Gaza Through A Distorted Lens

Palestinian officials say at least 58 people have been killed in the latest round of protests. More than 2,700 Palestinian demonstrators were injured on Monday—at least 1,350 by gunfire—along the border fence with Gaza, the Health Ministry reported. The mass protests began on March 30 and had already left dozens dead.

Those words appeared in The New York Times on May 14, 2018. On that day, the protests in Gaza had the added inspiration not only of the anniversary of the naqba the following day—which Israel celebrates as its independence day—but also the infuriating sight of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, joined by a bevy of Republicans, anti-Semitic preachers, and Israeli settlers with their American supporters celebrating the move of the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Two days ago, as the latest spike in violence in Gaza wound down, the Times stated, “It was the worst violence between the two sides since a 50-day war in 2014.” The Jerusalem Post had reported the day before that “Four Israelis died during the continued rocket attacks.” The Post also stated that, “234 patients have been treated” at local hospitals in Israel, and that “25 Palestinians were killed…and 154 others were injured” in the fighting.

The comparison of these tragic tallies led Yousef Munayyer of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights to ponder, “Worst violence since 2014? Israel shot 1,100 Palestinians and killed 60 in Gaza, including 7 children on May 14th, 2018. That was just last year. What makes this worse? Go ahead, I’ll wait.”

Of course, what makes it worse is that in May of 2018, no Israelis were hurt. The Times might just as well have said outright that Palestinian lives are worthless. But it was far from alone. Many other outlets echoed the same callous point.

Connecting Palestinian Rights To U.S. Civil Rights

Earlier this month, New York Times columnist Michelle Alexander ignited a controversy by stating her support for Palestinian rights. In her piece, “Time to Break the Silence on Palestine,” Alexander used the act of confronting her own silence on this issue to encourage others to break theirs. She made the case that “criticism of the policies and practices of the Israeli government is not, in itself, anti-Semitic,” while also affirming that

Anti-Semitic incidents in the United States rose 57 percent in 2017, and many of us are still mourning what is believed to be the deadliest attack on Jewish people in American history… We must be mindful in this climate that, while criticism of Israel is not inherently anti-Semitic, it can slide there.

That statement was not nearly enough for the “pro-Israel” community in the United States. The Israeli-American former ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, called Alexander’s column a “strategic threat.” The American Jewish Committee had the audacity to accuse Alexander—a prominent African-American civil rights lawyer and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness—of “appropriating” Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy. Numerous other voices, conservative and liberal, defended Israel from Alexander’s “attacks.”

Alexander became the latest in a growing list—including Angela DavisRashida TlaibMarc Lamont HillIlhan Omar, and Linda Sarsour—targeted by Israel advocates in the United States. All of them are people of color, and all have faced new or renewed attacks over their defense of Palestinian rights since the since the horrific shooting incident at a Pittsburgh synagogue carried out by a white, anti-immigrant fanatic in late October. Read more at LobeLog

Nationalist Extremism: The Real Threat to Israel

An edited version of this article appeared first at LobeLog.

They were dueling op-eds, one in the New York Times and the other in the Jewish communal magazine, Tablet. The question being

Nationalistic signs at Salute to Israel Day in New York, July 2006 Photo by Rabih/Public Domain

Nationalistic signs at Salute to Israel Day in New York, July 2006
Photo by Rabih/Public Domain

bandied between them was whether Israel is becoming a theocracy. Not surprisingly, both pieces missed the mark. It’s not theocracy but unbridled nationalism that is the threat in Israel.

The Times piece was authored by Abbas Milani, who heads the Iranian Studies program at Stanford University and Israel Waismel-Manor, a lecturer at Haifa University who is currently a visiting associate professor of Political Science at Stanford. Their thesis is that Iran and Israel are moving in opposite directions on a democratic-theocratic scale, and that they might at some point in the future pass each other. Milani and Waismel-Manor are certainly correct about the strengthening forces of secularism and democracy in Iran, along with a good dose of disillusionment and frustration with the revolutionary, Islamic government that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ushered in thirty-five years ago. But on Israel, they miss the mark by a pretty wide margin.

Waismel-Manor and MIlani posit that the thirty seats currently held in Israel’s Knesset by religious parties shows growing religious influence on Israeli policies. But, as Yair Rosenberg at Tablet correctly points out, not all the religious parties have the same attitude about separation of religion and the state. Where Rosenberg, unsurprisingly, goes way off course is his complete eliding of the fact that the threat is not Israel’s tilt toward religion, but it’s increasingly radical shift toward right-wing policies, which are often severely discriminatory and militant. Continue reading

Israel’s Next Ambassador to the US: A Jewish Karl Rove

Ron Dermer, the man who is rumored to be the replacement for Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren (who resigned today), has been compared to Karl Rove. The comparison is an apt one.

Oren, an academic who easily slipped into the role of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lead US propagandist, projected an image that was a bit friendlier in its Americanism. His academic stature, his experience of having written a best-selling book on the 1967 war that was very well-received in popular circles (less so in more critical academic environments) and his general demeanor was meant to soften the hardline Israeli leader’s image while still representing the Likud’s hawkish views in the US.

Dermer, whose experience is much more imbued in politics, will likely cast a different, more Machiavellian shadow. He is steeped with neoconservative connections, comes from a family that was heavily involved in politics and is undoubtedly reflective of the more hawkish strains even among the Likud. When rumors of his likely appointment first surfaced at the end of 2012, Marsha Cohen wrote this excellent and concise profile of Dermer for LobeLog.

Unlike Oren, Dermer is opposed to a two-state solution, having referred to it as a “childish matter,” though he later backed off the statement. But Dermer, who has long been a political adviser to Netanyahu and his lead speech writer, was also a key figure in arranging the controversial trip to Israel taken by then-Republican Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney prior to last year’s election. In fact, despite his father having been a Democratic mayor in Florida, Dermer’s Republican and neoconservative roots run very deep.

But Dermer understands very well the need to work in a bipartisan fashion as an Israeli representative in Washington. “I haven’t encountered [ideology] as being much of an obstacle. We don’t get into deep conversations about our world views,” Dermer told the Washington newspaper, Politico. “Did Churchill and Roosevelt have a good relationship? You have foreign affairs, and you work together on issues where you agree.”

Also unlike Oren, Dermer is prone to more direct language. When New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote about the self-evident truth that the US Congress is “bought and paid for” by Israel’s lobby, Oren said that “…Unintentionally, perhaps, Friedman has strengthened a dangerous myth.” Dermer, on the other hand, went on the warpath against the Times as a whole, saying the paper, well-known for its long-standing editorial support of Israel but not necessarily its settlements, “…consistently distort(s) the positions of our government and ignore the steps it has taken to advance peace. They cavalierly defame our country by suggesting that marginal phenomena condemned by Prime Minister Netanyahu and virtually every Israeli official somehow reflects government policy or Israeli society as a whole.”

That is likely to be a good snapshot of the differing styles of Oren and Dermer, the latter being much less inclined to diplo-speak, but with a much keener knowledge of conservative US politics. This will likely to serve him well as Israel becomes more and more a right-wing issue, a shift that Netanyahu embraces. While bi-partisanship remains the byword for pro-Israel lobbying, the money from the Jewish community, which is key and which continues to pour into the political coffers of Democrats, is increasingly coming from Jews who are either Republicans or whose views on Israel break with those of many Democrats. This split among Democrats was laughably visible during the spat at the Democratic National Convention last year over the forced inclusion of a plank in the party platform opposing the division of Jerusalem.

Oren was certainly no bridge-builder. He was sharply critical of the centrist group J Street and feuded with them off and on during his tenure. Dermer will likely be even more disdainful of even the tepid criticism of Israeli policies that J Street offers, much less groups that are more forthright.

But Netanyahu is well aware that the Palestinian issue, despite John Kerry’s many travels, is dropping farther and farther down on the list of US priorities. And the likely appointment of someone like Dermer is further evidence that Netanyahu also is willing to see the US right-wing take more ownership of the pro-Israel agenda, while campaign contributions and the continuing illusion that Jewish money is closely tied to a pro-Israel agenda keeps the Democrats toeing the line.

In the long run, this sort of characterization of the Israeli image is likely to alienate more and more US citizens, including a majority of Jews. But Bibi has never cared much about the long-term view, as the comeuppance will hit Israel long after he has left office. Ron Dermer, who shares a similar outlook, is Bibi’s kind of guy.

Kerry’s Last-Ditch Effort As Quixotic As Ever

On the eve of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s fifth trip of the year to Israel and the Palestinian Territories, little has changed. Despite Kerry’s entreaties not only to both parties but also to Jewish-Americans to come into his “Tent of the Peace Process,” every indication on the ground is, at best, more of the same. The only changes have made it more obvious than ever that the two-state solution, as previously conceived, is dead.

In advance of delaying this trip in order to consult with the rest of the administration’s leadership on increasing military aid to the Syrian rebels, Kerry spoke to the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) annual meeting in early June. He entreated the audience to speak out in a voice that the Israeli leadership could hear in support of the moribund two-state solution.

Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, widely regarded as the government’s “fig leaf” whose role is to mask the rejectionism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, echoed Kerry’s call. And the AJC, along with other Jewish-American organizations, got an immediate chance to respond. Yet that very opportunity demonstrated the futility of Kerry’s and Livni’s efforts.

First, Netanyahu’s Deputy Defense Minister, Danny Danon, of Netanyahu’s own Likud Coalition, declared that “…if there will be a move to promote a two-state solution, you will see forces blocking it within the [Likud] party and the government.” Danon accurately pointed out that “…the majority of Likud ministers, along with the Jewish Home [party], will be against it.” Indeed, Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, an outspoken opponent of a Palestinian state who advocates Israeli annexation of more than 60% of the West Bank, followed up Danon’s remarks by saying that the two-state solution is dead and “We need to build, build, build.”

Netanyahu tried to distance himself from the comments, but most understood that Danon and Bennett were simply being straightforward about the Israeli government’s makeup and direction. Indeed, it was telling that, just a few days before Kerry was due to arrive for his latest visit, Netanyahu attended the dedication of a school named after his father in the West Bank settlement of Barkan. While his aides insisted that Netanyahu did not mean to make a political statement with his appearance, his words at the school say otherwise. “The most important thing is to deepen our roots, because all the rest grows from there,” Netanyahu said. “We are here today to deepen our roots.”

The Palestinian Authority has responded to all of this by pointing out that Israel is acting against the two-state solution. “Every time Kerry comes, [Netanyahu] does something to undermine the possibility of a Palestinian state,” said Palestinian lead negotiator, Saeb Erekat. “It’s more than provocative, it’s devastating. This government’s policies are disastrous for Palestinians, Israelis and the region. I don’t know what purpose it serves to undermine the two-state solution.”

Yet the Palestinians continue to be divided, and not just between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. Rockets launched from Gaza Sunday night are believed to have been fired by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza. The act was reported to have been undertaken to spite Hamas, which had killed an Islamic Jihad operative while ostensibly arresting him.

The continuing divisions, especially the constantly sputtering reunification process between Hamas and Fatah is yet another reason why the two-state solution as previously conceived is, in fact, inconceivable now, no matter how much wishful thinking Kerry engages in. While indications remain that both Israelis and Palestinians support the creation of a Palestinian state, the positive answers to that abstract question may not even reflect the scope of public opinion.

In December 2012, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research asked Palestinians about the two-state solution. The majority supporting the proposal was still there, though it was down to only 52%. But when asked about a demilitarized state, only 28% supported that idea, while a robust 71% opposed it. This can hardly be surprising. After all, a Palestinian state would not only be neighboring the country that has occupied it for 46 years, but there is also the flux in which the neighboring countries — Syria, Jordan, Egypt — find themselves today. If a threat did materialize against a fledgling Palestinian state, it is hard to imagine that Israel would put its soldiers in jeopardy to defend the neighbors they regard as untrustworthy and frankly, distasteful.

But such a state is a sine qua non for Israel, and not only for reluctant “peacemakers” like Netanyahu. A demilitarized Palestinian state was clearly the vision of Netanyahu’s predecessors, to the extent they would agree to a Palestinian state at all. And, in Israeli political discourse, the so-called peace camp — including such parties as Labor, Yesh Atid, Kadima and even the most left-wing Zionist party, Meretz — is unanimous in calling for a demilitarized state.

It is said that this is Kerry’s last-ditch effort. If the Israelis and Palestinians move no closer on this trip, Kerry is prepared to abandon his shuttle diplomacy to focus his efforts on issues that may prove more malleable. The Israelis would certainly like to see negotiations resume, as this takes pressure off of Israel in the international arena, especially with Europe. This explains why Naftali Bennett, who is so hostile to peace with the Palestinians, states that he would not “veto” talks.

But political realities dictate something very different. Bennett, and indeed Netanyahu, may want to see talks resume, but they do not want them concluded with a Palestinian state. The Palestinians themselves cannot present a united front; the Palestinian Authority does not represent all of the population nor do its positions align with any but a small minority of the Palestinian people. And the United States is not prepared to insist on results. That is why so many say the two-state solution is dead. Kerry should learn the obvious lesson and either re-think his policy approach or, as he is threatening, turn his attention elsewhere.