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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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Does Israel intentionally target civilians?

Israeli policy (unlike Hamas or Hezbollah) is not intended to maximize civilian casualties. Yet it does intentionally target civilians: it is intended to produce maximal civilian distress, while avoiding mass civilian casualties.

In discussions about the Israeli-Arab conflict, one of the perennial issues is the targeting of non-combatants. The reactions to the brutal murders in the settlement of Itamar, and the collective punishment of the nearby Palestinian village Awarta (where the alleged killers live) have exemplified the concern many feel about the lack of distinction between those involved in hostilities and uninvolved civilians.

Even more attention has been given to the curious Washington Post article by Judge Richard Goldstone, who headed a UN fact-finding mission to investigate allegations of war crimes during the Gaza war of 2009. One of the key statements in this op-ed was (my emphasis):

I believe Goldstone’s article (and to some extent, his committee’s report) miss a critical nuance. Israeli policy (unlike Hamas or Hezbollah) is not intended to maximize civilian casualties. Yet it does intentionally target civilians: it is intended to produce maximal civilian distress, while avoiding mass civilian casualties.

One of the clearest articulations of this policy, cited in the Goldstone report, was made by Major General Gadi Eizenkot, in 2008, while discussing the lessons learned from the 2006 Lebanon war. According to him (Heb), trying to hit rocket launchers is “complete nonsense”, because “when there are thousands of launchers on the other side, it is impossible to hunt them down.” Israel, instead, should focus on deterrence:

Eizenkot emphasized that “this is not a recommendation, this is the plan and it has been approved”.

The concept which underlies this plan is clear. Hitting military targets is difficult, and destroying the enemy’s entire armed forces would require immense resources. Non-combatants, on the other hand, are labeled “soft” targets for a reason. By inflicting massive damage on the civilian population, one creates public political pressure, within the other side, to end hostilities under favorable conditions.

This has been Israel’s explicit policy in Lebanon for decades now. The Israeli Air Force official website, describing (Heb) an IDF operation in Lebanon in 1993, notes that many Lebanese civilians were forced to leave their homes, and adds that “the refugee convoys were supposed to apply pressure on the Lebanese government to act against the terrorist organizations.” A similar operation in 1996 is...

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Preeminent Israelis to support Palestinian state, 1967 borders

Tomorrow, a group of preeminent Israelis will endorse Palestinian statehood along the 1967 borders, and call on compatriots to join them. Will a Palestinian “state” be a game changer? And, if so, will it mark a change for the better?

A couple of weeks ago, Ami asked why the Israeli left isn’t debating the prospect of Palestinian statehood being proclaimed and internationally recognized this year. It did not take long for an answer to emerge.

Tomorrow, 17 recipients of the Israeli state’s highest honor – the “Israel Prize” – will hold an event in front of the hall where Israeli independence was proclaimed in 1948. During this event, they will sign a document supporting recognition of a Palestinian state along the border that existed between Israel and the Palestinian territories before the 1967 occupation. They will also call on the public to join them in signing the document.

One of sociology’s founding fathers, Max Weber, defined a state as a body which holds a monopoly on the use of armed force in a certain territory. This is still the most commonly used definition of a state in social and political theory. And by that measure, there will be no Palestinian state in 2011, even if such a fiction is proclaimed by the Palestinians and recognized by the international community.

In his post, Ami recognized this but still argued that “there is no doubt that the vote [in the UN, on Palestinian statehood] will have immense ramifications.” Well, I actually have serious doubts. Is it really so hard to imagine a world in which Palestinians declare their independence, the vast majority of the world recognizes them, including even the US administration (Congress will never accept that, of course), yet nothing really changes?

After all, no one doubts Syrian statehood, yet Israel has been sitting on a slice of their territory since 1967. The same happened with the Egyptian Sinai in 1956-1957 and again in 1967-1979, and for a substantial portion of south Lebanon between 1978 and 2000. And when Hezbollah, a Lebanese terrorist group, attacked Israel after its withdrawal, it had no qualms about retaliating, culminating in the bloody Lebanon war in 2006 in which a small portion of Lebanon’s territory was briefly reoccupied.

Certainly, the Palestinian issue is different, but in every aspect, this makes a declaration of statehood seem even less of a game changer. Ami believes...

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Passover: Why did god harden the Pharaoh's heart?

If the pharaoh is not allowed to repent, why go through with the charade of giving him an option? If the point is a display of divine power, why does one need to go through the pharaoh at all?

Tonight marks the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Passover, commemorating the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. On this occasion, each Jew is expected to consider herself as having personally participated in this historical event; because if the exodus had not happened, Jews would still be slaves in Egypt. Therefore, this event has contributed to every Jew’s liberation in perpetuity.

Taken literally, this logic may seem flawed, considering that thousands of years have passed, and it is unlikely that history would have frozen in its tracks. As a metaphor, however, it points to a constitutive moment in the Jewish people’s history, when they were transformed from a group of slaves to a political collective of free people.

However, when you read the biblical book of Exodus, the bulk of the story describing the Israelites’ emergence from slavery to freedom is devoted to the ten plagues, the variety of disasters god inflicted on Egypt, in order to ensure the Jews’ liberation.

Except, this was not their purpose at all, and the bible makes this very clear. In the story, it is stated, no less than eight times, that God had “hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt”. This hardening caused the Pharaoh to refuse emancipation for the Israelites, leading in turn to more plagues.

Scholars of the bible have struggled with this element of the story. There is an explanation provided in the text: “I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might show these my signs before him”. Some interpreters have accepted this claim at face value. Maimonides offered a more creative explanation. According to him, Pharaoh’s sins were so heavy he was given the ultimate penalty: revoking his ability to repent.

None of these justifications gets at the heart of the matter. The fundamental problem is that God’s hardening of the Egyptian king’s heart makes the whole episode seem like Kabuki theatre on steroids. If the pharaoh is not allowed to repent, why go through with the charade of giving him an option? If the point is a display of divine power, why does one need to go through the pharaoh at all?

I would...

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Israel builds town to ensure "the Arabs won't rear their heads"

The State of Israel is building a town in the country’s north. Its purpose: to make sure “the Arabs won’t rear their heads” and to “put them in proportion.” Anybody objecting to this goal should “go live with the Palestinians” and is “harming Israel’s security.”

Last week, the Knesset passed a bill that legalizes “acceptance committees” in small localities, a tool that is used to maintain segregation between Jews and Arabs (as well as keeping out various other “undesirables”). As I wrote, this bill is just one of the many policies through which Israel denies its Palestinian citizens the right for adequate housing, even on their own private land.

Another one of these policies is called “Judaization.” It is aimed mainly at Israel’s northern and southern periphery, where most Israeli Palestinians reside. Its purpose is to prevent Palestinians from forming a majority in any area of Israel, so that they will not be able to secede or demand autonomy in that area. This aim is achieved by strategically establishing Jewish localities to create contiguous strips of Jewish settlements, which cut off any sequence of Palestinian habitation.

This is an explicit, formal policy, unabashedly promoted by all Israeli governments. However, it is rarely articulated as bluntly as in comments reported [Hebrew] today in the Israeli business daily TheMarker (a subsidiary of Ha’aretz).

The comments were made by Nissim Dahan, the head of the local council for Harish-Katzir, a Jewish locality of 4,000 residents in Israel’s north. Dahan was not elected by the residents, but rather appointed by the Interior Minister, to promote a plan to build a town of 150,000 residents where Harish is currently located. This plan is strongly opposed by Jewish locals, as well as by nearby Palestinian localities.

Dahan is a former Minister of Health and a member of Shas, the ultra-orthodox Sephardic party. Although the ultra-orthodox have traditionally been skeptical towards the Zionist enterprise, in recent years they have become increasingly nationalist, with Shas leading the trend. However, the following comments, made by Dahan in 2008, are completely in the mainstream of Israeli society:

This is Israel’s interest. We want to Judaize the Wadi Ara area [a mainly Palestinian area where Harish is located]… The state wants to put this place in order so that the Arabs won’t rear their heads. 150 thousand Jews who will live here will put them [the Arabs]...

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