Saturday, November 30, 2013

Light unto the Nations - anno 2013

On the day where there was signed in Geneva the agreement between Iran and the six powers I was on a family vacation in Holland.  In order to understand the main message of the headlines and the editorials,  no need of a perfect command of the Dutch language. There was an obvious relief at the receding shadow of a new war to be fought in the Middle East. Only at the bottom of the news item could be found the word "Netanyahu."

On the day when I came back to this crazy country, I opened the TV and I saw my prime minister speaking at a Chanukka ceremony near the Wailing Wall. It was there that he said: "We have come to expel the darkness, and the darkness is a nuclear Iran. If possible, it is better to do this by diplomatic means - and if not, we will be a Light unto the Nations."

"Light unto the Nations" is a ancient expression first used by the biblical prophets.  It conveys a vision of World Peace, "They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks". The days of  "Light unto the Nations" were supposed to be an Utopian future in which Jews will set an example of sublime moral and peace-seeking behaviour. Not exactly what is reflected in the real existing state of the Jews...

The term has now gotten a meaning, rather different from how for example Israel's first prime minister, Ben Gurion, still used it.  Nowadays, "Light unto the Nations" means the blazing fire of a big war which the State of Israel will initiate and into which it will drag the rest of the world. Indeed, an innovative interpretation of the ancient term for which Benyamin Netanyahu deserves all the credit.

This week, we also saw another Benyamin Netanyahu, a bit less assertive and militant, conducting negotiations with the European Union on the sensitive issue of the settlements. Already several months ago, the EU declared that in the framework of the "Horizon 2020" scientific cooperation program European funds will be given only to Israeli institutions located and active in the recognized sovereign territory of the State of Israel. Not to any settlement institute located in occupied territory, neither in the West Bank, nor in East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, whose unilateral annexation was never recognized by any other state. This week, there was no further time for delays. The government of Israel had simply to decide whether or not to adhere to the program under the European conditions.

For a moment, it had seemed that Netanyahu was bent on a head-on confrontation. He considered defending at all costs the settlements created in the territory where our ancestors lived 2000 years ago, to the extent of giving up for their sake half a billion Euro in grants to Israeli universities and research institutes, and also cut off the extensive networks of priceless contacts between Israeli scientists and their European colleagues. But, at the anguished outcry of the university heads gave in, and signed the agreement finalizing what was named by the media as "the European boycott."

"This agreement is a moral, diplomatic and judicial disaster" cried ultra-right former Knesset Member Aryeh Eldad.  "In the emergency cabinet meeting the right-wing ministers were stammering and finally folded up. For some dozens of millions of Euros per year, they are willing to sell their mothers, Jerusalem, sovereignty and national honour. They are trampling the Boycott Law which was a major achievement of the Greater Israel lobby in the previous Knesset." Eldad bitterly concluded: "They are nothing but rag dolls! When Netanyahu will go towards creating a Palestinian state in Judea and Samariya none of them will stop him."

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Small sparks

At the border of Gaza, the Hamas tunnel experts and the IDF’s counter-tunnel  specialists are conducting a ceaseless battle of wits, of which only a small portion is seen on the surface. Two  weeks ago, the IDF announced with great fanfare the uncovering of a Hamas tunnel dug under the border and reaching a few hundred meters into Israeli territory. A week later, soldiers entered the Strip in order to drill and destroy the tunnel from its Palestinian end. But the Hamas had anticipated this move and booby-trapped the tunnel. The Israeli drill detonated a large explosive charge. Six tunneling experts of the army’s Engineering Corps were wounded in the explosion. One of them - Second Lieutenant Achiya Klein - was severely wounded and he several days hovered between life and death.

Three days later the mass circulation "Yediot Aharonot " published a major news item, written in a highly sentimental language: "The country’s eyes on you! Officer injured in the Tunnel of Terror wakes after  three days’ coma - Doctors struggle to save engineering officer’s eyesight - " We are very happy and excited" says mother, but the struggle for Achiya’s eyes will be long  and hard". Illustrating the article was a photo of the Second Lieutenant before his injury, in a very combative and militant position with the muzzle of his sub machine gun aimed straight at the viewer. At the end of the article, following a detailed description of the officer’s medical condition, his mood upon awakening and the words of doctors, family members and comrades in arms, there was a short and dry piece of further news: "The air force successfully liquidated four Palestinian tunnel experts."

On the same day that this story of Second Lieutenant Achiya Klein was published, Palestinian prisoner Hassan al-Turabi died at Ha’emek Hospital in Afula. The 23-year old Turabi had been arrested in January, on charges of membership in the Islamic Jihad and of hurling stones and Molotov cocktails. During his detention in Megiddo Prison the leukemia from which he was already suffering burst out. The prison medics did not take his situation seriously. Even when he collapsed and started vomiting blood, ten days elapsed before the authorities decided to send him to a hospital intensive care unit.

News of his death sparked protests among all Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. At Megiddo Prison, twenty prisoners were injured when holding a protest in the prison yard and being forcibly dispersed by guards.  Issa Karaka, PA Minister for Prisoners’ Affairs, blamed his death on negligence by the Prison Service . The Israeli public barely heard any of this, there was only one brief news item on a single news website.

It was also the same day that National Security Adviser Ya’akov Amidror warned PM Netanyahu and his ministers of the serious consequences which might follow upon collapse of negotiations with the Palestinians. The Situation Report he presented at the cabinet meeting was described by government ministers as "honest and sober ."

Amidror stressed that the resumption of the peace process with Palestinians had contributed significantly to Israel's international standing. And he warned that, conversely, "failure of the negotiations would increase the trend of boycotts against and international isolation of Israel." He cited the sanctions imposed several months ago by the EU against settlements in the West Bank , East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. This, he said, was a conscious decision of the EU to confront Israel, politically as well as economically. Amidror stressed that Israel must take seriously the EU move, which constitutes a kind of economic boycott .

This was the very last Situation Report which Ya’akov Amidror provided to the government ministers. Amidror, who had held the powerful position of National Security Adviser for two and a half years and was for a time one of the closest advisers to PM Netanyahu, had handed in his resignation.

When Amidror started on his job he was considered to be on the deep right. After a while, however, foreign diplomats came to consider him “one of the more pragmatic and responsible Israeli officials”, while the settlers and their supporters in the government started calling him “The leftist of Netanyahu's bureau”. On one occasion Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman sarcastically asked  Amidror  “Did you already acquire your Meretz member card?”.

Several months ago, rumors started circulating of a growing friction between Amidror and other members of the Prime Minister’s entourage, and later also with the PM himself. Eventually, Amidror was reported to have told his associates that he has defined a deadline to end his job. He said that the work was wearing him down and that “non-optimal working conditions at the PM’s bureau” led him to a feeling he'd had enough and that it was time to retire. For its part, the PM’s bureau denied all such rumors and reiterated that Amidror had left at the time which had already been predetermined upon his taking office .

As it happened, the departure of Amidror occurred just days before the return of Avigdor Lieberman to the Foreign Ministry. The prolonged judicial proceedings which had cast a shadow on Lieberman's political position had ended in acquittal. There was no dispute of the fact that some years ago the Israeli ambassador in Belarus did provide the Foreign Minister with classified information on a criminal investigation, taking place at the time, into the minister’s private international business activity. However, the judges of the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court ruled that no clear evidence was produced of a criminal conspiracy linking the ambassador’s providing this information with the minister's action several years later in promoting the ambassador's diplomatic career.

The judges did write that Lieberman 's conduct  was "unworthy  and immoral”,  and that it definitely “did not meet the standards of behavior expected of a public figure in general and of a senior cabinet minister in particular." Lieberman, however, brushed all this contemptuously aside, being solely interested in the judges’ bottom line: "It remains unclear whether these acts amount to a criminal offense." Which means that Lieberman is triumphantly returning to the Foreign Ministerial position, which had been kept for him over the last year.

Avigdor Lieberman is known for his disdainful attitude to the negotiations with the Palestinians, and has repeatedly declared that it is impossible to reach peace and there is no point in trying. At exactly the time of Lieberman’s acquittal, "Yediot Aharonot " published a list of the stumbling blocks over which negotiations with the Palestinians are in danger of breaking up. These include a demand to maintain an Israeli corridor penetrating deep into Palestinian territory, so as to maintain control over the settlement of Nokdim at the edge of the Judean Desert . It happens that the Nokdim  settlement is where the old-new  Foreign Minister has made his home.

Stumbling blocks do go on accumulating at a dizzying pace . Last week, Netanyhau sent Deputy Minister Ophir Akunis, one of the most prominent hawks in the Likud Knesset faction, to announce on the Knesset floor an accelerated settlement construction drive – designed to "counter- balance” the release of 26 Palestinian prisoners, which so much infuriated the right-wing. 

The mission was very much to Akunis’ liking: "The government of Israel considers Judea and Samaria to be the Cradle of the Jewish People, and therefore construction in Judea and Samaria will continue and intensify" he explained.  "More than 3,500 units are being planned now. These include 255 units in Ofra, 509 in Givat Zeev, 256 in Ma'ale Adumim and 196 in Karney Shomron . Also at Beitar Illit, plans are promoted  to build 398 new housing units. Additionally, there will be advance planning for  altogether more than 2,000 housing units apportioned among the following settlements: Givat Ze'ev , Karney Shomron , Almog, Aley Zahav , Yakir , Kfar Adumim – Nofey Prat, Mechola , Talmon , Bracha, Ofra , Beit El and Shilo." Also in the settler neighborhoods in East Jerusalem extensive building plans were approved, and for good measure a National Park on the slopes of Mount Scopus, whose main objective is to forbid construction there and thus prevent the expansion of Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods .

On the next day, this entire settlement expansion list was reproduced in the Palestinian media, precipitating protest and outrage. The method of "Carrot and Stick" is well-known.  Here there was, however, such a miniature carrot, a few dozens of released prisoners out of thousands in the Israeli jails, as compared to a very long and heavy stick dealing out very painful blows.

"Until the end of the nine months of negotiations, will there remain land in which to establish the Palestinian state?” read a statement issued by the Palestinian Authority. Saeb Erekat , the veteran Palestinian negotiator, threatened to resign but was persuaded to stay on. "By dividing the release of prisoners into four stages during the nine months, Netanyahu succeeded to trap the Palestinians and deprive them of what is virtually their only diplomatic weapon – the threat to quit the negotiations" wrote Palestinian commentator Daoud Kuttab .

With headlines heralding the imminent collapse of the talks and of the entire process, Secretary of State John Kerry landed at Ben Gurion International Airport. It was the precise anniversary for the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and from the airport Kerry went to lay a wreath on the memorial at the scene in Tel Aviv - before embarking on an emergency effort to lower the flames. First and foremost, he strove to mollify the Palestinians and provide them with some measure of hope.

In public statements, especially a prime time joint interview with the Israeli and Palestinian TVs, Kerry reiterated: "What is the alternative to peace? A continuation of the never-ending conflict. The alternative to talks is chaos. Does Israel want a Third Intifada? If we do not resolve the issues between Israelis and Palestinians, the international isolation of Israel will increase, the campaigns of de-legitimacy against Israel will increase. Unless we solve the settlement issue and put an end to the presence of Israeli soldiers in the West Bank , unless we make peace while there is a [Palestinian] leadership committed to non-violence, then we will eventually find ourselves facing a  leadership which advocates violence."
Kerry warned against continuation of the status quo: "I know that there are Israelis who say something like 'We have a separation fence, there is no everyday friction, our finances are pretty good.' Well, I have news for you: the status quo of today will not be the status quo of tomorrow or of next year.  If we don’t resolve this issue, the Arab World and the Palestinians will once again start to push in a different direction."

Yet Kerry also added "The good news is that both leaders are committed to moving forward. They are both aware of the difficulties, but we will overcome them".  He also denied the persistent reports of the U.S. planning to impose an agreement on the parties, and said that he believes an agreement can be reached by the stipulated deadline, namely in April 2014 .

On the night when John Kerry left our country, two Palestinians were killed at   IDF checkpoints placed on Palestinian roads. At a checkpoint north of Bethlehem, the 23 year old Anas Fuad al-Atrash was killed and the soldiers asserted that he had tried to stab one of them. A few hours later, at a checkpoint south of Nablus, the 28 year old Bashir Hananeen was killed. In this case the soldiers reported that he had shot at them with a flare gun. It appears that there had never been any contact or cooperation between the two of them, and neither had been active in any organization. It is small sparks which can start a great fire.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Confidence-destroying measures

An interview with a Palestinian in the Israeli media:.

Even though the Palestinian speaks impeccable Hebrew, interviewer and interviewee seem to speak two different languages.

It was this week that Esti Perez of the noon news bulletin of Kol Yisrael (the Voice of Israel) spoke with Ashraf Al-Ajami, the PA's former Minister of Prisoner Affairs.. The following is from my notes taken:

Perez: We have released despicable murderers from prison, and as you know this caused a lot of debate among us. It is disturbing to many Israelis to see that among you these murderers are received with great enthusiasm and celebration. This is causing doubts about your wish for peace,

Al-Ajami: These are people who have been in your prisons very many years. They have been imprisoned even before the Oslo Agreement. Their families were missing them and dreamt of seeing them back home. On many previous occasions the Palestinian Authority asked for their release and Israel each time refused. Now, that after all the years they go free, then it's true, there is happiness.

Perez: But these are murderers who murdered civilians!

Al-Ajami: Very many people were killed among you as well as among us. I must say that the number of Palestinians that were killed, the women and children who were killed, is much bigger than the number of Israelis who were killed. Many times more. Especially when your airplanes went to bomb Gaza.

Perez: That is something else! That is war! We are sorry about it, but "à la guerre comme à la guerre". Here we are talking about murderers; about people who attacked with axes and with pitch-forks or blew up an explosive charge!

Al-Ajami: I hope very much that we reach peace, and then nobody will killed anymore, neither Israelis, nor Palestinians.

Perez: We all hope so, Goodbye Mr. Al-Ajami. Thank you very much for speaking in our broadcast. [end broadcast]

To a society which is in conflict and war, it is natural to believe that our boys are the good guys, and theirs are nasty murderers. Israelis have difficulty understanding why Palestinians regard the thousands of  their imprisoned compatriots as national heroes, freedom fighters. "Why are all Palestinian leaders insisting on the release of those terrorists?" And, on the other hand, it is self-evident that the State of Israel is obliged to make superhuman efforts to bring home even a single IDF soldier held prisoner by the enemy. But, "who can make such a comparison? The IDF is the most humane army in the world! How can its soldiers be compared with terrorist murderers?"

In the period immediately after the signing of the Oslo Agreement, the subject of releasing Palestinian prisoners was included under the definition of "Confidence-building Measures", and a special joint committee of Israelis and Palestinians was put in charge of it. It was part of the concept of Conflict Resolution, common in America. It might have even succeeded if a grant gesture would have been made - to open a new page and completely empty the prisons, immediately after the handshake between PM Rabin and PLO Chair Arafat. Especially, because many of the Palestinians, imprisoned at that time, have been sent to their missions at the direct order of those who sat down at the negotiating table with Israel. Such a gesture could have made a strong impression in the Palestinian society where nearly every family has a member who is or was in the Israeli prison.

But,  this was not the road taken after the handshake. The Israeli security services strongly objected and put a veto on the release of "prisoners with blood on their hands" and on anybody considered "still dangerous." The right-wing, including then Knesset Member Netanyahu, made a great outcry about "the release of the murderers."  In what was called The Confidence-Building Committee, there was a very tough and exhausting bargaining about every single name. Prisoner release was carried out very sparingly and quite a few of the prisoners then held, spent another twenty years in prison, until these days. The Palestinians learned  that the occupation was all but over. Across the negotiating table they often met with the same Israelis whom they met before at the Military Governor's Office or the Security Service interrogation room. 

Meanwhile, the whole concept Confidence-Building Measures has gone out of fashion. If there is a release of prisoners it is the naked result of political calculations and power struggles on both sides. Hamas managed to capture an Israeli soldier, called Gilad Shalit, and eventually secured the release of more than a thousand prisoners. Therefore, the prestige of the Hamas leaders rose, while that of President Mahmoud Abbas was hurt. Abbas demanded to get a significant release of prisoners of his own, so as to show that it also can be achieved diplomatically.

Netanyahu, for his part, is facing  Israel's increasing international isolation, for example the recent European move against settlements. In order to deflect international pressure it was important to the prime minister to enter into the negotiations, brokered by Secretary of State Kerry. Therefore, Netanyahu was willing to release 104 prisoners, held even before Oslo, so as to sweeten for the Palestinians the pill of negotiating while settlement construction goes on. In order to prevent Palestinians from escaping from the talks even when they look completely futile and hopeless, Netanyahu took care to divide the prisoner release into four stages, separated by several months from each other. Each of these stages is accompanied by a very loud outcry by the Israeli extreme rights, with very emotional and melodramatic interviews with bereaved families catching the headlines.

In short, the Israeli mass media have  in the past week conveyed to the Israeli public a clear message:  the Palestinians are terrorists and despicable murderers, and the government of Israel decided to release some of them for no reason. The Palestinian public got a message just as clear: with a big effort, several dozen prisoners were extracted from the occupation's clutches, but the army was quick to replace them through nightly raids and detentions, and for good measure the government of Israel the construction of several thousand new housing units in settlements.

In all, an especially effective combination of Confidence-destroying measures - if there was still something to destroy.