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Settlers fear prisoner release deal, extension of talks

Netanyahu has probably spent his Passover vacation trying to reach a deal that would enable the settlers to save face and stay in the government while peace talks continue. The Right is launching campaigns to convince right-wing politicians to vote ‘no.’

With a little more than a week left until the formal deadline for the Israeli-American-Palestinian talks, efforts to extend the negotiations still haven’t produced a breakthrough. Nevertheless, a last-minute deal shouldn’t be ruled out either; often times, the most productive political maneuvering takes place when no news is reported.

On the Israeli side, the best indicators – as always – come from the far right of the political map. A Page 1 ad in Haaretz’s weekend edition, sponsored by The Joint Headquarters (an umbrella organization for some far-right groups), targeted Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, who has been said to be behind “a secret deal.” Liberman has previously announced his opposition to a prisoner release that would allow an extension of the talks. The ad, however, claimed that some ministers in his party will vote yes, so the deal will get the necessary votes despite Liberman’s personal nay.

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The ad was printed again today in Haaretz, this time on page three. There was also a new front-page ad by the Joint Headquarters, this time targeting Likud ministers Silvan Shalom and Limor Livnat. Livnat was considered a hardliner in the past, but in today’s Likud she is a pragmatist, and therefore a target of the Right. Shalom would like to win his party’s support in his upcoming presidential bid, so calling him out makes a lot of sense for the settlers. This is all part of internal Likud tensions between radical settler groups and the old guard, which still backs Netanyahu.

Ad in Haaretz against Palestinian prisoners release, 20.4.2014

Ad in Haaretz against Palestinian prisoners release, 20.4.2014

Another battle front for the hardliners is taking place within the Jewish Home party, where party leader Naftali Bennett is doubling down with inflammatory threats against the prisoner release deal, while others – most notably, proactive Housing Minister Uri Ariel – would like to keep their place in the government even if the negotiations continue. Ariel is willing to bet that nothing will come out of the talks, and meanwhile he would like to...

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When the 'Times' calls for Kerry to move on, what does it 'really' mean?

If the Grey Lady is calling for Washington to reconsider its role as enabler of the occupation, then it is indeed a new approach — perhaps even a revolutionary one.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (Photo: State Dept.)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (Photo: State Dept.)

A couple of days ago, a New York Times editorial called on the Obama administration to divert its attention away from the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process, which is failing to bring results, and onto other global issues. While congratulating Secretary Kerry and President Obama for the energy and time they have put into the process, the Times concludes that “after nine months, it is apparent that the two sides are still unwilling to move on the core issues of the borders of a Palestinian state, the future of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees and guarantees for Israel’s security.”

There is a sort of disconnect in the article between the events it describes, which assigns much of the blame for the failure on the Israeli side, and the careful conclusion, which talks about the “two parties” and “both leaders” who are not ready to take the bold moves necessary for peace. This is part of the permanent framing of the Israeli/Palestinian story in the states, as if we are talking about two equal sides who are fighting or negotiating on an equal playing field. In reality there is one side that is deprived of rights and another that is the absolute sovereign over the entire territory, and more importantly, one side that experiences the conflict on a daily basis and one side that, almost every day of the year, is indifferent to it and well protected from its effects. If you fail to acknowledge that, you’ll never get the negotiations right.

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But the interesting part is the Times‘s policy recommendation. There have been several reports recently describing differences of opinions between the White House and State Department on the way to approach the negotiations. The president, it is said, prefers to present the parties with the details of a two-state agreement – a step further than Bush’s endorsement of a Palestinians state and two steps from the Clinton Parameters – while Kerry actually wants to get the parties to commit. If these reports...

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The diplomatic process is not real until this government falls

If Netanyahu was serious about talks, he would have used the first opportunity to rid the government of the settlers, before moving on to isolate the radicals in his own party. Until we see such a change, the peace process will remain mostly fake.

Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth’s released a poll on Passover evening examining the option that former Likud Minister Moshe Kahlon run on his own ticket in the coming elections. According to the poll results, Kahlon could win up to 10 seats, most of them from voters of Yesh Atid and Likud.

This is the second election poll published this week (the previous one had better numbers for Netanyahu), contributing to a feeling of a looming political crisis. The rift between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party Naftali Bennett is becoming more apparent. Bennett is now threatening to leave the government if Israel goes forward with the fourth and final prisoner release, which includes 14 Palestinians citizens of Israel, as demanded by Mahmoud Abbas. Recently, there have been renewed suggestions that a deal on the prisoner release and the continuation of the negotiations will take place, with the U.S. releasing Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard as a gesture toward Netanyahu.

Bennett, to be sure, doesn’t want to leave the government; his top minister, Uri Ariel, who heads the Ministry of Construction and Housing, is even less inclined to do so. The Israeli government is based on a political arrangement that suits the settlers well – they support measures on civilian issues that benefit Yair Lapid’s secular voters, and in exchange they get an (almost) free hand in the West Bank. Uriel, a veteran politician, knows that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to create facts on the ground that would end, once and for all, all talk of evacuating West Bank settlements. Despite his radical views, he has welcomed the diplomatic process; while everybody was busy with the talks, he continued settling occupied land with Jews.

At the same time, the Jewish Home has a constituency to answer to, and the settler movement is split between the pragmatics and the radicals, the latter of which are not interested in such trade offs. This is the context with which we should view the recent threats: Bennett is probably betting that the Pollard–prisoners-negotiations deal won’t...

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On using 'emergency measures' against 'price tag' vandals

The Israeli defense minister has raised the idea of using administrative detention against violent settlers. But there are more interests at play than meets the eye.

As I wrote here last week, “price tag” – attacks by fringe settler groups perpetrated against (mostly) Palestinian property and civilians – finally hit the national news in Israel. The reason was the object of (one) of the latest attacks: a small IDF post near Yitzhar that settlers stormed, and the tires of the regional commander’s jeep, which were slashed when he visited the same settlement.

The honor of the general’s tires worked where the beating of a farmer with metal rods failed to get a response, and “mainstream” speakers, mostly from the Right, competed with each other in condemning the vandals. Today, Haaretz reported that Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon is considering using the country’s emergency laws against price tag suspects – namely administrative detention and other methods that bypass the rule of law and are usually reserved for Palestinians. Haaretz’s story said that in the IDF, security establishment and cabinet, there is growing support for using special measures against extreme right-wing activists.

But is it really necessary? Many price tag attacks are carried out in broad daylight, and some of them are even caught on video (recent examples: here, here, here, here, here). Israeli law already provides law enforcement with enough tools not only to catch the attackers, but also to convict them.

The real reason for the demand is twofold. Firstly, the Israeli government, like most governments, is using the current public outrage in order to seize for itself the ability and legitimacy to use measures that diverge from from norms of democratic rule of law (administrative detention allows jailing someone even when no crime has been committed – only on the basis of the “suspect’s” potential to commit a crime).

Second, and probably more importantly, is the image the very idea of those measures creates: as if “price tag” offenders are Al Capone-like criminals who are so difficult to track down that special measures are necessary in order to put them behind bars. In reality, the failure to protect the lives and property of Palestinians under Israeli rule is not a matter of resources or ability, but that of a policy – one which views the civilian population in the occupied territories through an ethnic prism,...

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Oslo Accord architect Ron Pundak dies at 59

Ron Pundak, one of the architects of the Oslo Accord, died Friday at the age of 59.

In 1993, Pundak, an expert on Middle East history, was working under Yossi Beilin, who was then the Israeli deputy foreign minister. At the time, Israel was holding formal negotiations in Washington with a Palestinian team, but the talks were heading nowhere and the promise of the Rabin government seemed to be fading away.

Along with Yair Hirschfeld, Pundak initiated a secret back channel between Israeli and PLO officials (contact with PLO members was still illegal when Rabin took office), first in London and then in Oslo. When the sides began to make progress, he informed Beilin, and later, then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was brought in the loop. Peres eventually informed Rabin of the talks and the prime minister gave his blessing. The first Oslo Accord was signed on the White House lawn by Peres and then-chief Palestinian negotiator Mahmoud Abbas in late 1993.

In 1995, Pundak took part in negotiations that led to the Beilin-Abu Mazen paper (full document, PDF), which outlined a future Palestinian state on 1967 borders, with agreed-upon land swaps. Prime Minister Rabin was murdered several days after the completion of the paper and never got to endorse it. Peres and Barak later rejected it, missing the greatest opportunity to have an official Israeli commitment to the two-state solution.

Ron Pundak in 2011 (Photo by Yossi Gurvitz)

Ron Pundak in 2011 (Photo by Yossi Gurvitz)

In later years Pundak was a member of several peace forums and think tanks. He took part in the informal negotiations which led to the Geneva Initiative.

In an interview to “Just Vision” several years back, Pundak spoke about what went wrong in Oslo. His analysis is rather unique, putting an emphasis on political and strategic problems on the Israeli side that existed despite the Rabin-Peres government’s full commitment to the process. One can almost sense regret in the interview, especially when Pundak speaks of how stingy the Israeli side was during the later stages of the negotiations:

I think both sides entered into the implementation period not in good faith– both sides. Both because the trust was not built and because there was an effort to put things off until the second round of dialogue. But having...

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Settlers confront IDF soldiers, and 'price tag' finally makes news

Clashes between settlers and Israeli forces left several border policemen hospitalized Tuesday morning. While the mainstream media was quick to condemn the settlers’ behavior, it missed the bigger story.

We have been asking here for some time why the so-called “price tag” attacks don’t get the media attention they deserve. For those unfamiliar with the term, price tag attacks refer to attacks by radical settler groups – “hilltop youth” and others, mostly from the settlement outposts – on Palestinians and their property, including: beatings, arson, graffiti on mosques, and most frequently – the destruction of olive trees.

The name “price tag” represents the twisted logic behind these crimes, which are carried out as a form of retribution by radical settlers every time a few structures or an outpost is evacuated by the army (or any similar event that is not to their liking). There are dozens of such attacks each year. Last week, for example, a shepherd from Burka was attacked with iron rods by seven men who covered their faces with shirts. The shepherd’s skull was broken. Very few people heard of this event (Larry Derfner sought to understand the reasons behind Israeli indifference to price tag attacks, I strongly recommend reading his piece).

Today’s (Tuesday) events, however, were different. In the early hours of the morning, Israeli Border Police officers were confronted by dozens (some reports said hundreds) of settlers from the radical settlement Yitzhar, just south of Nablus, after demolishing several structures in the settlement. The policemen were attacked with sticks and stones, and an IDF posts was vandalized. Despite the fact that nobody was seriously hurt, the story dominated Israeli news sites with condemnations for the settlers’ behavior coming from both the usual suspects, as well some unusual ones – Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, among others. Peace Now wrote to the attorney general, demanding that the vandals be brought to justice.

This is all good and well, but such incidents should remind the Left that, first of all, attacks on defenseless Palestinian civilians are far worse than confrontations with soldiers. It is these incidents that should receive attention, both in the media and in terms of law enforcement. Secondly, price tag attacks are a side story of the occupation – at times even a distraction.

Vandalism is unpleasant, but the occupation is...

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The rejectionist: Netanyahu and the peace talks

The Palestinian leadership changed, the political circumstances shifted, administrations came and went, but every round of talks involving Netanyahu follows the same dynamic, and ends the same way.

When talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators resumed last summer, a couple of pollsters asked Israelis whether they think Prime Minister Netanyahu actually supports the two-state solution – which, at least in theory, was the agreed-upon goal of the process. The results didn’t receive enough attention at the time: one poll, published on Channel 2’s website, found that 50 percent of the public didn’t think Netanyahu genuinely adopted the two-state solution, as opposed to 23 percent who thought he did. Four days later, Haaretz came out with a poll that showed roughly the same results: 59 percent did not think that Bibi had committed to the two-state framework, while only 34 percent thought he had. It’s not surprising then that a clear majority in both polls didn’t think the talks would lead to an agreement (70 percent were skeptical in the Channel 2 poll, and 69 percent on Haaretz).

Polling on political image and perception can be tricky, so one should take them with a grain of salt. But Kerry’s team might have saved itself some time and trouble if it had taken those numbers into consideration. At the talks’ most optimistic moment, a clear majority of Israelis believed Bibi was bluffing.

As the negotiations moved forward – in time, not in substance – Netanyahu insisted on preparing the public for failure. If he made any concessions to the American team, they remain a tightly kept secret. Netanyahu rejected the idea of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, rejected Palestinian sovereignty over the Jordan Valley, rejected even symbolic recognition of the right of return (while placing a very central demand for symbolic recognition of Israel as “a Jewish State”).

More important, in his hostility toward the Palestinians, Netanyahu actually moved the public political barometer to the right during the negotiation period. By the time the talks broke down, if you were listening to the prime minister you would have thought that it was absolute madness to sign anything with Ramallah. Compare that to the language of “partners” that previous Israeli prime ministers used to describe their Palestinian counterparts, or their talk of “a common future.”

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Breaking the Silence founder detained in Hebron, banned from city for 14 days

The founder of IDF watchdog group Breaking the Silence (BTS), Yehuda Shaul, was detained in Hebron on Tuesday as he was leading a tour in the Jewish settlement located in the heart of the city.

According to the organization’s spokesperson, Avner Gvaryahu, Shaul was confronted by an IDF company commander, who prevented him from continuing on his way, despite the fact that the area is considered public space and that Jewish groups use those streets frequently. Shaul was detained after arguing with the officer.

Shaul, who was released from the Hebron police station later that night, was banned from the area for 14 days, which means he will not be able to lead tours in the city. Breaking the Silence is planning a tour for 250 people in the city on Friday.

Yahuda Shaul of Breaking the Silence leading a tour in Hebron (photo: Activestills.org)

Yahuda Shaul of Breaking the Silence leading a tour in Hebron (photo: Activestills.org)

Breaking the Silence, which holds frequent tours both in the city as well and in the south Hebron Hills, was formed by former IDF soldiers and officers who served in the occupied territories. The organization aims to shed light on the army’s operations in the West Bank, and especially on human rights violations.

Hebron is the only city in which a population of several hundred settlers live among an occupied population, surrounded by heavy army presence. Shaul himself served in Hebron and is considered an expert on issues regarding the military control of the city.

Recently, BTS workers have complained that both the authorities and settlers have joined forces in an attempt to prevent them from leading tours in Hebron. According to Gvaryahu, both the tours that were cancelled, as well as the orders banning BTS workers from entering the city, were issued “on strange and unfounded claims.”

“A month ago, the police prevented one of our tours from entering the city due to ‘special security alerts.’ At the same time, we saw convoys of settlers and their guests coming.”

Hebron is the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank. The presence of a large number of settlers and soldiers in the city has changed parts of it dramatically over the last 20 years. Some streets are only accessible to Jews, while Palestinians shops and apartments are abandoned and the...

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Diplomatic process in crisis: Staying away is Kerry's best move

Kerry’s team has been so sensitive to Netanyahu’s political needs that it kept handing the Israeli prime minister political achievements without getting anything in return. This dynamic has been put on hold now, and Kerry should probably thank Abbas for that.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (Photo: State Dept.)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (Photo: State Dept.)

A sense of chaos has engulfed the diplomatic process after the Palestinians decided to submit a formal request to join 15 international treaties and conventions, among them the Fourth Geneva Convention. (See the full list below.)

When the talks resumed last summer, the Palestinians agreed to refrain from joining international institutions, and Israel was to release 104 prisoners who had already been jailed for more than 20 years. But Israel decided not to release the fourth and final group of prisoners unless the Palestinians agreed to prolong the negotiations at least until 2015. Earlier Tuesday, Israel also announced the construction of hundreds of new housing units in the annexed parts of Jerusalem, beyond the Green Line.

While officially the talks didn’t break, it is not clear whether they will be resumed, or under what conditions. Secretary of State John Kerry canceled his planned trip to the region – he was supposed to meet with Mahmoud Abbas today – and is slowly distancing himself from the peace process, repeating that progress “depends on the parties.” The pressure on the administration to do something will probably increase in the coming days, but there is also a growing reluctance, especially in the White House, to spend more political capital on a an effort that is not likely to go anywhere.

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Staying away might actually be the best move Kerry takes. So far, his strategy was to negotiate something with the Israelis, then to pressure the Palestinians to accept what was agreed upon with Netanyahu. This is how he (reportedly) came up with a framework for a final status agreement that would include Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and a prolonged Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley, but not much about pre-1967 borders or the status of Jerusalem.

The same logic led to what was reported as an impending deal that would enable the talks to continue: Israel would...

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Kerry-Abbas meeting canceled; effort to extend talks faces hurdles

The American-led peace process appears to be on the verge of collapse.

The American-led peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians may not be extended after all. Following Israel’s refusal to, or delay in releasing the remaining 26 Palestinian prisoners due to be freed during the negotiation period, PA President Mahmoud Abbas announced in a speech in Ramallah Tuesday that he would renew the Palestinian effort to join 15 international organizations and treaties.

Secretary of State Kerry, who was due to return to the region on Wednesday in order to finalize a deal to extend talks through the end of the year, will not meet Abbas tomorrow.

The talks, however, did not formally end.

Over the past 24 hours, the Israeli media was full of reports outlining an American proposal under which Abbas would refrain from going to the UN through 2015, during which time efforts to reach a framework for a final status agreement would continue.

In return, Israel would release the remaining prisoners and another 400 “light offenders,” whose prison terms were about to end. Israel was also supposed to decrease the rate of settlement construction in certain areas (which reached record numbers last year).

The United States, it was reported, was set to release long-imprisoned Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, an American citizen who is serving a life sentence in U.S federal prison.

Click here for more news and analysis on the Kerry-led process. 

Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on a final status agreement were renewed last summer, originally intended to end after nine months (a period that ends at the end of this month). However, no progress was made in the first months.

By the end of 2013, the American team — working under Secretary Kerry — took charge of the process. But even efforts to reach an accepted framework failed, and in the past couple of weeks Kerry and special envoy Martin Indyk tried to extend the talks.

Israel, for its part, announced that it will not free the fourth group of prisoners – an act to which it committed when the talks began.

Related:
Figures show: Peace talks and settlement construction go hand in hand
How they once more speak of ‘Palestinian rejectionism’



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Ari Shavit and the failure of the Kerry process

A public exchange has been taking place between Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken and the paper’s columnist Ari Shavit over Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.” According to Shavit’s latest piece, supporting peace means forcing the Palestinians to accept Israeli preconditions, otherwise there will be no agreement. This has always been the logic of the Israeli center – we will make up our mind over what to do with the Palestinians, and they will just have to accept our decision. Otherwise, the occupation will never end. Then, as always, comes the line about Israelis being the real victims of this unpleasant situation.

I would not have written this piece if I didn’t hear people refer to Shavit as a peacenik, or even as a “lefty” (twice!) in the past week. You just don’t hear that being said in Israel, mostly because Shavit is too busy attacking the left. However, that is the kind of language used to describe him in the United States.

Shavit needs to be congratulated for using the term “occupation” in an Israeli political climate that is all about denying reality, but this is where his activism ends. I cannot remember a serious political issue over the last decade in which Shavit didn’t parrot Netanyahu’s line, not to mention Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak’s before him. Sure, Shavit can comment about the need to halt settlement construction and bring about a two-state solution, not to mention his repeated line regarding the inevitable “moment of choice” on Iran. But whenever there is a concrete issue at hand, something that requires taking a side, Shavit retreats into his comfort zone as the spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s Office.

By now it is clear to everyone in their right mind, both supporters of the diplomatic process or his critics from the left, that Bibi manipulated Kerry into the only outcome he could live with: forcing the Palestinians to abandon negotiations over an issue that Bibi’s central constituencies – the Jewish-Israeli public and the American Jewish establishment – view as consensus. (For more, read this interesting account by Yossi Beilin on Kerry’s mistakes in handling Netanyahu.)

In order for Bibi to achieve his goal, he simply cannot take on the issue of settlements, as a large part of the Jewish public on both sides of the Atlantic accepts the 1967 borders and sees the settlements as a...

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'I witnessed a whole system of deception regarding the death of a Palestinian'

A testimony from an anthropologist who conducted research in the Israeli Forensic Institute.

Professor Meira Weiss, an anthropologist at Hebrew University, was interviewed on Channel 10 as part of a story on Professor Yehuda Hiss, who served as the head of the Israeli Forensic Institute between 1988 and 2004. Weiss observed the work at the institute for six years (1996-2002) for research purposes. Her findings were recently published in a book titled Over Their Dead Body (here is a review in Hebrew).

Channel 10′s investigative reporters, Orly Vilnai and Guy Meroz, probed Weiss on the reports provided by the institute to the military and security services. Here is a transcript of the part of the interview, which deals with reports that were “necessary” (in Weiss’ words) for the authorities:

Vilnai: … for example, torture by the Internal Security Service [Shin Beit] is something that needed hiding, and his [Professor Hiss] reports could help.

Weiss: For example […] I witnessed a whole system of deception regarding one Palestinian. The IDF version was that he wanted to shoot them [the soldiers] and he was shot on his front side of his body. The Palestinians claimed that he was killed later on. In other words, there are two versions, meaning one needs to decide.

Meroz: Like the ‘Bus 300 affair.’

Weiss: Exactly like that. Despite the fact that everyone saw… meaning that it was clear from the autopsy that it was an entry wound from behind, it wasn’t emphasized and was silenced.

Vilnai: Someone asked them to silence it?

Weiss: I don’t think so. This is obvious. It is obvious that we the Israelis don’t want it to be known that he [the Palestinian] received a bullet to the head because it means that it took place later.”

Here is the full report on the Forensic Institute. The part quoted is at 20:05.

(h/t John Brown)

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Notes from Brussels: Israel, U.S. and the growing European involvement in the conflict

Attendants at a conference on the peace process in Brussels couldn’t believe their ears after what the representative of Israel’s settler party had to say.

The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and MP Marietje Schaake of the Netherlands hosted an event in the European Parliament in Brussels on the European Union’s role in the Israel/Palestine question. I participated in the first of two panels – below are some of my impressions from the day’s events:

This was the third discussion of this sort that I took part in within just three weeks. In that sense, I think that 2013 was indeed a transformative year, with Europe becoming, for the first time, a major stakeholder in the political debate, and not just the bankroller for whatever idea the U.S. promotes.

This understanding, which is shared by all parties, is a result of the publication of the guidelines regarding EU projects in Israel, the intention to label settlement products and the decision by private companies or corporations to reconsider investments in Israeli firms which are located or invested in the West Bank. And while the official line you often hear from the EU is that these are only bureaucratic procedures – a long overdue implementation of its own laws and regulations – one could also detect a certain satisfaction in Brussels from the ability to gain the respect of other players, not to mention winning Israel’s attention for the first time.

Although some of the European measures have been put on hold until the fate of the diplomatic process becomes clear, I do not think Brussels is going to let go, especially since European involvement is very different in its nature from the American kind. While the Israel/Palestine policy in the U.S. is defined and executed mostly by the political echelon – and is therefore prone to constant changes – the EU’s involvement has a lot to do with the bureaucracy, and thus tends to be more consistent. Bureaucrats have a legal framework to work with in the form of EU laws, regulations and trade agreements; and using them as a normative power (one that has the ability to enforce standards and norms on its member states and entities with which it has formal relations) is pretty much in line with what Europe always does. Again, this is very different from the U.S., where it is all about politics...

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