Sacrificing the Temple Mount

October 20, 2016 § 1 Comment

When the United Nations was created amidst the wreckage of World War II as a mechanism for shaping a new international order, its founders had some high hopes for their new global institution. The preamble to the UN Charter explicitly envisioned saving succeeding generations from war, promoting social progress, maintaining international law, practicing peace and tolerance, and all other sorts of laudable goals. But even the UN’s creators could never have imagined the immense power the organization has assumed to rewrite history and create an alternate timeline to the universe, as happened last week when a committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted to adopt a resolution that erased any trace of a Jewish connection to Judaism’s holiest site. In some ways this absurd farce does not and should not matter in the least, but in other ways it is a microcosm of much that is wrong with matters that pertain to Israel.

From one perspective, this is not a big deal. Whether UNESCO wants to acknowledge it or not, the Jewish connection to the Temple Mount is immediately evident after five minutes of studying archeology, three minutes of studying ancient history, and half a second of studying Jewish liturgy. And even if none of that were the case, the fact is that Judaism as a religion reveres the Temple Mount as its holiest site, and so that ipso facto makes it so. Pretending otherwise is puerile and infantile, and much like the Israeli demand for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, whether outside parties recognize the Temple Mount as a holy Jewish site or not is beside the point since it is one, plain and simple. Having someone else say it won’t make it more so, and having someone else deny it certainly won’t make it less so.

But from another perspective, this is a monumental deal that should not be downplayed or waved away. It is critical to understand not only what the Temple Mount represents and what it means to Jews (and observant Jews in particular), but just how much Israel sacrifices and Jews give up by maintaining the current status quo at the site. Imagine if Jews claimed the Kaaba in Mecca as holy to Judaism as well as to Islam, and Israel assumed control of the Kaaba compound and allowed Muslims to visit for a couple of hours a day but expressly forbade them from praying there, creating a blatantly discriminatory double standard against Muslims at Islam’s holiest place. Then imagine further that Israel pushed a UNESCO resolution acknowledging a Muslim connection to Mecca but none at all to the Kaaba, and blasting Saudi Arabia for not respecting the “integrity, authenticity and cultural heritage” of the explicitly Jewish site. The world would literally be up in arms in this scenario, yet this is what happens at Judaism’s holiest site, and not only is the situation not condemned, but Israel is the party criticized. The situation for Jews on the Temple Mount is the equivalent of religious apartheid, yet Israel not only goes along with it but it enforces it in the interests of maintaining the peace. To then add insult to injury by using Israel’s enormous and massive restraint at the Temple Mount against it in pretending that there is no Jewish connection at all is reprehensible. That the UNESCO resolution alludes to the importance of Jerusalem for Judaism – although never comes out and explicitly says it but only mentions “the three monotheistic religions – and uses the Jewish terms for religious sites in the West Bank only makes the purposeful absence of Jewish terms in connection to the Temple Mount even worse, and using UNESCO’s acknowledgement of Jewish Jerusalem to whitewash memory-holing the Temple Mount is a disgraceful rhetorical technique. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova’s statement essentially renouncing the UNESCO resolution and using the terms Temple Mount and Har Habayit should be applauded by everyone.

The larger problem here is not what this resolution says about history, but what it says about the future. The Palestinian push to make this resolution happen rightly feeds into fears of what will happen to Jews and Jewish holy places in a future Palestinian state, and whether the same basic access and protections that Israel affords to non-Jewish religious sites will be reciprocated in any way. The “historic status quo” repeatedly referred to in the UNESCO resolution is only five decades old; it should not escape notice that the status quo before 1967 was that the Temple Mount was Jew-free entirely. This latest move does not instill confidence for the future of religious tolerance and respect, and it also raises the question of why the Palestinians are wasting their time trying to deny what are plainly obvious historical facts rather than accomplishing anything productive diplomatically. If this is the best that Palestinian leadership can muster, then it is no wonder that the Palestinian Authority is abysmally unpopular. It also feeds into the Israeli instinct to distrust the UN and the international community more generally, since it is all fine and well that no European countries voted for the resolution, but that France, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and other couldn’t get up the courage to do more than abstain reinforces the Israeli view that they will never get a fair shake.

The resolution’s sponsoring countries also point to a tough road ahead for Israel. The draft was submitted by Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, and Sudan. Israel touts its ties with Egypt as one of its greatest diplomatic successes, has been trying to improve Sudan’s relations with the West as a way of further isolating Iran, and frequently coordinates behind the scenes with Qatar – Hamas’s primary international patron – in order to manage the situation in Gaza. Yet when push comes to shove, these countries have no compunction about raising completely outrageous claims about Israel and Judaism at the UN over an issue that has no tangible diplomatic value other than emotionally wounding Jews around the world. This is not encouraging for Israel’s regional acceptance and normalization, to say the least.

It cannot be that every offensive statement made by Prime Minister Netanyahu, every rhetorical provocation committed by an Israeli minister, and every move to deny Palestinian claims and narratives by the Israeli government are highlighted and written in stone for all to bash until the end of time, but the Palestinians can do the same and get a free pass. UNESCO’s repugnance does not have the same terrible daily impact, for instance, as demolishing Palestinian homes that were built without permits that Israel refuses to grant, but it is repugnant nonetheless and must be condemned without qualification. That Judaism’s connection to its holiest and most revered religious site is now the subject of official UN debate is humiliating not only to the UN, but to anyone who respects those pesky little things called facts.

Sunshine and Rain

June 30, 2016 § 2 Comments

I’ve spent the last week in Israel with IPF exploring the security situation in depth, spending days in the Gaza envelope, Jerusalem seam line, southern West Bank, and Jordan Valley to get a firsthand sense of Israel’s security challenges and requirements. This included meeting with former Israeli generals and national security advisers, American security officials, and Palestinian security and local government officials to get their assessments. The amount that I have absorbed will take awhile to fully process, but let me start with one reason for despondence and one for encouragement.

The most disheartening thing I have seen this week – aside from Hebron, where I hadn’t been for two decades and which provoked in me a unique brew of shock, rage, sadness, and apathy all at once – is the complete lack of daring on both sides. Let’s start with the Israelis. One thing you immediately hear when talking to Israeli officials about doing anything on the Palestinian front is incitement. There is no question that incitement is a genuine problem that should not be dismissed by anyone who takes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seriously. One high-ranking IDF officer told us how terrorism in the area under his command has morphed from “organized” to “inspired” and is enabled by a social media echo chamber, and incitement is certainly a component in the wave of attacks on Israelis that has only recently abated. Nevertheless, the IDF’s assessment of the wave of terrorism that began in the fall is that twice as many terrorists were motivated by nationalism – i.e. lack of political progress – than by incitement. This should logically warrant the conclusion that it is more important to take constructive steps now, unilaterally or otherwise, to change conditions in the West Bank than to sit pat until all incitement everywhere stops. But using incitement as a reason not to take any steps at all is easy politics, particularly because it provides perfect evidence for the argument that there is no partner and allows the government to maintain the status quo, such as it is, indefinitely.

Notwithstanding the fact that incitement is a concern that must be addressed, and that the Palestinian Authority must answer for its role in fomenting it, ultimately the laserlike focus on incitement is something of a shell game. Initially, Israel argued that the Palestinians were not serious because the PA supported terrorism. Now that the PA has become a full-fledged security partner and has by all accounts cracked down on terrorism to the best of its ability in the West Bank, the new argument becomes that the Palestinians are not serious because of incitement. None of this is an argument that incitement is irrelevant, because it decidedly isn’t. President Abbas’s feet must be held to the fire over the virulent and criminal ugliness that emanates from official Palestinian channels, and hopefully the forthcoming Quartet report will do just that, as expected. But it is pretty clear that Palestinian cooperation is achievable on a number of fronts, and maintaining the status quo everywhere because it is politically safer and more potent to rail against incitement is a wasted opportunity. I understand that the coalition politics of it is difficult for Netanyahu and that nobody justifiably wants to come out and embrace Abbas when he is off accusing Israelis of poisoning Palestinian wells, but sacrificing opportunities to move the ball forward on the altar of political expediency does Israel no favors.

The Palestinians are equally guilty of shooting themselves in the foot for the sake of narrow politics, and in their case they are losing out even more. At nearly every opportunity that presents itself, Netanyahu reiterates his offer to sit down with Abbas and negotiate without preconditions anytime, anywhere. Rather than accept, Abbas jumps through hoops not only to avoid Netanyahu but to also avoid having to meet with any Israeli officials at all, such as just last week when he wouldn’t sit down with President Rivlin in Brussels. Palestinian officials offer a litany of excuses as to why Abbas won’t sit down with Netanyahu, from there not being enough advance notice to refusing to believe that he will actually negotiate once in the room, but what it boils down to is the politics on the Palestinian side. It costs Abbas every time he sits across the table from Bibi and ultimately doesn’t come away with a deal, and so just entering into negotiations is now deeply unpopular. That does not absolve Abbas; leaders are supposed to lead, and he is not. Much like the Israelis, the Palestinians like to shift the goalposts too. First the problem was that Netanyahu wouldn’t negotiate; then the problem was that they could only negotiate once settlements were frozen; then they couldn’t negotiate until building was frozen in East Jerusalem as well; and now it is back to insisting that Abbas can’t meet until Netanyahu first demonstrates good will by again freezing settlement construction. In the meantime, literally every day the situation gets worse for the Palestinians, and Abbas’s own stubborn obduracy not only allows Israel to shift the blame for the impasse entirely onto him – after all, Netanyahu will sit down while Abbas will not – but telegraphs that the political costs to Abbas are more important to him than the policy costs to the Palestinians as a whole. Overall, it is overwhelmingly clear that nothing is going to happen without some shakeup that changes the political calculus for one side or both.

Nonetheless, I came away with two data points that I hadn’t expected to see and that actually make me more optimistic than anything I have seen in years. The first was on the Palestinian side, where multiple Palestinian officials conceded that they had made mistakes by walking away at Camp David and breaking things off with Ehud Olmert in 2008. This was unprecedented for me and for other people I asked with far more experience dealing with the Palestinians, and it genuinely took me by surprise. Whether it heralds a newfound openness and realism I don’t know, but I can only take it as a positive sign.

On the Israeli side, we talked to a number of rightwing policymakers, from retired four star generals to regional council heads and mayors, and to a man, each one of them without hesitation said they would choose a two-state solution over one state. None of them hedged, none of them claimed that there is a realistic outcome other than those two options, and while all of them had a litany of reasons why two states is a bad idea or not implementable, they all reluctantly embraced it as the preferable of the options available. While I do not expect this to translate into a sudden policy shift, it is striking the way that serious people on the right do not pretend that the choice is avoidable, and even more striking just how much the concept of two states has been socialized into the thought and discourse across the political spectrum. I don’t think we are anywhere close to a successful round of negotiations or a permanent status agreement, but I leave Israel thinking that given the right set of circumstances, perhaps things are not quite so bad as many – myself included – have long assumed.

Trust and Partners

June 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

Since IPF released its Two-State Security project last week, we have gotten an enormous response, most of it positive but some of it critical. Nearly everyone appreciates the effort that has gone into the plans developed by our partners, the Commanders for Israel’s Security and the Center for a New American Security, but the most common concerns that keep arising are about the Palestinians. The concerns all revolve around some variation of the question, does Israel have a partner? How can we be sure if Israel pulls back from the West Bank in performance-dependent stages that it won’t eventually have to go back in? How can we trust the Palestinians when the Palestinian Authority does nothing now to crack down on incitement? Doesn’t Israeli security under these plans depend on relying on a party that has shown no willingness to accept Israel’s legitimacy?

These are all good and legitimate questions that take on a particular urgency in light of yesterday’s horrific terrorist attack in Tel Aviv, and they cannot and should not be simply brushed away. One of the reasons that the peace camp has fallen into such hard times is a sense on the part of Israeli and American Jews that the left was too naïve about the issue of trusting the other side absent reasonable evidence to do so. The issue of trust and reliable partners looms large for good reason. So why should anyone trust a security plan to work when Israelis are being gunned down in cold blood in cafes and their security depends on the acquiescence of an untrustworthy party?

The CIS plan is designed to get around this question entirely through bypassing any necessary Palestinian cooperation. It is a plan for security now in the absence of negotiations or any peace process of which to speak, and thus it is comprised entirely of measures to be taken by Israel without the need for coordination from the other side. In fact, the slogan that CIS has been using is !אין פרטנר? יש פתרון meaning, “No partner? There is a solution!” The plan to take unilateral steps to establish Israel’s security as a precursor to peace later explicitly assumes that a partner is not necessary for this initial stage. Some of the measures that the plan calls for, such as immediately completing the multiple gaps in the security fence that have been left open for political reasons, are designed to prevent illegal infiltrators like the ones who carried out yesterday’s attack, providing a grimly stark example of why the plan’s recommendations should be taken seriously.

But the CIS plan is a stopgap. Ultimately, long-term success requires a successful permanent status negotiation with the Palestinians, and a deal can only be sustainable if there is a partner willing to enforce it, most importantly on the security variables. So we are back to where we started; does Israel have a partner?

It is no accident that the CNAS plan – one that requires a successful negotiating process in order to be implemented – deals with security. If there is one area in which Israel has a demonstrable partner in the Palestinian Authority, it is security. There are a number of reasons why the West Bank is not the rocket launching pad that is Gaza, from a less radicalized population to a more robust economy to the difficulty in building tunnels or sustainable smuggling routes to nighttime Israeli incursions. But the single biggest factor is the willingness of the Palestinian security forces to enforce and maintain quiet. These are forces that have been trained by the U.S., work in close coordination with the IDF, and spend their days keeping the West Bank quiet and effectively protecting Israeli lives. Even the most rightwing member of the Israeli government will tell you that the Palestinian security forces are one of the true success stories of the past decade. They are not perfect, but the fact that the IDF has been attempting to end its incursions into Area A and gradually transfer full security control to the PA speaks volumes about its level of trust in the Palestinian security apparatus.

So let’s grant that when it comes to security, Israel currently has a partner. What about the rest of it? On the political side, it is difficult to say with any certainty that Israel right now has a partner. Mahmoud Abbas, for a variety of reasons good and bad, is more interested now in internationalizing the conflict than negotiating its resolution, and has either rejected or not responded to offers made by Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama. Unlike his predecessor, Abbas has not encouraged violence against Israelis, but he has legitimized it after the fact and there is no question that incitement by Palestinian Authority officials and others is an enormous problem not to be waved away. This is not to suggest by any means that the Palestinians are solely to blame for the impasse; when you have in your cabinet a minister who just this week categorically rejected the two-state solution and called for Israel to annex Area C, it is difficult to claim the unambiguous high ground on the issue of diplomatic intransigence.

But if the Palestinians are to become a partner on the political and diplomatic side the way that they are on the security side, they will need to be provided with some real incentives to do so. This is not a call to appease Palestinian terrorism or to just keep on giving in the hopes that the Palestinians will eventually recant revanchist positions, since that will not work. It is a recognition that any successful resolution requires an array of tactics, and using sticks is not mutually exclusive with utilizing some carrots as well. As IPF’s Israel fellow Nimrod Novik likes to recount, a Palestinian security official once relayed to him how much easier it is for Palestinian security forces to accede to Israeli demands and arrest their brothers, cousins, and friends when there is a political horizon and a negotiating process taking place since they are taking action for the benefit of a future Palestinian state, as opposed to when there is no political horizon and it feels like they are taking action for the benefit of the Israeli occupation. In order for Israel to eventually have a partner on the other side, the Palestinians must take responsibility for their own shortcomings, end the ugly incitement that has become routine, and accept Israel’s legitimacy unambiguously and without reservation. But there are two things that Israel can do to further things along as well. First, realize that the “there is no partner” tagline is a lot more complicated than the simplified slogan suggests; it may be true when it comes to diplomacy, but it is and has not been true when it comes to security. Second, build upon the excellent security cooperation that exists now to pave the way for cooperation in other areas in the future. Socializing norms of trust and coordination in one area will ultimately spread to others, and providing incentives for the current cooperation to continue will ultimately pay off in resolving the issue of not having a partner on the other side. Trust begets trust and success begets success. Take the steps now that do not depend on having a partner on the other side, and maintain a distrust-and-verify stance until you are assured that a partner is there.

What To Do About Gaza?

February 16, 2016 § 4 Comments

I wrote a piece last week for Foreign Affairs about why Israel must do all that it can to prevent another war in Gaza with some suggestions for how Israel can accomplish this. The article can be read at this link on the Foreign Affairs website, and I have reproduced it below.

While Israelis focus on the violence emanating from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Hamas has been quietly gearing up for its own next round of fighting. It is rebuilding its tunnel network while replenishing its rocket caches and improving its intelligence capabilities. Israel was caught off guard by Hamas’ attack tunnels during the 2014 war, and Hamas is trying to ensure that they penetrate further into Israel during the next effort. The group is working nearly around the clock to dig and reinforce a maze that lies as much as 100 feet below the ground. For Israel, larger conventional threats from Iran and Hezbollah might be a bigger problem, but Hamas is a more combustible one. The next war thus seems inevitable, a question of when rather than if—at least as judged by the matter-of-fact way in which politicians such as Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid already discuss the causes of fighting that is yet to break out.

As much as the die feels cast, this is a war that Israel’s energies should be channeled into avoiding. It goes without saying that another war will bring with it a tragically high number of Palestinian civilian casualties given Hamas’ purposeful entrenchment in civilian areas. The Israeli side will not be spared either. The last rounds of fighting in Gaza—Cast Lead in 2008, Pillar of Defense in 2012, and the more recent Protective Edge in 2014—did not lead to high Israeli civilian casualty counts, but the psychological toll should not be discounted. Israelis were justifiably shaken by the constant running to air raid shelters and the heavy reliance on the Iron Dome anti-missile system during the last round of fighting. On both sides, psychological trauma contributes to hardened attitudes that make the Israeli–Palestinian conflict more difficult to resolve. To assume that another round of fighting with Hamas and other groups in Gaza will be relatively cost-free for Israel, then, is to ignore how the recent wars have harmed Israel in real ways.

Hamas is engaged in a battle in the West Bank with the Palestinian Authority (PA) for the hearts and minds of Palestinians, and the PA is losing badly. The latest Palestinian poll shows that PA President Mahmoud Abbas would lose in a head-to-head election with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh; that Hamas would beat Abbas’ Fatah in legislative elections in the West Bank; and that two-thirds of Palestinians support the current wave of knife attacks on Israelis and believe that an armed intifada would be more beneficial than negotiations. Given these numbers, should Hamas be at the forefront of another fight with Israel in Gaza, the result will be an even larger increase in Hamas’ popularity at the expense of the PA, and could plausibly lead to the nightmare scenario for Israel of the PA’s complete collapse.

The damage to Israel in that scenario cannot be overstated. The hallmark of the past decade of relative quiet has been Israeli and Palestinian joint security cooperation—cooperation that is deeply unpopular with the Palestinian public. Should the PA disappear, the Israeli Defense Forces will have to reoccupy Palestinian cities and expend time and resources that it can ill afford in policing and administering the West Bank. A war in Gaza will also further radicalize Palestinians both inside Israel and in the West Bank by stoking nationalist tensions and giving credence to the argument that only through armed resistance can Palestinian national aspirations be realized. An increased campaign of terrorism against Israelis will almost certainly be the end result.In deciding whether to initiate a war with Israel, Hamas is responding to two different pressures. The first comes from even more radical jihadi groups in Gaza, such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad and others affiliated with al Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS), which denigrate Hamas as weak-kneed and unwilling to resist Israel. The second comes from the public, which—as demonstrated in the poll numbers—sees no path to any improvement in the abysmal standards of daily life in Gaza and supports armed resistance as the only possible way out. Fighting a two-front battle is difficult and could leave Hamas with no choice but to launch a war, whether it wants to hold off or not.

It will be easier for Hamas to hold the line against more radical groups, though, if the concerns of the public can be somewhat alleviated. The key to avoiding another Gaza war is thus providing Palestinians in Gaza some breathing space while simultaneously making it harder for Hamas to carry out successful strikes within Israel. Even if this process creates its own set of security problems, it is a far better outcome than risking the conflagration a Gaza war may set off.

One element of such a strategy would be relaxing some of the restrictions on what goes into Gaza. Over the past year, the number of Israeli trucks into Gaza has steadily increased, from 5,249 in February 2015 to 12,418 in December, which is a trend that must continue. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken in the past about the importance of allowing Gaza to be rebuilt in order to avoid new rounds of fighting, and there is evidence that the government is haltingly embracing this position. The number of items that make it across the border should be expanded as well. Wood planks are critical to a functioning Gaza economy due to their necessity for Gaza’s furniture factories, and allowing them in— despite their use in tunnel construction—is a risk worth taking when Israel has been permitting higher amounts of the more dangerous cement to enter Gaza. Another crucial element is fixing the electricity and water shortages. Both of these are dependent on Israeli largesse, and despite ongoing disputes over payments to Israel’s electric authority, the fact that Gazan sewage is beginning to wash up onto Tel Aviv beaches should be enough to convince Israel that the investment would be worthwhile. If chronic electricity and water shortages are not addressed soon, it is not unthinkable that Israel will be facing thousands of Gazans trying to breach the border fence on a daily basis.

On the other side of this equation, Israel should be taking a cue from Egypt and doing all it can to flood and destroy attack tunnels that residents of Gaza periphery communities can hear being dug underneath their homes. While providing residents of Gaza with reasons to want to avoid a war, Israel must also deter Hamas from launching one. Going after the tunnels now rather than waiting until they are used should, at the very least, set back the timetable for the next war and alleviate concerns that relaxing the Gaza blockade will only lead to more attacks on Israelis.

There is no perfect answer for Israel. Hamas’ very reason for being is resistance, and it is naive to think that the group will change. Nevertheless, Hamas has indicated an interest in maintaining ceasefires before when Israel has taken steps to make the reconstruction of Gaza easier and when Hamas has felt that it can maintain the upper hand against even harder line groups without resorting to an inevitable military loss against the Israeli Defense Forces. The damage that another Gaza war will cause makes it worth doing everything possible to keep the current ceasefire going. Anything that Israel does to avoid an outbreak of fighting will empower Hamas in some way, but the alternative is far worse.

The Perfect and the Good

February 11, 2016 § 5 Comments

Labor leader Buji Herzog did something unusual this week for a man who leads Israel’s traditionally largest party on the left. He got the party of Yitzhak Rabin and Oslo, of Ehud Barak and Camp David, to temporarily throw in the towel on the peace process and negotiations, and to embrace unilateral separation from the Palestinians instead. Herzog’s plan calls for Israel to freeze all building outside the settlement blocs, retain the blocs, and complete the security fence in order to establish a provisional border; convert parts of Area C to Area B, thereby transferring administrative control to the Palestinian Authority; and separating Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem from the Jerusalem municipality. The plan is predicated on the principle that a two-state vision is currently impossible to implement under the framework of permanent status negotiations, and that the only path forward is to preserve the two-state vision while doing everything possible to separate from the Palestinians until the environment is more conducive to negotiations. As someone who wrote with Jordan Hirsch in Foreign Affairs in August 2014 that Israel should unilaterally pull out of the West Bank and kill the peace process in order to save the two-state solution, Herzog’s general approach here is one that I favor.

But the plan has many vocal critics who raise valid concerns. Within Labor itself, former Labor leader Shelley Yachimovich has come out against it and is likely to use opposition to the plan as a springboard to challenge Herzog for the party leadership. While Yachimovich is motivated as much by politics as anything else, other critics on the left have pointed to specific aspects of the plan that they contend will cut off Palestinians from the Old City of Jerusalem, or make it harder for the Palestinians to get the land swaps they want in return for Israel annexing the blocs, or doom the two-state solution by abandoning it and empowering the current government. What much of this boils down to is opposition to Herzog’s attempts at triangulation; ditching the formula of permanent status negotiations, which is the only way of arriving at a fair and equitable solution for all sides, in favor of a stopgap strategy that will make some things better and other things worse but certainly prioritize Israel’s interests at the Palestinians’ expense.

These arguments carry a lot of weight. Any temporary measure that ends up making the situation in Jerusalem worse or turns into a permanent land grab is ultimately not sustainable. Nevertheless, I think Herzog’s measure can theoretically be a good initial step if it is done right. In order to do it right, it will also have to incorporate three Ds – define, develop, and defend. Without these, its critics are correct that it will only establish facts on the ground without moving the two sides closer to a sustainable and permanent solution.

Any plan that effectively prioritizes the settlement blocs while freezing settlement activity outside of them can only work if the blocs are defined. Everyone throws the term “blocs” around as if they constitute an agreed-upon area, but it means different things to different people. The blocs that Israel will keep in any permanent status negotiation need to be identified definitively; for instance, including the Etzion bloc as part of Israel is an easy one, but Ariel juts much farther out into the West Bank, so does a settlement freeze outside the blocs include or exclude Ariel? Furthermore, once it is settled just which blocs we are talking about, the precise borders of each bloc need to be delineated so that they don’t keep on expanding and swallow up more of the land that will go to an eventual Palestinian state. Without defining the blocs, calling for a settlement freeze outside of them is an empty gesture.

Separating from the Palestinians without a plan to develop the West Bank is another necessary condition for the success of a unilateral strategy. Herzog hints at this through his recommendation to enlarge Area B at the expense of Area C, but it can’t simply be foisting more responsibility on the Palestinian Authority and then dusting off your hands. It must also include exponential expansion of the building permits granted to Palestinians in Area C – of which only one was granted in all of 2014 – while eliminating the absurd amounts of red tape that cause goods for Palestinian towns to languish in Israeli ports (such as pipes for the new reservoir that is supposed to supply Bethlehem with water). Without building up the West Bank economy and actually giving it a chance to flourish, separation will do nothing but create a boiling cauldron on the Palestinian side of the fence.

Finally and most crucially, for any unilateral separation to eventually result in a genuine two-state outcome, defense of Israel and security issues must be addressed. The reason that Bibi Netanyahu wins election after election is because, irrespective of anything else that goes on, he has his pulse on Israelis’ psyches and the genuine fear that has dominated Israeli life since the Second Intifada. Israelis are not willing to play games with security, and no Israeli government will ever be party to the creation of a Palestinian state unless and until Israelis feel assured that the West Bank will not present a permanent security threat. This means that if unilateral separation is supposed to move Israel toward two states while waiting for a more opportune moment to resume negotiations – and I don’t doubt that this is Herzog’s wish and intention – then there must be continued coordination with the PA security forces, a robust plan for how to secure the Jordan Valley, and a mechanism for correcting the currently wholly inadequate Palestinian police coverage in Areas A and B. Defending Israelis’ daily security and providing them with a sense of calm in the aftermath of any unilateral separation is the only way to build enough trust in laying the groundwork on the Israeli side for a negotiated solution in the future.

When thinking about two states, a common mistake is to conflate the peace process with the two-state solution. Tom Friedman committed this cardinal error just yesterday, writing that because the peace process is dead, the two-state solution dies with it. They aren’t the same thing. The peace process is the perfect ideal, while the two-state solution is a good result. Any viable plan has to take the politics of the moment into account, and the politics of the moment clearly dictate that pushing negotiations on two unwilling parties is an unmitigated disaster. One can take the Netanyahu approach, which is to sit on one’s hands and do nothing, or one can try to advance an alternative that is highly suboptimal but that beats the status quo. I would rather see the latter option be tried rather than continuing to sacrifice the good on the altar of the perfect.

All Politics Is Local, U.S. Visit Edition

December 17, 2015 § Leave a comment

Three Israeli and Palestinian politicians visiting the United States were in the news this week for choices they made about with whom or what they wished to associate. Israeli President Ruvi Rivlin came under fire for speaking at the Ha’aretz/New Israel Fund conference despite the participation of the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence; Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was criticized for speaking at the same conference but demanding the removal of an Israeli flag from the stage as a condition for providing his remarks; and leader of the Joint List MK Ayman Odeh took heat for not meeting with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations at an office that it shares with the Jewish Agency. Taken together, each of the three incidents is a reminder that there is always a story behind the story, and that it usually involves domestic political considerations.

Let’s start with Erekat, which is the most straightforward. By most accounts, Ha’aretz had no plans to have any flags on stage at its conference, but Rivlin asked for an Israeli flag for his speech, and it remained there until Erekat requested its removal. Those who are angry about the flag’s removal think it indicates that, despite official PLO recognition of Israel, Erekat was signaling that Israel’s very existence is illegitimate in his eyes. Those who find Erekat’s demand justified retort that he is not Israeli, let alone an Israeli official, and doesn’t want to be seen as supporting the country occupying the West Bank. Whatever you think of what Erekat did, it’s fairly easy to understand why he did it. Erekat has been positioning himself for some time to take over for Mahmoud Abbas as the president of the Palestinian Authority, and despite the fact that this seems to objectively be the longest of long shot possibilities, it is one that informs nearly everything that Erekat does. Having pictures splashed across Palestinian media of Erekat standing next to an Israeli flag would not do him any favors – particularly when other speakers did not have the flag next to them – and it probably wouldn’t have mitigated his problems all that much to have a Palestinian flag alongside the Israeli one. While it is perfectly understandable that Israelis were upset by his gesture given the larger issues of recognition and legitimacy involved, it is also difficult to imagine Mikhail Gorbachev during the Cold War going to a conference in Switzerland on U.S.-Soviet issues and consenting to speak with nothing next to him but an American flag, or for that matter Rivlin agreeing to give his speech at this conference next to a Palestinian flag.

Seguing to Rivlin, he has come under intense criticism from the Israeli right for his participation in the conference given the inclusion or attendance of organizations and figures such as Breaking the Silence and BDS champion Roger Waters. It is surprising to some that Rivlin so readily agreed to speak to the conference since in the past he has been more discerning with whom he is willing to associate, famously spurning Jimmy Carter in Israel last spring. To understand what is driving Rivlin, it is important to remember the dictum that where one stands depends on where one sits. While Rivlin has spent much of his adult life as a politician, as the president of Israel his considerations are now different as his career as an overtly political elected official is over. He does not have to cater to a voter base or worry about the Likud primary, and while he maintains a political rivalry with Prime Minister Netanyahu, his task is to present a public face of Israel, largely to foreign audiences. As the head of state rather than the head of government, Rivlin has displayed an acute awareness of the challenges besetting Israel’s image overseas and the frustrations of many Diaspora Jews. Going to the Ha’aretz conference would have been a political kiss of death for Rivlin when he was in the Knesset, but in some ways his most important political constituency now is not Israel’s voters but Israel’s supporters and critics outside of the country’s borders. Making Israel’s case to what was not going to be a fawning audience and presenting a different and more optimistic face to the world than what people get from Netanyahu was probably a relatively easy decision for Rivlin to make as president of Israel, but the outcome would have been different were he a Likud minister.

That brings us to Odeh, who requested to have his meeting with the Conference of Presidents moved to the offices of the Union for Reform Judaism in the same building in a bid to avoid having to interact with the Jewish Agency but was rebuffed. This came off as an extreme move to many American Jews given Odeh’s reputation for moderation and the largely good press he has received while on his U.S. visit, and the Conference of Presidents reacted with a strident statement of disappointment. For a politician touted as a new breed of Israeli Arab leader, this appeared to be a misstep borne out of inexperience, and that might be an accurate description of what took place but it also ignores Odeh’s primary consideration, which is his own political survival. The Jewish Agency is a primary bête noire of Israel’s Arab citizens given its role in land policies that prioritize Jews at Arabs’ expense, so Odeh’s redline makes perfect sense for a politician touring the U.S. whose goal for the trip is to give a voice and draw attention to those citizens. Put simply, Odeh would not be representing his constituents accurately were he to validate an institution in the U.S. that he shuns in Israel.

In addition, much of Odeh’s political power comes from the fact that he was the first MK able to unite Israel’s Arab parties into one united electoral list, magnifying their influence at the polls. This was not, however, an easy task, and it remains to be seen whether Hadash, Balad, Ra’am, and Ta’al will stay united for more than one election given the enormous variance between the parties in ideology, outlook, tactics, and their fractious history. While it might seem that Odeh’s political primacy would be safe in light of his newfound fame and name recognition, he has to contend with challengers within Hadash and the internal politics of the Joint List writ large, and damaging his credibility at home to curry favor with American Jewish leaders is ultimately a losing political move for him.

None of this is to judge the messages that any of these three politicians conveyed through their actions or say whether they were inappropriate or not, but just to keep in mind that politics is a complex game. The politics of foreign visits often compete with the politics of home, and each man’s future ambitions and current position are going to be much greater predictors of how they behave than the expectations and condemnations of their critics. That all politics is local generally explains what goes on in the world, but in Israel this often applies to an even greater degree.

Solutionism on Settlements

November 24, 2015 § 8 Comments

Life involves tradeoffs at every turn, and so does foreign policy. The perfect often becomes the enemy of the good, and pragmatic solutions require jettisoning principles. So too in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where each side must at times set aside deeply held beliefs and principles in order to achieve a realistic balance on the ground. Yitzhak Rabin’s realization that he was going to have to shake Yasser Arafat’s hand on the White House lawn, or the PLO’s realization that it would have to recognize Israel, were not steps that were taken lightly or that came easily. However, they had salutary effects that necessitated a sacrifice of principles and for each side created the risk of moral hazard in rewarding behavior that had been deemed out of bounds.

We are now at a similar crossroads when it comes to settlements. As a result of nearly five decades of settlement policy, Israel now has over half a million Israelis living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Even if they are not the root of the conflict, there is simply no question that settlements are an enormous and seemingly insurmountable obstacle, one that is diverting Israel’s political development to a frightening place. Israeli leaders present at the creation of the settlement project, from Rabin to Moshe Dayan, recognized the folly of occupying the West Bank, let alone settling it, and what it would mean for Israel to control millions of Palestinians in a state of political limbo. Nevertheless, here we are, and the fact is that removing half a million Israelis in an eventual peace deal will be an impossible task, and one that Israel is never going to attempt. As has been clear for decades and was formally laid out in the Clinton Parameters, Israel is going to end up keeping the large settlement blocs, allowing the most settlers to remain in Israel on the least amount of land, and will eventually have to evacuate the rest.

Given that it is clear to nearly everyone what the end result will be, there are two ways to approach current settlement construction. One is to treat all settlements as the same and condemn all new building in the settlements, irrespective of where the settlement is or how large it is. This has been the policy of the U.S. government since 1967, and it treats Gilo and Alon Shvut the same as Ofra and Elon Moreh. A settlement is a settlement, and thus any further construction is problematic, no matter the particular settlement’s eventual disposition. The other approach is to differentiate between settlements, and to recognize that building in an area that everyone knows that Israel will keep in any peace deal is not the same as building in areas that effectively bisect the West Bank or cut off Palestinian contiguity or prevent access to Jerusalem. While settlements are generally problematic, not all settlements are equally so.

Proponents of the first approach argue – not without merit – that to create a distinction between settlements now, outside the parameters of negotiations, would be to reward Israeli bad behavior. After creating a network of settlements in the West Bank of dubious legality at best, for external actors to recognize them as effectively part of Israel proper by not registering any complaints over their continued growth is to incentivize Israel to keep on building anywhere it likes in the hopes that creating facts on the ground will subvert Palestinian efforts to halt the settlement project.

As I said, this approach is not without merit, and it is certainly the morally satisfying one for those who have spent decades working to counter Israeli building outside the Green Line. The problem with it is that in occupying the moral high ground, it makes a solution harder rather than easier. The reality is that if a two state solution is to happen, it will require settler buy in, for better or worse, and getting settlers to support two states means recognizing that for the majority of them, expanding their current communities does not create an impediment to a final status agreement. For many on the left, this is a wholly unsatisfying and bitter pill to swallow, but it is also a fact of life that cannot be wished away.

To take an example from the other side of the spectrum (and this in no way suggests any type of moral equivalence), Hamas currently governs Gaza and does not appear to be going away. Hamas is a terrorist group with blood on its hands, and Israel is entirely justified in refusing to deal with it or acknowledge that it has any legitimacy at all. By the same token, rational people understand that as unpalatable as it may be, accepting that Hamas is in Gaza and that it cannot be simply wished away means crafting policies that take this into account, and even communicating with Hamas through back channels, as the current Israeli government has done. Rational thinking on settlements must prevail as well.

One of the striking elements from Israel Policy Forum’s trip to Israel last week was that the people working hardest to implement a two state solution and alleviate conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank are adamant that an all or nothing approach to settlements by calling for a complete settlement freeze would be the death knell for two states. Pragmatism must win out over principle in this case, which means pushing the Israeli government to define just what it means by the blocs – since this can be a nebulous moving target at times – and then creating a policy that distinguishes between kosher and non-kosher settlement growth. The Palestinian leadership and Mahmoud Abbas advanced this approach themselves in 2007 at Annapolis in presenting a proposal that involved Israel keeping 1.9% of the West Bank with equivalent land swaps, and while Israel’s preference is to keep 6.5% of the West Bank with equivalent land swaps, there is a compromise to be had that reconciles these two positions. This is not to accept Netanyahu’s reported position of recognition of the blocs as a quid pro quo for gestures in the West Bank – gestures that he should be taking anyway – or to treat the blocs as annexed to Israel before any final status negotiations have been concluded. It is to understand that while no building in the West Bank is helpful or desirable, one kind is a lot worse than another. While a change in how the U.S. views and treats settlements will lead to frustration for many and engender resentment among Palestinians, it is also the epitome of solutionism.

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