Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A visit without a provocation?

Senator Mitchell, the special representative of President Obama visited Israel. He came and went off again - and no provocation? That's a bit strange. The tradition of holding a provocation for the sake of visiting U.S. representatives goes back to the days of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, when a new settlement was inaugurated at every visit of then Secretary of State James Baker.

Actually, there was a provocation. Not so far from the office where Netanyahu met with Mitchell, on the main street of Silwan, the Kahanists marched and called for a mass destruction of Palestinian homes. Of course they could not have gone in there without the accompaniment of thousands of Israeli police, brought in to spray tear gas at anyone who dares to protest.

True, the Prime Minister did not want this provocation to happen. He had even asked the police to prevent it. At least, that's what he said. It just happened that on the same day there was something which Netanyahu really wanted to prevent, a bill which would have slightly reduced the millions-monthly salaries of senior Israeli directors. This Netanyahu really wanted to prevent, and he did. But it's another issue altogether.

And an execution, too
"It was a beautiful operation," boasted yesterday a Border Police officer. At the village of Beit 'Awa soldiers killed the 42-year old Ali Suweiti, presented as a senior activist of Hamas' military wing, destroyed the house where he was hiding and noted with great satisfaction that this avenged the death of a Border Police sergeant six years ago.

"We intended to arrest him, but he resisted and had no other choice," said a military spokesperson. Nowadays, Anat Kam is no longer serving in the bureau of the general on charge of the IDF central command, so there is no one left to leak confidential documents on high-level discussions and instructions on the subject of executions without trial. One can only cast doubts and make all kinds of wild guesses.

The TV evening news last night featured Suweiti's funeral, with relatives crying bitterly and calling for vengeance (a revenge for a revenge for a revenge for...). Later on the same news PM Netanyahu declared (like yesterday and the day before yesterday): "We are ready at any moment to open negotiations with the Palestinians, without preconditions. Our hand is outstretched in peace."

Friday, April 23, 2010

Reflections on real estate

The subject of real estate and land ownership has always been a very political issue in Israel since its inception - and indeed, long before. One of the hallowed principles of the Zionist movement was "Redemption of the Land" – i.e., land on which Arabs are living is "unfree" and should be "redeemed" by passing it over to Jewish ownership.

Under Ottoman and British rule, "Redemption of the Land" was slow and piecemeal, "a dunam here, a dunam there" to quote a famous song. But in 1948 came the opportunity to "redeem" a large part of the country in one blow. The houses and lands of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees were defined as "Abandoned Property" and all of them redivided among Jews.

62 years later, it cannot be done so massively and bluntly, but still many of the senior and junior officials act upon the principle that transferring lands and houses from Arab to Jewish possession is land redemption. We see it at Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan in East Jerusalem. So it is with the ever-expanding settlements throughout the West Bank. But also in the mixed cities of Ramle and Lod, Acre and Jaffa and not to forget the Bedouin villages exposed to ever new destruction in raids by officials, while in their vicinity the government encourages the creation of "individual farms" (by individual Jews).

And what happens when there are no Arabs left on the ground, and there remains only the question of how exactly to divide it among the Jews, and which Jews exactly will get the lion's share? Would that be done by the application of fair and equitable and transparent standards, adhering to all the proper rules of public administration?

Is it just a coincidence that Israel is wracked by ever-new corruption scandals, touching upon the highest levels, ever again concerning the state authorities' control of real estate?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A country full of flags

"The whole country is full of flags / the people are dancing, wave after wave / the people are happy, the children are cheerful / today is Israel's great holiday". So did I and my classmates learn to sing in the kindergarten in Tel Aviv.

At the northern entrance to Holon, the city where I now live, you can see a half-ruined Arab house, one of the few remnants left of the Palestinian village Tel a-Rish. A village which ceased to exist in May 1948, which is (not by coincidence) also the exact time in which the State of Israel came into being. Earlier today I happened to pass there and saw this old building almost completely covered with a huge Bank Hapoalim advertising ad, featuring a nice little dwarf and a bank clerk neatly dressed in suit and tie, each holding one end of a long string of little Blue-and-White flags, and above them emblazoned the huge words "This year, we all fly The Flag!" (and, of course, the Bank Hapoalim logo). .

"The string of flags symbolizes our love for the country. Blue-and-White is the most moving expression of the Jewish people's independence in their homeland." So said the Chair of the bank's board Yair Saroussi, who had taken care to order ‭no less than 1.2 million flags - to be given free with the daily newspapers. He ordered them in China, where flags can be manufactured much cheaper than in the homeland of the Jewish people.

And not only the Blue-and-White flags will be on the streets to mark the sixty-second anniversary of the State of Israel's independence. The Stars and Stripes will also be seen there in profusion. Political correspondents may continue to report on a massive power struggle between Prime Minister of Israel and the President of the United States, but this does not seem to bother the ordinary citizens. They stream to their neighborhood store, to purchase the flag of Uncle Sam at a bargain price.


And, yes, on the evening of the day after tomorrow, it will again be a great spectacle, the streets crowded until deep into the night. From loudspeakers songs will be blaring, kids will fondly hit each other's heads with plastic hammers and splash each other's faces with white foam. Occasionally, there will be dancing in the dance plazas carefully prepared for the purpose by the municipal authorities. And it would not in the least compare or recreate the spontaneous enthusiasm of that night-long dancing in 1947, when the members of an oppressed people, who had just undergone a most terrible annihilation, heard that the International Community decided to grant them their own state. (Somebody else was also supposed to get their own state at the very same time, but few people in Israel choose to remember that…)

A lot of water has flown since then, and much blood was shed. The 62-year-old Israel is a strong state possessing the most powerful army in the region, with a great abundance of tanks and artillery and missile boats and fighter planes and nuclear bombs (whose existence it insists on denying). For 43 years of Israel's existence - more than two-thirds – Israel is an occupying state, maintaining a brutal military rule over the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The young Israelis who will this year wander the streets, looking for something which most of them could not name, were born into this reality and never knew any other.

Jeeps and bulldozers also celebrate. A few days before the 62nd anniversary of Israel's creation, its armed forces - accompanied by huge D9 bulldozers – raided Palestinian cities and villages throughout the West Bank, systematically destroying Palestinian homes. Eight military jeeps arrived at Hares Village south of Nablus, to safeguard the bulldozers demolishing the house of Maher Sultan - a two-story house whose construction was completed shortly before, and which was to be a home for himself, his wife and their five children. After the demolition of the Sultan house, soldiers & bulldozers went on to destroy two shops on the outskirts of the village.

At the same time, a large military force invaded the town of Al Khader west of Bethlehem, to demolish the house of Ali Mussa, where nine people were living, including a one year old baby. And at Beit Sahour was flattened a factory covering 1,000 square meters. Netanyahu likes to boast of having made "economic peace" and cultivating the prosperity of the Palestinian economy. Tell that to the people at Beit Sahour.

"A people which oppresses another people is not free itself" wrote Karl Marx, 150 years ago. At the time he specifically referred to British rule in Ireland and oppression of its residents. When it was written, many of the English were confident that their rule in Ireland will never end.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The unspoken speech

Ladies and gentlemen, representatives of the International Community!

Barack Hussein Obama, President of the United States, has initiated this conference and invited all of us here to Washington, asking us to act - in actual deeds, not just pious words – in order to bring closer the day that the world is free of nuclear weapons. Since 1945, this awesome sword is hanging over humanity's head. It is our duty to future generations to get it removed, once and for all. As the Prime Minister of Israel, I am ready and willing to do my part.

I do not think that the facts I am going to state will come as a surprise to any of you - though you might be surprised to hear me declare them officially. As is known to the whole world for decades already - though my predecessors were always careful to deny it - the State of Israel is in possession of a large quantity of nuclear weapons, as well as of missiles, aircraft and submarines with which these weapons can strike at any point in the Middle East and far beyond.

The decision to equip Israel with nuclear weapons was taken already in the early years of our country's existence, by our first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion. Its actual implementation was entrusted to Ben Gurion's young assistant Shimon Peres, currently President of Israel. With the help of France, our ally in the 1956 war against Egypt, we built the Dimona nuclear reactor. The best of young Israel's scientists were secretly recruited to build the infrastructure for nuclear weapon production. You could say that we did exactly what Iran is doing today, some fifty years after us.

In the early 1960's we had a severe clash with then U.S. President John F. Kennedy, who sought to prevent the entry of Israel into the nuclear club - a confrontation which went on for years behind the scenes and hardly got to public attention. After Kennedy's tragic death we reached a secret understanding with his successor Lyndon Johnson. The United States agreed that Israel keep on producing and stockpiling nuclear weapons, as long as it did not officially admit to it. This we called "The Ambiguity Policy", and it remained in force up to the present, between the successive governments of Israel and the US presidents and administrations.

In the 1990's we managed to add another layer in the form of submarines generously provided by the German government. These gave us a "second strike capability", i.e. the ability to fire nuclear missiles from the middle of the sea even if, God forbid, the entire state of Israel would be destroyed.

Throughout the years, simultaneously with the industrious building and expansion of our nuclear weapons, we insisted upon having a complete monopoly on possessing such weapons, and upon not allowing any of our neighbors in the Middle East to have them. In 1981 my predecessor, Prime Minister Menachem Begin, ordered the Israeli Air Force to attack and destroy the nuclear reactor built by Saddam Hussein near Baghdad. Begin regarded the destruction of the Iraqi reactor as one of the most important achievements of his term (which also helped him win the elections soon afterwards) and firmly declared that we would deal similarly with any other such attempt by our neighbors.

Indeed, only a few years ago my direct predecessor Ehud Olmert applied the Begin Doctrine in ordering the attack upon the nuclear facility built by Syria. Also after it was completely destroyed, we insisted that Syria open the ruins to international inspection - in order to find if there were any traces of uranium left there.

And of course, already for many years we strongly demand of the international community to prevent Iran from gaining even a single nuclear bomb, by sanctions and if need be with all-out war. It's not a big secret that our Air Force spends much of its time in the careful planning of bombing Iran's nuclear facilities. Such an attack would be much much more complicated than the earlier ones, The Iranians have learned from the experience of their enemy Saddam Hussein, and their nuclear facilities are scattered in many places and planted deep underground.

At the same time, we rejected out of hand any idea of an inspection of our nuclear facilities and the weapons produced there. After all, Israel is a democratic and enlightened country and therefore deserving to be treated differently than Iran. But I can understand why not everybody in the world was enthusiastic about this argument.

It's time to rethink the nuclear policy which the State of Israel has implemented for decades. Israel is not the same country it had been when Ben-Gurion decided to acquire nuclear weapons. The region and the entire world have radically changed. Ben Gurion saw Israel as a country isolated in a hostile region, facing big and powerful armies, and came to the conclusion that only nuclear weapons, the ultimate deterrent, could guarantee its long term survival. Today, and already for nearly a decade, there is on the agenda the Arab League proposal to recognize and make peace with Israel in return for evacuation of the territories occupied in 1967 and letting the Palestinians create their own state. The Arab states reconfirmed this offer to Israel, year after year – also this year, at the summit held in Libya a few weeks ago.

In this situation, nuclear weapons should no longer be seen as essential to Israel's continued existence. Especially so as, for many years already, Israel also has a superiority in conventional weapons, and no army or combination of armies in the region can match the Israeli armed forces either on the ground or in the air. We see a future of peace as possible and vital for the next generation in our country, and obviously a stable long-term peace cannot be built in a situation where we insist upon having nuclear weapons ourselves and altogether excluding our neighbors from possessing them.

This week the Presidents of the United States and Russia signed an agreement in which the two powers undertake to dismantle thirty percent of the nuclear weapons in their possession. I hereby declare that the State of Israel, the only possessor of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, will follow suit. As a gesture of good will, we also will dismantle thirty percent of our nuclear arms. Seventy percent of the weapons we have stockpiled over the past decades are more than enough of a deterrent, even were any of our neighbors to obtain nuclear arms and threaten to use them against us.

Beyond that, the goal of making the Middle East completely free of nuclear weapons – and of all other weapons of mass destruction - is acceptable and welcome to us. Making it into reality will from now on constitute a major aim of Israeli government policy. We are ready to contribute our share to an agreement committing all countries in the region, including Iran, not to develop nuclear weapons and to place all their installations under international inspection. The Middle East should be entirely free of nuclear weapons – which should include Israeli nuclear weapons, and I hope we will see the coming of that day.

Finally, I want to talk about an Israeli citizen who is not with us today, though he deserved to be. I talk of Mordechai Vanunu, the man who more than twenty years ago took a conscientious decision to alert the world and reveal what he knew about the Israeli nuclear arsenal, and who paid a harsh personal price for this decision. Even after he served his full term - eighteen years behind bars, much of them in total isolation - we had imposed severe restrictions on him, in particular forcing him to live within the borders of Israel even against his will. I hereby announce that the restrictions on Mordechai Vanunu have been removed, and that he is free to come and go, to travel as he pleases. I would not be surprised if, after all that he went through, he would want to leave Israel for good. But I hope that eventually he would decide to make his home, of his own free will, in a peaceful state of Israel which effected nuclear disarmament.

Back to reality

No, Benjamin Netanyahu will not deliver any such speech. In any case, he decided not to go to the Washington conference at all – perhaps the right decision from his point of view, considering the way that his recent visit to the American capital went. .

Maybe the next Prime Minister, or the one after that.

Meanwhile, perhaps this week is the right time to mention again the poem "I'm your spy" which Mordechai Vanunu wrote in his cell at Ashkelon Prison, in 1987.