Opining On Outposts

September 8, 2016 § 2 Comments

In 2011, the Israeli High Court ruled that Migron, an outpost in the West Bank built without government approval on private Palestinian land, had to be dismantled. After the government ignored the court order and instead worked out an agreement with Migron’s residents that delayed the evacuation, the court stepped in again and ordered Migron evacuated before the deadline that had been agreed upon with the settlers. The Israeli government complied, but rather than end the Migron experiment entirely, it simply moved Migron slightly to the south, where it would now sit on state land, and retroactively legalized its status.

Were Migron an isolated incident, it would be bad enough. But as the current fights over Amona and Netiv Ha’avot – two other unauthorized outposts ordered to be demolished by the High Court – make clear, the story of Migron is the rule rather than the exception. Just like with Migron, Amona is slated to be torn down at the end of the year but the government is planning on relocating it a few hundred yards away and retroactively approving it as an authorized settlement. The fight over Netiv Ha’avot is only just beginning as the High Court ruled last week that it had to be demolished and could not be retroactively legalized, but given the parade of ministers who vowed to prevent its destruction, there is no doubt Netiv Ha’avot will live on. It is critical to understand what is taking place in these unauthorized outposts and to recognize the “solutions” for just how damaging they are, since they are critical to a key talking point that Prime Minister Netanyahu uses when speaking to foreign audiences and point to just how malleable rule of law is within Israel.

While there is controversy over any and all Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank, Israel has attempted to deal with the contested legality of settlements in general by establishing rules and processes for determining when Israeli law deems a settlement legal or not. The two main components that a settlement requires to be legal in Israel’s eyes are government approval in a formal planning and authorization process, and being built on land that is not privately owned by Palestinians. The outposts, which number in the hundreds, violate both of these requirements, which is why the High Court continues to order their demolition. Yet, either because the orders are ignored, the state retroactively legalizes the construction,  or the outposts are relocated to the closest parcel of state land, once an outpost goes up it almost never disappears. Even though outposts do not, by definition, have formal government approval, they are often supported by government officials and ministries.

Migron, for instance, was funded by the Housing Ministry at the behest of then-Minister Yair Rafaeli despite never having been formally approved or planned. The best way to understand how outposts get built, evade government efforts to tear them down, and manage to leverage political support and connections to tie up the bureaucracy and keep expanding, is not by reading the news but by reading Assaf Gavron’s 2014 novel The Hilltop, which is an engrossing work of fiction but also a cutting analysis of the dynamics that allow illegal outposts to thrive.

And as Isabel Kershner’s recent New York Times article on illegal outposts makes clear, they are indeed thriving, as the Israeli government retroactively legalizes them and does everything in its power under Israel’s legal system to let them stay. I am not someone who thinks that the presence of a few caravans on isolated hilltops makes it impossible to create a fair and contiguous Palestinian state, but I still think that the largest spotlight possible needs to be shined on this process for a variety of reasons.

First, one of Netanyahu’s favorite rhetorical devices is to note that Israel has not built any new settlements during his current run in the prime minister’s office. He uses this fact to shut down criticism of Israeli settlement activity and as proof that it is only the Palestinians, and not he, who are the real obstacles to achieving a two-state agreement, and when he trots it out before sympathetic or uninformed audiences, it is an effective trick. The trick is that while it is technically and narrowly correct, it ignores the fact that Israel under Netanyahu’s – and his predecessors’ – watch may not be authorizing brand new settlements, but the government doesn’t have to when it can just take the illegal ones that exist and make them legal. The more that interested observers get the sleight of hand at work, the less Netanyahu will be able to make unsubstantiated claims that muddy the waters.

Second, and more substantively important, the process of making illegal outposts legal is devastating to a two-state solution, not because the outposts themselves are such an obstacle but because they point to just how hard it will be for Israel to undertake the big moves that will be necessary down the road. If the government cannot commit to evacuating tens of settlers living in caravans and tents, what will happen when it agrees to evacuate thousands of settlers living in stone structures, like in Kdumim or Shilo or even Ariel? These outposts are a test of the government’s will, and it almost always fails the test miserably. If settlers can establish a community in contravention of Israeli law, clash with the IDF, repel government efforts to make them evacuate, refer to politicians and IDF commanders as Nazis, dictators, and enemies of Jews (all of which routinely happens), and still draw support from ministers and face little worse than having their homes picked up and relocated just yards away, then I wish the government good luck in working up the courage to move tens of thousands of settlers out of the West Bank who actually followed the rules.

Third, the process of dealing with illegal outposts shows how the rule of law in Israel can be more dependent on whom you are than on what you do. When Israeli Jews build illegally in the West Bank, the government has to be dragged kicking and screaming by NGOs who file lawsuits before it takes an action, and that action more often than not is to legalize what was illegal. When Palestinians build illegally in the West Bank – something that they are often forced into by circumstance as Israel issued only one building permit for Palestinians in Area C in 2014 and issued zero in 2015 – their homes are not retroactively legalized or relocated to Area B on the state’s dime, but are torn down. When Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced that he was going to comply with the order to tear down Amona, he made sure to add that he was going to comply with the order to tear down the Palestinian village of Susya as well, which seems defensible on its face since the same rules should apply to everyone until you consider that Israel is going to rebuild Amona right next door while the residents of Susya are more likely going to have to fend for themselves.

In the greater scope of things, a tiny illegal outpost deep in the West Bank is irrelevant compared to the problems presented by places like Givat Hamatos or Givat Ze’ev, neighborhoods that do indeed make a contiguous Palestinian state with access to East Jerusalem overwhelmingly difficult. But these outposts matter because of what they say about the Israeli government and its willingness to give in to extremists and small interest groups at the slightest hint of political pressure. In many ways, as the fate of these outposts go, so goes the fate of the two-state solution.

Sideline Russia From Israeli-Palestinian Peace

September 1, 2016 § 2 Comments

Those who bemoan the United States constantly trying to jumpstart the peace process and force the two parties to the table finally have some cause for celebration. There are plans in the works for the Israelis and Palestinians to sit down across from each other at a peace conference overseen by a third party, but it is not President Obama or Secretary of State Kerry who will be serving as host. Instead, it will be Vladimir Putin playing international peacemaker, amidst speculation in the Israeli press that Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas will meet in Moscow in October. If this meeting does indeed end up taking place, it is highly unlikely that anything will come of it. But it will still be a big deal if it happens, more for what it says about the U.S. than about any movement on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

Any peace negotiation between Netanyahu and Abbas stands little chance of success. The personal histories of distrust and even animosity between the two men are well known. Abbas is still reportedly keeping to his self-defeating demand of preconditions – a complete settlement freeze and a final status timetable – before sitting down with Netanyahu, while Netanyahu rejects making direct talks contingent on Israel agreeing to concessions ahead of time. Neither Israel or the Palestinians seems prepared to rock the boat with any big moves in the near future, particularly with the American presidential election and Palestinian municipal elections in the fall creating an atmosphere of uncertainty. So for a variety of reasons, the potential October meeting will amount to nothing.

The fact that it is destined to go nowhere, however, is not the point. The point is that Netanyahu and Abbas might convene under the auspices of a world leader who is not American, and that is a mightily important – and from the American perspective, an unwelcome – development. The U.S. is not the only international player when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian or Israeli-Arab peacemaking. The U.N. has of course been an influential player in shaping the direction of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians due to Security Council resolutions of various stripes. The Quartet is comprised of Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations in addition to the U.S., and other states – most recently France and Egypt – have tried to mediate between the parties outside of American guidance. But it is rare for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to agree to sit down with a third party world leader who isn’t American, and the fact that this might now happen not only sets a precedent for the future, but is a marker of the erosion of American influence with both parties.

Political scientists talk about the role that the U.S. plays as the global hegemon, expending its own capital and resources to do things like ensuring the freedom of international shipping lanes and maintaining the post-WWII institutions of global security architecture, but no global hegemon acts out of a sense of unencumbered altruism. The U.S. gets benefits from acting as the adult responsible for this part of the solar system. Sometimes those benefits are tangible and easily measured, such as the dollar being the world’s reserve currency or the NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe always being an American. Other times those benefits are reputational and signal that the U.S. gets to shape events by dint of it being the world’s only superpower. Convening Israeli and Palestinian leaders and mediating the conflict falls under this latter category, and that Russia wants to now horn in on the traditional American role – and that Netanyahu and Abbas might be complicit in assisting Russian encroachment – will damage the U.S. in a way that cannot be quantified, but it will be damaging nonetheless.

Shepherding Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is not a matter of solving all of the U.S.’s problems in the region. The conflict is not the primary cause of anti-Americanism, of global terrorism, or of regional instability. U.S. involvement, however, projects American power without bombs and guns, because it sends a signal that the U.S. is indispensable; not only is the U.S. the sole actor capable of getting the two sides to talk, but it is the sole actor capable of guaranteeing that an agreement lasts. The American financial commitment to Israel and Egypt emanating from the 1979 Camp David Accords shows how this works in practice, where the U.S. guarantees the peace through aid but also through an unspoken admonition that breaking the peace will come with consequences for the offending party’s relationship with the U.S. as well. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the most important conflict on Earth, but it is the most high profile one, and that is why overseeing it matters to America’s reputation and to American power and credibility.
The still-in-the-works Putin summit presents a dilemma for American policymakers, since there are no good options. Convening Netanyahu and Abbas for talks that are doomed to fail doesn’t do much good, and failed talks almost always create more chaos on the ground. On the other hand, sitting back and ceding this ground to Russia also does no good for the reasons outlined above. While Israeli-Palestinian peace would be a great development, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks without primary American involvement would be less so. This may be one instance where the U.S. should be rooting for Netanyahu and Abbas to remain in character, guaranteeing that rumors of a meeting remain just that.

Hell Hath No Fury Like A Handshake Scorned

August 18, 2016 § 13 Comments

Israeli athletes have had a rough reception from some of their fellow competitors at the Rio Olympics. First, members of the Lebanese delegation barred Israelis from boarding a bus to the opening ceremonies. Then a Saudi judoka pulled out of a match due to injury as soon as it became clear that she would be facing an Israeli competitor in the next round. But the ultimate statement came last Friday following Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby’s defeat at the hands of Or Sasson, when El Shehaby refused to shake the Israeli Sasson’s hand. El Shehaby was booed by the crowd following the breach of judo etiquette, and following a “severe reprimand for inappropriate behavior” from the International Olympic Committee’s Disciplinary Commission, El Shehaby was sent home. The incident created an uproar back in Israel, but ultimately a snubbed handshake is, after all, just a snubbed handshake. It isn’t the details of this episode that matter, but the larger lessons that it imparts.

If nothing else, the absurdity of the entire thing should settle once and for all that Israel is subjected to a unique standard. This doesn’t mean that Israel should be absolved from blame for its actions or policies that deserve to be criticized, but only one country’s athletes are treated this way. For some perspective, there are North Korean athletes competing at the Olympics, but nobody even hints that they should be treated as outcasts because of their government, and rightly so (and if you for some reason think that the government of Israel and Bibi Netanyahu are more worthy of criticism than the government of North Korea and Kim Jong Un, please just stop reading now since you are wasting your time). And deciding that Israeli athletes do indeed deserve to be held responsible for anything Israel does will not necessarily end only in discourteous behavior and lack of sportsmanship, as testified to by the 1972 Summer Olympics terrorist massacre of Israeli athletes in Munich.

The handshake snub also says something about identity and nationalism, and illuminates the dilemma faced by many American Jews, particularly college students and those who travel in progressive circles. El Shehaby is Egyptian, and he represents a country that has a formal peace treaty with Israel; in fact, Israeli-Egyptian cooperation has never been more robust. Yet, his refusal to shake hands with Sasson was an act on behalf of standing up for the Palestinians, a group with which he clearly sympathizes because of a shared identity. This shared identity is so strong that El Shehaby was willing to accept an official reprimand and risk sanction, neither of which serves Egyptian interests, in order to support his Palestinian compatriots. Many American Jews feel a similarly strong bond with Israeli Jews, and their identity is intertwined with support for Israel. So when the price of entry into progressive circles is a demand that American Jews renounce Israel, it creates a genuine crisis of identity, since Judaism and Zionism cannot always be so easily untangled. In criticizing El Shehaby’s actions, nobody has demanded that he withdraw his support for the Palestinian cause. It would be nice if American Jews were granted the same basic level of understanding.

The fact of the handshake itself also obscures a greater barrier that must be overcome. I have seen a number of people grant that El Shehaby behaved poorly, but justify it based on the fact that had he shook Sasson’s hand, he would have put himself in danger back home. It does not speak well for a society that would de facto criminalize a handshake based on national identity, and that should be the basis for a critique rather than the basis for a justification. But more importantly, that nearly four decades after the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty and the establishment of diplomatic relations, simply shaking an Israeli’s hand would place an Egyptian at risk of physical harm demonstrates better than any other example why mere government-to-government relations are not enough. The Israeli government points to its cooperation with Arab states as proof that it is breaking out of its regional isolation, but acceptance is more about social attitudes than it is about state relations, since the former will never follow the latter but the latter will follow the former. Without routine interaction and habituation over time, the structures in place that make Israelis feel so isolated will not come down, and it doesn’t matter how much Israel helps the Egyptian government fight ISIS in the Sinai or how much intelligence Israel shares with the Saudi government. It is the same reason that the anti-normalization campaign mounted by Palestinians against Israelis is a far greater threat than BDS, since once it becomes common for Palestinians to treat Israelis the way Egyptians do, all hope of any lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the societal level will really be gone.

One concluding thought: it would be an interesting social experiment to see if an Egyptian or Iranian judoka would refuse to shake hands with an Arab Israeli athlete on the grounds of supporting the Palestinian cause. After all, if Israelis are being shunned because they are held collectively responsible for the actions of their government, then this should apply across the board to all Israeli athletes. I have a sneaking suspicion that those who support what El Shehaby did as a legitimate and relatively harmless form of political protest, and who claim that this has nothing to do with Jews but is solely about Israel, would feel differently about El Shehaby snubbing an Arab from Umm al-Fahm rather than a Jew from Jerusalem.

Turkey Is No Longer A Reliable Ally

August 12, 2016 § 3 Comments

This piece was published in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal with my friend and colleague Steven Cook.

The meeting this week between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin and their vow to expand bilateral relations is the latest sign of deteriorating U.S.-Turkish relations since Turkey’s failed coup last month.

The U.S. and Turkey have faced difficult days before, such as after Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus and the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, yet American and Turkish leaders managed to find their way back. This time will be different.

Since Turkey joined NATO in 1952, the U.S. and Turkey have contributed to each other’s security and interests, and ties were cemented based on shared values as Turkey became more democratic. U.S. forces and tactical nuclear weapons at Turkey’s Incirlik air base represented the American commitment to Turkish security and Ankara’s support to a Washington-led global order.

These days, however, the U.S. and Turkey see eye to eye on very little. The two countries are at odds over Syria and the urgency of removing Syrian President Bashar Assad; over support for Syrian Kurds who, in contrast to the Turks, have proved to be reliable U.S. partners in the fight against Islamic State; over the territorial sovereignty of Iraq; and over continuing sanctions on Iran.

Though American officials privately acknowledge that Mr. Erdogan is “erratic,” they have given the Turkish leader extraordinary leverage over U.S. policy. The U.S. fear is that public pressure will result in even less cooperation from Ankara—especially on Syria.

Read the rest of the article on the Wall Street Journal website.

The Fight To Frame The Iran Deal

August 11, 2016 § 3 Comments

If you thought that the seemingly never-ending battle between the United States and Israel to shape how the Iran deal is viewed was finally over, you’d be wrong. At a press conference last Thursday, President Obama touted what he said was Israel’s ex-post support for the deal, saying, “And it’s not just the assessment of our intelligence community; it’s the assessment of the Israeli military and intelligence community, the country that was most opposed to this deal, that acknowledges this has been a game changer and that Iran has abided by the deal; and that they no longer have the sort of short-term breakout capacity that would allow them to create nuclear weapons.” The next day, an unsigned statement was issued by the Israeli Defense Ministry insinuating that the Iran deal has “no value” because it is based on a faulty reading of the facts on the ground, asserting that it damaged Israel’s struggle to defend itself from Iran, and comparing it to the infamous Munich agreement that preceded WWII. This in turn was followed by a statement from Prime Minister Netanyahu confirming that Israel’s opposition to the deal has not changed, but emphasizing that Israel has no greater ally than the U.S. and that the most important things going forward are ensuring Iranian compliance with the deal and strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship. Then on Monday, the Defense Ministry issued another unsigned statement apologizing for any misunderstanding over the Munich analogy but reiterating again that Israel remains concerned about Iranian behavior in the wake of the Iran deal.

The Iran deal has been at the core of much of the up-and-down relationship between the American and Israeli governments over the past few years, culminating in Netanyahu’s speech to Congress in March 2015 and continuing to cast a pall over the negotiations for the new ten year defense assistance Memorandum of Understanding. Despite the fact that the Iran deal has been signed and implemented, framing how it is perceived is still crucial to both sides. For the U.S., defending Obama’s signature – and most controversial – foreign policy achievement is the way to shape how history will view his presidency, and even more importantly to set the future direction of American foreign policy long after he is gone from office. For Israel, which was the most publicly vociferous opponent of the deal, continuing to inveigh against it is not only about protecting Israeli credibility and demonstrating Israeli prescience, but about keeping the heat on Iran in order to preserve Israel’s position in the region and assure international support for its defense and security priorities. So more than one year on from the deal’s conclusion, it still affects U.S.-Israel relations and will continue to do so for years to come.

In this particular case, the blowup could have and should have been easily avoided, and much of the blame lies on the president himself. Obama was wrong in his characterization of how the Israeli security establishment views the deal, particularly in his use of the phrase “game changer.” Whereas Obama portrayed Israel as Saul on the road to Damascus, having seen the light and undergone a conversion on the Iran deal’s merits, the reality is that Israeli officials are far more wary. They acknowledge that the deal has eliminated the nuclear issue in the short term, but they also worry that it has actually made the issue even more dangerous in the long term once the deal expires in ten years and that it has worsened other Iranian non-nuclear headaches, such as terrorism and ballistic missile production, in the present. And while Israeli officials concede that Iran has hewed to the narrow terms of the deal so far, they are also certain that Iran will violate the agreement as soon as it is in its interests to do so. In light of this, Israeli officials’ anger at Obama’s press conference is eminently understandable. Israelis rightly don’t like being used as pawns in a PR battle, and all the more so when they feel that their position is being misrepresented. Even worse, Israel’s response since the deal was implemented has been precisely what the U.S. had been pleading for – measured opposition and an acknowledgement that the most important thing now is to hold Iran to its commitments, rather than to continue lambasting the deal at every opportunity and lobbying for it to be scrapped. For that to be throw back in its face must have been particularly galling.

Being justifiably angry, however, does not make the response justifiable. Rather than bring a gun to a knife fight – and breaking out the Munich analogy was certainly a disproportionate response – Israel would have been better off spinning this as a win. After all, the fact that Obama referenced Israel as the ultimate validator in judging whether or not the deal has been and will be successful gives Israel a fair deal of leverage going forward when it comes to evaluating Iranian compliance and developing a response should Iran be deemed in violation of the accord. It is embarrassing enough that the “Defense Ministry” had to walk back its original statement a few days later, but the timing itself made things even more precarious given that the U.S. and Israel are reportedly in the end stages of negotiating the new military aid package, and this hardly seems the time for Israel to do anything that might upset the apple cart. The fact that Avigdor Lieberman – who presumably took the strange step of hiding behind an entire ministry in an effort to give his statement more weight – was unable to hold his tongue despite the timing and despite his past criticism of other Israeli ministers for needlessly harming relations with the U.S. is a reminder of how the pragmatic defense minister can still be dangerously erratic, placing politics above wider considerations.

If there is a positive element to all of this, it is that despite the missteps on both sides of the ocean, it seems that both the U.S. and Israel have learned something from the recent tensions in the relationship. That Israel almost immediately walked back its over the top outburst demonstrates a recognition that rhetorical excesses do indeed have consequences and must be contained. That the U.S. was publicly silent and did not escalate the confrontation in response to Lieberman’s barb demonstrates a desire going forward to keep disagreements behind closed doors, as the Israelis have often requested. There is no question that Iran is going to continue to be a wedge between the U.S. and Israel through the end of the Obama presidency at the very least, but hopefully both sides can manage to be more felicitous in their public statements going forward.

How Free Is Israel’s Media?

August 4, 2016 § 3 Comments

This past spring, in a move that largely slipped under the radar, Freedom House downgraded Israel’s press freedom status from free to partly free. Freedom House cited “the growing impact of Israel Hayom, whose owner-subsidized business model endangered the stability of other media outlets” as the primary reason for the status change, and also noted Prime Minister Netanyahu’s control over regulating the media through his own assumption of the communications portfolio. Then this past Sunday, New York-based Israeli journalist Ruth Margalit wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that went significantly further, charging that Netanyahu is stifling the press across the board, trying to “fragment” the television market in a ploy to control coverage, and working to turn the media into his own personal mouthpiece. So are things really as dire as Margalit portrays them, and is Freedom House correct to no longer describe Israel as having a free press?

This is not the first time that Freedom House has downgraded Israeli press freedom in its rankings. In 2013, it also moved Israel from the free column to the partly free column, and it cited the influence of Israel Hayom then too. I wrote at the time that the designation rang hollow given that every objection listed in the Freedom House report was immediately followed (or preceded) by a disclaimer modifying most of the actual objection or admitting that the objection has not yet come to pass, and this year’s report suffers from the same flaw.

Freedom House ranks countries’ press freedom in three categories – legal, political, and economic environments – and it left Israel’s first two unchanged from last year while downgrading the economic environment two points. The section on the economic environment talks about the pressure created by Israel Hayom on the financial sustainability of other papers since Israel Hayom – or the Bibiton, as it is pejoratively referred to by many – is distributed for free, and also criticizes the proliferation of paid content.

Israel Hayom is a blatant vehicle for pro-Netanyahu propaganda, funded at a loss of tens of millions of shekels a year by non-Israeli citizen Sheldon Adelson, and given out for free in order to make sure that it has Israel’s highest circulation. In other words, a foreign billionaire is making an indirect monetary contribution to the prime minister every day in order to influence Israeli opinion in the prime minister’s favor and crowd out critical voices. Nobody will objectively look at this and say that it’s not a huge problem, but to infer that Israel’s press is only partly free now because Israel Hayom may eventually push other newspapers out of business (despite the fact that it hasn’t yet happened) is jumping the gun.

Margalit’s criticism also focuses on Israel Hayom but is much broader. Her contention that Netanyahu is not satisfied with having one newspaper in his pocket but wants to have every media outlet submit to his control certainly has elements of truth. There is little question that Netanyahu does much to pressure and cajole favorable coverage for himself in a variety of ways, from using subordinates to intimidate journalists to complaining about headlines to leaning on wealthy media magnates who are either supporters or who want some favor from the government. This should not be whitewashed. I have heard stories from Israeli journalists about being pressured to write about certain things and not to write about others. Many are hounded incessantly on social media as leftists for challenging the government in campaigns that seem to be encouraged by the government itself. There have been ongoing controversies the past few months over Galei Tzahal (Army Radio) and ministers trying to dictate what songs are played and what poems are read. During a cabinet meeting on Sunday, Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev complained that the government doesn’t have enough direct control of the media, sparking a fight between Likud ministers and Habayit Hayehudi ministers that has continued into this week, in which the latter accused the former of trying to stamp out free media and the former accused the latter of being “champions of the left.”

But the problem also should not be blown out of proportion. To begin with, some of Margalit’s assertions are oddly off-base. She brings up the government shuttering the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) as proof that Netanyahu is trying to control the news, when in reality he is madly trying to postpone the closing of the IBA and the opening of its replacement because he is afraid that the new broadcasting authority will be too independent. She claims that “most Israelis are getting their news from Israel Hayom or Walla News” as a way of proving that Netanyahu’s efforts are not about countering leftwing bias, but Israel Hayom and Yediot Ahronot are very close in their market share – 40.8% to 35.2% – and equating Israel Hayom (quite literally a propaganda mouthpiece) with an internet news portal that employs legitimate and dogged reporters like Amir Tibon and Tal Shalev is the same as comparing Pravda with Yahoo News. As Liel Leibovitz points out in Tablet, Netanyahu’s fight to control the media is in many ways a tussle between right and left playing out in the media landscape rather than in the halls of the Knesset, which doesn’t make it better but at least provides some context. But the most effective counterargument to Margalit is the content of the Israeli press itself. Israel’s press is far from perfect, but spend one day reading Israeli newspapers and watching Israeli television – where this week alone Ben Caspit in the rightwing Ma’ariv referenced Netanyahu’s “political commissars” and Finance Ministry “jackboots” – and tell me that Israeli journalists have been cowed into silence due to government intimidation. It doesn’t mean that the intimidation doesn’t exist, but that Israel’s press is still unmistakably free.

Finally, remember that this problem is not unique to Israel among Western democracies. The fact that Fox News is owned by a billionaire supporter of Republican policies and causes, or that Breitbart reads as if its headlines are written directly by Trump campaign staffers, or that the White House brings enormous pressure to bear on editors and reporters to craft stories that support its interests, does not mean that the U.S. does not have a free press. It means that there is no such thing as unbiased news; that reporters have always had to and always will walk a line between the companies or people that pay their salaries and the people who consume their products; and that the fact that people increasingly gravitate toward sources that support their own political biases means we need to be even more vigilant about recognizing our preferred sources’ biases and figuring out how much to trust. That is true if you are Israeli and it is true if you are American.

Hold Democrats Accountable On Israel Too

July 28, 2016 § 6 Comments

I have been unsparing in my criticism of Republican positions on Israel this campaign season, and particularly those held by the (no longer presumptive) nominee and his team of one-staters. I make no secret of the fact that I see Donald Trump’s views on Israel as incoherent at best and a dumpster fire at worst, and the fact that Republicans have, despite some laudable exceptions, quietly acceded to Trump upending years of established Republican – and largely bipartisan – policy on Israel is not their finest moment. If Trump loses, one of the most entertaining sideshows of the next few years will be watching his currently eager but future shamefaced supporters walking back not only their laudatory expressions of support for him personally but the absurd positions they embraced on his behalf, and hopefully the more-hawkish-than-Bibi position will fall under this umbrella. The Republicans have the problem that they are becoming comfortable with positions on Israel that are absurdly unrealistic and will damage Israel in the long run, but events at the Democratic convention are demonstrating that the Republicans are not alone. If the Republicans are hurting Israel by emboldening its most extreme instincts, the Democrats are doing so by giving those who possess the extreme instincts legitimate cause for concern.

On Monday, speaking at an event on the sidelines of the convention, Representative Hank Johnson stridently criticized Israeli settlement activity. The problem is that in doing so, he referred to Israeli settlers as termites; made the blanket assertion that Israelis are not building their own neighborhoods but that, in his words, “you see one home after another being appropriated by Jewish people who come in to claim that land just because somebody did not spend the night there;” and falsely charged that Israel has banned Palestinians from displaying the Palestinian flag. I understand why Johnson is upset at Israeli policies in the West Bank, and I share his frustration. What I don’t share is his view that it is appropriate to compare Israelis to vermin or to just make stuff up in order to paint a bad situation with an even darker brush. On Monday afternoon, Johnson tweeted an apology for his “poor choice of words,” referring to comparing Israelis to termites, but that actually misses the point. It is the exaggerated charges that are the truly damaging aspects of what Johnson said. Democrats who supported Hillary Clinton and Democrats who supported Bernie Sanders dislike Israel’s settlement policy, and it is reasonable to expect Democratic politicians to criticize it given their voters’ preferences. But whipping people up into an ignorant frenzy by insinuating that the bulk of settlement activity consists of Israelis lurking in the weeds, just waiting for Palestinians to spend a night out of town and then taking over their houses, is grossly irresponsible. Israel’s settlement policy – which, yes, sometimes involves building on privately owned Palestinian land – is bad enough on its own that it doesn’t need to be embellished, and it is this type of rhetoric that gives cover to the farthest right of Israel’s rightwing by allowing them to claim that criticism of Israel is little more than lies and hate.

Yet more extreme behavior was on display Tuesday outside of the convention hall, as a rowdy group of louts burned an Israeli flag and chanted “long live the intifada,” no doubt demonstrating their desire for a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and their commitment to two states for two peoples. Now, this is not activity sanctioned by the Democratic Party and so to blame it on national Democrats is simply unfair; in fact, the flag burners appear to have been part of a larger group protesting Democratic policy more widely. But just as there is something about Trump that draws white supremacists to him like moths to a flame, the fact that those on the left advocating for ethnic cleansing of Israeli Jews think that they will manage to get a sympathetic hearing from people attending the convention in Philadelphia says something. These kinds of views must be unequivocally denounced, and putting Cornel West – who has accused Bibi Netanyahu of war crimes and talks about “the role of money and lobbies” when discussing Israel policy – on the Democratic platform committee sends a message of a different type.

I do not mean to suggest an absolute equivalence here where both sides are suffering on the same level. On the Republican side, we are dealing with a nominee and a platform whose Israel policy is off the rails, while on the Democratic side we are dealing with a misinformed backbench congressman and some unwashed protestors who are left with burning flags on the wrong side of the convention’s security fence. One party has abandoned the bipartisan consensus on two states while one is still holding the line. That doesn’t change the fact that there is a worrisome undercurrent in the Democratic Party that views Israel as disproportionately bad, and it should and must be called out. Comments like Johnson’s or moves to welcome the BDS movement under the Democratic big tent are wrong on their own, but they are also ultimately damaging by reinforcing the narrative on the right that nothing Israel does will ever be enough, and so better to just damn the torpedoes and go full speed ahead. It is easy to see how Republican policies are driving Israel away from two states. The fact that it is harder to see how some movements within the Democratic Party are accomplishing the same doesn’t mean that it is less worthy of opprobrium.

%d bloggers like this: