewish community in the Holy Land – conducted itself prior to 1967, can only view the occupation as part of a natural continuum.

Cursed Victory: A History of Israel and the Occupied Territories. By Ahron Bregman. Allen Lane; 416 pages; £25.

Israeli soldiers attempt to control a crowd of Palestinian men at the Qalandia checkpoint separating Jerusalem and Ramallah, September 27, 2008. (Photo by Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

Israeli soldiers attempt to control a crowd of Palestinian men at the Qalandia checkpoint separating Jerusalem and Ramallah, September 27, 2008. (Photo by Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

I received my copy of Cursed Victory – Ahron Bregman’s history of the occupation – on the very first day rockets were fired on Tel Aviv during the latest Gaza war. It was one of those rare moments when the reality of the occupation intruded into my daily life, because like most Israelis, most of the time, I am largely sheltered from its pernicious effect.

The same cannot be said for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The occupation shapes every aspect of mundane existence in their cities, towns and villages. This asymmetry of experience, added to the inherent asymmetry of power between the Palestinians and Israel, is reflected in each side’s views, perceptions and politics.

'Cursed Victory'For Israelis, the occupation is mainly a subject for negotiations in the halls of power. If they think about it at all, they think about positions to be defended in talks and diplomatic discussions, about the terms of agreements and political maneuvering for advantage. Palestinians consider all of these things, of course, but for them, the occupation encompasses everything else as well: access to water and power, urban planning, economic development, education. There is no rhythm of life that is not interrupted by Israel’s control, no public policy issue that is not overshadowed by it.

Cursed Victory reflects this asymmetry, as would any factually accurate account of the issue. But Bregman’s history does not address or analyze this massive imbalance, and this is its greatest flaw. Indeed, as the narrative progresses, despite being highly critical of the occupation and Israel’s policies, it increasingly adopts the Israeli viewpoint (at least, its center-left version) and as a result, critical aspects of the story are missed.

In his introduction, Bregman writes:

While I deal with both the occupied and the occupiers, my focus is necessarily on the latter, as it is in the very nature of its role that the occupier is more often the one driving events… All the same, I try to let the reader also hear the voices and understand the experiences – and indeed the pain – of those living under the occupation, thus putting a human face to the story.

The book delivers on both elements of this promise. Some of its most powerful sections are those that describe the Palestinians’ human experience and pain, mostly in their own words. But the equation it attempts to establish – the Israeli decision makers “driving events” on the one side, and the Palestinians as the “human face” of the issue on the other side – while accurate, misses major elements of the story, which do not fit either rubric.

This point is best demonstrated by the book itself: specifically, part one, dealing with the first decade of the occupation, between 1967-1977. Bregman seeks to present a narrative history, rather than an analysis, and this portion of the book does so quite well. It vividly describes how the occupation’s mechanisms were established, how control was imposed and implemented.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, Gen. Rehavam Ze’evi (right) and Gen. Uzi Narkiss walk through the Old City of Jerusalem on June 7, 1967, during the Six Day War. (Photo by GPO/Ilan Bruner)

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, Gen. Rehavam Ze’evi (right) and Gen. Uzi Narkiss walk through the Old City of Jerusalem on June 7, 1967, during the Six Day War. (Photo by GPO/Ilan Bruner)

In this section, the narrative unfolds neither on the Israeli side, nor on the Palestinian side, but between them. Israel is in the driver’s seat, but as it creates the occupation through one-sided dictates, it does so necessarily in response to the various challenges and opportunities presented by the Palestinians’ themselves, their resistance and its limits (and the same goes for Syrians in the Golan; although not really for the Sinai Beduin, who hardly appear in the story). This in no way mitigates the brutality and injustice of the occupier’s actions, indeed it often exacerbates them. Nonetheless, it is the dynamic that shapes the occupation and makes it what it is.

Unfortunately, as the narrative progresses, the book’s focus shifts from this crucial interaction to another: the one occurring between leaders and diplomats, haggling on the terms and conditions of political agreements.

When negotiations trump reality on the ground

Partly, this shift reflects the access Bregman has gained to some sensitive and heretofore confidential documents, detailing high-level discussions, especially between U.S. president Clinton and various Israeli leaders during the 1990s. This is where Bregman has several juicy “scoops,” which have already gotten the book some media attention. But the eagerness to milk his unique materials is only a partial explanation for the book’s focus on “peace” talks.

Although Bregman never says so explicitly, this emphasis makes it clear that he considers negotiations more important than the reality on the ground. His gaze returns to the actual reality of the occupation only when violence explodes.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, US President Bill Clinton and King Hussein of Jordan depart after the Israel-Jordan peace treaty signing ceremony in the Arava, October 26, 1994. (Photo by GPO/Avi Ohayon)

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, US President Bill Clinton and King Hussein of Jordan depart after the Israel-Jordan peace treaty signing ceremony in the Arava, October 26, 1994. (Photo by GPO/Avi Ohayon)

This pattern is apparent, for example, in the narrative regarding the occupation of Syrian lands. In describing the first decade, Bregman extensively discusses how Israel deported or prevented the return of more than 130,000 residents of the Golan, some 95 percent of its pre-1967 population; how it enforced its rule on the remaining Druze; and how it began establishing Jewish settlements on occupied ground.

Afterwards, events in the Golan are mentioned again when Israel formally annexes the heights in 1981, and the remaining Syrians bravely and tenaciously resist this decision. From that point onwards, for the final quarter century covered by the book, the Golan is mentioned almost exclusively in relation to diplomatic maneuvers between late Syrian president Hafez Assad, Clinton and several Israeli premiers.

We learn minute details about the American president and his secretary of state, about Israeli prime ministers and the Syrian leader, but nothing about what happened on the Golan itself, to either the Druze or the settlers. As this once quiet border starts to fray, following the Syrian civil war, this is a particularly unfortunate omission.

Read also: Israel’s watershed moment that wasn’t

The occupation in the West Bank and Gaza is described much more extensively, but the pattern largely holds. The issue of “security” provides a striking example. The security discourse has been dominant in Israeli discussions regarding the occupation. It has been used both to justify “concessions” and oppose them, to crush Palestinians when violence erupts and forget about them when it subsides. The creation of the massive Palestinian security apparatus following the Oslo accords in 1993 is a product of this discourse, and marks one of the most dramatic turns in how the occupation has been organized and sustained since its inception in 1967.

But you hear nothing about this in Cursed Victory. Since the issue of security has been largely marginal to the negotiation of major Israeli-Palestinian “peace” agreements, it is also marginal in Bregman’s narrative.

The curse of ‘negotiationism’

It seems that Bregman is afflicted by the same “negotiationism” (my neologism) which generally dominates the Zionist left viewpoint regarding the occupation. “Negotiationism” can be defined as the assumption that the intricacies and maneuvers of peace talks are the key to solution, and that the solution itself – at its core – is political and diplomatic, rather than institutional and democratic. “Negotiationists” tend to focus on leaders, as representatives of their “side” in negotiations, and often neglect the complex internal politics of each side and their critical role. (Bregman, for example, hardly mentions that as Barak was furiously negotiating with the Palestinians in 2000, his coalition completely collapsed, and he became a lame duck, with no public mandate to reach any settlement.)

“Negotiationists” implicitly assume that if a treaty is agreed and signed, the people and the reality on the ground will just fall into place and accommodate whatever the agreement states. This is generally true regarding the peace agreements that Israel signed with Egypt (with the return of the Sinai), and Jordan (where there were few border issues), and it might prove true for a future agreement with Syria. But this perspective is inadequate for understanding and describing the occupation of Palestine and how it has evolved over the first 40 years. (Bregman’s book does not cover events after 2007.)

This failure is particularly evident when Cursed Victory strays from narrative to analysis. Bregman’s thesis is that the occupation has persevered through a series of missed opportunities, unfortunate events, miscalculations, truculent personalities, and a general “policy drift” toward solidifying the occupation on the Israeli side.

Instead, the simpler and more economical explanation is that Israel’s policy has been to maintain the occupation – albeit in varying guises and forms. It is not momentum or errors or personality quirks which have sustained the occupation, but a clear determination by Israel’s elite, from the leadership to middle ranks, to maintain control of the West Bank and Gaza.

The Mughrabi Quarter, Wailing Wall and Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, 1898-1946 (American Colony Photo Dept.)

The Mughrabi Quarter, Wailing Wall and Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, 1898-1946 (American Colony Photo Dept.) The Mughrabi Quarter residential neighborhood was demolished immediately following the Six Day War in order to make room for the Western Wall prayer plaza.

Indeed, despite its increasing focus on diplomacy and negotiations, Bregman’s narrative supplies little evidence to bolster the “negotiationist” viewpoint, and plenty of material that undermines it. From the very first days of the occupation, when Israeli forces expelled about a quarter of the territories’ population, and destroyed whole neighborhoods in East Jerusalem (with residents sometimes buried alive under the rubble), through the rapid expansion of settlements under the supposedly pro-peace governments of Rabin and Peres (1992-1996), to the current blockade on Gaza and restrictions on movement in the West Bank, almost every action by Israel indicates an intention to maintain control.

Even a narrow analysis of Israeli positions in negotiations reveals the same attitude. Complex arguments on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount/ Haram Al Sharif, the right of return, the end of the conflict and recognition of Israel as a “Jewish” state often obscure this basic fact. But the history of “peace talks” shows that almost all Jewish Israelis expect the Palestinians to have highly restricted sovereignty, with complete Israeli discretion to intervene in their territory, which will be misshaped and contorted by various parts annexed to Israel.

The ‘pain of history’

How does this kind of “peace” differ from continued occupation maintained through a subservient, if occasionally rebellious, Palestinian proxy government (as is largely the situation right now in both the West Bank and Gaza)?

If the facts do not support it, what is the source of the “negotiationist” view? Bregman cannot be accused of sympathizing with the occupation. In the introduction, he explains how his resistance to the occupation caused him to emigrate from Israel. Throughout Cursed Victory he vividly describes the suffering and travesties caused by Israel’s subjugation of millions of Palestinians.

Paradoxically, the vehemence of Bregman’s opposition to the occupation may be the key to understanding his “negotiationist” view. This perspective is closely associated with the idea – popular among the Israeli left – that 1967 marks a major break in Israel’s history. As Bregman writes in the introduction:

That Israel – a vibrant and intellectual nation overwhelmingly aware of the pain of history – went down the path of military occupation is in itself quite astonishing.

In fact, the occupation is anything but astonishing. Those who are willing to openly examine how Israel – and the Zionist Jewish community in the Holy Land before it – conducted itself prior to 1967, can only view the occupation as part of a natural continuum. Palestinian citizens of Israel were under martial law from the country’s founding in 1948 to 1966, just a year before the West Bank and Gaza were occupied. Displacement, deportation, oppression and violence were used against Palestinians before, during and after the 1948 war. Indeed, the enterprise of Jewish colonization was premised on ignoring and subordinating the rights and interests of indigenous Palestinians.

The “pain of history” remembered by Israeli Jews was not a force that acted against the occupation: it was one of its primary drivers. Jews had suffered as minorities for millennia, and more than six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Although persecution motivated them to immigrate, in Palestine, they increasingly became the persecutors. But as this role reversal has deepened, the mindset has remained the same. Israeli Jews, despite all evidence to the contrary, continue to view themselves as a besieged and persecuted people, constantly on the brink of total extinction.

As justified threats receded, paranoia replaced genuine concern; hate, animosity and suspicion feeding the demonization of Palestinians and Arabs. In that situation, the sense of control provided by the occupation became an essential building block of Israeli “security.”

Bregman does not even consider the possibility that negotiations were never perceived by the Israeli leadership or Jewish public as an “opportunity” to end the occupation. They were seen as a means to entrench and legitimize it. And that opportunity was not missed. Israel’s international standing has never been higher, its control of Palestinians is at its peak of efficiency.

As the occupation nears the end of its fifth decade, the future may hold in store many more guises and forms it can assume. But a fundamental change in essence would require Israel to relinquish control and assume certain risks. You do that if you have trust. And you can only build trust if you view your counterparty in realistic terms, as fully human as you are. This prospect still seems far off.

Related articles:
Israel’s watershed moment that wasn’t
The Zionist story, re-told by the elite, for the elite
What’s behind Israel’s biggest economic boom? The occupation

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Putting a halt to the ‘assembly line’ of Palestinian prisoners http://972mag.com/putting-a-halt-to-the-production-line-of-palestinian-prisoners/91487/ http://972mag.com/putting-a-halt-to-the-production-line-of-palestinian-prisoners/91487/#comments Thu, 29 May 2014 10:29:36 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=91487 Rather than arguing over the ‘gestures’ of releasing long-term prisoners, Israel must use restraint during arrests in the West Bank, while ensuring fair and swift procedures in the military courts.

(Translated by Ofer Neiman)

One of the main factors behind the failure of the recent round of Israeli-Palestinian talks was Israel’s decision to cancel the release of 26 Palestinian prisoners, which had been agreed upon as a goodwill gesture to the Palestinian Authority. The issue of prisoner release, whether in the framework of negotiations or in the framework of prisoner exchange deals, touches on very strong sentiments on both sides. For the Palestinians, the prisoners are members of their own people being held by a foreign occupier. For many Israelis, the prisoners are “bad people,” responsible for killing and injuring Israeli soldiers and Jewish citizens.

Illustrative photo of Palestinian prisoners in an Israeli military prison (By ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com)

Illustrative photo of Palestinian prisoners in an Israeli military prison (By ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com)

The release of prisoners, perceived by one side as the redemption of captives, is perceived by the other as gross injustice and even as a threat to one’s life. Accordingly, Palestinians have regarded the cancellation as sufficient grounds for terminating the talks; while in Israel previous rounds of prisoner release have brought about waves of protest and condemnation, culminating in a controversial bill aimed at preempting the future release of prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment.

Criminalizing an entire people

Negotiations on the issue of Palestinian prisoners tend to focus on a certain group of prisoners – those sentenced to lengthy terms, usually on the basis of convictions of grievous violence (the validity of these convictions and/or the gravity of the offenses are a bone of contention). All 78 prisoners released so far as part of gestures for the promotion of the talks in 2013 – 2014 belonged to this group (and the same holds for the 26 whose release was cancelled). Of 1,027 prisoners released as part of the Gilad Shalit deal in 2011, 434 had been sentenced to at least 20 years (including 275 cases of life imprisonment) – and this group was the focus of negotiations between Israel and Hamas.

Focusing on the aforementioned prisoners is only natural. They are the ones who have spent, or are expected to spend, a long period behind bars. They are also those who have been convicted by Israel’s military justice system of what it sees as grave offenses.

IN PHOTOS: Palestinian prisoners, supporters struggle for freedom

However, one should recall that this group is only a minority among Palestinian prisoners at large. According to the Palestinian NGO Addameer, the group numbers less than 1,000 prisoners out of a total of nearly 5,000. Fifteen or 10 years in prison is surely a long period, but even if one were to lower the bar, those same prisoners who have been sentenced to long terms will still constitute a minority. This follows from data (albeit not up to date) published by The Israeli Prison Service in 2007. According to the data, two thirds of the prisoners were sentenced to terms of no more than seven years.

Freed Palestinian prisoner Khaled Al-Azraq greets a young family member in their home in Aida Refugee Camp, West Bank, October 30, 2013. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

Freed Palestinian prisoner Khaled Al-Azraq greets a young family member in their home in Aida Refugee Camp, West Bank, October 30, 2013. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

The fact that supporters of the two-state solution (not to mention its opponents) have neglected this second group of prisoners is most disturbing. For every Palestinian sentenced to a lengthy imprisonment, there are, apparently, tens of Palestinians who have served or are serving, shorter terms. Some researchers have argued that a fifth of Palestinian men in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have spent some time in Israeli prison. Even if the numbers are much lower, they still attest to the criminalization of an entire people.

Secondly, there is good reason to believe that the wider prisoner population ends up in jail due to substantial flaws in the military courts in which they are tried. These flaws are too numerous to list here, but the basic mechanism which they produce is quite evident.

Changing policy: A long-term investment

Palestinians who are indicted on “security” charges (including what is known as “disturbing the peace”) are almost always detained on remand (i.e. until the completion of proceedings). This means that they will spend a year or two in detention until their verdict is given. Their chances of being acquitted then – in the face of a hostile court – are quite slim. Such conditions create a very strong incentive to sign a plea bargain with the prosecution, in exchange for a somewhat reduced sentence, especially since conviction by an Israeli court is significantly less stigmatized in Palestinian society. This dynamic primarily affects those prisoners who are charged with lesser offenses, as they can reach a reasonable plea bargain.

This view is corroborated by data provided by the Israeli Prison Service to B’Tselem, the human rights NGO. According to the data, a third of current prisoners were detained before the court ruled in their case, and nearly all of them were detained on remand. The number of detainees has doubled in the past four years, while the number of prisoners being convicted has declined by one third. This is perhaps the reason why the total number of Palestinian prisoners hardly declined during the same period, despite the relative calm of recent years or the mass release of prisoners as part of the Gilad Shalit deal.

Should Israel use restraint during arrests in the West Bank, while ensuring fair and swift procedures in the military courts, the number of Palestinian prisoners will decrease substantially. This may also make the renewal of peace talks more difficult. The detention of fewer prisoners may lead to the issue becoming less prominent on the Palestinian agenda, and the “reserves” of prisoners who can be released will dwindle. Accordingly, Israel’s ability to implement gestures and deals while using this bargaining chip, as well as the PA’s ability to point out concrete achievements which would justify the continuation of the talks, will be degraded.

This is a classic example of the tension between promoting “peace talks” in the short run and laying the foundation for real justice between Israelis and Palestinian in the long run. Those who believe that the conflict will be resolved through a compromise between the elites, which need only gather sufficient strength to appease their public opinion, will continue to focus on “gestures” of prisoner release, while ignoring the production line for new prisoners. By contrast, those who believe that a true deal can only come about as a gradual process of changing reality for both peoples should focus their efforts on tackling the root of the wider problem.

This this post in Hebrew on Local Call.

Turning over a new leaf: An interview with a former Palestinian ‘security prisoner’
PHOTOS: Palestinian prisoners, supporters struggle for freedom

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Why BDS won’t work, and what can http://972mag.com/why-bds-wont-work-and-what-can-a-response-to-larry-derfner/91326/ http://972mag.com/why-bds-wont-work-and-what-can-a-response-to-larry-derfner/91326/#comments Sat, 24 May 2014 15:24:14 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=91326 Those who care about ending the occupation, in Israel and outside it, are faced with real, difficult choices. I believe these choices matter. That is why I oppose BDS.          

Larry Derfner’s recent article in support of BDS is well-written, passionately argued and compelling. Nonetheless, I find myself in strong disagreement with its key assertions and conclusions.

As I see it, the article rests on the following argument: first, the evacuation of settlements necessary to end the occupation would be very difficult for Israel. Second, Israelis do not currently incur any significant cost for the continuation of the occupation. Third, the only way to make Israelis pay that cost is by supporting some version of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), at least on the settlements themselves.

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (Takver/CC BY SA 2.0)

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (Takver/CC BY SA 2.0)

I find all three statements unconvincing, and will address each in turn.

The settlers are paper tigers

Larry rightly points out that it is impossible to envisage an end to the occupation without extensive settlement evacuation. But I believe he errs when stating that the “specter of the sort of cataclysm that would be triggered [if there is major settlement evacuation] is enough to stop any government from touching it.” Why would there be such a cataclysm? Because the ideological core of the settlers are “fearsome,” they (and the right) would engage in “rebellion” which could lead to “bloodshed” and turn the country “upside down.”

Read: After Kerry, only BDS may save the two-state solution

Will resistance be so fierce and costly? Larry points to past experience with evacuations, in the Sinai and Gaza Strip (he doesn’t mention that a handful of small settlements in the West Bank were also removed as part of the Gaza disengagement plan). These evacuations affected a relatively moderate branch of the settlement movement, a small number of people, and areas that were (largely) outside the scope of the “Greater Israel” project and of lower ideological valence. Yet they were accompanied by significant upheaval, protest and turmoil, including some (non-lethal) violence.

It makes sense to conclude that evacuating a much larger mass of far more extreme settlers from the areas perceived as most valuable and sacred would indeed be “cataclysmic.” But such a scenario would go against everything we have learned about the ideological settlers and the extreme right since the occupation began, and possibly before it.

Settlers from Havat Gilad throw stones at Palestinian homes in the nearby village of Jit. (photo courtesy of Rabbis for Human Rights)

Settlers from Havat Gilad throw stones at Palestinian homes in the nearby village of Jit. (photo courtesy of Rabbis for Human Rights)

According to figures collected by B’Tselem, 169 Palestinians were killed by Israeli civilians over the past quarter century. Considering that there are several hundreds of thousands of Israeli civilians, many of them armed military veterans, living amidst millions of Palestinians, this is a very low figure. And, if anything, it grossly overestimates the Israeli right’s capacity to wield lethal violence. It includes, for example, all killings of Palestinians by civilian patrols and security guards, many of which may have nothing to do with right-wing ideology (which is not to say that they were all, or mostly, justified).

Furthermore, to the best of my knowledge, during this period of time, there was just one killing of a Jewish Israeli by Jewish right-wingers on ideological grounds: the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by Yigal Amir in 1995, following the signing and implementation of the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians. This was arguably a highly effective act of intra-Jewish political violence, which is nonetheless the exception.

A mass settlement evacuation could be different. But if we examine the violence that the Jewish right does employ on a large scale, I believe it is very revealing of their level of resolve during a true crisis. Largely, the most characteristic acts of right-wing violence are those that have recently been labled as “price tag attacks,” but are much older than this moniker. These are crimes such as arson, vandalism, threats, assault, stone throwing and dispersed gunfire. Let there be no doubt – this is real violence, dangerous and harmful. It causes the Palestinians genuine, large scale suffering, including dispossession from their lands.

Palestinian farmers from the West Bank village of Qaryut assess the damage done to their olive trees the day before by Israeli settlers, October 20, 2013. Officials from the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture on the scene counted 60 trees damaged belonging to 12 different farmers. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

Palestinian farmers from the West Bank village of Qaryut assess the damage done to their olive trees the day before by Israeli settlers, October 20, 2013. Officials from the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture on the scene counted 60 trees damaged belonging to 12 different farmers. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

Yet these acts of violence are also the acts of cowards. There have been a few right-wing fanatics who were willing to sacrifice their lives in the pursuit of their evil cause, including Eden Natan-Zada, Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir (even among them, only the last was willing to brave similarly armed men). Far more typical are the settlers who send their underage children to attack Palestinians, knowing that they cannot be legally punished. Or those who focus their attacks on the elderly and children.

No one can know for sure what will be the reaction to a mass evacuation of settlements, but the right wing’s record shows it is unlikely to be cataclysm-inducing. Extremely noisy and self-righteous? Of course. Accompanied by many cowardly acts of genuinely ugly and harmful, yet largely non-lethal, acts of violence against the most vulnerable Palestinians? Most probably. Some acts of non-lethal violent resistance to Israeli security forces? Quite likely. But a massive and bloody insurrection would be a break with all past patterns.

Israelis believe they are paying a price for the occupation

Even if the evacuation of settlements will not be as apocalyptic as Larry envisages, it will certainly come with some significant costs, as far as Israelis are concerned. Some violence will occur, and it will be nasty. It will be a complex and costly endeavor (though nothing in comparison to some of Israel’s past undertakings). And many Jewish Israelis will be sorry to let go of areas to which they feel religiously and historically attached.

But it won’t happen unless Israelis perceive the occupation as harmful to their own interests. Larry clearly thinks they do not. According to him, “Israel isn’t paying any price” for the presence of settlements, and “nobody and nothing of consequence is bearing down on us” to evacuate them. He clearly believes that this is a misguided, myopic view, because he also states that the occupation could lead to Israel’s elimination, and that it should end “for the sake of its [i.e. Israel's] own basic well-being.”

Are Israelis blind to the damage and risks caused to them by the occupation? This is a question which is very hard to assess. Most people rarely think so analytically of politics. Leaders and elites are more likely to carefully assess the harm and risk of various policies. But on controversial issues, they are careful not to antagonize the broader public, whose thinking on the matter can often be hazy.

Female Israeli anti-occupation activists protest the siege on Gaza at the Erez Crossing on International Women's Day. (photo: Activestills)

Female Israeli anti-occupation activists protest the siege on Gaza at the Erez Crossing on International Women’s Day. (photo: Activestills)

Yet if the Israeli public and elites do not see a significant price for the occupation, why is almost no one openly advocating for its continuation? The operative word here is “openly.” Most mainstream Israeli political positions amount to continuing the occupation, but only a handful of marginal figures are willing to admit it out loud. You have the unilateralists of various stripes, the old, faithful two-staters, the autonomists and advocates of the Jordanian option. Even the oddball one-staters are more ubiquitous than the pro-occupation camp.

The fact that so many feel the need to pay lip service to ending the occupation, while having little inclination to act on these statements, is indicative of a broad recognition that the occupation is harmful and risky. Otherwise, why do those who are openly disdainful of international opinions and norms still pretend to offer an alternative, however transparently meaningless?

This was sometime a paradox, but now the time gives it proof

If ending the occupation is not that costly, and continuing it is perceived as harmful and risky, why does it persist? There are a number of reasons. One should not dismiss simple status quo bias. It is much harder to push for change than to maintain inertia, especially when a determined minority is committed to sustaining it, while the majority is much softer in the opposite position. Resentment may also play a part. Jewish Israelis often feel that Palestinians have not “earned” their liberty, and therefore view the occupation as a type of penalty box, where Palestinians should stay until they have atoned for their sins. The idea that an “unjust reward” for Palestinians could nonetheless be helpful to Israel’s own interest is very hard to swallow.

The most potent cause for the occupation’s perseverance may be the fear and demonization of Palestinians in Israeli society. Despite being vastly more powerful, Israelis still tend to worry that their adversaries have a nearly diabolical capacity to harm them. Flying in the face of the country’s entire historical experience, many are convinced that Palestinians (and/or Arabs/Muslims in general) are so consumed by hatred and zealotry that they will destroy themselves if that can also hurt the Jewish state.

How will Jewish Israelis respond to increased support for some forms of boycott, divestment and sanctions, especially if it comes from Jews abroad and the Israeli left? I agree with Larry that the backlash theory – that Israelis will be hardened by outside pressure – is unconvincing, especially in the long term. Where I differ from him is in doubting that any amount of outside pressure can sway Israeli opinion on the occupation itself.

Yet, the question that Larry raises so eloquently cannot be evaded. If not BDS, then what? Current approaches have clearly failed. There is some truth in the tired cliché that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and expecting different results. Clearly, we need a different approach. All people who are involved, or who view themselves as stakeholders in Israel or Palestine, have the moral and practical duty to act against the occupation.

My alternative is to focus on changing the situation on the ground. The outside world has little influence on Jewish Israelis’ mindset, and without a change in that mindset (or actual external coercion, through severe sanctions, or military force – an unlikely scenario, in my view), there is little prospect for ending the occupation. However, the outside world (and to a lesser extent, the Israeli left) does have some influence on Israel’s actions. It is highly constrained, but over time it can have a cumulative impact on the actual, lived reality of Israelis and Palestinians.

And a change of those realities, in turn, can make a difference in the Israeli mindset, humanizing the Palestinians, and highlighting the possibility of a positive-sum scenario in relations with them. The vast apparatus of the occupation, like any complex system, is rife with incoherences, which, with a focused and persistent effort, can be expanded into real fissures that could undermine the whole structure. Practices are shaped by mentalities, but causality runs both ways – sometimes the way we think changes because our actions change.

Anti-wall and prisoner solidarity protest, Al Mas'ara, West Bank

This may sound abstract, but this general approach is backed up by a concrete and detailed program for realistic action, which I have already started to outline on our Hebrew sister site, Local Call, and hope to convey in English as well.

The key is to understand that there are tradeoffs. Negotiations have often legitimized the continuation of abusive practices on the ground (because an agreement, which is always just around the corner, will supposedly take care of them soon). Support for BDS throws away critical levers, hinging everything on the broad goal of ending the occupation, instead of using the limited power wielded by external actors to extract concreted and immediate concessions that will make broader change possible in the longer term. Such steps could include pressuring Israel’s government to reform the military court system which tries Palestinians, or reduce discriminatory restrictions on Palestinian construction in the West Bank.

So those who care about ending the occupation, in Israel and outside it, are faced with real, difficult choices. I believe these choices matter. That is why I oppose BDS.

After Kerry, only BDS may save the two-state solution
Interview with Leila Khaled: ‘BDS is effective, but it doesn’t liberate land’
What BDS and the Israeli government have in common

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Israel’s economy has problems, but a bubble ain’t one http://972mag.com/israels-economy-has-problems-but-a-bubble-aint-one/90836/ http://972mag.com/israels-economy-has-problems-but-a-bubble-aint-one/90836/#comments Wed, 14 May 2014 19:12:39 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=90836 The concern sparked by claims of an economic bubble in Israel are not supported by data, and could lead to a harmful consequences if interest rates rise and exchange rates are adversely affected. A response to Jesse Colombo in Forbes.

In an article recently published on Forbes.com, Jesse Colombo argues that “Israel’s economic boom is not the miracle that it appears to be, but is actually another bubble that is similar to those that caused the financial crisis.” The article has been widely cited, both in Israel and abroad.

Worrying about an economic bubble neatly dovetails with Israelis’ characteristic eschatological anxiety, but in this case, it is baseless. Despite its many problems, Israel’s economy is not a bubble. It is an idea that must be refuted, because if it becomes of a part of conventional wisdom, it could lead to bad economic policy. Specifically, it could pressure the Bank of Israel (BoI) to raise interest rates and strengthen the shekel (Israel’s currency), plunging the economy into recession.

Israel is not the U.S.

Colombo asserts that in recent years, an economic bubble was inflated as a result of large capital inflows, that have strengthened the shekel. The BoI has struggled to block the shekel’s rise, by purchasing U.S. dollars and reducing interest rates. According to Colombo, this has caused rising inflation and property price bubbles.

On inflation, Colombo is simply mistaken. Inflation in Israel has actually fallen considerably. On property prices, the picture is more complex. Housing prices have gone sharply up, and they are currently above their long-term equilibrium level. But the trend is much less extreme than Colombo’s presentation implies. And he proceeds from this exaggeration to develop claims which are wholly unfounded.

According to Colombo’s narrative, future interest rate rises will cause many households to struggle with ballooning, unaffordable mortgage payments. Many families will go bankrupt and banks’ stability will be jeopardized. The shock to the financial system and housing market, combined with reduced consumption by struggling households, will bring about a severe recession. To support this narrative, Colombo points to similar dynamics which unfolded in the recent U.S. economic and financial crisis in 2008-2009.

However, the current situation in Israel is completely different from pre-crisis US. In some aspects, opposite conditions prevail.

Settlement construction in Gilo, January 21, 2010. (Photo: Activestills.org)

Settlement construction in Gilo, January 21, 2010. (Photo: Activestills.org)

In the U.S., the rise in housing prices was fueled by classic bubble dynamics: people were willing to pay a higher price for a product (in this case, housing) only because they were counting on further future increases in its price. In Israel, however, the increase in housing prices is driven by shortages, especially in the more desirable areas. There was a point in which investors and speculators did come along for the ride. But in recent years, their share of the market has significantly dropped, without causing a decline in prices. This is very different from what happened in the U.S.

This difference is critical. One of the distinct marks of the American housing bubble was the increase in residential construction and the rate of vacant housing, failing to find residents that could afford high prices. Israel, on the other hand, is still suffering from insufficient residential construction.

Accordingly, the crisis in the U.S. was not the result of increased interest rates (the scenario that Colombo is predicting for Israel). Instead, it was triggered by the decline in home prices, as buyers became unwilling to gamble on continued price increases. This decline is what caused the crisis. Families, confronted with diminished wealth, cut back their consumption, leading to the Great Recession.

Can a similar process unfold in Israel? A study conducted by BoI researchers (Hebrew PDF), indicates that rising housing prices have fueled increased consumption in Israel, as they did in the U.S. And an IMF report (PDF) confirmed there is a 20 percent risk of a sharp decline in housing prices in Israel, which could lead to a recession. However, even in this scenario, the IMF predicted a much shorter and less severe recession than what happened in the U.S.

This assessment, much milder than what Colombo suggests, could still prove over-pessimistic.  The IMF used a model relying on data from the historical experience of many countries. This method has many advantages, but at least one major deficiency: each economy is structured differently. In Israel, for example, the sharp decline in housing prices before 2007 did not lead to any reduction in consumption.

 A sustainable mortgage burden

Why is Israel different? Mainly due to housing shortages in the areas where people want to live. A reduction in housing prices could affect the consumption of some families, whose wealth has been diminished. However, other families (mostly young) will discover that the burden of purchasing, or renting an apartment has been reduced. This could boost their consumption, or allow them to move to an area with better employment opportunities, increasing both their income and their economic productivity.

At the same time, a price decline should not have a negative impact on residential construction in Israel, unlike what happened in the U.S. New apartments in Israel are mostly built on government land. Builders’ profit margins – and thus their incentive to build – are determined by the difference between the price they pay for government land and the ultimate selling price (deducting construction costs, of course). Unlike private land owners, the government finds it much easier to absorb a decline in housing prices, leaving the contractors’ margins – and incentives – at the same level.

But what about a financial crisis? Could a decline in housing prices, or a rise in interest rates, as Colombo suggests, trigger a crisis in Israel’s banking system, similar to what happened in the U.S.?

In the U.S., one of the causes of the financial crisis was weak supervision over banks and capital markets. In Israel, so far, it appears that the BoI and the Finance Ministry are doing a good job overall in preventing financial market excesses.

Financial supervision in Israel is facilitated by the conservative attitude of local households. Rising housing prices have driven a commensurate rise in mortgage issuance. But Israelis still avoid mortgages that are too high in proportion to their income or the apartment’s worth. The relatively restrained size of mortgages should help households avoid severe distress if prices drop or interest rates rise. Indeed, before 2007, when housing prices were steeply declining, the effect on households was quite limited.

In either case, a decline in housing prices is unlikely to affect banks’ financial stability. Even in the most extreme scenarios, there will be no “under-water” mortgages in Israel (i.e. when the mortgage is higher than the apartment’s value). Unlike the U.S., financial firms in Israel do not issue mortgages whose value even approaches the mortgaged home’s value, let alone the 90- and 100-percent mortgages that were issued in some cases in the U.S.

 No high-tech bubble in sight, either

In addition to real estate, Colombo also claims that Israel has a high-tech bubble, comparing it to the late 1990s dotcom mania. His evidence is mostly anecdotal, largely failing to cite macro statistics or research. He does point to large scale start-up “exits” in the past two years, but without comparative data on previous periods in Israel or on other countries, it is hard to make much of this. Moreover, even if investors are overpaying, this would only constitute a bubble if it supports otherwise unsustainable employment, investment or production.

On these terms, it is difficult to see a high-tech bubble according to data on Israel’s economy. Comparing 2006 and 2012, the IT sector’s relative size has not changed significantly in terms of turnover, exports or employment. It’s possible that 2013 was different, but if so, it had only a minor impact on the economy, as the overall business sector grew by just 3 percent last year, a respectable but hardly “bubbly” rate.

The bottom line is that Colombo’s claims about an Israeli economic bubble are not supported by data or experience. This is troubling because the conclusion he draws on the basis of these flawed premises is very dangerous. He blasts Stanly Fisher, the recently retired BoI chair (who is now vice-chair of the Federal Reserve), for leading a policy of low interest and currency exchange rates.

This policy, continued by Fisher’s successor, has supported exports and growth. It may not have led to an economic miracle (Colombo is right on that point), but it has prevented a recession and mitigated the damage caused by the current government’s foolish budget cuts. The last thing Israel needs is to reverse the BoI’s policy, which might happen if Colombo’s erroneous claims gain supporters.

What’s behind Israel’s biggest economic boom? The occupation
The price of turning Israel into another Scandinavia

Read the Hebrew version of this article on +972′s sister site, Local Call.

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Getting the facts straight on law enforcement in the West Bank http://972mag.com/getting-the-facts-straight-on-law-enforcement-in-the-west-bank/89964/ http://972mag.com/getting-the-facts-straight-on-law-enforcement-in-the-west-bank/89964/#comments Tue, 22 Apr 2014 15:19:59 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=89964 Law enforcement in the West Bank is a complex topic. Those who attempt to analyze it better get the background right.

In his recent piece for the new, explanatory journalism website Vox, Zack Beauchamp attempts to analyze some figures on law enforcement in the West Bank, obtained by The Associated Press. He divides the number of arrests of Israeli citizens and Palestinians in the occupied territory by the size of each population, and reaches a surprising outcome: it is Israelis that are more frequently arrested than Palestinians, not vice versa. To his credit, he does point out that “[i]t’s unlikely that Israel police are discriminating against Israelis and in favor of Palestinians.” Instead, he offers some tentative alternative explanations.

However, there is no need for speculation, because there is no mystery to be solved; the calculation is flawed, as it ignores some basic facts about law enforcement in the West Bank.

The most important fact overlooked in the article is that the Israel Police, which provided the figures, does not investigate crimes committed by Palestinians against other Palestinians. These investigations are carried out by the Palestinian Authority. On the other hand, the Israel Police investigates all crimes committed by Israelis in the West Bank, regardless of the nationality of the victim. It is only natural then, that Israelis will be massively overrepresented in its arrest statistics. This overrepresentation is exacerbated by the fact that many crimes committed by Palestinians against Israelis are also investigated by the Palestinian Authority, depending on the nature of the crime and the residence of the perpetrator.

A Palestinian woman in front of policemen in Sheikh Jarrah, April 23 2010 (photo: Oren Ziv/ Activestills.org)

A Palestinian woman in front of policemen in Sheikh Jarrah, April 23 2010 (photo: Oren Ziv/ Activestills.org)

Second, Beauchamp seems to have missed the fact that the figures provided to AP are solely about minors. Admittedly, AP does not do a good job of highlighting this distinction, but it does mention it twice in the same short piece. Why does it matter? Because until October 2010, Israel defined the age of minority differently for Israelis and Palestinians. For the former, it was up to the age of 18, for the latter it ended at 16. The figures provided by the Israel Police are for 2008-2013, and it is unclear which definition the police used. Knowing their record-keeping practices, I would venture to guess it is based on a chaotic mix of both definitions.

The distinction between adults and minors is critical for another reason. Adult Palestinians come face-to-face with Israeli authorities in two main locations – in the areas which are under Israeli control (Areas B and C), and in the checkpoints (some may also be arrested during Israeli raids on areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority). Palestinian minors are much less likely to travel through checkpoints, and less than a fifth of Palestinians live in areas under Israeli control. So it is no wonder that they are much less likely to be arrested, in comparison to the overall size of their population.

As it stands, right now, the only usable figures in the AP piece are those for indictment and conviction rates. These, unsurprisingly, demonstrate once again the gulf between the ways Israelis and Palestinians are treated by Israeli authorities. The Vox piece rightly highlights this finding, but its own original analysis and framing are based on erroneous premises. This is a pity, because there are a lot of fascinating insights about discriminatory law enforcement in the West Bank that the piece fails to explore.

I do not mean to pick on Beauchamp and Vox. Their intent – to provide context to figures AP seems to have provided with little analysis – is admirable. But as this incident demonstrates, those who lack extensive knowledge in this area (and this often includes “experts”) wade into the realm of analysis at their own risk.

Beauchamp has updated his Vox article to address the issues raised in this piece.

Read more:
Visualizing Occupation: Children under Israel’s legal regime
WATCH: Border Police detain, humiliate Palestinian at checkpoint

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Will surprising results stop a status-quo Netanyahu-led government? http://972mag.com/will-surprising-results-stop-a-status-quo-netanyahu-led-government/64515/ http://972mag.com/will-surprising-results-stop-a-status-quo-netanyahu-led-government/64515/#comments Tue, 22 Jan 2013 21:42:30 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=64515 Despite the surprising weakness of the Right-ultra-Orthodox bloc, the final result of the elections, according to exit polls, is still likely to be a status-quo Netanyahu-led government. Why? Because the big winner in this election, media personality Yair Lapid, is a vapid centrist who is likely to join Netanyahu’s coalition and make little noise on policy — either on Israel-Palestine, or any other topic

Yair Lapid (photo: Yotam Ronen / Activestills.org)

The exit-poll results are in, and Noam has an excellent summary of the headline figures. A lot of the attention, as actual results pour in through the night, will be focused on the balance between the blocs. The common wisdom, based on the polls, was that the Right and the ultra-Orthodox will have something between 64-67 (of 120) seats in the Knesset – a solid majority that was supposed to strengthen Netanyahu’s hand in coalition negotiations.

According to the exit polls, that bloc is actually 61-62 seats, bringing it perilously close to losing its majority. This is a surprising result, especially in light of very low voter turnout among Israeli-Palestinian citizens, who rarely vote for the Right. Yet even if the Right and ultra-Orthodox fall to 60 or slightly below, the outcome might be disappointingly similar to what everyone assumed: a Netanyahu-led government, incorporating some centrist parties.

The basic problem is that the Jewish-Zionist parties of the “Left” or “Center” have never been willing to form a coalition with the non-Zionist Arab parties, or even form a minority coalition relying on their votes. Without the Arab parties, there is no chance that the Center-Left can form a government on its own. That automatically weakens its hand in coalition negotiations.

Furthermore, the Jewish-Zionist Center-Left is currently splintered into two major parties (Labor and Yesh Atid, with 17-19 seats each, according to exit polls) and two smaller parties (Meretz and Hatnua, with 6-7 each, according to the exits). Netanyahu can pick off parts of this bloc at his convenience.

The task is made easier by the most surprising result indicated by the exit polls: the rise of Yesh Atid to become second-largest party after Likud-Beitenu. Yesh Atid is a new party, headed by Yair Lapid, a media personality and the son of late journalist and politician Yosef Lapid, who led a similar party to similar results in elections that took place less than a decade ago. As its name suggests (it means “there is a future” in Hebrew), Lapid’s party is, literally, the personification of vapid centrism. The only glue that holds it together is the fact that its future parliamentarians were picked at the sole discretion of their founder and chairman.

Lapid himself, despite running for office (tacitly and explicitly) for almost two years now, has not distinguished himself as a clear voice on public policy. On the two most important issues facing the country – relations with the Palestinians and economic policy – Lapid has evaded taking any tough stances. Indeed, he is famously self-contradictory and vague. He is slightly more strident regarding relations between secular and religious Jews, but even here his solutions are usually mushy and ideally suited for politically convenient foot-dragging and can-kicking.

In other words, Lapid is the ideal partner in Netanyahu’s coalition. The prime minister was never too keen on basing his coalition solely on the Right and the ultra-Orthodox, even if that bloc had done better in the elections. Netanyahu has always preferred larger coalitions, where no single partner, or no single group of crazies from his own Likud, can hold the government hostage. And if there is such a partner, it is better for it to be big and clearly controlled by a person who is not inclined to make much noise or draw lines in the sand.

So Netanyahu and Lapid should get along fine. Likud-Beitenu, Habayit Hayehudi (a hard-right party much strengthened by the elections) and Yesh Atid will have a majority of seats in the Knesset, if the exit polls are correct. To increase stability (did I mention the crazies?), they include might the ultra-Orthodox party Shas, which would probably get along with Lapid just as it grudgingly accepted his father (who was much more strident on secular-religious issues than his son).

What about the Israeli-Palestinians issue? Lapid will probably be the only one in a position to pressure for change on this front. If he is so inclined, he managed to conceal it quite impressively thus far. His party is made up mostly of left-wingers (unlike the crashed-and-burned Kadima, which was half and half). However, if the Israeli-Palestinian issue matters to them, they sure had a funny way of showing it by joining Lapid’s party when almost every other option left of Likud was more promising.

It is likely that this hastily-cobbled team, with little shared background, history or values, will quickly dissolve. This is the story of all of Yesh Atid’s predecessors, occupying the spot of Jewish-Zionist secular new party (and there have been many of them, including the one headed by Lapid’s own father). However, it is unlikely to be over the Palestinian issue, and unlikely to affect public policy in any significant way.

Let’s hope for more surprises, then.

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Israel’s major parties support a non-democratic one-state solution http://972mag.com/israels-major-parties-support-a-non-democratic-one-state-solution/63380/ http://972mag.com/israels-major-parties-support-a-non-democratic-one-state-solution/63380/#comments Sat, 05 Jan 2013 09:24:02 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=63380 No matter what their beliefs about Palestinians’ aims and desires, the policy of Israel’s leaders does not accord with their stated support for a two-state solution or for a democratic and Jewish state.

Following up on my post regarding the two-state solution (and some of the comments to that post), I would like to put forth a more general and formal version of my argument.

Let’s say that you are stridently opposed to the idea of one state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean – one that would be undemocratic, and based on the explicit, formal and institutionalized supremacy of the (soon-to-be) Jewish minority within such a state. Let’s also say that you reject a democratic and egalitarian one-state solution, which would not – in your opinion – be compatible with the Jewish right for national self-determination. What do you do?

That depends on your assessment regarding the Palestinian position. As I see it, there are three possibilities for understanding the Palestinians’ stand.

First, you may believe that the Palestinians will reject any solution in which the state of Israel continues to exist in anything resembling its current form. If that is what you think, the solution is clear: dismantle the vast majority of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and retreat to lines of contiguous Israeli territory.

Such a solution would be good for security, as it does not constrict the IDF’s operational leeway in any way, and indeed it would release precious resources currently directed to defending these settlements. It would show the world Israel is committed to a reasonable solution, and would allow the country to retain both its Jewish and (formally) democratic character. Even the economic cost would be limited, as not all that many settlers live in those isolated settlements. It would entail a political rift with the hard right, but then again, the hard right supports a non-democratic one-state solution, so it is hard to see how friction with it can be avoided, if you stick to your own positions.

Second, you may believe that the Palestinians will only accept a solution in which they get 98 percent of West Bank. In this case, you will just give them what they want. You get to avoid the one-state non-democratic nightmare you are so concerned about, peace with the Palestinians, and widespread international support, probably covering most of the cost of this mass evacuation.

Third, you may believe that the Palestinians will accept a lot less than 98 percent, perhaps 94 percent (as Olmert suggested), or even less than that. In that case, it is only a matter of holding out until they cave. How long will you wait? Ten years? 20? 45? Eventually, you may conclude that Palestinians will not cave after all, or you will just grow impatient of living in your one-state, non-democratic nightmare for so long, that you will decide those few percentage of the West Bank are just not worth the trouble.

This bare-bones analysis clearly shows that, no matter what their beliefs about Palestinians’ aims and desires, the policy of Israel’s leaders does not accord with their stated support for a two-state solution or for a democratic and Jewish state. Whether they like to admit it or not (even to themselves), the leaders of all of Israel’s major parties support a non-democratic, one-state solution, based on Jewish supremacy.

In controversy over Peres remarks, Israeli ‘center-left’ pays lip service to two-state solution
+972 Magazine elections coverage

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In controversy over Peres remarks, Israeli ‘center-left’ pays lip service to two-state solution http://972mag.com/in-controversy-over-peres-remarks-israeli-center-left-pays-lip-service-to-two-state-solution/63168/ http://972mag.com/in-controversy-over-peres-remarks-israeli-center-left-pays-lip-service-to-two-state-solution/63168/#comments Tue, 01 Jan 2013 19:04:36 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=63168 The recent controversy over remarks made by President Peres regarding negotiations with Palestinians exposes how the ‘center-left’ pays lip service to the two-state solution, while still preferring a one-state solution with Jewish supremacy.

During the current election campaign, two of the most popular party leaders identified with the center-left have done almost everything in their power to avoid saying anything left-sounding on the Palestinian topic. Yair Lapid, leader (and personification) of Yesh Atid, and Shelly Yechimovitch, head of the Labor party, have often tried to position themselves to the right of this issue (Yachimovitch saying nice things about settlements, Lapid opposing division of Jerusalem and favoring a free hand for the IDF).

Three weeks before the elections, the past few days have witnessed a rare break in this trend. The occasion was a speech by the supposedly non-political head of state, President Shimon Peres, before Israeli ambassadors to foreign nations. Peres presented his well-known position, that the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, is willing and able to make the concessions necessary for an agreement on a two-state solution with Israel. He criticized statements to the contrary, made by Prime Minister Netanyahu and former Foreign Minister Lieberman (both of the Likud-Beitenu party).

His message apparently resonated with the audience who, later in the same conference, complained that defending Israel abroad is made more difficult by the government’s intransigent positions and actions (a point reaffirmed by a recent think tank report). They were promptly told by Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror to keep their opinions to themselves or resign and run for political office.

The president got only a slightly milder treatment. Likud-Beitenu issued a statement expressing disappointment in the president, blasting him for being “disconnected,” causing damage to Israel’s image abroad, and calling Abbas a “peace refusenik.”

Lapid and Yachimovitch could have settled for defending the popular president, an octogenarian who in two-thirds of a century of political activity has gone from defense-establishment hawk to hated symbol of the left to quintessential consensus figure and elder statesman. Instead, they both chose to combine their spirited rejection of the attacks on Peres with a relatively strong defense of the two-state solution, arguing that it is the only Zionist solution with a national consensus behind it.

The latter point is confirmed by a recent poll, showing a majority support for a two-state solution – including the division of Jerusalem – among the general public, and even among more than 50 percent of right-wing Likud-Beitenu and HaBayit HaYehudi (The Jewish Home) voters. Indeed, it may explain the response of Yachimovich and Lapid, 90 percent of whose voters support this solution.

Yet the two-state position (tepidly supported by Netanyahu as well) was not the main point of contention in the uproar over Peres’ remarks. Right-wing ire was raised by the contention that Abbas, the Palestinian leader, was a genuine partner for peace talks.

That is the crux of the matter. The real debate among Israel’s major parties is not about the two-state solution. It is about how to best avoid it. Peres, Lapid, Yachimovich and Israel’s ambassadors all prefer the method of endless negotiations, backed by ceaseless proclamations of good faith and willingness to make concessions, which was government policy for most of the last two decades (including Peres’ tenure as prime minister in 1995-1996). The current version of Likud, on the other hand, believes that the best way to achieve pretty much the same goal is to constantly decry any credible Palestinian interlocutor as a fraud.

Abbas is a problem for them because it is hard to pin this label on him. Under his leadership, the Palestinians have boosted security cooperation with Israel, and he has made unprecedented remarks regarding concessions on Palestinian refugees’ right of return, and on recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.

In response, Lieberman, when he was still Israel’s Diplomat-in-Chief, called Abbas “a liar, a coward and a weakling,” accusing him of “diplomatic terror” (which is apparently “more serious” than “conventional terror”) for harshly criticizing Israel, promoting an economic boycott of the settlements, and trying to gain recognition for a Palestinian state  in the UN.

The weakness of these charges exposes the precarious position of the current Israeli government (which, nonetheless, has suffered very little internationally for it). Yet is the opposition any better? Yachimovich and Lapid, as mentioned, are trying to stir clear of this topic, except when they need  to show their base they haven’t gone completely off the deep end, as had happened following the attack on Peres.

But even Tzipi Livni, the one leader of the “center-left” bloc who has focused her campaign on negotiations with the Palestinians, is not really credible on this issue. After all, we have now had nearly two decades of negotiations with the Palestinians, with the last round (under the government of Ehud Olmert, in 2008) involving Livni herself as foreign minister.

These negotiations have made it clear that Palestinian leaders understand that the hope of a mass return of Palestinian refugees to Israel is unrealistic. But they have also shown that Israeli governments, of all political stripes, do not show the same realism regarding the second core issue of borders, including in and around Jerusalem.

On this issue, the offer that has been labeled the most “generous” by an Israeli leader was made by Olmert in 2008, included the annexation of 6.4 percent of the West Bank to Israel (with land swaps in other places to compensate for that territory). That proposal, while entailing the eviction of many settlements, would have kept in place towns such as Ma’ale Adumim and Ariel, slicing the West Bank into several isolated enclaves, making any Palestinian state completely non-viable.

Olmert’s offer came on the heels of a Palestinian proposal which suggested annexing 1.9 percent of the West Bank to Israel, keeping in place 63 percent of the settler population, while calling for the eviction of the large settlements that sit at the heart of Palestinian territory.

That is the real issue at stake. Not the two-state solution, nor Abbas’ character as a potential partner for peace. It is a bit more than 4 percent of the West Bank, settled by less than 3 percent of Israel’s population, and necessary for the making of a viable Palestinian state. This is the 4 percent that Livni is not willing to give up (she even thought that Olmert’s offer went too far), not to mention Lapid or Yachimovich.

If the choice is between that 4 percent of territory or a one-state solution based on Jewish supremacy (the status-quo ante), they prefer the latter. As long as that is the case, their main contention with the right is, and will remain, over diplomatic tactics rather than substance.

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Israeli minister aptly compares Ariel settlement with Falklands http://972mag.com/israeli-minister-aptly-compares-ariel-settlement-with-falklands/62967/ http://972mag.com/israeli-minister-aptly-compares-ariel-settlement-with-falklands/62967/#comments Sun, 30 Dec 2012 08:55:15 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=62967 Last Tuesday, it became official: the IDF (following approval from Defense Minister Barak) recognized the academic center in the settlement of Ariel as a full-fledged university. International condemnation soon followed. A UK minister, for instance, expressed disappointment regarding Israel’s decision, and labeled it an obstacle to peace.

In response, Israeli Education Minister Gideon Saar (Likud) argued that “[o]ur connection to Ariel is at least as strong as the UK’s connection to the Falkland Islands.” This comparison is quite apt because Ariel, like the Falklands, is the product of a colonial enterprise, meant to place a metropolitan population amidst a weaker people.

Furthermore, Ariel and the Falklands are both islands. Whereas the Falklands are surrounded by an ocean of water, Ariel is surrounded by Palestinians. It is at the very heart of the West Bank with very little geographic contiguity with Jewish areas of residence inside the Green Line, or even with other settlements in the West Bank. That is why any map that attempts to include it as part of Israel within a two-state solution ends up looking like it was drawn by a cubist painter.

There are distinctions, of course. Most importantly, the other claimant for sovereignty over the Falklands – Argentina – is a sovereign and independent nation. The Palestinians, who have been uprooted to make room for Ariel, are a stateless people living on lands inhabited by them for generations, kept in this position by the very Israeli power that founded and recognized the “university” in Ariel.

Perhaps the most revealing part of this comparison is that Saar, like many of my compatriots, probably sees very little difference between the actual human beings that surround Ariel and want it gone, and the indifferent seawater that surround the Falklands on every side. That might be a greater obstacle to peace than the settlement itself.


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Putting together Netanyahu’s next coalition might be trickier than it seems http://972mag.com/netanyahus-post-election-coalition-might-be-trickier-than-it-seems/62893/ http://972mag.com/netanyahus-post-election-coalition-might-be-trickier-than-it-seems/62893/#comments Fri, 28 Dec 2012 08:45:40 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=62893 Netanyahu will continue to serve as prime minister after the upcoming elections, but putting together a governing coalition will have significant long-term implications.

The headline result of the upcoming elections in Israel, as Noam Sheizaf has thoroughly documented, is not in doubt. Benjamin Netanyahu will continue as Israel’s prime minister for another term, and will strive to maintain his policy of status quo in every area of policy.

Nonetheless, there are at least two aspects of uncertainty in these elections. First, the potential for more significant changes in areas not related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (such as economic policy or secular-religious relations). Second, these election results could shape the dynamics of the following elections, in which a different outcome is certainly possible (especially considering the incredible volatility of Israeli politics over the past two decades).

To understand these elements of uncertainty, one must examine the different scenarios for post-elections coalition formation. Netanyahu will win, but like all of Israel’s previous prime ministers, his party will not have enough seats to form a government on its own.

The most natural composition of a Likud-led coalition would be what Noam has labeled the right-Orthodox bloc, which will almost certainly hold a majority in the next Knesset. Netanyahu has been reluctant to rely on this formation exclusively, which has brought him down for the slightest of compromises in his first premiership in the 1990s. But having this option would strengthen his hand in discussions with other potential partners.

Right now, the greatest threat for this scenario comes from two tiny parties, struggling to gain enough votes to reach the threshold necessary to get seats in the Knesset.

Am Shalem is an unconventional and hard-to-classify party, a splinter of the ultra-orthodox Shas party, which is nonetheless running hard against current ultra-Orthodox leadership, arguing for modernization in this community. It is likely to draw the majority of its votes from the right-Orthodox bloc, yet it is hard to envisage its participation in a coalition which includes the very parties it is running against.

The second tiny party is Otzma LeYisrael, a far-right party. It will take all its votes from the right-Orthodox block, but its prospects of joining the coalition are unclear. Netanyahu might balk at relying on such rabid extremists, and they could actually prefer the opposition, where they would not be tainted by compromise and could snipe at their slightly-less-hard-right colleagues at Likud-Beitenu and Habayit Hayehudi, helping them to grow in the next elections.

Right now, these two tiny parties seem unlikely to impair the right-Orthodox majority, which is poised to gain at least 64 (of 120) seats without them, according to +972’s Poll Tracker. However, when it comes to tiny parties, especially new ones such as these, the polls are structurally incapable of properly assessing their strength. Even the best polls have a margin of error of at least 3 percent, whereas these parties are struggling to get less than that.

Furthermore, the polls themselves may play a role in the result, as voters strategically wait to see if these parties can even pass the minimal threshold of 2 percent to get seats in the Knesset before deciding whether to vote for them. Indeed, this may be the main hindrance these parties face, as their message seems to be resonating with many voters. A late surge in the polls, even an erroneous one, could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and vice versa.

What happens if Netanyahu is denied the option of forming a stable right-Orthodox coalition, thereby greatly strengthening the bargaining position of potential partners outside the bloc? What would be his path of least resistance?

Hatnua, the dovish sui generis party of former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, will probably be at the bottom of his list. Despite being a former member of Likud, Netanyahu’s own party, Livni has positioned herself as the champion of reaching an agreement with the Palestinians, which would involve significant territorial concessions. Nothing could be further from Netanyahu’s mind. Livni, who has given up the prime minister’s seat in the past to maintain her principles, is unlikely to be tempted to give them up for the much more junior position that Netanyahu might offer in her return.

Yesh Atid, another sui generis party headed by political neophyte and media personality Yair Lapid, is a much more comfortable partner for Netanyahu. It will certainly not give him any headaches on the Palestinian issue. However, Lapid has promoted himself as the champion of the overburdened Jewish-secular middle class. The emblematic issues of recruiting the ultra-Orthodox to the military and getting them from the Yeshivas to the labor market are an important part of his political brand. If he insists on them, it might make him incompatible with the ultra-Orthodox parties – an essential partner for Netanyahu. If he folds on these issues, he would be the ideal partner.

The Labor Party presents a more complicated picture. On the one hand, its leader, Shelly Yachimovich, seems to be the best fit for Netanyahu. She has prioritized neither the Palestinian issue (on which she is much more to the right than Labor’s traditional positions) nor the religious-secular fissure.

Instead, her obsession is with economic policy, where she wants to significantly increase spending on social programs and increase taxes on the wealthy. Netanyahu, despite his neoliberal inclinations, has proven flexible on these issues, and he could certainly work on them with Yachimovich who is actually much more pragmatic than her firebrand image, and much more in tune on this issue with many Likud voters and backbenchers than Netanyahu himself.

However, unlike Lapid and Livni’s parties, which are likely to follow their leaders quite blindly, Labor is anything but sui generis. As Israel’s oldest party, by some counts, it is famously patricidal towards its leaders, and could as easily turn matricidal towards the second woman leader in its history (just as it did for its first, Golda Meir, caving to protests following the disastrous Yom Kippur War).

Already, Yachimovich’s right turn on the Palestinian issue is producing serious grumbles in the ranks. Most dissenters have chosen to ditch the party altogether for Livni, but enough have remained to make trouble for her and Netanyahu, should a coalition be formed. That is precisely what they did in the current Knesset when they drove out Labor’s previous leader, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, after he formed a coalition with Likud. Ironically, in that round, Yachimovich was one of the dissenters, and refused to sit in Netanyahu’s government, certainly not an auspicious omen for a Likud-Labor coalition re-make.

So, Netanyahu will certainly be prime minister, but the stability of his second term will be far less certain. A lot depends on two tiny parties, whose support is nearly impossible to estimate in advance, along with the major parties of the center-left bloc, all of which are running on untested platforms. An internally divided and discordant coalition could mean an opportunity for whomever remains in opposition, and could offer a compelling alternative to dissatisfied Israeli voters in the next elections.

Read more: 
The rise of the extreme right is the story of the Israeli elections
What’s the deal with Shelly Yachimovich?

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