Likud Chairman Threatens Citizenship of B’Tselem’s Executive Director

Earlier today, Likud Knesset Member, David Bitan, who chairs the governing faction in the Knesset, stated on an Israeli talk show that he would try to find a way to strip the citizenship of Hagai btselem-logoEl-Ad , executive director of B’Tselem. Bitan described El-Ad’s testimony to a special session of the United Nations Security Council on Israeli settlements as “explicit breach of trust by an Israeli citizen against the state, and as such he should find himself another citizenship.”

Zehava Gal-On, the Chairwoman of the Meretz party, described Bitan’s comments as “dangerously close to incitement to murder.” That characterization is important considering right wing efforts over the past two years to incite violence against peace and human rights activists in Israel.

To be clear, Bitan’s threat to revoke El-Ad’s citizenship is mere posturing. Despite the gathering strength of anti-democratic forces in Israel, the country’s laws prevent the revocation of citizenship simply for presenting a case against settlements at the United Nations (which, incidentally, cannot and has not been challenged on its merits). But as another log on the already frighteningly largefire of incitement against progressive activists in Israel, it is quite significant.

The same can be said about conditional citizenship. Once, it was Avigdor Lieberman threatening the citizenship of Palestinian citizens of Israel based on their ethnicity. Now the Likud chair threatens the citizenship of a Jewish human rights advocate based on his politics. As MK Gal-On said, “In a democracy, citizenship is a basic right. It’s not a gift given to those who appeal to the chairman of the coalition.”Bitan’s actions are just one more reflection of the disdain the Israeli right has for democratic principles. This disdain is fundamental to the case they make against El-Ad. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his own attack on El-Ad and B’Tselem, said that “What these organizations cannot achieve through democratic elections in Israel, they try to achieve by international coercion.” For Netanyahu and his supporters, the future of the occupation is a matter for Israeli citizens alone to decide, while millions of Palestinians who suffer under it get no say in the matter. That’s not democracy. It is, in fact, as anti-democratic as anything can be.

The United States Department of State has already indicated that they understand the grave threat to democracy that the Netanyahu government’s attitudes represent. In a statement to the Israeli daily, Yediot Ahoronot, State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez said, “In general, we believe that a free civil society free of inhibitions is a central component of democracy… As we have said many times in the past, we believe that it is important that governments defend the freedom of expression and create an atmosphere in which all voices can be heard. We are concerned by any incident in the world when these principles are under threat.”

A stronger message, from governments and supporters of peace, needs to be sent. These incidents represent a steadily mounting effort to erode Israeli democracy, which is already reeling under the weight of fifty years of occupation. Arresting that erosion is crucial for Israelis, Palestinians and the cause of peace and justice for both.

Changing Course: Mahmoud Abbas At The UNGA

Reaction to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ speech to the UN General Assembly today was swift and sharp. One of the most incisive

Mahmoud Abbas addresses the UN general Assembly, 9/26/14

Mahmoud Abbas addresses the UN general Assembly, 9/26/14

Israeli columnists, Chemi Shalev of Ha’aretz, broke it down very well. He considered Abbas’ speech to be a welcome gift to the Israeli right. And I agree with him. But that’s not really the point.

Abbas has often used the UN podium as a way to be more direct and combative than he usually is regarding Israel, de-emphasizing the “partner for peace” charade and instead being more of an advocate for and leader of the Palestinian cause. But this time, he really turned up the heat. His reference to the attack on Gaza as “genocide” was calculated to play very well in Ramallah and Gaza City, and he willingly sacrificed the rest of the world’s approval. Continue reading

Is This the Real Gaza Ceasefire?

Israel and Hamas have agreed to another ceasefire, and there seems to be some sense that this one will last. The terms of the 14777243476_4f4b3f01b0_z-620x350agreement leave many issues up in the air, which tends to work strongly in Israel’s favor. It’s worthwhile to look at who might have won and lost, under the assumption that this ceasefire will actually hold.

The tragic reality after fifty days of bombings, rockets and ground invasions is that neither Israel nor Hamas comes out of this with gains. Israel has gained a ceasefire, but at this point, they have nothing else to show for their efforts. Hamas has gained another episode where they were able to survive Israel’s onslaught, but at the cost of thousands of lives and the destruction of infrastructure that, even for Gaza, is unprecedented. Both sides are looking toward the extended peace talks that are supposed to take place within a month, but counting on such things is often a frivolous effort in the Middle East.

Benjamin Netanyahu

Whatever arguments might be made for the proposition that Israel won this conflict, they cannot apply to the prime minister. Benjamin Netanyahu’s approval ratings can make one seasick: they rose to over 80% at the end of July only to fall to 36% now. While people in Gaza are celebrating the end of the ceasefire, Israelis are relieved but wondering what it was all for.

Netanyahu does not relish this sort of military operation and one can see why. He doesn’t handle them well, as evidenced by the constant shifting of his goals. He started with “quiet for quiet,” moved on to harming Hamas and eliminating its tunnels, then to disarming the group, and finally, when those goals were clearly unattainable, he went back to “quiet for quiet,” jumping at an agreement of that nature as quickly as he could.

Netanyahu is now going to face international pressure to seriously engage in peace talks through Egyptian mediation. His preference, and that of his right flank in Israel, will be to stall on such talks, but with the United States and Europe increasing their support for a resolution to the issue of Gaza, Netanyahu will find himself in the middle of a tug o’ war battle. With that same right flank becoming increasingly alienated from and hostile to him, he may be forced to the table.

That table will house yet another massive failure on Bibi’s part. Back in June, he seized upon the murders of three Israelis, lied to the Israeli public when he knew they were dead, whipped the country into a frenzy and started a process in motion that he could not control, which eventually led to the probably unwanted outcome of “Operation Protective Edge.” Bibi’ purpose in all of this was to rend asunder the Palestinian unity government.

Now the United Nations, the European Union, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and crucially, the United States, are pushing for that same unity government—currently composed of technocrats led by Mahmoud Abbas—to take over in Gaza. This was certainly evident in Secretary of State John Kerry’s words supporting yesterday’s ceasefire announcement.

Speaking about the urgent need to get construction and humanitarian supplies into Gaza Kerry said:

We are also prepared to work with our international partners on a major reconstruction initiative, with appropriate measures in place to ensure that this is for the benefit of the civilian population in Gaza, not Hamas and other terrorist organizations. We look forward to coordinating closely with President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority on these critical efforts

That is a clear statement of support for the current PA to take over Gaza. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon was even more clear.

“Gaza must be brought back under one legitimate Palestinian Government adhering to the PLO commitments,” he said. “The blockade of Gaza must end; Israel’s legitimate security concerns must be addressed. The United Nations stands ready to support efforts to address the structural factors of conflict between Israel and Gaza.”

The plan is to circumvent Hamas as the rulers of Gaza, but there is no hint of any further action against them, and they are already part of the new PA. In many ways, this is Netanyahu’s worst nightmare.

Israel

No one in Israel does or should like the way this has turned out. The small radical left opposed the attacks from the beginning. The Zionist left, as represented by Meretz Chairwoman Zehava Gal-On, welcomed the ceasefire but criticized Netanyahu for going to war and ending up where he could have gotten without violence.

The right is furious over the ceasefire, with four of Netanyahu’s cabinet ministers, including key figures on the right, Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman, publicly stating their opposition. The failure to achieve the disarmament of Hamas or knock the group from its perch atop the ruins of Gaza is widely seen as a failure throughout Israel.

Ha’aretz correspondent Barak Ravid summed it up aptly:

Netanyahu just wanted to return to the status quo that has become a personal ideology, but the reality is that Israel has regressed. That regression is encapsulated in the 69 Israeli fatalities, 2,000 Palestinian fatalities, the bulk of them innocent civilians, thousands of projectiles on the communities in the south, hundreds of missiles on the center of the country, deserted communities, the loss of trust in the IDF and the government among the residents of the south, economic damage amounting to billions and diplomatic and PR damage that is impossible to quantify.

Hamas

Despite its bravado, Hamas hasn’t gained much and has likely lost a lot in this conflict. Much will, of course, depend on whether the planned talks in Cairo ever happen and what, if anything, comes from them. But as things stand now, Hamas is riding a positive wave in Gaza because it has again survived an Israeli onslaught. But beneath that euphoria is a bitter reality.

The devastation wrought in Gaza is well beyond Hamas’ rebuilding means. This raises a question that I have brought up before: Will Hamas be willing to let the PA run Gaza? They should, but giving up power, even in so meager a sphere as an occupied territory, is never easy.

Hamas will not be able to pay salaries, an issue that was dogging them long before this cataclysm, and in fact, was a major reason they agreed to the unity government in the first place. They will need international assistance and lots of it, and that is only going to come through the PA.

But there is a great deal of anger among Palestinians toward Mahmoud Abbas over his behavior during this crisis. While Hamas leader Khaled Meshal has been recently meeting with Abbas to come to an agreement on a ceasefire, the leadership in Gaza, battered and bruised, may find themselves less able to stomach Abbas, who continued security cooperation with Israel during this crisis, than the considerably more acceptable Meshal.

Still, the PA doesn’t exclude Hamas specifically. It’s currently a technocratic government led by Abbas, pending new elections. But will those elections ever happen and, when and if they do, can Hamas trust that it will be allowed to compete fairly and fully? It was allowed to do so in 2006, but when it won, the United States and Israel immediately moved to undermine the election results, even backing a Fatah coup attempt. So, on the one hand, that’s a lot of trust to expect from Hamas, but on the other, that is also what it agreed to risk when it signed on to the unity government. The choice rests with Hamas.

The Biggest Losers

As always, it is the people of Gaza who, whether the Palestinian cause is aided or not, always endure the brunt of these conflicts. With over 2,100 dead and many thousands injured, infrastructure further battered, and tens of thousands of structures and homes destroyed, the suffering of these people is almost unimaginable. It may well be that they will end up with a much more open border, and that will matter. But the shattered families, the death and destruction, and the scars from all of this violence are going to haunt Gaza, and Israel, for many years.

There’s another big loser here, and it is, as cliché as it may sound, peace. Once again, Israel has demonstrated to the Palestinians that force is the language in which it speaks and the only one it understands. Even the marginal, immediate gains for Gaza—the easing of movement for humanitarian and construction supplies, and according to many reports, the extension of the zone in which Gazans can fish to six miles—were won by aggression, not diplomacy. For comparison, Palestinians can look at what two decades of negotiations got Abbas—lots of settlements.

Many in Israel, even some among the moderate right, understand that this is what Israel has communicated. Unfortunately, that understanding does not extend to Netanyahu, who drones on and on about how he has “hurt” Hamas.

In the end, there may be some good that comes out of this for the Palestinians, though as always, the hope is a thin one and the price is terribly high. But nothing at all here bodes well for Israel.

The Hamas-Likud Double Standard

This piece originally appeared at LobeLog

The Palestinian Authority installed its unity government today. The responses have been as telling as they were expected.unity

For Palestinians, the development is welcomed news, but it’s being greeted with caution. Palestinians have seen unity proposals collapse before and, while this one has gone further in terms of implementation than any of the preceding efforts, it is still far from certain that this attempt will succeed. The response this elicits from Israel, the US, the EU and other parties will also have a lot to do with whether this unity move will improve the lives of Palestinians in the short-term. Unity has long been the top priority of Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories, but they’ve been disappointed too many times to rejoice before the reunification is more certain.

 

Israel, not surprisingly, rejected any cooperation with the new Palestinian government out of hand. Demonstrating once again how weak Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas really is, the one thing they will happily continue is security coordination, which Abbas called a “sacred” and untouchable arrangement. This one piece of leverage Abbas has is admittedly problematic; a breakdown of security in the West Bank is a much greater threat to the Palestinian Authority than to Israel. Still, Abbas did not need to guarantee that he would never play this card. He has, apparently, still not learned that attempts to reassure Israelis fall on deaf ears. Continue reading

Oslo Process: The Walking Dead

John Kerry’s words at a report-back to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent shock waves all the way to Jerusalem. “Unfortunately, prisoners were not released on the Saturday they were supposed to be released,” he said. “And so day one went by, day two went by, day three went by. And then in the afternoon, when they were about to maybe get there, 700 settlement units were announced in Jerusalem and, poof, that was sort of the moment. We find ourselves where we are.”

That was well outside the usual boundaries of discourse for top US officials, and it certainly got noticed. Kerry’s own State Department subordinates quickly rushed to reaffirm that “…today, Secretary Kerry was again crystal clear that both sides have taken unhelpful steps and at no point has he engaged in a blame game.”

But the message was clear and Kerry himself has taken no steps to truly back off from it. He technically didn’t “blame” Israel. Rather, as he put it, “I only described the unfolding of events and the natural difficulties involved in managing such a complex and sensitive negotiation.”

The message, in a nutshell, is that the Obama administration is fed up with Bibi Netanyahu and his antics. That’s been welcomed by the vast majority of thinking analysts and observers who understood long ago that Israel has acted as the major obstacle to talks and that US pandering to Netanyahu was only going to harden the Israelis’ positions. But that welcome needs to be cooled a bit.

However frustrated Kerry may be by Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declining to accept a US-brokered deal that was absurdly lopsided in Israel’s favor, the peace process must, apparently, go on. The United States continues intense efforts to bring the two sides back to the table despite the fact that months of talks have only been counter-productive and that the current goal of the talks is to find a framework for talks. At this point, the entire Oslo process is little more than a joke. If anything, it resembles a zombie from the television show, The Walking Dead — it’s really dead but it just keeps walking around and making noise.

Despite Kerry’s testimony, he’s staying in the business of bringing Israelis and Palestinians back to the table, and there’s one reason: the only goal remaining on the Obama administration’s agenda is to prevent the talks from completely breaking down on their watch. Yet it seems even that modest goal is beyond Kerry’s grasp. According to Israeli officials, the method for bringing the talks back to zombie-life is to re-issue the offer Abbas pre-empted with his application to fifteen international treaties and institutions. The only changes apparently on the table are compensation to Israel for Abbas’ heinous crime.

Despite Abbas’ unusually bold action in those applications, his track record of submission suggests he will cave-in again. Still, it’s hard to see how he can justify such a turnaround under these circumstances. So, it’s slightly more likely that he will not agree to this. But the most likely outcome is that the Israelis and Palestinians will continue to squabble, and that the deadline of April 29 will be upon us before Kerry can put the sham talks back together.

Given the beating the US is taking around the world over other issues, especially Ukraine; and the always-tenuous balance of maintaining the Iran nuclear talks, Kerry may have no choice but to finally give up on this poorly planned and even more poorly executed attempt to secure a resolution of the Oslo process. It’s now too late, but given the enormous amount of energy Kerry has devoted to this quixotic task, he may not be able to admit it. In any case, the US now must choose between looking foolish by giving up or looking even more foolish by pressing on in this effort when it’s clearly not prepared to do what it would take to get something done.

Abbas has pretty much mapped his post-talks course, and it certainly seems like most Palestinians are anxious to see it happen. That is, increased activism at the United Nations, including applying for accession to the Rome Statute, which would allow the Palestinians to bring Israeli leaders to the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges. Israel is very concerned about that, and that’s why despite the total harmlessness to Israel of the Palestinians’ fifteen international applications, Israel is reacting with increased threats, including an announced intention to steal the tax revenues Israel, by agreement, collects for the Palestinians.

In fact, it is in Israel where we have seen the most activity in response to the breakdown in talks, and none of it is encouraging. The Israeli opposition took days to comment. Zehava Gal-On, head of the left-wing Zionist Meretz Party had, as one would expect, the clearest criticism, saying Israel had given the United States “the finger.” The ostensible leader of the opposition, Isaac Herzog, was less harsh, but called for new elections. That would, however, be foolish as recent polls clearly indicate a strengthening of the right-wing majority. The two parties within Netanyahu’s coalition — HaTnuah and Yesh Atid — which are supposed to be holding Bibi’s feet to the peace talks fire, scrambled desperately to find credible ways to support Netanyahu instead.

Netanyahu’s critics have come from his right flank, in two different ways. First, Trade and Labor Minister, Naftali Bennett of the religious HaBayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) party called for Israel to annex large chunks of the West Bank to punish the Palestinians for their fifteen applications. While there is no chance Israel will do that in the near future, Bennett has been pushing annexation since he rose to the top of his party and has vowed to intensify the public campaign in this direction. Given the ongoing rightward trend among Israeli citizens, this is a cause that could gain considerable momentum going forward.

Then, Netanyahu’s Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman continued his efforts to position himself as the next Prime Minister by meeting with Kerry and publicly stating that Kerry didn’t blame Israel for the breakdown. Lieberman thus gave the impression of himself as a true diplomat, an image the radically right-wing and historically undiplomatic leader of the largely Russian Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) party, has been trying to cultivate ever since he came back to his post after being suspended while under investigation for corruption charges. Lieberman still invites great skepticism among Israelis, but his image is definitely improving.

Bennett, having gotten wind of the attempt by Kerry to revive the talks, then publicly declared that he would pull HaBayit HaYehudi out of the government if the previously arranged deal, or anything similar, went through. Bennett is known for bombast, and the fact is that this stance of his is not supported by his own party. Even HaBayit HaYehudi Housing Minister Uri Ariel, who played a central role in derailing the talks by announcing new settlement construction just as Kerry was trying to put a crutch underneath the discussions, disagrees with Bennett.

Still, these challenges from his right flank are serious for Netanyahu in the long-term, although right now, his popularity is rising among Israelis. That is probably more dismaying than anything else. Israel has, at last, killed the Oslo process and Abbas’ apparent willingness to continue working with the United States to keep them going for no discernible purpose is not winning him any points among his own public.

In the end, the situation is merely a more concentrated form of the one which has held for most of the Oslo era. The United States insists on both managing the process and keeping it going. It calls on the Israelis and Palestinians to make “hard choices” and take “bold steps,” yet administration after administration is unwilling to make its own choices and take its own steps in the face of expected political backlash to bring about a deal. Israel keeps its own goal front and center; that being to make sure that it minimizes, or even eliminates, the possibility of any significant Israeli concession. And the Palestinian people wait for a leadership that will defend their interests and recognize that cooperation with the United States will never get them to their goals of independence and self-determination.