Abbas cancels Rosh Hashanah party with Israeli politicians.


Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

On Friday I wrote that Israeli Finance Minister and Yesh Atid party chairman Yair Lapid had forbidden his Members of Knesset from attending a holiday party scheduled for today with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas; Lapid was of the opinion that attending the event would undermine Israel’s negotiating position. I expressed some wonder at this decision, however, because just two weeks earlier, three Yesh Atid MKs had not only met with Palestinian officials in Budapest, they and the Palestinians had agreed that a future peace deal would look very much like the Geneva Accord, a draft agreement that includes two states based on the 1967 borders and a shared Jerusalem.

Well. It turns out that Lapid need not have worried: Abbas’s own people have put the kibosh on the party:

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas canceled a pre-Rosh Hashana toast with more than 30 ministers and Knesset members that was set for Tuesday because he came under pressure from the anti-normalization movement in Ramallah.

Abbas invited the Knesset’s Caucus on Ending the Israeli- Arab Conflict to his headquarters in Ramallah after a Palestinian delegation was greeted by 30 MKs and ministers and a Palestinian flag at the Knesset on July 31. That meeting emphasized the need to have a show of force in Ramallah to boost the nascent Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

But the anti-normalization movement, which is strong inside Abbas’s Fatah party, criticized him for meeting such a high-profile Israeli delegation so soon after the IDF killed Palestinians in recent incidents in Jenin and Kalandiya.

As an American-Israeli Jew, I can’t presume to tell Palestinian nationalists how to approach my people. Me and mine are in the position of power in this conflict, and those who struggle against military occupation have a limited number of tools at their disposal. And indeed: The Israeli military just killed Palestinians—if Palestinians had just killed Israelis, it’s a good bet that Israeli parliamentarians would not be going to Ramallah for a pre-holiday toast. (Moreover, as Peter Beinart so eloquently documented in the New York Review of Books yesterday, American Jews have their own anti-normalization movement—we just don’t call it that).

Furthermore, the gathering might not be permanently cancelled: According to Labor MK and caucus head Hilik Bar, the Palestinian officials behind the now-cancelled event have promised him that they’ll reschedule. “I told the Palestinians that if this is not the ideal time, we can do it after the holidays,” Bar said. “I want the President [Abbas] to feel comfortable and hold the meeting in the best environment possible.” It could be that just as Lapid didn’t raise a stink about the earlier, more quietly held meeting in Hungary, Abbas will be able to pull off a less high-profile event.

But I do despair a little bit more every time one side or the other refuses to so much as sit at a table with their opposite number (apparently the supply of despair is bottomless). These things do not—cannot possibly—replace a rigorous examination of the conflict, its perpetuation, and the possibility for resolution. They are not a substitute for the difficult and painful process of letting go of decades-old habits and fear in order to forge a path to mutual respect and self-determination for a people too long denied their rights.

Yet it also cannot be denied that no genuine peace will be born or survive without the million smaller moments in which two enemies learn to see each other as people. And the irony of Fatah’s anti-normalizationists being on the same side as Yair Lapid isn’t lost on me.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Israeli politicians forbidden to attend Rosh Hashanah event with Abbas.

yair lapid 2

Yair Lapid

Now here’s a head-scratcher.

There’s a lot of talk about Yair Lapid believing that Israel’s position in peace negotiations will be weakened if members of his party attend a Rosh Hashanah event with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. As such, even though five Yesh Atid parliamentarians had already RSVP’ed “yes” to Abbas’s little do, Lapid has instructed them to make their apologies. A spokeswoman with Yesh Atid explained the Finance Minister’s decision thus:

When there are direct negotiations between the two sides, we don’t think it is right for coalition MKs to bypass the official talks. We should let the diplomatic process continue via acceptable procedures.

But here’s the thing: Three members of Yesh Atid actually met with Palestinian Authority officials just two weeks ago, and it wasn’t at a party. Indeed, Maarivreported on August 18 that MK Yifat Kariv and two other people from Yesh Atid met with PA officials in Budapest in order to (in Kariv’s words) “support the peace process”:

The sooner we arrive at a two-state solution, the better. These discussions with the Palestinians give me the sense that there’s someone to talk to and something to talk about, and as such, all declarations about construction in the territories or support for the idea of a single state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River only do damage. The government must arrive at responsible, courageous decisions.

The Maariv report goes on to say that the Israeli and Palestinian participants agreed to prepare a joint declaration of parliamentary support for the peace process; to organize delegations of Israeli officials to Ramallah (the seat of the Palestinian government); and to put political pressure on the leaders of both sides to arrive at an agreement. Furthermore, reporter Arik Bender writes, both sides expressed their support for the draft accord known as the Geneva Accord (or Geneva Initiative), agreeing that the parameters of any future resolution are already well-known and enjoy the support of the majority of both peoples.

So, if I understand correctly, a meeting between Fatah officials, Palestinian legislators, and coalition MKs at which all agree on the outline of a future peace deal—a draft agreement known to be based on the 1967 lines and a shared Jerusalem—it’s not an end-run around official talks. Raising a toast at a holiday gathering, on the other hand? You betcha.

I’ve long wondered what some of the folks in Lapid’s party are doing there. Some of the most prominent members of Yesh Atid are unequivocal supporters of a two-state peace and all that such a peace will entail. Their boss, on the other hand, hasrejected the idea of cutting back on settlements, says things like “if the Palestinians realize they won’t have a state unless they give up on Jerusalem, they’ll back down from that demand,” and not long ago declared that Abbas (who has actively supported a two-state peace since 1977) is “still not psychologically ready for an agreement with Israel, either partial or full.”

I wonder if maybe the trip to Budapest was organized without Lapid’s knowledge, or if he later came to regret allowing it to happen. Because to be perfectly frank, he’s absolutely right that allowing his folks to go to Abbas’s holiday event will undermine the government’s position.

He’s right because, as MK Kariv demonstrates, when people reach out to each other, their relationship changes. When people get together in an atmosphere of conviviality, they’re likely to start working together. When enemies jointly struggle with tiny plates of hors d’oeuvres, they are less likely to see each other as enemies.

Yet the government in which Lapid serves appears tied to a notion of eternal enmity. To the extent that Prime Minister Netanyahu and his ministers (other than Justice Minister Tzipi Livni) are at all willing to go along with John Kerry’s negotiation efforts, all signs indicate that it’s because the process of talks serves Israel in the international arena. Actually achieving an end to the conflict, on the other hand (an outcome that will require something very like what the Geneva Initiative proposes), doesn’t seem to hold much appeal.

How do we know that an actual resolution doesn’t hold much appeal for the Netanyahu government? Because, among many other things, it recently announced plans for more than 3000 settlement housing units, and members of the coalition keep saying things like: “There are no two states west of the Jordan River, and there won’t be two states. Even if there are negotiations taking place—this is not on the agenda.”

Now, these folks may be telling themselves and their followers that the conflict can be ended without two states, but they’re either lying or fools (or both. One must never preclude the possibility of both).

I’m on record as thinking that Yair Lapid is a fool (or possibly the product of a sub-par education, or maybe just doesn’t read very much). I also think he’s an opportunist more interested in his own political fortunes than the needs of any Israelis he’s supposed to be serving.

However, given his government’s clear position of making conflict resolution near-impossible to achieve, Lapid is absolutely right. Getting together with the Palestinian president would be one of those tiny, million steps that might serve to bring peace just a little bit closer, thus undermining Israel’s negotiating position.

How Lapid reflects the ill-defined Israeli center.

yair lapidIn a recent interview with the New York Times, Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid said the following: “I used to have so many opinions before I learned the facts.”

He was talking about his transition from television to politics, and I have to say, that is a remarkable sentence from a man who was very recently elected based on his pre-fact opinions—particularly, but not exclusively, as he continues to function in a fact-free zone.

Thousands of Israelis protested the entire array of austerity measures in Lapid’s budget earlier this month, largely because they are so at odds with the promises he appeared to be making in his election campaign. As my colleague Gershom Gorenberg noted yesterday, among Lapid’s many fanciful notions is the idea that forcing hunger on the children of detested sub-cultures is an effective way to mainstream their parents into society—and given his position in the government, Lapid’s budget and opinions about the people it’s meant to serve are a pretty important indication of his ability to function without the constraints of reality.

But Yair Lapid is far more than just Finance Minister. He’s Benjamin Netanyahu’s greatest threat in the political arena, he reflects the views of Israel’s somewhat ill-defined “center” (non-religious Jews who, when polled, say they want to be shed of the occupation but are pretty sure the Palestinians are entirely at fault for the failure of the peace process), and as head of the second largest party in the Knesset, he’s instrumental in setting policy and shaping public opinion.

Thus, we must listen closely to his opinions about a wide variety of things, particularly (but not exclusively) regarding the conflict with the Palestinians (which, no matter how hard Israeli officials try to distract us, remains the country’s most salient, most defining concern)—and as I have noted before, a time or two, Lapid is very much wedded to creating his own reality.

For instance, in his interview with the Times, he said that a two-state peace is “crucial” to Israel’s future, but rejected curtailing settlement activity and/or any possibility of a shared Jerusalem, while also apparently questioning whether Palestinians really want a state, anyway.

He furthermore called Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas—who has supported a two-state peace since 1977 and led Palestinian negotiations in Oslo in 1993—“one of the founding fathers of the victimizing concept of the Palestinians.” Speaking with the Israeli outlet Yediot in the course of the same media blitz that brought him to theTimesLapid also pronounced Abbas “still not psychologically ready for an agreement with Israel, either partial or full.”

I don’t know—is Yair Lapid ill-informed? Under-educated? Spectacularly dim? Lying through his sizeable teeth? Or some combination of those things?

Short of the statement that a two-state agreement is crucial (a line that’s now de rigueur for all wannabe national leaders of the Jewish State), there is nothing even remotely reality-based in any of the above.

The Palestinians will not agree to an agreement if Israel doesn’t stop building on their land; they will not give up their generations-long dream of a national capital in their holy city of Jerusalem; they do, in fact want a state; Abbas is the man who’s been trying to tell Palestinians that they may have to give up on a full return of their refugees (and, frankly, one doesn’t need to invent a narrative of victimization—the Palestinians are, among many other things, victims); and Abbas has been “psychologically ready” for a two-state peace since Yair Lapid became bar mitzvah.That’s the truth, not whatever fatuities the Finance Minister holds in his mind and sends out through his mouth.

Lapid does get one thing very right, however: He reflects that ill-defined Israeli center, the one that wants peace but doesn’t seem to understand the role its country plays in the perpetuation of war.

A brave politician, a bold politician, an honest politician would start telling his or her people the truth. Such a politician would do everything within his or her not-inconsiderable power to finally help shift the discourse away from Israel’s own “concept of victimization” and toward an honest reckoning of responsibility and possibility.

As Noam Sheizaf notes in +972:

The public simply doesn’t want to deal with the Palestinian issue in any meaningful way…. There is an almost instinctive, little-spoken understanding that both alternatives—both one-state and two-state solution—are inferior to the status quo. Talks regarding the “unsustainability” of current trends seem very abstract. So far, the occupation seems to be the most sustainable thing this country has known.

Politicians understand this, and those who don’t lose elections (see: Livni). Lapid certainly understands.

Whether Lapid is ignorant, dumb, or dishonest about the facts doesn’t change the one thing about which he is very clever: Public opinion.

He doesn’t want to be brave, or bold, or honest. Yair Lapid wants to be elected. And he’s not going to risk that for anything so inconsequential as the truth.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

When We Say “Jerusalem,” What Do We Mean?

Up and coming Israeli politician Yair Lapid has said time and again that he will never agree to “dividing Jerusalem” in any possible two-state peace with the Palestinian people; as I have detailed a time or two in these pages, this strikes me as delusional.

But when Lapid or any other Israeli politician (or, for instance, American Jewish leaders like AIPAC executive director Howard Kohr) talk about Jerusalem (as Kohr very likely will at the upcoming AIPAC conference)—what are they talking about, exactly?

It seems a simple enough question, especially to Jews who are active in the Jewish community and/or support Israel. Jerusalem is our holy city, the place to which we prayed to return three times a day for centuries, the only reasonable center for our national and spiritual aspirations. More than a collection of ancient streets and modern buildings, Jerusalem is central to our existence as a people.

I’d venture that this is, in fact, what most Jews think when they hear the word “Jerusalem”—but the simple, and infrequently-stated, truth is that this vision is only part of the story. A fairly small part of the story, at that.

The Holy City of Jerusalem is a very small place. It is, roughly speaking, coterminous with what is today called the Old City, and the holy part is even smaller than that: It’s the Temple Mount, upon which our Temple once stood. When we pray at the Western Wall, or face that direction from our synagogues and homes in Chicago, Johannesburg, or Sidney, we are spiritually attaching ourselves to the edge and memory of that Temple, to the holiness invested in it by our Scriptures and centuries upon centuries of our own prayers and longing.

Of course, Jews have lived outside the Old City walls for a long time (at least since Moses Montefiore built his famous windmill in 1857 to coax them out of its then-fetid quarters), and by the time the modern state of Israel was established, there was a thriving “New City” of Jewish neighborhoods, roughly to the west of the Old City’s walls, an area that in 1948 covered about 15 square miles.

During all those same centuries and more recent decades, there was also a thriving Palestinian Arab presence in the Old City, as well as in outlying areas. These neighborhoods and satellite villages were roughly to the east and north of the Old City. In the post-Mandate/1948 period, they and the Old City were under Jordanian control (and covered about 2.5 square miles); in today’s parlance, we refer to all of it, somewhat inaccurately, as “East Jerusalem.”

Today, the geographic location that is known as “Jerusalem” encompasses all of that—the Old City, the New City, East Jerusalem—and a whole lot more. Within days of the Israeli military triumphantly entering the Old City in June 1967, the government had annexed not only it, but also East Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank (including not just satellite villages, but parts of other cities) to create a new Municipality of Jerusalem. The total area annexed came to some 27 square miles.

As Israeli human rights group B’Tselem reports:

These annexed territories included not only the part of Jerusalem that had been under Jordanian rule, but also an additional 64 square kilometers, most of which had belonged to 28 villages in the West Bank, and part of which belonged to the municipalities of Bethlehem and Beit Jala. Following their annexation, the area of West Jerusalem tripled, and Jerusalem became the largest city in Israel. 

The annexation of land wasn’t just a formality: In the 1970s and 1980s, Israel expropriated much of the privately owned Palestinian land in the Jerusalem area for the sake of settlement neighborhoods such as Ramot, Gilo, and East Talpiyot, building Ramat Shlomo and Homat Shmuel (also known as Har Homa) in the 1990s, all of them beyond the Green Line in the West Bank but within what is now considered municipal Jerusalem. By 2008, the area governed by the Jerusalem Municipality came to a total of 48.3 square miles, nearly three times the area of all of Jerusalem—West, East, Old, and New—at the time of the Six Day War, and more than a hundred times larger than the city was a century ago.

I am a woman of faith. I pray regularly, and when I do, I orient myself toward my Holy City. My faith, my Scriptures, the history and future of the Jewish people—I hold all of these in my heart when I come before my God, and when I teach my children the same.

I have no question that we belong in Jerusalem. I have no question that the areas that were Jewish before June 1967 are rightfully Israeli, nor do I have any question that whatever the future may bring for Israel and Palestine, the sovereignty over Jerusalem’s Old City and the Temple Mount must be shared equally by the Jewish State. That singular place is, truly, the heart of our faith and our people.

But the modern-day “Jerusalem,” the one to which Lapid and people like him refer, bears only a passing resemblance to the Holy City to which the Jewish people has long turned, and I would argue that the political machinations employed to systematically drive Palestinians from Jerusalem (holy and central to them, as well, after all) and deprive them of civil and often human rights while still within its borders render the entire city (however measured) significantly less holy.

When people say they’re not willing “to divide” Jerusalem, that’s the Jerusalem they’re talking about: A bloated behemoth grown through municipal and national fiat, and maintained through laws and policies that are flatly discriminatory and often shade into xenophobia and racism.

As it happens, the world’s Jews will be reading Parashat Ki Tissa this Shabbat, the Torah portion in which we learn of the folly of the Golden Calf. We will be reminded of the cost of raising something built with human hands above that which our faith demands, the cost of replacing real holiness with our own, poor vision. We will be reminded of the price of idolatry.

When politicians and institutional leaders say that the Jerusalem of 2013 is a sacred, inviolable place, they are practicing a kind of idolatry—an idolatry that denies the legitimate rights of another people, and threatens the very possibility of ever achieving an end to war.

There is absolutely nothing holy about that.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

The delusions of Yair Lapid and AIPAC.

aipacSay this for AIPAC: They’re as delusional as Yair Lapid, the newly arrived king-maker in Israeli politics. Both Lapid and AIPAC appear to believe that if you wish something hard enough, say it often enough, or simply ignore that which doesn’t fit into your wishing strategy: Magic!

On Tuesday, Barak Ravid reported in Haaretz that

Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid has ordered more than 10 Knesset members from his party to cancel a Jerusalem-area tour with the left-wing Geneva Initiative organization

Bearing in mind that members of both Shas and Likud (a party ostensibly far to the right of Yesh Atid) have recently gone on similar Geneva Institute tours, this is how Lapid explained himself:

At the present time of coalition negotiations, we cannot join a tour with an organization that supports dividing Jerusalem. After all, we are against dividing Jerusalem.

Which brings us to two different but equally important points: 1) Lapid appears to be of the opinion that if you so much as listen to an idea with which you disagree, you will get cooties, and 2) he continues to appear to believe quite sincerely it will be possible to reach a two-state peace with the Palestinian people without establishing a shared Jerusalem as the capital of both states—despite the fact that this is not unlike believing in the tooth fairy.

Cut to AIPAC, a place where you can call yourself the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and plan your annual conference, an event at which many Serious People will come together for “three of the most important days affecting Israel’s future”—and not place the Palestinian people on your legislative agenda. Not a single mention, as Ron Kampeas reports in JTA.

The same attitude that allows for a dismissal of the Palestinian people from conversations with American lawmakers about Israel’s future can be seen in a planned breakout session about the land’s spiritual dimension: “The Holy Land’s Historic and Religious Significance.”  Not only is there nary a Palestinian on the docket for this conversation, but the entirety of Islam is ignored. You have your Christians, you have your Jews… but those other people, for whom Jerusalem is a place of deep religious resonance, from whence tradition holds their Prophet rose unto the heavens and at the center of which Abraham bound his son for sacrifice? Yeah, not so much. Islam? What’s that?

AIPAC doesn’t entirely forget the Palestinians. There are panel discussions of the conflict, but per Kampeas:

This year’s “AIPAC action principles”… mention the Palestinians only in the context of keeping them from advancing toward statehood outside the confines of negotiations but do not explicitly endorse the two-state solution.

Yair Lapid and AIPAC don’t need to like the Palestinians. They don’t need to agree with the Palestinian narrative of the conflict. They don’t need to like Islam, either, come to that. But if they are to be of any actual service to Israel—the real Israel, the one that has been occupying another people for close to five decades and in which a third intifada is brewing even as we speak—they need to, at the very least, grapple honestly with the fact that Palestinians are autonomous actors, not flat characters in a play we’re writing. And the city of Jerusalem—both holy and secular—belongs to them, too.

The greatest threat to the continuing existence of a democratic, Jewish state is not Iran, and not U.S. budgetary concerns. The greatest threat to Israel is the occupation. If Lapid and AIPAC really want to secure Israel’s future, they’ll stop deluding themselves and their supporters, and start telling the truth.

I’ll just be over here, not holding my breath.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Lapid’s Willful Ignorance On Jerusalem

yair lapidI don’t know what it is with Yair Lapid. Does he seriously just not read—anything? Ever?

The other day, Lapid said the following. Out loud. With his mouth.

Both parties understand that they have to go back to the Road Map. We have to jumpstart [the negotiating process]… People have to understand that we’re talking about the two-state solution.

Then he said this:

I think the Olmert administration went too far, and I think they made the mistake of starting with issues that should be postponed—like Jerusalem; like the right of return….

I’m against any kind of withdrawal from Jerusalem. Jerusalem is not only a place, it is also an idea. I mean, this is the founding ethos of this country, and countries do not give up parts of their ethos.

Aside from the fact that the Jerusalem to which Israeli officials (and near-officials, like Lapid) repeatedly refer is a modern construct, has very little to do with the Jewish people’s actual holy city, and is, for all intents and purposes, a lie; aside from the fact that any Jerusalem to which we might refer is an actual, physical place with streets and people and garbage and sunsets and domes and hip hop, and thus not “an ethos” or “an idea”; aside from the fact that countries give stuff up all the time (whether ethos or geography) in order to make past wrongs right and better the present-day lives of their citizens—aside from all of that, here’s what the Road Map actually says about Jerusalem:

Second international conference [to be] convened by Quartet, in consultation with the parties, at beginning of 2004 [writer’s note: ha!] to endorse agreement reached on an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders and formally to launch a process… leading to a final, permanent status resolution in 2005 [writer’s note: haha!], including on borders, Jerusalem, refugees, settlements.

…Parties reach final and comprehensive permanent status agreement that ends the Israel-Palestinian conflict in 2005 [writer’s note: sob], through a settlement negotiated between the parties based on UNSCR 242, 338, and 1397, that ends the occupation that began in 1967, and includes an agreed, just, fair, and realistic solution to the refugee issue, and a negotiated resolution on the status of Jerusalem that takes into account the political and religious concerns of both sides, and protects the religious interests of Jews, Christians, and Muslims worldwide, and fulfills the vision of two states, Israel and sovereign, independent, democratic and viable Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security.

I’ve written before about Yair Lapid’s shockingly willful ignorance on this issue, but as he doesn’t appear to be taking my calls, I’ll say it again: The Road Map, just like every near-solution of this eminently resolvable conflict, explicitly presumes a shared Jerusalem, because there is no way to a two-state solution without it.

There is not now, nor has there ever been, anything holy (or ethical, if we’re going to talk about an “ethos”) about Har Homa, or Givat Zeev, or the wholesale takeover of Palestinian villages and farmland in the immediate wake of the 1967 Six Day War in which Israel’s government unilaterally expanded Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries ten-fold. There is nothing holy, ethical, or even wise about destroying the homes of Palestinian families, the much-ballyhooed E-1 construction, or denying a reality that is everywhere around you.

I know that the thing we’re supposed to take from Lapid’s ill-advised talking with his mouth is that he slammed Ehud Olmert (who, by the way, was the last Israeli official to make any genuine effort toward peace), and sure: That takes some chutzpah. A dude who has zero experience with government or diplomacy slamming a politician whose entire career has involved one or both, a politician who has openly discussed the evolution he underwent as a result of his actual lived experience as Prime Minister of a country in a state of perpetual war. That’s something special, right there.

But what disturbs me much more is the sheer ignorance that Israel’s apparent kingmaker reveals at every turn

If Yair Lapid doesn’t want to bother to read any books about the conflict in which he’s been living his entire life, maybe he could do us all a favor and at least read the documents to which he refers in his speeches.

Then maybe we could start to deal with the actual Palestinians, rather than the imaginary ones Israel has been peddling all these years.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

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.

Yair Lapid’s imaginary Palestinians.

Yair Lapid

I have long argued that the Israeli government and far too many of my fellow Israelis conduct their relationship with the Palestinian people with a kind of willed and willful ignorance in which they are consistently talking about what amounts to an imaginary enemy, one who bears a distinct resemblance to real Palestinians, somewhat as GI Joe bears a distinct resemblance to real soldiers.

But rarely have I seen it so baldly stated as I did in Thursday’s HaAretz.

Speaking last Tuesday to Israel’s Council for Peace and Security (a group of former high-ranking security officials who advocate for a negotiated two-state peace), Yesh Atid party chairman (and wannabe coalition kingmaker) Yair Lapid reportedly said:

We cannot blink on [the issue of East Jerusalem]. When it comes to Jerusalem, there are no compromises. If the Palestinians realize they won’t have a state unless they give up on Jerusalem, they’ll back down from that demand as well.

No, Yair, they won’t.

East Jerusalem as the capital of an independent Palestinian state has been a central piece of each and every peace negotiation/draft proposal/framework/partition plan to ever come under consideration by any Palestinian leader, ever.


Even on the one recorded occasion that Palestinian leaders offered to give up some of East Jerusalem, they did not offer to give up all of it—and even then, they got absolutely nothing in return from their Israeli interlocutors.

Lapid is basing his flight of fancy in the fact that Mahmoud Abbas (known in Palestinian and Israeli circles as Abu Mazen) recently publicly acknowledged that a two-state peace will mean that the Palestinian people will have to cede their 64-year dream of a complete right of return to all of historical Palestine:

“Abu Mazen gave up the right of return because the Palestinians realized that there is a definite consensus among the Israeli public on this issue, so they’re moving on to the next topic,” added Lapid. “The same thing needs to happen with regard to Jerusalem.”

Two problems with this.

First, this reality has long been acknowledged by the Palestinian leadership and many Palestinian opinion makers and shapers. Leading Palestinian nonviolence advocate and President of al-Quds University Sari Nusseibeh began talking publicly about the need to give up on the right of return a full decade ago, and in quiet, private circles, such a position had been held by many Palestinians for even longer. And though “quiet” and “private,” these discussions have not been state secrets. One need only read the occasional book to learn of them.

Second, and not incidentally: Did Yair Lapid not see the reactions of the Palestinian people, in Palestine and around the world, to Abu Mazen’s brave honesty? (Abu Mazen, who, it must be noted, has been calling for a two-state solution since the mid-1980s).

The anger that many Palestinians expressed over the notion of giving up the right of return is as nothing compared to what would happen if any Palestinian leader ever suggested giving up their political, cultural, and spiritual capital—and justifiably so. Wouldn’t we Jews flip our collective lid if the Israeli leadership suggested we give up ours?

Last week, the American people learned what can happen to political leaders who are so bound and determined to believe their own spin that they fail to see the reality before them. That reality crushes them.

The only reason that Israel has been able to cling to its vision of a malleable, monolithic, non-reality-based Palestinian people for so long is the fact that Israel actually forcibly controls the lives and destinies of those people. The occupation is not only bad for Israel because it’s immoral, unjustifiable, and, if not ended, a threat to the Jewish dream of statehood—it’s bad for Israel because it creates a nationwide version of Fox News, telling leaders and citizens alike exactly what they want to hear and believe about the people living under occupation, without once asking anyone for accountability or honesty.

Not to mention the fact that the “Jerusalem” which Lapid and everyone else in Israeli politics talks about is, essentially, a lie.

Eventually, though, reality being real and all, Israel will find itself facing the consequences of its willed and willful ignorance. And it won’t end well.

Ask the Republicans.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

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