Saturday, February 21, 2015

Election scandals and a very European week

This was the week in which the IDF got a new Chief of Staff. Immediately,  chromo paper color photos of the new Commander in Chief, Major General Gadi Eizenkot were provided to the readers of Israel’s mass-circulation newspapers. Two days later, walking through the main street of Holon, I noticed at the greengrocer’s the new photo already having pride of place on the wall, in the place where Major General Benny Ganz had been watching over shopkeeper and clients during the past four years.

This was the week in which the Supreme Court decided to allow the Arab Knesset Member Haneen Zoabi to continue running for another term. By a majority of eight to one, the judges ruled to overturn the decision to disqualify her, a decision taken last week by the Central Elections Committee in a predictable outburst of nationalist and racist demagoguery.  The court’s verdict elicited an almost audible sigh of relief from Yitzhak Herzog, leader of the oppositional Labor Party which now calls itself “The Zionist Camp”.  Herzog had instructed his representatives to support the banning of Zoabi  only out of fear that otherwise (perish the thought!) he might have gotten branded “a leftist”.

 This was one more week in which debate in the ongoing elections campaign focused on the issues of Mrs. Sarah Netanyahu’s  household (mis)management.  Meanwhile, again were left deep in the shade the issues related to her husband Binyamin Netanyahu’s handling of the economy of the State of Israel as a whole, and the expansion of settlements, or the vast swath of destruction caused by the State of Israel in the Gaza Strip last summer, where little if any reconstruction had taken place up to now.   

 Actually, there did occur this week a single moment when the situation in the  Gaza Strip blazed into the public debate.  That was when the Prime Minister focused his fire upon Tzipi Livni, who had been for two years the Justice Minister in Netanyahu's cabinet and is now Herzog’s partner in the effort to remove Netanyahu from power.  Retroactively, Netanyahu has now discovered that Livni constitutes a grave threat to the security of the State of Israel, that all charges of mismanagement at the PM’s residence are a smokescreen intended to allow Livni to sneak into the Prime Minister's Bureau, and that the former Justice Minister intends (Heaven forefend!) to reach an agreement with Hamas. 

Livni was quick to retort on the radio:  "It is Netanyahu himself who is all the time negotiating with Hamas!  Last summer he even intended to embark on negotiations on the possibility of open a port in Gaza.  Yes, a port in Gaza!  It was me who mobilized the most energetic of diplomatic campaigns, with the international contacts I established I have managed to completely remove such idea from the agenda" – which makes one wonder what do we need a change of government for.   

However sharp and acrimonious the exchange of verbal blows, commentators (and ordinary people) are increasingly considering the possibility that within some two months we might be treated to the sight of Netanyahu, Herzog and  Livni sitting together around a single cabinet table.

Apart from all the above, this was a very European week:  a murderous event in the Danish capital Copenhagen; a petition of British artists; a vote in the Italian Parliament; a propaganda film produced by West Bank settlers; and also a TV song contest.

Even before the guard who was shot at the gates of the main synagogue of Copenhagen had been buried, Netanyahu rushed into his Zionist conditioned reflex, issuing a call to the Jews of Denmark in particular and of Europe in general to pack up  and come to Israel: "Israel is your home, the home of every Jew, we are preparing to absorb a mass wave of European Jews." The call was not particularly well received at the small Jewish community which carries fond memories of the intensive and most successful effort which Denmark, more than any other European country, made to save its Jewish citizens under the Nazi occupation. "The Danish Jews: We are not leaving" read the headline on the front page of "Ma'ariv". Yair Melchior, Chief Rabbi of Denmark, said: "I am disappointed by Netanyahu's call.  Terrorism is no reason for emigrating."

At just that time, the settlers of "Samaria" in the northern West Bank - who have access to very generous government budgets and some of whose  leaders are currently undergoing an intensive police investigation regarding  management of these funds – published an animated video film, with impeccable high technical quality. The video depicts a monstrous European named “ Herr Stürmer” who contemptuously summons a Jewish leftist with a long hooked nose, demands and gets from him a flow of information on the human rights violations by the armed forces of Israel and pays him with coins bearing the logo of the Euro, and finally ordering his despicable Jewish leftist lackey to hang himself – which he hastens to obey. "You might see the Europeans otherwise – but make no mistake, they still regard you now as they did then" appears on the screen at the end of the video.

"This is a classic anti-Semitism theme, ultimately derived from Christian myth of Judas, who sells the Son of God for 30 pieces of silver, and then hangs himself. One may wonder if the Samaria settlers utilized this legend consciously and deliberately, or did it just permeate into their consciousness out of the cultural milieu into which they dipped?" wondered blogger Yossi Gurvitz.

Paradoxically, the vicious video had to compete for the attention of the Israeli public against Israel’s preparations to take part in the  Eurovision Song Contest, bringing together all the European countries (and some countries outside the continent).  The popular Israeli TV competition “Rising Star", was won by a 16-year old singer Nadav Guedj, from Netanya. After  convincingly performing Beyoncé’s "Crazy in Love" Guedj will represent Israel at the Eurovision competition, to be held at Vienna in May this year.

TV commentators, and next day those of the printed press,  expressed the fervent hope that at the decisive moment of this year’s Song Contest, when the European capitals are polled one by one and read out the score given in their respective countries to each of the competing songs, it will be possible to hear many time a “douze points” given to Israel and to the young Guedj as Israel’s representive. The last time that the State of Israel won this competition was in 1998 (perhaps not coincidentally, at a time when the Peace Process which began with the Oslo Accords was still taken seriously?).

Meanwhile,  the Italian parliament was preparing to vote in favor of a recognition of the State of Palestine, as already did the European Parliament and the national parliaments of the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Portugal and several other European countries. (Sweden has already reached the further point of President Mahmoud Abbas being invited to ceremoniously inaugurate the Embassy of Palestine in Stockholm). Israel's Ambassador in Rome is known to have tried delaying and obstruction tactics and mobilized right-wing deputies in the Italian Parliament, but at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem it was unofficially admitted that the struggle for Rome is effectively lost.

 In London a letter signed by some seven hundred British artists - many of them Jewish – read “we will no longer engage in business-as-usual cultural relations with Israel”. As stated in the text, published in The Guardian, "The summer war in Gaza killed 2,100 Palestinians. Since then, the Palestinians have enjoyed no respite from Israel’s unrelenting attack on their land, their livelihood, their right to political existence. (...) Israel’s wars are fought on the cultural front too. Its army targets Palestinian cultural institutions for attack, and prevents the free movement of cultural workers. Its own theatre companies perform to settler audiences on the West Bank – and those same companies tour the globe as cultural diplomats, in order to help ‘Brand Israel’ and give it a positive image”. For themselves, the boycotting British artists make no distinction between performing at settlements and inside Israel proper, pledging to perform neither in the settlement of Ariel nor in Tel Aviv, Netanya and Ashkelon, and also not “play music, accept awards, attend exhibitions, festivals or conferences, run master classes or workshops” . All this, until Israel respects international law and ends its oppression of the Palestinians.

Europe in settler eyes. Photo source: Ha'aretz
Europe in TV viewer eyes. Photo source: Austrian TV



Friday, February 13, 2015

AIPAC gnashing their teeth


"I'm going to address Congress in Washington, not only as the Prime Minister of Israel but also on behalf of the entire Jewish People," declared Netanyahu, at one of the highlights of the intensifying public debate in Israel and the United States. J-Street, the left-wing American Jewish lobby, was quick to respond with a petition stating: "No, Mr. Netanyahu. You do not speak for me. Benjamin Netanyahu has a mandate to represent the State of Israel. He has no mandate to speak on behalf of Jews in the United States." Within a few days the petition was signed by more than twenty thousand American Jews. Even Abe Foxman of the ADL - a pillar of the American Jewish establishment - desperately called upon Netanyahu to cancel his speech and put out the spreading conflagration.

The invitation to Congress which Netanyahu arranged for himself, behind the back of the White House, brought to the surface the growing gap between Israel and the American Jewish community. The overwhelming majority of American Jews tend to the liberal side of the political spectrum. Several generations of American Jews at the same time tended to render a deep emotional support to Israel, which also expressed their feeling of guilt for not having done enough to prevent to save European Jews.

In the fifties and early sixties, it was fairly easy for progressive American Jews to support the State of Israel, which at the time had an international reputation as an egalitarian country with the Kibbutz Movement as its main showcase. But already for a long time, Jews who support any Progressive issue and campaign, in the United States itself and worldwide, find it difficult to link this with supporting the State of Israel – ever more difficult, with Israel being most of the time under right-wing nationalist governments, blatant racism spreading from the margins of Israeli society into the heart of the political establishment, settlements ever growing and expanding at the expense of the meager land remaining to the Palestinians, and every few years the TV screens being filled with footage of the death and destruction left by the Israeli Air Force in Lebanon or Gaza. Especially the younger generation of American Jewish community feels increasingly alienated from Israel. Some of them express it in open - sometimes very blunt – criticism. Many others just turn away quietly.

All of this intensified with the appearance of Barack Obama on the scene. Most American Jews greeted his election to the presidency with enthusiasm and joy. The Jews were among Obama’s most prominent and consistent supporters in both 2008 and 2012. Conversely, many in Israel - including the Prime Minister elected by the Israelis, his cabinet ministers and his political party – regarded Obama with suspicion from the outset, and their suspicion soon developed into hostility, if not outright hatred.

In 2011, in the midst of a heated confrontation with Obama, Netanyahu succeeded to get himself invited to speak at Congress. At that time, the gambit worked well - Netanyahu got a standing ovation from legislators of both parties, and his speech in Congress greatly helped derail the attempt which Obama made at the time, to promote an Israeli-Palestinian agreement based on the 1967 borders. Since then, however, much water had flowed through both the Jordan River and the Potomac. Netanyahu increased his outright involvement in American politics, and did not bother to hide his strong support for and identification with the Republican Party. American politics itself became more polarized, and most American Jews found themselves at the opposite pole to that in which the Prime Minister of Israeli took his stand.

The confrontation could have broken out two months ago, had Obama chosen not to exercise the American veto in the UN Security Council, when the Palestinian draft resolution came to the vote. But the President of the United States chose another ground for his battle with Netanyahu: Iran.

The outline of the emerging agreement with Iran is already quite clear, even if the details have not yet been finalized: Iran will remain a "Threshold State", possessing the potential to acquire nuclear weapons, but it will avoid taking this last step and allow international monitoring of its compliance with this condition. Of course, no one will require the State of Israel, which had successfully taken that last step some fifty years ago (in an intensive confrontation with then-President John F. Kennedy), to give up its nuclear arsenal (at least two hundred bombs, as of the account given by Mordechai Vanunu in1986), or the missiles capable of carrying those bombs to any point in the Middle East and further afield, or the German-made submarines sailing deep under the waters of the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean and ready at any moment to launch these missiles bearing those bombs.

According to Netanyahu, this agreement which Obama intends to sign with Iran would be "A bad agreement, a calamitous agreement, an agreement which would endanger the very existence of Israel" and therefore "It is my duty to go to Washington and address Congress and do everything in my power to prevent the signing of the evil agreement with Iran. I will not flinch, I am determined to go."

It seems that he did manage to convince the right-wing constituency in Israel. The planned Congress speech became the focus of the ongoing Israeli elections campaign. The opposition parties are calling for Netanyahu to cancel the speech, and now this call is joined by five former Ambassadors who at different times represented the State of Israel in Washington. But the hardcore right-wing voters are far from disliking an all-out confrontation with the President of the United States and with large parts of the American public, including many American Jews. According to the polls, this does not diminish willingness to vote for Netanyahu – it might even increase it.

In the United States, the situation is very different. Netanyahu in effect set the Democrat Senators and Representatives - and Jewish Americans, traditional supporters of the Democratic party – an unequivocal choice, forcing them to choose between an Israeli Prime Minister openly supporting the Republicans and a President of the United States from the Democratic Party. Did Netanyahu realize that faced with such a clear-cut dilemma, the choice of American Legislators and Jews may not be for him?

In all this big fuss, a very low profile is kept by one group which has a vital interest in what transpires on Capitol Hill: AIPAC, the veteran, mighty Israeli Lobby. For decades, AIPAC officials spent tireless effort in order to build a bipartisan power base in Congress, so that no matter which party holds the White House or has a majority in the House and Senate, support for the Israeli government policies would always remain solid. What do the AIPAC people feel today - when Netanyahu, like a bull in a china shop, is rampaging and destroying all that they spent decades to construct? I would guess they are gnashing their teeth, like a shrewd lawyer whose client insists upon sabotaging and ruining the defense case.

Monday, February 9, 2015

When should comparisons be made, and when not?

In Ha’aretz of January 26, Avner Shalev – director of Yad Vashem, the famous Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem – was quoted in an all-out attack against “attempts to dwarf the Holocaust, by comparing it to other genocides, and undermine the position that the Holocaust is a completely unique event, not to be compared to any other”. On another page of the same issue of Ha’aretz was reported the great success of Israel’s President Re’uven Rivlin, who was “welcomed like a star” at a Black Church in New York. The reporter attributed Rivlin’s success among the Blacks to the speech in which the President “linked the Holocaust, the Zionist Movement and the creation of Israel with the period of Black Slavery”.

Link the Jewish Holocaust with Black Slavery? Can such a comparison be made? Indeed, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was one of the darkest and most harsh events in human history. For some three hundred years, from the 16th Century to the end of the 18th, countless Africans were kidnapped from their homes and villages and loaded on extremely crowded slave ships, where the conditions certainly bear comparison with those on the trains to Auschwitz. Many of the slaves did not survive this voyage, and the Captain had the authority to throw sick slaves overboard “like any other spoiled goods” (as the King’s Bench Court in London ruled in a notorious 1783 verdict).

Still, no one involved had any intention to commit genocide. The only intention was to maximize profits and sell living slaves to the highest bidder. Those who did not survive were simply registered as “amortization” in the slave traders’ annual balance sheets.

So, is the Yad Vashem Director Avner Shalev going to send an angry letter  to President Rivlin and reprimand him for having made “a comparison which dwarfs the Holocaust”? I dare say that such a reprimanding letter will not be sent. After all, in President Rivlin’s case, comparing the Holocaust with another historical event has garnered a rare  success for the Israeli Hasbara PR campaign, which did not mark many such in recent years. Why spoil such a success?

The above was published in the Readers’ Letters section of Ha’aretz on January 26, 2015.  

Emblem of the British Anti-Slavery Society (1795)
Source: Wikipedia

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Yet another casino

Two newspapers compete for the title of the most well-read paper in Israel - the veteran "Yediot Ahronot", which began to appear even before the establishment of the state, and "Israel Hayom" (nicknamed "The Bibinews”) which was established in competition a few years ago.

Their competition is not on precisely equal terms - "Yediot Ahronot" is a commercially successful business. Its readers pay five shekels in cash at the stall or take out a subscription; advertisers pay the fees appropriate to its widespread circulation. On the other hand, "Israel Hayom" is distributed free on the streets and its advertising fees are extremely low. This newspaper would have gone bankrupt long ago if not for the constant flow of millions of dollars every month from its owner, the gambling magnate and Netanyhau’s big friend Sheldon Adelson, who owns a large empire of casinos, especially in Macau, China. (A recent news item disclosed that Prime Minister Netanyahu tried to obtain for Adelson the franchise for yet another casino, in Japan - but the Japanese were stunned by the request and rejected it out of hand.)

Of course, there is a political difference between the two newspapers. "Yediot Ahronot" is considered to be very hostile  to Netanyahu. In the past week it devoted much space to the scandals related to Sara Netanyahu,  the Prime Minister's wife, who was among other things accused of recycling empty bottles which are property of the state and taking the proceeds to her own pocket. "Israel Hayom"  strongly condemned "Yediot Ahronot" and declared its rival to be "The Pillar of the Leftist Media". Of course Israel Hayom supports enthusiastically and without reservation all of the Prime Minister’s positions, and the headlines of the freely distributed paper often look like pure elections propaganda. (After all, that's exactly what Sheldon Adelson expects for the substantial sums he pours into the free daily.)

Still, on one issue "Yediot Ahronot of the leftist media” and “Israel Hayom” of the staunch Bibi fans plaid the same tune, as two instruments in a harmonious orchestra. On Tuesday, the Israeli Defense Force awarded decorations and commendations to soldiers who have excelled during the last summer’s fighting in the Gaza Strip. In both "Yediot Ahronot" and “Israel Hayom”, the editors considered this ceremony as the main news of the day, and the two papers carried identical banner headlines: "We Salute!" under which appeared photos of the soldiers whose bravery got properly recognized. On the inside pages there were extensive items giving at length the personal stories of individual soldiers, under such headings as "The face of the beautiful Israel" and “Thank you, our Heroes".

"Yediot Ahronot" chose especially to focus on the personal story of a combat medic who during the fierce battle at Gaza’s Shuja'iyya Neighborhood saved at the last moment the life of his seriously wounded commanding officer. Of course, as is habitual in such accounts, there appeared at the end of the article the medic’s self-effacing words: "I do not consider myself a hero, not at all. I just  did my duty, nothing more."

"Yediot Ahronot"? The Battle of Shuja'iyya? This reminds me of something. One day after that battle, Gush Shalom tried to publish in  Yedioth Ahronoth  a paid ad with the following text: "Enough! The bodies of civilians are piling up in the streets of Gaza. Dozens of children were killed. Israel is sinking into a new swamp in Gaza. Enough! We must end the bloodshed and lift the siege of Gaza.  There are no military solutions. Only negotiations can achieve a quiet border ". The advertising department of "Yediot Ahronot" refused to take it  ("We don’t publish political ads"). Of course, also this week, in publishing the detailed stories of soldiers from that war, the newspaper did not find it necessary to make any mention of the bodies of civilians and children which were strewn on the streets of Shuja'iyya (and of several other locations in the Gaza Strip).

Investigation in depth of the darker sides of the war in Gaza is left to others,  such as the commission of inquiry appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council. The Israeli media did carry this week some exciting news about this investigation. Not about the findings of the investigation, which have not yet been completed, but for the resignation of the commission’s chair – the Canadian jurist, professor William Schabas. This was hailed in the headlines as "a resounding success for Israeli diplomacy!" The diligent researchers employed by the government  of Israel discovered that in the past Professor Schabas wrote for the PLO a legal opinion on the Palestinian attempts to gain recognition at UN institutions – and hence, that he was not an unbiased investigator. In order to let the debate stay focused on what happened in Gaza rather than on his own personality, Professor Schabas chose to  announce his resignation. But sober Israeli commentators suggested "not to rejoice too soon", since "Schabas resigned, the report will be written also without him, and the State of Israel will not look good there."

 "The Human Rights Council of the United Nations is a biased and prejudiced body, it deals with Israel more than with any other country. We should reject out of hand any report published by it" declared the angry Prime Minister Netanyahu. Indeed, the Human Rights Council is not made up of Human Rights activists; like other UN institutions, it is composed of Ambassadors appointed by the governments of UN Member States, and each of these governments has its own specific agendas, interests and various considerations as to what should be investigated and what should not . Those who sit there clearly find it easier to unite around the demand to investigate the IDF's misdeeds than to look into those of various other armies (though since the start of the civil war in Syria, the Human Rights Council issued several sharp condemnations of the Assad regime).

If the investigations of the Human Rights Council of the United Nations are biased and prejudiced, what of the investigations which the State of Israel conducts of itself, of its own army and soldiers? Also there, it is difficult to discern an objective and unbiased investigation. True, the IDF military police did uncover several cases of soldiers looting money and valuables from Gaza Palestinians, and these seem about to stand trial ("A soldier who during a battle devotes his time and energy to searching for valuables and putting them in his pockets, is not only acting immorally but also deserts his comrades-in-arms and betraying his duty to devote his full attention to the fighting").

But when some brazen military police investigators sought also to look into the orders and circumstances which to the massive artillery bombardment of civilian neighborhoods and dozens of civilian bodies lying in the streets, there was a very loud outcry. Hundreds of retired officers came out in protest at the idea of an investigation - or, God forbid, a prosecution – of their fellows still in service ("It is inconceivable that an officer giving operational orders in battle would need to seek advice from a lawyer!"). Minister Naftali Bennett came out in outspoken defense of "the soldiers and officers, Our Heroes" and took up the slogan “We have stopped apologizing!" as the centerpiece of the elections  campaign conducted by his Jewish Home Party. Also Defense Minister Moshe " Boogie" Ya'alon expressed "his firm hope" that no investigation be opened  against IDF officers regarding their operational activities in Gaza. And which   military police investigator or military prosecutor would be bold enough to spoil the firm hopes of the Defense Minister?

And so, the clock continues to tick towards the moment when the State of Palestine’s adhesion to the Rome Statute comes into force, enabling the Palestinians to file charges at the International Criminal Court against Israeli officers, for acts committed in territory which is internationally recognized as part of the State of Palestine. It would be rather difficult for the State of Israel to rebut  such charges on the grounds that Israel itself has already carried out a comprehensive and independent  investigation of the cases in question. But, anyway, it seems likely that the Palestinians would focus more on an issue where Israel has an even more difficult case where international law is converned:  itsf involvement in the establishment of settlements in Occupied Territory.  

Meanwhile, the neighborhood of Shuja'iyya remains devastated and ruined, as are several other locations in the Gaza Strip. Building materials enter Gaza only by a thin trickle, and last week UNRWA announced the termination of its assistance to those trying to reconstruct their homes; very little was actually provided, of all billions promised by many countries for rebuilding the Gaza Strip promised. In last month’s intensive storm and bitter cold wave, several homeless Gazans froze to death – which did not get much media attention. This week, after a new series of attacks on Egyptian troops in Sinai, General Sisi tightened once again the Egyptian part of the siege of Gaza, which just happens to complement and reinforce the Israeli part of the blockade. (Was Hamas or any other body in Gaza involved in the Sinai attacks? Probably, Sisi did not really conduct any intensive inquiry...). Out of the Strip come cries despair and dire warnings - "Gaza is on the verge of explosion."

The girl Malak al-Khatib also suffered greatly from that cold wave, being held at a cell in Hasharon Prison, dressed only in the light clothes which she wore at the time of her arrest. A 14 years old eighth-grader at Beitin village near Ramallah, she was arrested on the last day of 2014 near her school, and was charged with having thrown stones at Israeli soldiers. Hurling stones at soldiers is a common act among young Palestinians under Israeli occupation (although, in most cases, by boys). Malak al-Khatib was questioned without the presence of either parents or lawyer - a regular occurrence in the Occupied Territories, even though it contravenes the international rules concerning the interrogation of minors.

The interrogators also accused her of carrying a knife in her school bag with the intention of stabbing soldiers, and warned that if the knife were added to the charge sheet it would result in a years-long imprisonment.  In fact, no one ever saw the alleged knife. Malak al-Khatib, a 14 year old girl alone in the interrogation room and the cold cell and having no access to legal advice, agreed to sign a "plea bargain" and admit to throwing stones. The deal was brought before the judges of the military court at Ofer Camp, and in less than five minutes the trial was over and she was sent to two months’ imprisonment. It is not sure that the case of Malak al-Khatib is the most horrific thing that happened in the Palestinian territories in recent times - but as sometimes happens, she became a symbol and gained a lot of attention, even in the  newspapers of faraway Pakistan and Algeria (but not in the Israeli media, too  busy with other issues...)

A few days ago a protest vigil was held in Tel Aviv, on the sidewalk between the towers and helipad of the Ministry of Defense on one side and on the other the Sarona Compound, newly-inaugurated center of the city’s nightlife. About a hundred activists turned up, among them Knesset Members Dov Khenin and Haneen Zoabi of the joint electoral slate which brings together the political  forces representing the Arab population in Israel (and Jews who feel solidarity with that population). Signs were spread out : "Free Malak al-Khatib!" / "150 minors in prison - stop!" / "Close down the Ofer Prison, dismiss the Judges of the Occupation!" / "Down with the Occupation!".

Three boys and one girl walked past the protesters, leading their bikes. "What is this about?" asked one of them. "We are demonstrating here to protest the imprisonment of a girl, a girl the same age as you. Come, join us!". The boys looked at the signs, smiled sheepishly and moved on.

 "Boogie, Boogie, hey hey hey – how many kids did you kill today!". This chant, originating at American protests against Vietnam War, had already been taken up at Israeli protests many years ago, inserting either the name or the nickname of the current Defense Minister, as best fits the rhyme. "It's not exactly the most appropriate slogan for today" say some of the participants. After consultations the chant is changed to “how many kids did you arrest today!" and after a moment to “how many kids did you kidnap today!" – which was kept up until the moment of dispersal. "He calls it arrest or detention, as far as we are concerned it is a plain kidnapping" emphasized Dr. Anat Matar of the Philosophy Department at Tel Aviv University, a veteran protester.
And there was another well-known chant: "Boogie, Boogie, it is no joke – go to Hague, to the dock!”. Somehow, today this seems just a bit little less of Science Fiction than on the previous occasions when this chant was heard.


Friday, January 30, 2015

The week that the Third Lebanon War did not break out

The air is full of fuel vapor, and the sparks are flying, but so far the great conflagration did not happen.

As a child, I occasionally heard adults speaking nostalgically of the British Mandate times (though at the time itself they had been in the anti-British underground ...). "In those days you could go to Mount Hermon. The Syrian border was open, it was possible to travel throughout the Middle East. On Mount Hermon there is snow in the winter, just like in Europe. What lovely snow!". Pre-1967 Israel had no snow except for two or three unusually cold winter days in Jerusalem. 

And then there was the war in 1967 and the euphoria and – yes - the electrifying news "Now Hermon is ours! The snow! The snow!" Six years later there was another war, and Mount Hermon was a battleground and the blood of Israeli and Syrian soldiers stained the white snow. But in the end the State of Israel kept hold of Hermon and after a few years formally annexed it (though no one in the world recognizes the annexation) and awarded to Israeli developers the franchise for establishing  the Mount Hermon Resort. Every winter we hear on the radio, several times a day, the jingle " Hermon Resort in full swing!" The commercials explain that there is no need to travel to Switzerland or Austria, since one can just as well ski in the snows of Hermon. "Ours, ours, all of you ours, Crown of the Hermon" is the refrain of an old song, written at the beginning of the Zionist movement, which Israel’s state radio occasionally tries to revive.

Very few in Israel heard of the Syrian village which existed there, at the foot of Mount Hermon, until 1967. A village which was completely razed by Israel's bulldozers. The facilities of the beautiful Mount Hermon Resort were built on its site. What was the name of that village? I once knew. Many years ago, I was there in a delegation of Israeli peace activists. Our guide was a resident of the nearby town of Majdal Shams - one of those residents who, also after decades of Israeli rule, stubbornly refuse to accept Israeli citizenship and regard themselves as Syrian citizens and Syrian patriots. He told us about this village which once nestled at the foot of Mount Hermon and of other villages which had existed in the same area, naming all these villages, one by one. But my impressions of that visit, and the names of all the villages, were written down in my old laptop which later had a fatal collision with a cup of hot tea.

Back to the present: this week, two missiles were fired from Syria in the general direction of Mount Hermon, falling in open fields without causing any casualties or damage. But just in case, the army ordered the immediate evacuation of some thousand Israeli hikers from the Mount Hermon ski site. Later, the army opened artillery fire on a Syrian army camp manned by soldiers loyal to President Bashar Assad, who are mainly engaged in fighting against the rebels threatening his regime. The State of Israel, however, concluded that they were responsible for the rocket attacks. As usual in such cases, the army announced "precise hits on target". What did happen at  these accurately hit targets, who was killed there and who was wounded? We will probably never know.

Some Israeli media commentators remarked on the fact that President Assad's regime, together with members of the Lebanese Hezbollah militia and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards who support this regime, nowadays hold only  the northern sector of the Syrian border with Israel. Most of this border is now under control of the anti-Assad rebels. Commentators also remarked that the rebels carefully avoid any act against Israel, and that Israel provides them with  humanitarian assistance and the treatment of their wounded in Israeli hospitals. What about an assistance which goes beyond the humanitarian, for example the providing of arms and ammunition? This was not so much mentioned in the Israeli media, but abroad the possibility was mentioned several times. In fact, there were some references to Israel building up a “security zone” on the Syrian side of the border, such as was maintained in South Lebanon for many years. The rebel coalition which holds a large part of the Syrian border with Israel also includes the Jabhat al-Nusra Front, which is considered to be the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda. So, is al-Qaeda providing a Security Zone for the State of Israel? Even stranger things have already happened in the crazy region in which we live.

Mostly, however, commentators on that day were concerned with wondering whether the missiles fired from Syria already constituted the retaliation for the attack which the State of Israel launched in the same vicinity last week – in which were killed Hezbollah members led by the famous Jihad Mughniyeh as well as an Iranian general and other Iranian officers - or were additional retaliations to be expected? This question was given a clear answer by the next  morning. The firing of missiles from Syria turned out to have been a diversionary tactic designed to divert Israeli attention to the Syrian border, while the main Hezbollah retaliation was actually launched from the Lebanese border: an accurate ambush laid to a convoy of Israeli officers who moved along the border in unarmored vehicles, a negligence which provoked a lot of questions. (Though, in fact, armored vehicles would not have been of much avail, as the convoy was hit by sophisticated anti-tank missiles designed to penetrate heavy armor). "We had a precise tit-for-tat action” said Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in his speech today. “broad daylight  action for broad daylight action, missile shooting for missile shooting, two cars hit for two cars hit”.

Major Yochai Kalangala and First Sergeant Dor Nini of the IDF were killed by the accurate hit on their jeep. As always when Israeli soldiers are killed, the  papers published extensively the mourning words of their family members,: "Our heroic brother Yochai, Jocha as we always called him, was a full-blooded man, salt of the earth, a warrior in heart and soul, a leader and an outstanding officer." "My brother Dor was a soldier, a warm-hearted hero who loved to help everybody,  a smiling child who was happy to be in a combat unit. When he was in the Gaza Strip we were very worried for him and made a celebration when he returned, but  this time he did not make it." The Spanish soldier who was killed, Lance Corporal Francisco Javier Soria Toledo who served as a UN peacekeeper, was hardly mentioned in the Israeli media. The Spanish media did extensively interview his family and also noted the fact that he was killed in the Israeli retaliatory shooting into Lebanon, and that his death was part of the escalation initiated by the State of Israel.

But here it stops, as of this moment. Foreign Minister Lieberman – whose  party is sharply plummeting in the polls due to the corruption scandal  involving its senior members - made during a visit to Beijing a call for
“a disproportionate response” and the launching of all-out war. Was this a serious strategic assessment or a rather ineffective piece of elections propaganda? To Prime Minister Netanyahu, the polls seem to have given the message that even the blowing of  turbulent winds of war  did not ensure him a significant lead towards the March 17 elections, and that after all it was quite uncertain if a prolonged war could become a winning electoral gambit.

On the other side of the border, the death and destruction rained on Lebanon in 2006 are certainly far from forgotten, and the Lebanese had also seen what happened to the Gaza Strip in 2009 and 2012 and 2014, and there was absolutely no enthusiasm in Lebanon for another round.

So, both parties took up the UN call for a cease-fire and de-escalation. For the time being.

IDF officer Yochai Kalangala, killed this week in a Hezbollah ambush
(here shown receiving outstanding officer commendation from his commanding general)
Photo: IDF Spokesman  

Hezbollah officer Jihad Mughniyeh, killed last week in an IDF raid
(here shown received by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei)
Photo: @khamenei_ir, Twitter

Saturday, January 24, 2015

About buried phosphorus and thuggish diplomacy

In 1974, as a young soldier just inducted into the ranks of the Israel Defense Forces, I was among a group of soldiers whom the platoon sergeant took on a tour of the munitions dump, showing us the different types of ammunition  used by the army. Among other things, he pointed to a pile of wooden boxes which were marked "Exploding Smoke" and said with a sligh wink "In fact, these are phosphorus bombs, but do not write the name explicitly because it might  create international problems." I have to admit that at that moment I did not pay much attention to this; still, it somehow stuck in my memory.

Much later, in 2009, I suddenly remembered the winking sergeant  and his Exploding Smoke. During the Israeli Air Force bombings of Gaza ("Cast Lead Operation") news started to get out of what happened to those on whom such phosphorus bombs happened to fall. Burning phosphorus particles stick to the body, penetrating deeper and deeper inside, causing excruciating pain. Shifa Hospital in central Gaza was crowded with whole families affected by the phosphorus which had fallen on them from the sky, the doctors seeing it happen, often unable to stop it in time. Even phosphorus smoke dissipating in the air can cause severe damage, sometimes death, to those who breath it.

Israeli and international Human Rights organizations made an outcry, and the use of phosphorus in Gaza had a central place in the famous report of the Goldstone Commission. The Government of Israel and the IDF asserted that phosphorus was used only in uninhabited areas (is there any part of the Gaza Strip which is truly uninhabited?). But in the next rounds of Gaza bombings, 2012 and 2014 phosphorus was no longer used. At least this particular horror was spared the inhabitants.

This week, intensive earthworks were going on at the Schneller Compound in Jerusalem, a former military camp on whose site an upscale residential neighborhood is to be erected. Suddenly, severe toxic fumes rose from the ground and spread throughout the whole area. Residents within a hundred meters radius were urgently required to stay indoors and close hermetically all windows. Only after several hours, rescue teams in sealed protective suits managed to locate and neutralize a buried old phosphorus bomb which had been touched by the bulldozers.

The  phosphorus vapors which rose this week from the soil of a quiet Jerusalem neighborhood - as if it is a metaphor for the State of Israel coming this week for the first time under the direct scrutiny of the International Criminal Court in The Hague…

No longer science fiction, no more an apocalyptic forecast of a future when the Palestinians might wield "their "Doomsday Weapon", but a concrete reality. A dry, formal notification by the Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda that a preliminary probe had been initiated about the possibility of war crimes having been committed in the Palestinian Territories; that the probe may relate to crimes committed by Israel, by Palestinian organizations, or both; that the probe is not a full-scale investigation, but the information collected might lead to the decision to open a full investigation; that the decision on such a full investigation would be made by the judges of the court, under the prescribed procedures; and that the probe will be conducted in a "fully independent and impartial manner", with no deadline set for its completion. Fatou Bensouda of Gambia, who had been involved in prosecuting war criminals in Rwanda, was included by Time Magazine in its list of “the hundred most influential people in the world”.

The professional echelon at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem recommended
to Prime Minister Netanyahu to make a moderate and measured response and concentrate on discreet behind-the-scenes action, especially since the prosecutors’ probe is preliminary only, and it would take a long time to crystallize into a formal charge-sheet - if at all.

Netanyahu ignored the recommendation and decided on an all-out international campaign, a frontal attack on the Court, its prosecutors and judges – even to the extent of exerting  international efforts to get funding to the International Court cut if it dares to institute proceedings against officers of the "most moral army in the world". Foreign Minister Lieberman, in his usual blunt way, stated that “the court should be dismantled”. Several observers noted that such angry and a bit hysterical reactions had less to do with apprehension of some Israeli officers being actually prosecuted in absentia at some future time, and more with the realization that even this initial probe might be enough to change significantly the international discourse regarding Israel and the Palestinians.

And then, the focus of attention suddenly shifted away from the court halls in the Hague to the skies of war-torn Syria. There, combat helicopters (or by another version, drones) suddenly appeared and launched an accurate barrage on a convoy of senior operatives of Hezbollah – the Lebanese Shi’ite militia which is one of the main supporters of President Bashar Assad and his regime. The Government of Israel refrained from taking formal responsibility for the attack, but Israel’s mass-circulation newspapers were quick to place headlines praising "the accurate action of our forces," and the "liquidation of the Prince of Terror".

Jihad Mughniyah, a young man without much experience or special skills, had gained the position of command over the forces sent by Hezbollah to the Israeli border in the Golan Heights mainly because of being the son of Imad Mughniyeh, the Hezbollah operations chief who was killed in a mysterious  explosion in Damascus eight years ago. Yedioth Ahronoth published on its front page the photo of father and son, Imad and Jihad, with the prominent red captions "liquidated 2008" near the one and "liquidated 2015" next to the other. On the inside pages was the further information, unearthed by some diligent researcher, that also two uncles from the “Mughniyah terrorist family" had been "liquidated" in the past. Also, there was a warning to readers not to be misled by the photographs of Jihad Mughniyeh, in which he looked like a shy schoolboy, but to understand that he had been a dangerous terrorist and it had been well done to rid the world of his presence.

There was some confusion when it came out that among the twelve killed in the bombing were also an Iranian general and some of his officers. Official Israel responded with a number of conflicting voices: one unnamed “Israeli military source” apologetically told Reuters that Israel did not know about the presence of an Iranian general in the convoy. Another unnamed source contradicted this a few hours later and reiterated the version that Israel “does not accept any responsibility” for the attack in Syria.

"Would Iran and Hezbollah accept meekly such a blow?" wondered  the commentators. "A helicopter attack is a method which leaves clear Israeli fingerprints, it is not a bomb planted by somebody somewhere to which you can plausibly disclaim responsibility. This is poking a finger in the eye of Hezbollah, they can’t afford not to respond" wrote Alon Ben-David in  "Ma'ariv".

Indeed, there were angry protests in Beirut and Tehran, and threats were made of "dire and painful retaliation". The northern region of Israel was placed under an alert higher than at any time since 2006, tanks were stationed  along the Lebanese border,  as were the Iron Dome anti-missile missiles. Deep in the Mediterranean waters Israeli navy missile boats were stationed to defend against a possible attack on the Israeli natural gas rigs, and Defense Minister Ya’alon made dire threats against “anyone who dares to violate Israeli sovereignty” (sic!). And the tension continues. “Someone threw a match into a powder keg and is now waiting to see whether it will explode or not. This is a dangerous exercise in practical chemistry conducted on the eve of the final exam: The elections in Israel" wrote veteran commentator Alex Fishman.

While the alert in the north reached its peak, a violent incident took place in Tel Aviv – a young Palestinian stabbed and wounded passengers  in an Israeli bus, and an eighth-grader has become the hero of the hour for throwing his satchel at the stabber. However, this probably did not come from Hezbollah; rather, it was one more of the Palestinians fed up  with the ongoing occupation, taking a private initiative. As he told in police investigation, what the young knife-man sought to avenge was the deadly bombings of Gaza – which Palestinians remember very well, though Israelis have managed to forget them at record speed. The northern powder keg of which Fishman wrote had not yet exploded. The retaliation, when it comes, might be at an unpredictable place and time chosen by Hezbollah and its Iranian partners.

An immediate Hezbollah revenge could have ensured the victory of Netanyahu in the March general elections: a missile barrage from Lebanon on Israeli cities, which would have required a powerful response by the Israeli Air Force and initiated an open-ended military operation ("Operation Protective Stiff Cloud"?) which would have continued to escalate until shortly before the election date - and during all that time, opposition leaders Herzog and
Livni would have been constrained to express patriotic support for the government and avoid all criticism and propaganda. Alas, up to this moment Hezbollah did not deliver the goods. Even so, our Prime Minister did apparently make some electoral modest gain from the winds of war blowing this week.  Weekend polls indicated an increase in the Likud Party’s showing, not very big but enough to close the gap which separated the ruling party from its Labor Party rival, the two now running neck and neck.

The electoral aspects of the attack in Syria have already been discussed quite a bit. Not so much attention was given to the fact that among those killed in the attack was the officer in charge of the Hezbollah force fighting against the Islamic State (IS or ISIS or ISIL) – which makes him a de-facto ally of the US, even if figuring on its list of terrorists.

Coincidentally or not, just this week was published an interesting strategic assessment by Israel Ziv - formerly an IDF general and now heading a company which provides "security advice and military training for security forces in Latin America and Africa".  Ziv stated unequivocally that "For Israel, ISIS is the lesser evil. The existence of the ISIS State breaks up the dangerous Shiite territorial continuity from Tehran to Beirut which Iran had spent great efforts to build up. It is preferable for us to have there a sword-wielding  force moving about in converted vans, rather than a nuclear power stationing  missiles at our borders. Moreover, the ideological priorities of ISIS are first of all to fight the Shiites and other minorities, rather than dealing with ‘The Zionists'. In this respect they have many years of 'work' laid out for them before having time and energy for us "(Yediot Aharonot, January 19, 2015).

As we know, the approach of President Obama is quite different. Obama regards ISIS as a threat serious enough to warrant the reversal of the planned  American departure from Iraq, a threat justifying and necessitating the launching of an air campaign and even the forming of a de-facto alliance with Iran and Iran’s allies, waging war on ISIS on their own account. In that context, Obama seeks to reach in the near future an agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue - an agreement which would ensure that Iran does not actually build a nuclear bomb, but which would not necessarily require Iran to completely dismantle all its nuclear capabilities.

In the eyes of Prime Minister Netanyahu, such an agreement between the US and Iran would be very bad and dangerous. After for a while keeping a low profile on the Iranian issue, Netanyahu took it up again in full swing, with the encouragement of his Republicans partners who now control Capitol Hill. On the agenda of the Republicans – and of Netanyahu - is a proposal to impose further sanctions on Iran. As Mossad chief Tamir Pardo stated to US Senators (though later forced to publish a denial), such new sanctions would lead to the collapse of negotiations between Iran and the West. Which, it clearly seems, is precisely Netanyhau’s purpose…

Through his close associate Ron Dermer - Israeli Ambassador to the United States, who is in practice mainly Netanyahu’s ambassador to the Republican Party - Netanyahu arranged to get himself invited to Washington and address a joint session of Congress. The date set: March 3, just two weeks before elections in Israel. It would be a first-rate electioneering broadcast: the Prime Minister of Israel, speaking impeccable English to the American legislators, who get up on their feet and give him a standing ovation (AIPAC will take care of their all clapping in unison) with everything broadcast live on Israeli TV. And in this speech Netanyahu would presumably concentrate on the Iranian Threat and  spur Congress to impose more sanctions – even (and especially) contrary to the clearly expressed wishes of the President of the United States.

As has already been reported extensively, Netanyahu did not bother to give the White House or the State Department any hint of his intentions to get to Washington and blatantly interfere in the American political power struggle. And as has been made clear unmistakeably, President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry are truly furious at Netanyahu. Unnamed US officials told Ha’aretz: “We thought we’ve seen everything, but Bibi managed to surprise even us. There are things you simply don’t do. He spat in our face publicly and that’s no way to behave. Netanyahu ought to remember that President Obama has a year and a half left to his presidency, and that there will be a price to pay”. Today's headlines in the press published the announcement of President Obama that he will not meet with Netanyahu during this visit to Washington -  nor will Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Kerry or any other member of the administration.

Is this enough to make Netanyahu pay a real price? Quite doubtful. The Prime Minister may regard a public cold shoulder from Obama as a tolerable and even negligible price to pay, as long as Obama continues to give support to Netanyahu's policies where it really counts, for example in the UN Security Council. In the near future, however, Obama might be given an opportunity to exact from Netanyahu a real price: Palestinians are considering resuming their application to the Security Council, whose composition has changed since the failed vote in December. And perhaps it is just barely possible that the American vote will also change, this time?

Bibi King Kong at Capitol Hill (Haaretz, Biderman)

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Paris effect that wasn’t

[The following was originally written in Dutch by Beate Zilversmidt for the website of the Amsterdam-based “Other Jewish Voice”]

Two news items on the same day:

- Jewish ultra-orthodox school closed in Amsterdam, as in Bruxelles and Antwerpen.

- In a Channel-10 opinion poll the Herzog/Livni Labor Party up and with 26 seats leading; leaving  the Likud behind at 24.

That in Amsterdam a Jewish school was closed for security reasons - it struck me painfully. But in the  Israeli news, it was not more than a side note. It was the week after the Paris upheaval.

We in Israel did expect things would have an impact on our elections. That was also what Netanyahu thought when he rushed to Paris calling upon the Jews in France to turn their back to France and make aliya. If that is what the French knew he would do, then they had reason not to want him there, at such a sensitive occasion. Representatives of French Jewry themselves complained, feeling undermined at the very moment that they have asked  for better protection, in France.

But, Netanyahu was speaking over their heads to the Israeli electorate. And if the polls would have shown this week Netanyahu's Likud going up, we would not have been surprised. We would have told ourselves: it is the Paris effect; it will pass. That the opposite happened, that may indicate that Bibi's  fear mongering and world unfriendliness don't bring Israelis anymore to flock behind him. And that in such a week the chances of Herzog go up - if this is proof of an undercurrent coming more and more to the surface, then we may really look forward to a change in the political balance of power.

Here a ray of hope during Europe’s dark hour?