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Israeli Nobel laureate offers rightwing talking points on Palestine

Yisrael Aumann won the Nobel Prize in Economics, yet still manages to make no sense on Israeli-Palestinian peace

Professor Yisrael Aumann, an Israeli laureate of the Nobel Prize in Economics, delivered on Wednesday a “master class” in the Presidential Conference in Jerusalem, under the title “Peace in the Middle East: A Game Theorist’s Perspective”. The Jerusalem Post devoted an entire article just to Aumann’s presentation, crowning him as “an out-of-the-box thinker with a pronounced though slightly cockeyed sense of humor and a gift for delivering shockers.”

These shockers included praise for Helen Thomas, the Roman destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70 AD, and Obama’s rather obvious argument that the “belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it.” Out of the box, indeed. Yet, despite the lack of creativity, Aumann’s rehashing of right-wing talking points, which his presentation apparently turned out to be, is illuminating in several ways.

Take, for example, the issue of educating Palestinians to support peace. This was one of Aumann’s top priorities:

Israelis have been blasting the Palestinian Authority for not doing enough to stop terrorism since it was founded. In recent years, however, under Abu Mazen’s leadership, it has become increasingly harder to make this argument. The PA has tightened security cooperation with Israel, and has massively clamped down on terrorist cells and organization. This is one of the factors contributing to a sharp decline in Palestinian attacks and Israeli fatalities in recent years.

So, after this excuse has been taken away from them, Israeli governments have had to resurrect the old hobbyhorse of incitement and education. Beyond the hypocrisy, the argument simply makes no sense. What Aumann neglected to mention is that Israel controlled the Palestinian education system, from the start of the occupation in 1967 to the establishment of the PA in 1994, for 27 years. All Palestinians between the ages of 24 and 59 have spent at least some time in Israeli-controlled classrooms, and those between the ages of 35 and 50 have spent their entire time in school under Israeli control.

According to Aumann’s logic, these people – who also happen to dominate the ranks of school teachers and principals, and education ministry officials – should have been strong advocates for peace. Perhaps hate for Israel has more to do with the occupation and Israeli policies than with education?

According to the Jerusalem...

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Test yourself: do you support the occupation?

Noam ended his post from yesterday with an interesting sentence: “Without America’s support for it, there would have been no occupation.” It has occurred to me that the US probably does not perceive itself as a supporter of the occupation. So, for the benefit of up-and-coming politicians and diplomats, I have prepared a short test they can take, to see whether they support or oppose the occupation.

Question 1: How often do you talk about the Palestinian issue?

a. Incessantly, even when asked about Peru or Japan.

b. Only when I have something new and substantial to say.

c. Only when I am cornered by a pack of ravenous journalists.

d. What issue?

Score: a – zero points for prioritizing talk over action; b – one point for being serious; c – zero points for evading the issue; d – minus one point for utter callousness.

Question 2: How will you vote in the UN on a Palestinian state?

a. In favor of recognition; then I plan to rest for a decade.

b. I will do everything in my power to avoid this immensely difficult choice.

c. Against recognition. I am part of the moral majority, and will burn down the UN building if the rest of the world votes against me.

d. I have bigger fish to fry.

Score: a – zero points for focusing on pointless symbolism; b – zero points for taking yourself way too seriously; c – minus one point for making no sense; d – one point for having the right priorities.

Question 3: What is your recipe for ending the occupation?

a. More peace talks – it can’t possibly fail.

b. Build institutions for a Palestinian state.

c. Put pressure on Israel to end it.

d. Stop calling it the occupation.

Score: a – really? zero points; b – 0.1 points for at least trying; c – one point for fingering the culprit; d – minus one point for distorting reality.

Question 4: What should policy towards Israel look like?

a. Shower it with unconditional largesse.

b. Demand a partial and temporary settlement freeze.

c. Harshly criticize the occupation and other violations of human rights.

d. Make vague, non-credible threats about sanctions.

Score: a – minus one point for being counterproductive; b – zero points for missing the point; c – one...

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Israel policy myth #2: Separation between Jews and Arabs is not racist

Racist attitudes against Arabs are widespread in Israel. Numerous official policies segregate and separate Jews from Palestinians, with a vastly discriminatory effect and intent. Justifications alluding to security needs, or alleging that separation is based on citizenship rather than ethnic origin, do not withstand close scrutiny.

One of the most acrimonious controversies surrounding Israeli policy concerns the accusation that it has created a system of apartheid between Jews and Palestinian in territories under its control. The issue is so sensitive, that some activists have come to refer to the term as “the A-word”.

While bickering over nomenclature is, in my opinion, an unfortunate distraction, the debate on this topic has raised an interesting question. Many of Israel’s defenders angrily reject the accusation of apartheid, claiming that even if there are certain mechanisms of separation between Jews and Palestinians, they are not motivated by racism and do not reflect a racial ideology, unlike the South African regime that was dismantled in 1994.

Obviously, contemporary Israel is different from Apartheid South Africa in too many ways to enumerate. Putting the comparisons aside, is the core argument true? Is separation between Jews and Palestinians motivated by racism or not?

Although Israeli society has not been free from ideas of a biological hierarchy among racial groups, this line of thought has largely been marginal. However, arguments of “cultural” inferiority have gained much more currency. Orientalism – the view of an undefined “East” as lethargic and static in comparison to the West’s dynamism – has been a central feature of Jewish Israeli thought in regards to the Arab Middle East. It has also affected views of Sephardic Jews - those who immigrated to Israel from Middle Eastern countries.

Outright racism against Palestinians and Arabs is quite common and widespread in Israel, and it goes beyond animosity generated by the century-long conflict between the two groups. Three-quarters of Israeli Jewish high school students believe that Arabs are not cultured, uneducated, unclean and violent. 69 percent believe they are not smart. Sadly, these beliefs are at least tolerated by the Israeli Jewish establishment. Racist comments by public officials may be condemned by prominent figures, but the racists remain on the state payroll.

These attitudes have not resulted in separate lunch counters or water fountains. As Israel’s defenders rightly point out, Jews and Palestinians study together in universities and travel on...

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Israel policy myth #1: security is our first concern

Although Israel does face some significant security threats, it is very hard to explain the priorities and decisions of its leadership by the need to address these threats. This is the first part in a series about the top ten myths regarding Israeli policy.

Even some critics of Israeli policy regarding the Palestinians and Arab states would concede that it is motivated by security concerns. Indeed, these policies are often attacked for being excessively focused on security, at the expense of the country’s values and long term interests. Security is the most frequent justification articulated by Israeli leaders in defense of their policies, although its prominence has receded in recent years, as threats such as Palestinian terrorism or the Iranian nuclear programs have become less salient.

Israel does face some significant and real security threats, although their magnitude and probability is often exaggerated. However, it is very hard to explain the priorities and decisions of its leadership by the need to address these threats.

Exhibit one is the ongoing neglect of issues relating to civil defense, emergency preparedness and other measures to protect civilians from harm in case they are attacked. This neglect, despite frequent warnings and exposés, is not congruent with an obsessive focus on security. In several cases (such as the Gaza and Lebanon wars), Israeli governments have been willing to spend billions on a war, putting lives on both sides at great risk, in the name of protecting their people from attack. But the same governments also refused to spend millions on measures that would protect exposed areas from the very attacks the war was meant to end.

Israel’s West Bank policy conveys a similar impression. Few Israelis, let alone outsiders, understand just how much of the country’s military resources are spent on maintaining and defending the settlements (with a non-trivial portion going to cover settler obstructionism of these efforts). In the first decade after the occupation began in 1967, Israel argued that the settlements serve security needs, but this claim has been marginalized since the country’s own High Court of Justice shot it down in the late 1970s.

Israeli policy is not randomly chosen, of course, and it is not motivated by mere malice or spite either (although a climate of anger and hatred can make some policies more extreme). There are a multitude of factors that trump security in...

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Top ten myths about Israeli policy

In the next few weeks, I will write a separate post about each of the top ten myths about Israeli policy, tackling the obfuscation and confusion that often characterize discussions of official Israeli positions and actions, at home and abroad. My top ten list appears below

Inspired by the fascinating series on constitutional myths in the United States (well, fascinating for American politics junkies like myself), by Garret Epps in the Atlantic, I have decided to create my own list of myths. This list refers to myths about current government policy in Israel. It therefore excludes the variety of cultural, social and historical myths surrounding Israel, in order to focus on the obfuscation and confusion that often characterize discussions of official Israeli positions and actions, at home and abroad.

The list is not ranked in any particular order. The various myths have been selected in order to highlight different policy issues, although relations between Jews and Palestinians get a very prominent representation, with half the items in the list. I tried to include myths that are both relatively widespread, and significant in shaping discussions of policy.

In the next few weeks, I will write a separate post about each myth, explaining its origins, significance and the reality it conceals. Here is the list (if you have suggestions for more items, feel free to add them in the comments, adhering to 972′s policy on commenting, of course):

Myth #1: Policy towards Palestinians and Arab states is governed by security concerns.

Myth #2: Separation between Jews and Palestinians is not based on a racist ideology.

Myth #3: In response to a flood of illegal immigrants, the government is working to reduce the number of work migrants.

Myth #4: Israel’s social safety net is better than that in the US.

Myth #5: Israeli Arabs receive fewer benefits because they do not have to serve in the military.

Myth #6: The government is afraid of the settlers and incapable of standing up to them.

Myth #7: The ultra-orthodox reap benefits from disproportionate political influence.

Myth #8: Women’s rights in Israel are largely the same as in other Western countries.

Myth #9: The High Court of Justice defends civil liberties and human rights.

Myth #10: All Jews are encouraged to immigrate to Israel.

Read more in this series:

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1967 borders: Land swaps are no cure-all

The idea that the tough choice about settlers can somehow be waved away through the magic wand of land swaps is a fantasy. Any solution that will leave most settlers in place (in one state, or two states) will be just a perpetuation of the conflict under another title.

Following the uproar in the United States and Israel about his comments regarding 1967 borders, Obama, in his speech to AIPAC last week, stated

This response rebuts critics, who have falsely claimed that Obama insists on a return to 1967 borders, and makes clear that Obama himself support changes to those borders. The crux of the matter appears to be the “swaps,” which are the sum of the difference between the 1967 borders and the modified borders that Obama (and many others) have in mind. To understand the debate on this issue, therefore, one must first understand the rationale and purpose of the swaps idea.

The main dispute about the border between Israel and a future Palestinian state concerns the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, with a population of roughly half a million people, of which about 200,000 live in areas surrounding Jerusalem, unilaterally annexed by Israel, and the rest spread throughout the Palestinian territories.

Israel wants to evacuate as few of these settlers as possible, whereas the Palestinians want to keep as much as their territory as possible. This is where the swaps come in: Israel will annex lands holding the majority of the settlers, thus reducing the amount of people evacuated, and the Palestinians will be compensated with other territories, which are within Israel’s internationally recognized borders, thus allowing them to keep the same amount of land.

On the surface, this appears to be a neat solution, and, in fact, the principle of land swaps has been largely accepted by both sides. The differences seem tiny: According to the Palestine Papers, in 2008, Israel offered land swaps amounting to 6.3 percent of the West Bank area, the Palestinians countered with 1.9 percent, and negotiations fell apart at this point. The West Bank is extremely small, smaller than three quarters of existing sovereign countries. The land area in dispute amounts to less than 250 square kilometers, or about 60,000 acres.

But what is truly at stake in the issue of borders is not the amount of land that is to be exchanged, but its geographical distribution. To...

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Great minds: Yglesias also notes that Israel is not America's best friend

I may have gotten there first, but ThinkProgress blogger Matthew Yglesias had the same reaction to Netanyahu’s speech as I did:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a lot of things in his address to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress on Tuesday, most of them foolish and some of them offensive. But one of his very first statements was among the most important: “Israel has no better friend than America,” he claimed, “and America has no better friend than Israel.”

The former is accurate. The latter is absurd.

These are almost my exact words, and I am obviously in agreement, and gratified that a great blogger like Yglesias had the same thought. He goes on to dismantle Netanyahu’s claim much more thoroughly than I did, and does so from an American perspective, so I warmly recommend reading his column. If anything, I think he is not harsh enough on Israel, considering that even within the framework of its current extreme policies, our government could still find some room to accommodate US interests, yet refuses to do even that little.

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Netanyahu's speech: Israel is not a good friend to the US

The US has many better friends than Israel

Among the many troubling statements in Netanyahu’s speech before the US congress yesterday, it was something that he said at the very outset, which really stood out:

The first sentence is true. Indeed, it is probably an understatement. The US extends to Israel support and assistance which it provides to no other country in the world (perhaps not even to some parts of the US itself).

The second sentence is false. The US has plenty of better friends than Israel. There are countries in the world that have put their soldiers in harm’s way when the US was attacked on September 11th. Others have changed policies or offered diplomatic support despite the internal and external price they had to pay.

Certainly, they have done so for their own interests, or because the US had done the same for them. But both considerations apply to Israel as well. And yet, this country refuses to show any consideration for US interests, even when the price to pay is tiny.

The settlement freeze debacle and the ugly, and pointless, confrontation between Netanyahu and Obama over 1967 borders are just the most recent examples. Israel has repeatedly embarrassed the US, and undermined its initiatives and policies, for the last few decades, on issues ranging from human rights to nuclear disarmament. It backed down from selling US technologies to China only under monumental pressure, recruited spies in the US to get information the Americans would not share, and many other acts of ingratitude.

It is a well-known psychological phenomenon, that a person is often more bound to another by extending help rather than receiving it. The more you assist someone else, the more you feel committed to her, rather than the other way around. The US-Israel relationship is a perfect example of that.

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Zombie threat: Rebuttal of the arguments against 67 borders

A lot of people appear to be concerned about the “indefensibility” of 1967 borders. A lot of people also seem to be worried about the prospect of Zombie apocalypse. Far be it from me to imply that there is any overlap between the two groups. Nonetheless, these two notions have one thing in common: much like Zombies, the threat posed by 1967 does not exist.

This is not an original point: it has been made by commentators as diverse as Jonathan Chait and Josh Marhsall, and many others, I am sure. Their general message has been that the Israeli security establishment has long concluded that the threat of a massive invasion by conventional military forces has vastly diminished and as a result, the concerns raised by the border that existed before the occupation in 1967 are no longer very relevant.

In this post, I would like to offer a more systematic rebuttal of the “indefensible” borders argument. As a proxy for this position, I will refer to a popular video, which purports to outline Israel’s security concerns in the framework of negotiations with Palestinians.

As I have already explained, this line of argumentation inevitably implies support for annexation of the entire West Bank and Israeli rule over millions of Palestinians. Nonetheless, it may be worthwhile to examine the points raised by this video on their merit, regardless of their implications.

1967 war – The video states that during the war, Israel was attacked by four Arab armies on three fronts. This statement, as well as the graphic accompanying it, are largely correct, but highly misleading. The war began with a surprise preemptive air strike by Israel on the Egyptians. Arab counterattacks on Israeli territory amounted to limited air strikes (with the few planes they had left), some artillery shelling, and two relatively minor territorial moves in Jerusalem and the Northern front. The vast majority of offensive action during the war, from its initiation to the last moment, was undertaken by Israel. This is actually demonstrated by the video, which shows no ground forces crossing into Israel’s pre-1967 borders. I am not even going to go into their absurd portrayal of UN Security Council resolution 242 (just read the full text), because I want to focus this post on security issues.

Jordan...

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Netanyahu's lie re: "indefensible" 1967 borders

When Netanyahu says the 1967 borders are “indefensible”, this does not mean Israel must seek to avoid conceding too much West Bank land. It means Israel cannot make any concessions.

Last week, in response to Obama’s speech, Netanyahu argued that for Israel, the borders that existed before the 1967 occupation are “indefensible”. He repeated the same point after their meeting yesterday. But what does it mean?

At its core, the “indefensible” borders argument relates to Israel’s small size, and the concentration of its population in a narrow strip along the Mediterranean coast, in great proximity to Palestinian areas of the West Bank. This geographic situation makes Israeli population and infrastructure particularly vulnerable to both “asymmetrical” attacks (e.g. terrorism, rockets, and guerrilla activities) and a conventional invasion by regular armies.

The argument has been used to justify continued Israeli control of the Palestinian territories, and in this form, this is a consistent, albeit cruel and unconscionable, position. Basically, it seeks to use the Palestinian lands as a buffer zone, surrounding and protecting Israeli population centers. Such an arrangement, however, would only make sense if Israel maintains full control over the vast majority of the West Bank’s Palestinian population.

To see why, one need only look at a typical map that aims to show the security threat posed by the 1967 borders.

1967 Borders (Image: JewishVirtualLibray.com)

This map clearly designates the Israeli major cities, but conveniently omits the Palestinian ones. Thus, the arrow showing the distance between the northern West Bank and the Israeli city of Haifa, actually emanates from the area of Jenin, a city and a refugee camp with a combined population of 50,000. The arrow towards Netanya, begins in Tul Karm, with 60,000 people. The Tel Aviv arrow emerges from the area of Qalqilya, with 40,000; and the Ashdod arrow come from the Beyt Jala-Bethlehem area, with 40,000 as well.

But these figures actually underplay the problem. All of these areas include other towns and refugee camps nearby, substantially increasing the relevant population numbers. And if Ashdod is threatened by a distance of 36 Kms, then surely Netanya should be concerned about Nablus, which is even nearer, and is home to 130,000 Palestinians. And we could go on to address Gaza, with over a million Palestinians, and even closer to Israeli cities than...

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Op-ed in Israeli newspaper against academic freedom

The Jerusalem Post, an Israeli English-language newspaper, has published an op-ed by British History professor Geoffery Alderman. In this op-ed, Alderman argues that academics in Israel should not be free to criticize the government’s policy, because the country is at war:

In peacetime, an academic should indeed be free to criticize, castigate, chastise and/or condemn not just the government of the country in which he lives and works, but the country itself. This freedom cannot be claimed when the country is at war and its very survival is at issue.

ISRAEL IS at war… In this deplorable situation I would have thought it the duty of every Israeli academic – no matter his/her party-political outlook – to think very seriously about whether anything they say or do is likely to give comfort to the many enemies of Israel.

This quote is actually the milder portion of the article. The author seems to imply that Israel should adopt policies such as shooting people on sight, media censorship, detention without trial, and executing people for saying anything that would give comfort to the “enemy”.

What is remarkable about this article is not the position it endorses. Although civil liberties in Israel are already restricted (especially for Palestinians), there is a significant constituency for curtailing them even further.

Those who try to quell criticism of government policy usually claim that they are just exercising their own freedom of speech. Indeed, some have even absurdly claimed that it is the government that is being freed expression, with marginal groups somehow achieving an absolute monopoly on the public discourse.

Professor Alderman, described as patron of the UK Council on Academic Freedom, is much more honest. His article brilliantly exposes his allies’ hypocrisy, and their true agenda: establishing a hyper-nationalist security state where criticism and free speech are suppressed.

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Arab republican dictators: A dying breed

Six months ago, there were five Arab republican dictators. Now, all but Syria’s president are out or on their way, and even Assad is facing his biggest challenge since succeeding his father a decade ago

The “Arab Spring” of the last six months has already swept away the dictators of Tunisia and Egypt. Libya’s ruler seems unlikely to survive, and the Yemeni president has agreed to step down in exchange for immunity. This means that the republican dictatorship, once an important type of regime in the Arab world, is on its last legs.

Or, more accurately, its last leg. Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, is facing the most strident and extensive wave of protests the country has seen for decades, and his bloody response has so far failed to suppress the demonstrators. Since Assad inherited his position from his father, it is reasonable to question Syria’s republican credentials, but even if they are sound, it is a dying breed.

Right now, half of the 16 independent Arab states in the Middle East and North Africa are traditional monarchies, where the king exercises supreme political authority. The Arab world holds quite a monopoly on this regime form, adhered to by only three tiny non-Arab states (Brunei, Swaziland and the Vatican).

The other Arab states (aside from complicated exceptions like Lebanon; recently joined by Algeria and Iraq) have been republican dictatorships, headed by an autocrat supported by the military. Not anymore. This is how the 16 Arab regimes were divided in November 2010 (red signifies regimes that have since fallen, blue signifies regimes on their way out, and green signifies regimes shaken by massive protests):

And this how the Arab regimes look six months later:

The picture looks even more impressive in a map form. This is how the Arab world looked in November 2010 (red signifies republican dictatorships, blue signifies traditional monarchies and yellow signifies countries in transition or hybrid regimes):

And this is how the Arab world might look if Syria’s regime is toppled:

There are two main insights that can be gleaned from this data. First, anyone who still argues that the Arab turmoil of the past six...

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Quantitative media analysis: Mentions of peace plans soar

Media coverage of the “peace process” between Israel and the Palestinians is skyrocketing, and has reached its highest level since Obama’s inauguration. Are we really in for another round of the peace talks’ masquerade, which has been the occupation’s lifeline for over twenty years now?

In recent weeks, there has been an increase in media attention to the possibility of yet another plan or initiative for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Discussion has centered on a speech that Prime Minister Netanyahu intends to make before the US congress, and an outline for a final settlement of the conflict that Obama considers presenting.

This may seem like yet another round of an eternal cycle, so I decided to conduct a quantitative analysis of attention given to this issue. I searched Google News for all articles containing the words “Israel” and “peace” and also one of the four words: “initiative”, “plan”, “negotiations”, “talks”. I then collected the number of results for each month of the Obama-Netanyahu period, from February 2009 to the present.

Although this is an imperfect metric, the results do not seem arbitrary, and match relatively well with relevant events, such as the beginning and the end of the short-lived settlement freeze. It would have been useful to conduct a similar search for Hebrew-language outlets. However, due to the small number of results, and the absence of several major news outlets, there is not enough information to establish any significant pattern. Anyhow, under Netanyahu, most of the momentum and push for the “Peace Process”™ have come from the international community.

So is there a significant increase in media mentions of peace plans and initiatives? The answer is an unqualified yes.

March, and April so far, have seen the highest number of media mentions of peace talks in any month since Netanyahu was elected and Obama was inaugurated. The number for March 2011 is almost twice as high as that of September 2010, the previous record holder, when talks between Israel and the Palestinians were revived for a couple of days. Although the media can be wrong, it is worthwhile noting it has not been this excited regarding Israeli-Palestinian “peace” for over two years now.

What should we make of this development? In my opinion, it is a very bad omen. The so-called “peace process”, which has been stumbling along,...

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