Did U.S. State Department ignorance kill the peace process?

From Thursday’s Haaretz:

There’s been a great deal of noise surrounding Nahum Barnea’s interview in Yediot Aharonot with unnamed U.S. officials closely involved with John Kerry’s peace efforts. “There are a lot of reasons for the peace effort’s failure,” the diplomats said, “but people in Israel shouldn’t ignore the bitter truth – the primary sabotage came from the settlements.” Cue the sturm und drang.

Of course, sturm und drang-inducing interviews aren’t given on the fly (anonymous or not). America doesn’t publicly criticize an ally unless the very public-ness is, itself, a message. It’s safe to assume that the officials in question didn’t say anything they didn’t mean to say – not even the bits that were shockingly ignorant.

And I quote: “We didn’t realize Netanyahu was using the announcements of tenders for settlement construction as a way to ensure the survival of his own government. We didn’t realize continuing construction allowed ministers in his government to very effectively sabotage the success of the talks.… We’re talking about the announcement of 14,000 housing units, no less. Only now, after talks blew up, did we learn that this is also about expropriating land on a large scale.”

I’m sorry – what? You “didn’t realize” settlement construction was being used to sabotage talks? You didn’t know that settlement building “is also about expropriating land on a large scale”?

There is simply no excuse – none, nothing – for this kind of ignorance among American officials. To tell one of Israel’s leading journalists that they didn’t see any of this coming, that they only realized the enormity of the truth “after talks blew up,” is to admit to an obliviousness that borders on criminal.

To keep reading, please click here.

Israel presents: How to politicize the Holocaust.

The following ran on Haaretz.com today:

You would think that if anyone on earth didn’t need help understanding the Holocaust, it would be Israel’s leaders.

You would think that between Holocaust Memorial Day, the public school programs, the documentaries, the books, Yad Vashem – not to mention the actual survivors, living their lives in simple defiance of the Final Solution – Israel would be the one place where you could rest assured that the enormity of the crime and the obligation to honor the dead are clear.

You would think that the country’s leaders could be trusted to have a grasp on the monstrousness of it all. Mechanized torture and execution; the enslavement and rape of old and young; babies slaughtered upon birth; men, women and children worked to death, starved to death, gassed to death, shot naked and left to rot in shallow graves. Nearly a thousand concentration camps; 30,000 slave labor camps; 500 brothels in which the Nazi regime profited from the sale of its victims’ flesh.

You would think. And yet again and again, Israel’s politicians remind us that no, in fact, the country’s leaders don’t have a clear grasp on that enormity, nor on the imperative to recognize and respect the inferno of anguish in which the 6 million were consumed.

For surely, if Israel’s leaders understood, the prime minister would never liken a blusterous political movement to the Nazi ravages of the past; surely a member of the coalition wouldn’t equate a speech criticizing the occupation – delivered before the Jewish State’s own parliament, no less – with “incitement to annihilation”; surely the deputy foreign minister wouldn’t call the Jewish State’s internationally recognized boundaries – defended, as they are, by the Israel Defense Forces – “Auschwitz borders.

To read the rest of this post, please go to HaAretz.com: “Israel presents: How to politicize the Holocaust”

Israel and the Arab Peace Initiative – top-down ignorance.

Those obsessed with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are all talking about the fact that the Arab League has once again proffered the Arab Peace Initiative as a starting place for negotiations with Israel.

image

The API’s basic contours are identical to the basic contours of every other plan ever devised to resolve the conflict: two states, based on the 1967 borders; a shared Jerusalem; a mutually agreed-upon resolution of the refugee problem. The stated goal of the API is a comprehensive, regional peace, and normalized relations with the Israeli people.

What’s a little stunning is that this is the third time the League has tried to launch the API—the first time was in 2002. What’s more stunning is the fact that, short of a brief mention by Ehud Olmert at the 2007 Annapolis Conference (months after the League had reissued its offer), official Israel has largely ignored the Initiative. The only difference circa 2013 is that the League is now willing to openly consider mutually-agreed minor land swaps—and still Prime Minister Netanyahu is hinting that the API is an Arab effort to dictate terms.

What’s perhaps stunning-est, however, is this: Until very recently, the vast majority of Israeli Jews had little to no idea that all 22 members of the Arab League had offered to start talks with their government, with the goal of achieving a region-wide peace.

Late last month, veteran Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar revealed in al-Monitor that

even though the initiative has been on the shelf for over 11 years, 73.5 percent of the Hebrew-speaking public had never heard of it, or had heard just a hint of it but remains unfamiliar with the details. Of these, 20.5 percent were “slightly knowledgeable” about the initiative and only six percent were “very knowledgeable.”

As an Israeli who chose to leave rather than raise my family in a polity so enmeshed in military occupation, I’m often frustrated by my people’s apparent inability to see beyond the fears (genuine though they are) that serve to buttress so many of our politicians’ ideologies.

Currently home for a visit, I happen to be typing these words in a busy Jerusalem café—surrounded by laughter and chatter about birthdays and foreign travel, I watch the delivery of café au lait and pastries, and the cognitive dissonance, the ability of my fellow coffee drinkers to live quiet, coffee-sipping lives even as the people they fear labor under the control of the region’s mightiest military, is deafening. I want to ask the folks one table over how it is that we so often refuse to see the reality in which we live; I’m not sure I want to hear the response.

And yet, I can’t help but consider that statistic: Nearly three-quarters of Hebrew-speaking Israelis had no idea that the Arab world had offered to negotiate peace—not once, not twice, but three times.

When that many people are that ignorant of information that vital, it speaks to something much greater than a simple failure to stay up-to-date. It’s a kind of ignorance that serves those anxious to exploit it, those who have no interest in achieving rapprochement, those for whom fear is a stepping stone to hegemony and ethnic purity. It points to an unavoidable but largely unacknowledged fact: Israel’s elites have not found it in their interests to prepare their people for the possibility of an end to conflict—and so they’ve chosen not to.

Politicians haven’t talked about the Initiative, haven’t responded to the Initiative, haven’t floated the Initiative via influential proxies, and (perhaps most damningly) the press hasn’t paid it much attention, either. Instead, we’ve seen government efforts to cleanse the educational system of any reference to the Palestinian story, government insistence that any and all Palestinian demands are a threat to the Jewish state, and a press that’s too often willing to follow wherever the official narrative leads. After all, no one fails to report Palestinian violence—but nonviolent Palestinian activism? Meh.

So the question has to be asked: To what extent is a people responsible for knowing that which is knowingly kept from them? To what extent do they need to guess what no one is saying?

When the API’s general outline was spelled out, 55 percent of those surveyed said they’d support it to some extent; when asked whether they’d support Netanyahu if he reached a final status agreement based on those same principles, the yeses jumped to 69 percent.

No one has tried to prepare my fellow Israelis for the possibility of peace, and yet when presented with the truth about what’s actually on the table, nearly the same number that expressed prior ignorance expressed support.

We can’t know what the Middle East would look like today if Israel had pursued the API eleven years ago (or five years ago). We can’t know how Israelis would greet the Initiative today if they’d known about it all along.

But surely it matters that they didn’t know. Surely it matters that those with the power to tell them chose not to. And surely it matters that with just a little bit of knowledge, in spite of everything, Israelis say they want what the Arab League has to offer.

The most important question, though, is whether all this will matter to the politicians who kept the information from them in the first place.

Graffiti in upscale Jerusalem neighborhood reads “Those who believe him are afraid,” a play on the popular religious saying: “Those who believe are not afraid.”

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast. (To follow the links embedded in the post – particularly those relevant to Palestinian nonviolence).

On Netanyahu’s in-flight ‘rest chamber.’

el alI was not going to begrudge the Netanyahus their ice cream.

When it emerged in February that Israel’s Prime Minister was spending hundreds of dollars every month at a local ice cream parlor, I honestly thought “C’mon, now. Let the man have his ice cream!” Because you know what? He’s the Prime Minister, and I’m comfortable with the notion that heads of state get little perks here and there. You want $2,700 worth of ice cream every year? Go ahead. You’re Prime Minister.

But dagnabbit, even in those rare moments in which I’m feeling magnanimous toward Bibi, he has to come along and ruin it.

You see, on Monday we learned that the Netanyahus have been extravagant with much more than just dessert. According to Ynet, between 2009 and 2012 the Prime Minister’s food and hosting bills more than doubled; cleaning expenses went from $17,000 to $30,000; and “representation expenses”—clothes, shoes, makeup, and hair—“nearly doubled.”

And then, then—then there was the in-flight rest chamber.

You heard me:

Per Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office’s request, a special “rest chamber” was installed in the airplane which took the PM and his wife to Margaret Thatcher’s funeral in London.

According to the report, the chamber included a double-bed and was surrounded by four walls to give the couple absolute privacy.

… The airline received $427,000 for the flight, $127,000 of which were paid for the chamber and its complex installation, which required electricians, engineers, porters and additional workers.

… Netanyahu’s office stated: “The flight was scheduled for midnight after a hectic day. The following day, the PM was supposed to represent the State of Israel in a number of formal international events, including meetings with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and British Prime Minister David Cameron.

“In light of this, it is appropriate that Israel’s Prime Minister will be able to rest the night between such busy days.”

Close to $3,000 a year for ice cream? Okay, sure. But $30,000 worth of wardrobe and hair, and a $127,000 bed? For what was likely a five-hour flight? Are you kidding me with this?

In all my years of watching the Bibi Show (a show which began for me back in the 90s and includes such highlights as Hate Speech from a BalconyInciting The Western Wall Tunnel Riots; and Making Stuff Up in Front of Congress), I’ve never known him to have anything more than a slippery grasp of any reality other than his own political prospects.

For instance, I have no doubt that he did not intend to give aid and comfort to Rabin’s assassin-to-be on that balcony—but that’s what he did. I similarly have no doubt that he did not want to see 17 soldiers killed in the tunnel riots (though I’m less convinced that he gave much of a thought to the 70 Palestinians who also died)—but that’s what happened. And when he stood before Congress and talked as if 20 years of history hadn’t happened? Well, actually…okay, that time he got exactly what he wanted, because America proceeded to continue to do nothing to advance a two-state peace. (But I would argue that was a bad thing!)

How badly did he miss the mark regarding his flight to Thatcher’s funeral? Here’s how bad: Confronted with the expensive bed, the Prime Minister’s Office actually said the following:

According to the PM’s instructions, the expenses for the visit, which lasted less than 48 hours, were reduced as much as possible.

Bibi, I tried. I really did. And I continue to think your ice cream budget is really not that big a deal.

But there is no way in Actually-Real-Reality that a $127,000 in-flight bed (for a five-hour flight!) can be considered anything other than sheer, egocentric folly of the highest order. It certainly can’t be considered a “reduction” of expenses.

And in a country in which upcoming budget cuts mean 40,000 more families will soon find themselves living below the poverty line? It’s not too far from obscene.

Yair Lapid – no cause for optimism.

yair lapid

Yair Lapid

In the lead-up to yesterday’s elections, there was real concern in certain circles (and happy certainty in others) that Naftali Bennett’s HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home) Party was poised to sweep into the Knesset’s second place position, directly behind a weakened Likud—weakened in part by Bennett himself, a man who gives public expression to what many assume to be the real position of both the Likud and Prime Minister Netanyahu: Settlements Always, Palestine Never.

When that didn’t turn out to be the case—when it turned out that the putatively centrist Yair Lapid had not only come in behind Likud, but had far outstripped Bennett—there were expressions of relief, even hope, in some corners. Perhaps, just maybe, a roughly centrist government will emerge, one that will genuinely negotiate for peace?

With all due respect, though, there’s simply no objective reason to even entertain that thought.

First of all, it’s important to remember that these results are preliminary, in that they don’t yet include the votes of the military. Israel’s soldiers have traditionally skewed slightly to the right of the rest of the country, and in recent years, this tendency has increased, along with a growing religiosity. There’s good reason to think that when all the votes are counted, Bennett and/or the Likud will have gained two-three seats, and in a parliament this polarized, that can make a big difference.

More to the point, however, even if the division of seats doesn’t much change, neither will Bibi. He is and has always been a right-wing opportunist whose first and primary goal is to achieve and maintain power. He’s spent his entire political career catering to the settler community, and though he’s not himself personally religious, has been more than happy to cede power and influence to the ultra-Orthodox in order to maintain a coalition that keeps him in the driver’s seat, and advances the settlement project. A single speech at Bar Ilan University, made years ago, doesn’t mitigate the fact that the Prime Minister has done everything in his not inconsiderable power to make sure that a Palestinian State becomes a literal impossibility.

And then there’s Yair Lapid, also an opportunist, albeit one who at least looks centrist. He’s said that he won’t join a government that doesn’t negotiate with the Palestinians—but honestly, that’s meaningless. “Negotiations” can mean anything or nothing, and Netanyahu has himself “negotiated with the Palestinians” on more than one occasion. Negotiations aren’t a goal unto themselves, and without a solid commitment to compromise, will continue to serve the Israeli government as they have for years: a handy diversion with which to distract the international community, even as Israel’s hold on the West Bank deepens.

Moreover, Lapid has made it painfully clear that he has no real grasp of the enormity of the occupation’s implications, and doesn’t understand what a genuine, durable peace agreement will entail. He launched his campaign in the bloated West Bank settlement of Ariel, and has publicly (and more than once) announced that if Israel’s government just stands firm, it will convince the Palestinian people to give up on East Jerusalem as their capital.

As I’ve written before, this latter position is nothing short of delusional, and reveals a deep and abiding attachment to the same kind of magical thinking recently expressed by Daniel Gordis: We will deal with the Palestinians as we imagine them to be, and all will be well.

The only thing approaching an ideological commitment that Lapid has ever clearly expressed is an aversion to the ultra-Orthodox. I think it’s a decent bet that he wouldn’t join a government in which the ultra-Orthodox have more power than he does, but as long as he can present himself to his secular supporters (half of whom, not incidentally, self-identify as right wing) as having done better than Shas in coalition negotiations, I imagine he’d be happy to sit alongside them—and, quite possibly, Bennett—in a Netanyahu government, and passively support expanding settlement construction and the headlong rush toward West Bank annexation. And again: The rightist parties are likely to actually gain seats when the soldiers’ votes are counted.

There are two Israeli Jewish parties actually dedicated to saving the Jewish State from itself and negotiating a true peace accord with the Palestinian people: Meretz and Tzipi Livni’s HaTnuah. And if the projections hold, Meretz and HaTnuah will jointly take 12 seats.

So really, there’s no cause for even cautious optimism. On the contrary, perhaps a hard-right government would have shocked the world and Israel out of its complacency. As it is, it looks like Israel is set to continue to muddle along on its way to its own ruin.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Very quick take on the Israeli elections results.

First of all, the basics: Israel’s system of government is parliamentary, and Israel’s parliament (the Knesset) has 120 seats. In order to form a government, a party has to have a majority of those seats, which in practice means that the party with the most seats has to negotiate a coalition with other, smaller parties, which in turn means that smaller parties often wind up setting policy, completely out of proportion to their numbers, because they serve as kingmakers.

Exit polls from today’s elections indicate what’s being presented by Israel’s media as a right/center-left split of 61/59 – here’s HaAretz’s excellent graphic breaking that down:

israel election haaretz exit poll jan13

A few important notes:

  • As you consider the “center-left” of Israeli politics you must always (and I mean this quite literally) simply erase from your calculations any seats held by the “Arab Parties” (aka: parties made up of Palestinian-Israelis and/or Hadash, the bi-national communist party which is considered an “Arab Party”). The Arab parties have never been included in an Israeli coalition, and unless and until something very fundamental changes, they never will be. So it’s really 61/50.
  • These are preliminary results, so the final count may very well shift around to the tune of 2-4 seats, not least because:
  • Members of the military vote on their bases and cannot be exit-polled, so no initial projection can include them — and Israel’s soldiers, traditionally slightly to the right of the rest of the voting public, have been growing increasingly right and increasingly religious.
  • The party of former-talk-show-host-turned-politician Yair Lapid is, as one person put it, a “tofu party” — Lapid is not ideologically committed to much of anything, other than broad anti-ultra-Orthodox sentiment, and while he looks like a center-left politician, he’s really just a Tel Avivian opportunist. His goal is his own aggrandizement, and half of his party’s voters identify as right-wing. Furthermore, as my friend Ori Nir pointed out, “more than this was a pro-Lapid vote, it was an anti-Netanyahu vote by the ‘soft right’.”
  • Lapid has already demonstrated that he really has no grasp of the parameters of Israel’s single largest outstanding issue, the occupation. If (as I wrote here) he genuinely believes that Israel only has to stand firm in order to get the Palestinians to give up East Jerusalem as their capital, then there’s no reason to think that he has any grand vision of sharing the land.
  • On the other hand, Naftali Bennett, the head of HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home), is a True Believer. He is absolutely committed to never allowing the establishment of a Palestinian state, and as a modern Orthodox Jew, he carries the whiff of religious credibility.
  • Benjamin Netanyahu’s experiment of joining forces with the ultra-right Yisrael Beitenu party headed by neo-fascist Avigdor Lieberman — considered by many (myself included) a sure bet for electoral dominance — clearly failed.

So in light of all of the above, I think there’s a very good chance of the following happening:

  • Likud is still the party with the most seats, and as such Netanyahu will get first crack at forming a coalition. This he can do with Lapid and Bennett, and if the above projections hold, he’d have 67 seats. However, I actually suspect that these parties will jointly pick up another two-three seats from the soldiers — my guess is that they’ll come at the expense of Labor and HaTunua (headed by Tzipi Livni), and that they will go to Lapid and Bennett (rather than Likud). 
  • If Bibi decides to go this route, HaBayit HaYehudi will give him cover on the religious front, without making onerous demands in the style of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, and Yesh Atid will give him cover with regard to the concerns of Israel’s shrinking secular majority (and by secular, I mean here “Jewish Israelis who are fed up with ultra-Orthodox coercion”).
  • Lapid will give lip-service to the need for reconciliation with the Palestinians, but will be easily and quickly swept up by nationalist appeals to “security” the next time any Palestinian anywhere does anything unsavory, and will passively support settlement construction and the galloping trend toward annexation of the West Bank.

Needless to say, I could be wrong, particularly with regard to any potential tension between Netanyahu and Lapid. Netanyahu might prefer the discomfort of once again aligning himself with the ultra-Orthodox over giving too much to Lapid, even though big chunks of his own base have zero love for the ultra-Orthodox. Bear in mind that I tend to be very pessimistic when it comes to Israeli politics, and while I haven’t often been proven wrong, it’s been known to happen.

It will be days before we know anything for sure. But for now, those are the contours I see shaping up.

Bibi’s Bad Week

Dude just looks shady, mirite?

My latest at Open Zion/The Daily Beast. As usual, here’s the top — to read the thrilling conclusion, please click here!

It’s been a tough few days for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

He’s been priming both the country and the international community for an attack on Iran for months, but early in the week it was reported that the IDF’s Chief of Staff and the head of the Mossad both oppose near-term unilateral action—an opinion echoed, significantly, by US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. The sense now is (in the words of +972 columnist Larry Derfner) that “it’s over—there will be no Israeli attack on Iran.”

Then on Thursday, this news struck:

Support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has plunged to an all-time low due to the economic diktats the government announced this week.

For the first time since Netanyahu set up his second government in April 2009, the proportion of survey respondents satisfied with his performance has fallen to just 31 percent, while 60 percent expressed dissatisfaction.

This has implications well beyond Netanyahu himself, however—as Globes reports, his entire party has taken a hit:

Gracious, what did Globes report? You might never know, if you don’t click here to read the rest.

In which I am front-paged at The Daily Beast (aka: Newsweek’s online presence).

No, seriously!

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I began writing regularly for Open Zion — a blog edited by author/journalist/controversial-but-extraordinarily-pleasant holder of opinions Peter Beinart — a few months ago, and Open Zion is hosted by The Daily Beast, which is Newsweek‘s online presence (the question of why Newsweek‘s online presence isn’t called Newsweek.com is above my pay grade).

Today I wrote about the fact that Israel’s governing coalition has fallen apart, rather spectacularly but entirely unsurprisingly. And The Daily Beast put it on their front page! As of this moment in time (10:39 on Tuesday night) it’s item #7 on their rotating stories thinga-ma-jigee that is the very first thing one sees upon going to thedailybeast.com.

And that, my friends, is totally boss, I don’t care who you are!

As is the tradition around these parts, I hereunder provide you with the top of said post; to get the rest, you’ll have to click through.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just be over here doing a little jig with Snoopy.

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MOFAZ TAKES HIS TRUCKS AND GOES HOME.

We learned today that the Israeli Uber-Coalition, a government supported by 94 of the Knesset’s 120 members, has fallen apart. I am hard-pressed to express much in the way of shock.

Shaul Mofaz, recently-elected head of the Kadima party, is taking his trucks and going home because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to come through on a promise to formulate a universal Israeli draft law, one which would include both Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, and ultra-Orthodox Jews, a community currently allowed to study in yeshivas rather than pick up guns.

Leaving aside for the moment the advisability of such a law–the Palestinian-Israeli community has enormous reservations about being drafted into service by the Jewish State, for instance, even if the draft is broadened to include non-military national service, and the Israeli ultra-Orthodox community is well-known for often failing to provide its children with many of the educational basics so necessary to taking part in any essentially secular endeavor–the simple fact of the matter is that nothing in Netanyahu’s political history indicates that he is a man to take bold, controversial action or risk any damage to his position of power within Israel’s political system. The notion that he was going to start bordered on absurd.

To read the rest of the post that The Daily Beast put on its front page (!), click here!

Netanyahu-Mofaz, some brief thoughts.

Today is the fifth day out of the last nine in which all or part of my day has been devoted to caring for my daughter, who had a nasty cold and now, as of last Thursday, has some random knee injury that is sending us hither, thither and yon. Mostly yon, and the poor kid is in real pain, and… so. My thoughts on anything are going to be brief. But one feels a need to say something!

On Monday, all was set for the Israeli Knesset to vote no-confidence in the ruling coalition, dismiss itself, and head for early elections in September. In the Israeli legislative system, all bills go through three “readings,” and on late Monday night the no-confidence bill had already passed its first reading – but then, in the wee hours of Tuesday, Prime Minister Netanyahu, the man who had spearheaded the entire effort, scuttled the plan by striking a deal with Shaul Mofaz (the recently elected head of the main opposition party, Kadima), to form a unity coalition which will give the government fully 94 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

In a lifetime of living in/studying/writing about Israel/Palestine, there have been very few surprises. Most of the time, most events roll out in a distressingly predictable fashion. This, though? Wow. This blew my hair back. And that was before I knew what Mofaz had been saying.

I knew that Mofaz had been elected to lead Kadima (the leading opposition party), replacing (and pretty much crushing) pro-two-stater Tzipi Livni. I knew that Kadima is in disarray (having been formed as a matter of convenience in 2005 by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from bits and bobs of the right [Likud] and left [Labor] in order to allow for his unilateral withdrawal from Gaza).

I did not know that Mofaz had said things like:

No, Kadima under my leadership will remain in the opposition. The current government represents all that is wrong with Israel, I believe. (on March 30).

And:

The Netanyahu Barak couple is sabotaging the strategic bond between Israel & the United States. (May 7, the DAY BEFORE the coalition deal was struck).

And:

Listen closely: I will not enter Bibi’s government. Not today. Not tomorrow…. This is a bad, failing and deaf government, and the Kadima that I will lead will replace it in the next elections. Clear enough? (March 3, on his Facebook wall).

If I had been aware of all that? My hair might have been blown clean off my head.

Now Shaul Mofaz is not exactly known for his purity of vision – he appears to be a man for whom, like Netanyahu, power is the point, more than any other concern. Sure, he comes at that need for power from a general worldview and political leaning, but these are not hills to die on. They are tools to use. Like Newt Gingrich, if you will.

Kadima was expected to do poorly in the just-called-then-canceled early elections, and Netanyahu himself didn’t appear likely to gain significantly more seats for the Likud party than he already had. At first blush, then, it seems to me that both men realized that going to elections would hurt them both, whereas joining forces might save them.

The most immediate implication of that realization is that the new coalition is so enormous that the Prime Minister will be able to do almost anything he wants.

Everyone’s eyes are thus turned to Iran, but I’ll be honest: I’m just not sure that Netanyahu wants to actually attack Iran, certainly not without very clear American support. I know he wants the world to be afraid that he will, and I know he wants the world to dance to his tune out of that fear.

But I further know that as long as we’re all looking at Iran, we’re not thinking about the fact that the settlements are growing and spreading, like a cancer metastasizing out of all control, while the Palestinians get battered again and again. There are 1,500 Palestinians hunger striking as we speak in Israel’s prisons today: ONE THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED. And what are we talking about? Iran, and Bibi-Mofaz. It’s long been my impression that the saber rattling about Iran is more about the settlements and Bibi’s need to stay in power, than it is about an actionable plan to attack Iran. This would hardly be the first time that saber rattling was used as a diversionary tactic.

Moreover, Bibi’s new friend has said pretty clearly that he doesn’t think Israel should plan on attacking Iran any time soon.

I could very well be wrong (PS: should we listen to anything Mofaz says?), and regardless, saber rattling doesn’t always end the way folks intended. People being people, things happen, and wars start.

Beyond Iran, though, there’s been speculation that maybe the new government will allow Bibi to be bold and break new ground with the Palestinians — but I am willing to stake whatever reputation I have on the fact that he has absolutely no desire to do anything of the sort.

There’s been speculation that maybe the new government will allow Bibi to draft ultra-Orthodox students and Palestinian-Israelis into national service (military or otherwise) — maybe, but Bibi knows that the ultra-Orthodox will be there after the next elections, too, and I can’t imagine him willingly taking on their fury, and b) the man really doesn’t like Arabs. I can’t see him wanting to grant Palestinian-Israelis a pathway to demanding more equality on the national stage (as a national service law would).

There’s been speculation that Netanyahu and Mofaz want to eviscerate the campaign of up-and-coming politician and former media personality Yair Lapid — this strikes me as pretty likely. Lapid’s natural audience is disaffected members of Likud and Kadima (with a smattering of what remains of the moribund Labor party), so knocking him out of the arena is crucial to both men’s futures.

And there’s been some speculation — in my own head — that a 94-seat coalition will allow Bibi to pass whatever laws he wants in order to quash the voices of social activists and peaceniks, a process that’s been underway for sometime now, and that’s got to hold some appeal.

Overall, this strikes me as a marriage of convenience between two men who will eventually tear each other apart. They both needed a crutch, and when one of them doesn’t need a crutch anymore? It’ll all come crashing down.

At any rate, regular elections are scheduled for October 2013.

Israeli governments so rarely manage to get through an entire four year term that it’s easy to forget that terms actually exist. But they do, and this one is nearly 3/4 done. Whatever these power-grasping politicians manage to do together, it will be with a very keen eye toward grasping yet more power — likely from each other — in another 16 months.

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Yes, when my thoughts are brief, the writing tends to go long! It doesn’t make much sense but there it is.

For more on the unity government and its possible implications, I highly recommend Mitchell Plitnick’s excellent “The Perils of Unity” (note especially his comments on Bibi’s relationship with the military) and the reporting and analysis of +972 Magazine

Obama, Netanyahu, the Middle East speech – & what might have happened there.

President Obama speaks on the Middle East & North Africa at the State Department, White House Photo, Pete Souza, 5/19/11

UPDATE II: Here’s the post-appearance post + the new information that I’m apparently going to be on Russian TV…!

UPDATE: I’ve been contacted by the BBC and will be taking part in their World Have Your Say program today – not once, but twice! Whoot! Here’s the website – the BBC streams all their shows live at this link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/worldhaveyoursay/ I’ll be on two programs, during the 12:00-1:00 pm hour and during the 1:00-2:00 pm hour (Chicago time).

I’m not going to try to address all of the many and multitudinous aspects of President Obama’s Middle East speech. As an inveterate MidEast geek, I will say there were parts I really liked (likening Mohammed Bouazizi to Rosa Parks, for one; saying that America “must proceed with a sense of humility,” for two), and parts I liked less (I do so wish we could call the Saudis out for the tyrannical, misogynistic extremists they are… Just once?), but there was so much packed into the speech, that I think it’s best that I really focus on the thing that I know a thing or two about: Israel/Palestine.

I’m going to blockquote that whole section here, and register a few responses, below. Feel free to skip past the source material — it’ll still be there if you want to scroll up and look for something!

Let me conclude by talking about another cornerstone of our approach to the region, and that relates to the pursuit of peace.

For decades, the conflict between Israelis and Arabs has cast a shadow over the region. For Israelis, it has meant living with the fear that their children could get blown up on a bus or by rockets fired at their homes, as well as the pain of knowing that other children in the region are taught to hate them. For Palestinians, it has meant suffering the humiliation of occupation, and never living in a nation of their own. Moreover, this conflict has come with a larger cost the Middle East, as it impedes partnerships that could bring greater security, prosperity, and empowerment to ordinary people.

My Administration has worked with the parties and the international community for over two years to end this conflict, yet expectations have gone unmet. Israeli settlement activity continues. Palestinians have walked away from talks. The world looks at a conflict that has grinded on for decades, and sees a stalemate. Indeed, there are those who argue that with all the change and uncertainty in the region, it is simply not possible to move forward.

I disagree. At a time when the people of the Middle East and North Africa are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever.

For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state. Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.

As for Israel, our friendship is rooted deeply in a shared history and shared values. Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable. And we will stand against attempts to single it out for criticism in international forums. But precisely because of our friendship, it is important that we tell the truth: the status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace.

The fact is, a growing number of Palestinians live west of the Jordan River. Technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself. A region undergoing profound change will lead to populism in which millions of people – not just a few leaders – must believe peace is possible. The international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome. The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.

Ultimately, it is up to Israelis and Palestinians to take action. No peace can be imposed upon them, nor can endless delay make the problem go away. But what America and the international community can do is state frankly what everyone knows: a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples. Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people; each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.

So while the core issues of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is clear: a viable Palestine, and a secure Israel. The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.

As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself – by itself – against any threat. Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism; to stop the infiltration of weapons; and to provide effective border security. The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state. The duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated.

These principles provide a foundation for negotiations. Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic security concerns will be met. I know that these steps alone will not resolve this conflict. Two wrenching and emotional issues remain: the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. But moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair, and that respects the rights and aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians.

Recognizing that negotiations need to begin with the issues of territory and security does not mean that it will be easy to come back to the table. In particular, the recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel – how can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist. In the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question. Meanwhile, the United States, our Quartet partners, and the Arab states will need to continue every effort to get beyond the current impasse.

I recognize how hard this will be. Suspicion and hostility has been passed on for generations, and at times it has hardened. But I’m convinced that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians would rather look to the future than be trapped in the past. We see that spirit in the Israeli father whose son was killed by Hamas, who helped start an organization that brought together Israelis and Palestinians who had lost loved ones. He said, “I gradually realized that the only hope for progress was to recognize the face of the conflict.” And we see it in the actions of a Palestinian who lost three daughters to Israeli shells in Gaza. “I have the right to feel angry,” he said. “So many people were expecting me to hate. My answer to them is I shall not hate…Let us hope,” he said, “for tomorrow.”

That is the choice that must be made – not simply in this conflict, but across the entire region – a choice between hate and hope; between the shackles of the past, and the promise of the future. It’s a choice that must be made by leaders and by people, and it’s a choice that will define the future of a region that served as the cradle of civilization and a crucible of strife.

Ok, a handful of quick points:

  1. The President of the United States has to walk a very fine line no matter what he’s talking about, and even if the above doesn’t represent my hopes and dreams or the hopes and dreams of anyone else deeply invested in Israel/Palestine — that doesn’t make it a bad speech. And in fact — it does not reflect my hopes and dreams. By, let’s call it, a long shot. But given the constraints of international diplomacy and the actual facts as they actually exist in actual-factual reality (as opposed to the fevered imaginings of many), I found this to be a perfectly reasonable, even pretty good speech.
  2. Having said that, I really do wish he had mentioned Palestinian children, too. A lot more of them have died than Israeli kids, and they deserved at least a nod.
  3. When a President references America’s “commitment to Israel’s security” early in a speech — it’s because he’s going to say something Israel doesn’t like later on.
  4. A whole lot of people might not like the fact that this: “Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state” is true — but it’s true. I stand entirely behind the Palestinian decision to take that symbolic action (or, frankly, what is more likely going on here, the decision to threaten to take that action), but if we are wise, we will recognize it for what it is: a symbol. A powerful symbol, no doubt, a potent symbol, but you cannot build a state with a symbol. You might create some momentum toward the establishment of that state, but then again, the whole thing could wind like those other two times Palestinians announced their statehood.
  5. A lot of this echoes or flat-out lifts from the talking points of Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek, and J Street. If the President is getting his talking points on Israel from left-of-center peacenik-y Jews, that’s a good thing. IMHO.
  6. This: “permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine” is a much bigger deal than I think people realize. Israel has managed to evade setting permanent borders since 1967, all the while calling the West Bank a “disputed” territory — in talking about “permanent” borders, for two sovereign states, Obama was sending a message: Time for borders, Israel. Real, non-squishy, defined borders.
  7. Ditto this (nearly ditto, anyway): “The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state. As for security, every state has the right to self-defense…” Every state. I know he then went on to make Israel feel better by saying that Palestine will be “demilitarized,” but that’s still there. Palestinians have a right to a sovereign state, and every state has the right to self-defense.
  8. This: “moving forward now on the basis of territory and security” is precisely what J Street has been calling for. See #5.
  9. Re: The Hamas-Fatah agreement, the language is subtle, and leaves the door open for negotiation and future developments (“Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer… Meanwhile, the United States, our Quartet partners, and the Arab states will need to continue every effort to get beyond the current impasse“) — and I don’t know if you remember the last President? But “leaving the door open” has not always been a diplomatic method employed by the President of the United States. Personally, I think we should just sit down with Hamas — but the President of the United States can’t say that. This President has, at the very least, left the door open.
  10. The Israeli and Palestinian parents that he mentioned toward the end are both people I have met and written about: Robi Damelin (actually the mother of the lost Israeli son in question – her name confuses many) and Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish. Damelin is one of the founding members of the Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Families Forum (skip ahead to the 50 second mark to get past the Dutch [I think!] introduction); I reviewed Abuelaish’s book for the Dallas Morning News.

And now that all that’s out of the way, let me get to the single most important thing.

This:

The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.

is not, by any stretch of the imagination, new. This has been part of every single proposed resolution of the conflict since Oslo. Obama may have sharpened it a little bit — using the still-somewhat-verbotten word “Palestine,” for instance (OMG! Can you imagine!) and saying “sovereign and contiguous,” all bold n’ brassy. But bottom line: There’s not a damn thing there that hasn’t been said and written a million-gajillion times.

And yet.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has been doing the “I totes want a two-state peace, golly if only the Palestinians would play nice!” dance for a very long time. He knows exactly and precisely what everyone on earth means when they say “a two-state peace,” and that involves permanent borders along the 1967 lines, with mutually agreeable land swaps. I repeat: This is what the world means when they say “two-state peace,” and Bibi knows it.

So then, in response to Obama’s speech, Bibi calls the 1967 borders “indefensible.”

BOOM.

All the President did was throw down the facts — the facts, not any new plan, not any new demand, just something simple that everyone with two brain cells knows is part and parcel of the thing Bibi says he’s been trying to negotiate for years now — and he got Netanyahu to out himself. Bibi has just said, publicly and one very slim day before he’s to meet with Obama, that he is not, in fact, on board the two-state train, and never has been.

And that, my friends, is huge.

Now, if it will ultimately mean anything? Is anyone’s guess. I have written in the past that this Administration has set an important new tone — and whether or not the tone was new, it wound up being pretty meaningless. So, you know, I am not going to try to foresee what might happen tomorrow, or when Obama speaks to AIPAC, or next week, or next month. It might in fact all wind up dust and fury, all over again.

But after a quarter century of watching the same political theater play out over and over and over, again and again and again — I can tell you: This is new.

And only something genuinely new has any chance of changing the sad, sorry reality that we see today.

I’m on tenterhooks to see what happens at the meeting. Aside from anything else, if we have learned nothing else from the Trump and bin Laden affairs, we have learned this:

Don’t piss POTUS off.

Here’s hoping that Bibi continues to do just that.

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