Saturday, October 18, 2014

Diplomatic terrorism and wings over the Iron Wall

Will the Palestinians ever get free of Israeli occupation? Will there ever be peace between the State of Israel and the State of Palestine? If any of these things ever happen, Bahaa Samir Badir will not be there to see it.

Bahaa Samir Badir 
Photo: Haaretz

On the night, the day before yesterday, Israeli soldiers entered the village of Beit Laqiya near Ramallah, a routine act such as happens every night in various parts of the West Bank. The village youth resisted the entry of the soldiers into their village, using stones and Molotov cocktails - as young Palestinians do in an increasing number of cases in recent months. Bahaa was shot in the chest and his life ended at the age of 13. Thousands joined in his funeral march. One more name was inscribed in the very very long list of victims and of martyrs for the Palestinian national cause.

Ron Prosor, Israel's Ambassador to the UN, is very angry this week. He is angry at  Palestinian diplomatic terrorism. Yes, diplomatic terrorism which Prosor says is as bad as any other kind of terrorism, a diplomatic terrorism whose aim is "creating unilateral facts on the ground" (A rather odd charge, when Prosor’s own bosses are dedicated to relentless settlements construction...) It was diplomatic terrorism when two years ago the Palestinians asked for the State of Palestine to get the status of an Observer State in the United Nations and 138 countries voted in favor. It is diplomatic terrorism when now they appeal to the Security Council to establish a timetable for ending the Israeli occupation. And Sweden is aiding and abetting diplomatic terrorism with its “irresponsible statement at a very unfortunate timing“ declaring an intention to recognize the State of Palestine. Diplomatic terrorism, in short, is any diplomatic act taken by Palestinians other than sitting at the negotiating table with representatives of the Government of Israel.

Prosor made an impassioned plea to the international community to "prevent the Palestinian cart from rolling off the cliff".  "True peace will not be achieved through unilateral measures, only via direct negotiations, the distance between Ramallah and Jerusalem being much shorter than to New York or Stockholm."

What would happen if the Palestinians were convinced by the rebuke of the passionate Ambassador, and would consent to engage in yet another round of direct negotiations with Netnayhau’s representatives?

It so happened that Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon granted this week an extensive and candid interview to "Israel Today.”. As he made clear in no uncertain terms, in Ya'alon's vision of the world there will never be an end to the conflict. The conflict with the Palestinians will continue "until the last of our enemies understands that we are here to stay." But that will probably never happen because "They are not truly concerned with establishing a Palestinian state, but with destroying the Jewish state”. Therefore “we must learn how to manage this conflict without illusions" and to barricade [ourselves] behind “An Iron Wall". Ya’alon showed political acumen in quoting both the term "Iron Wall" - derived from the teachings of Ze'ev Jabotinsky,  spiritual father of the Likud Party -  and also a virtually identical statement by Dr. Moshe Beilinson, prominent among Jabotinsky’s Socialist Zionist ideological rivals.

A Palestinian who comes to the negotiations table has definitely nothing to expect from the government in which Ya'alon is the Defense Minister. Abu Mazen? "He is a partner for discussions, a partner for Conflict Management. I am not looking for the solution." A Palestinian state? "We need to free ourselves of the notion that everything boils down to only one option called a [Palestinian] state. As far as I am concerned, let them call it the Palestinian Empire. I don't care. In practice, it is an autonomy".

Probably, British Parliament Members did not read Ya'alon's special interview, though it was published also in English - but they did see the footage of destruction and devastation which the State of Israel poured upon Gaza, and heard quite a lot about the wave of land expropriations and settlement construction which began immediately after the bombing ended.

There was a prolonged debate at Westminster over the motion to support  recognition of the State of Palestine. Possibly the single most important contribution was of Richard Ottaway, the Conservative Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, who said that before he became a Tory he had already been a supporter of the State of Israel and its right to exist after the Holocaust.

As he told the gathered MPs: “Looking back over the past 20 years, I realise now Israel has slowly been drifting away from world public opinion. The annexation of the 950 acres of the West Bank, just a few months ago, has outraged me more than anything else in my political life. It has made me look a fool, and that is something I deeply resent. I have to say to the government of Israel: if it is losing people like me, it is going to be losing a lot of people.”

And so, after five hours of debate, the British Parliament voted by an overwhelming majority of 274 against 12 to for  recognizing the State of Palestine. Several of the speakers had referred to the public call of 373 Israeli citizens, including well-known public figures:

"We, Israelis who worry and care for the well-being of the State of Israel, believe that the long-term existence and security of Israel depends on the long-term existence and security of a Palestinian state. For this reason we, the undersigned, urge Members of the UK Parliament to vote in favour of the motion to be debated on Monday, 13th October, 2014, calling on the British Government to recognize the State of Palestine alongside the State of Israel "

Ninety-seven years ago, British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur James Balfour issued a famous document stating that "His Majesty's Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” – to which a specific condition was set: “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious' rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.

Not even the most staunch of Zionists would dare state that this “clearly understood” condition was actually complied with.  In practice, there did happen during the following century an all too serious “prejudice” to the rights of the non-Jewish communities living in 1917 in the Ottoman province. This week, Her Majesty's Government has made at least a small step to compensate for this damage, when Prime Minister Cameron chose to absent himself from the vote and by his absence facilitate the passage of the resolution.  

The British vote will probably have sequels. According to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius "It is only logical" that France would recognize a Palestinian state. "The only question is what steps will be most effective in achieving peace, we do not want a merely symbolic step. Until now, the concept was that recognition has to be directly linked with negotiations. But at the moment that negotiations are no longer possible, or that clearly they would not lead to any agreement, France would of course not shirk her responsibilities”. For their part, Members of Spanish Parliament are probably going to emulate their British counterparts and call upon their government to recognize the State of Palestine, too. An  especially significant step considering that Spain is about to join the UN Security Council, one of the countries on whom will fall the decision on the Palestinian request to set a date for ending the occupation.

Adding to Netanyahu’s headaches came this week an unexpected public challenge from a group of disaffected young Israelis who had moved, of all places, to Berlin. Some of them left Israel behind with a feeling of despair at the rightward trends in Israeli society, the decreasing and disappearance of the chances for peace, the increase of extreme nationalism and racism, and the lack of hope for a positive change. For others, the last straw was the soaring cost of living, the inability of young people to find an apartment at an affordable price, and the failure of the 2011 social protest movement which brought hundreds of thousands of demonstrators out into the  streets but failed to achieve any concrete change in government economic policies. Undeterred by the dark shadows of Berlin’s past, the young Israelis find Berlin of 2014 to be a young and vibrant city, in which democracy is solidly established - and where both consumer goods and housing are incomparably cheaper than in Israel.

Members of this taboo-breaking self-exiled community came up with the subversive slogan "Making Aliya to Berlin". Four words which flagrantly overturn the traditional order of Zionist moral values, whereby a Jew who comes to Israel from any other place is performing a praiseworthy “Aliya” (Ascent) while anyone leaving Israel is guilty of contemptible “Yerida” (Descent).

“Israel of 2014 is a nation state for rich Jews, high-tech workers and generals' children” wrote one of the protest organizers. “A state in which young people have no chance of buying a house and can’t afford to raise a child, where a working person is poor and humiliated and a student lives like a dog.

Elections can change nothing, nothing but the identity of those in power. The policies will remain the same. The politicians know for whom they are working, and it is not for you. “Vote with your wings.” Flock to Ben-Gurion Airport in masses. Let the government chase after us to Berlin and try to convince us to come back. Believe me, if we get 100,000 or 200,000 Israelis in Berlin, we will start seeing some changes in Israel. See you in Berlin!”

Friday, October 10, 2014

From Stockholm to Khirbet Um al-Jimal and back

It was last week that the White House charged that the burst of settlement construction in East Jerusalem was “poisoning the atmosphere”, with Netanyahu riposting by accusing the President of the United States of "Un-American Behavior".  By this week the storm center had shifted to Europe with the newly elected Prime Minister of Sweden devoting to our region a prominent place in his first parliamentary address. "The conflict between Israel and Palestine can only be solved with a two-state solution, negotiated in accordance with international law. A two-state solution requires mutual recognition and a will to peaceful co-existence" said Prime Minister Lofven.

Official Israel cried out furiously, and the Swedish Ambassador was invited to a disciplinary meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. (This time no low chair for the chastened Ambassador, as had been offered to his Turkish colleague at another occasion...). And Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman managed to publish an article in an important Swedish newspaper, asserting that the country’s new Prime Minister had not intended to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians but appease public opinion in Sweden. (This implies that Lieberman acknowledges Swedish public opinion tends to side with the Palestinians and demands a government action on their behalf - and perhaps not only in Sweden ...). Activists of extreme right groups called for a boycott of IKEA and other Swedish products. For his part, Yitzhak Herzog of the Israeli Labor Party “opposition" was mobilized for an effort to lobby Lofven, his long-time fellow member of the Socialist International, and dissuade him from  recognizing the State of Palestine.

Still, the disease is spreading, and next week the British Parliament is about to vote on the issue of recognizing the State of Palestine. "We feel that now's the time to shout out loud that this should be done," said lawmaker Grahame Morris from the (British) Labor Party. The results of the vote would not bind the British government to change its current policy, but certainly they may influence the climate of public opinion in Britain.

Meanwhile, in East Jerusalem the conflagration which started during the hot weeks before the war in Gaza still goes on. Demonstrations and riots and clashes with police continue and this week the flames touched on the compound of the mosques of Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, one of the world’s most sensitive and volatile spots. And at the same time the government of Israel was forced by international pressure to allow the ministers of the Palestinian Reconciliation Government – to whose creation  Netanyahu had been strongly opposed – get to the Gaza Strip and take the careful first step towards mending the deep rift among the Palestinian people.

Under the media radar wich remains focused on diplomatic storms and conspicuous riots, Israeli soldiers arrived this week at the village of Khirbet Um al-Jimal, east of Tubas in the Jordan Valley. A tiny village which does not appear on any map, since from the official Israeli point of view it should not exist and its continued existence is an error which needs to be rectified. The soldiers told the villagers that all village homes were to be destroyed and presented them with demolition orders duly signed by the   military governor. The soldiers then took photos of the doomed buildings (to be precise, huts and sheds) from all directions, in order to facilitate the demolition crews’ work. The residents were not told the intended date of destruction, the Israeli Defense Forces prefer to keep the advantage of surprise. On some day next week or next month, the soldiers will come back, accompanied by bulldozers and the demolitions will be implemented with alert soldiers holding their weapons ready in case anyone dares to resist.

Why should the State of Israel act so harshly against such a small village which does not pose any visible threat to its security? Well, Khirbet Um al-Jimal is located in the Jordan Valley, and the current Israeli government - like its predecessors - wishes to perpetuate Israeli control of the Jordan Valley in any future agreement (and also if no agreement is ever signed). This tiny  Palestinian village, as well as a few other villages in the same area, is interfering by its existence with the fulfillment of these plans, and therefore the soldiers and bulldozers and demolition orders are sent. But though they are but a handful of desperately poor Palestinian villagers, the inhabitants of Khirbet Um al-Jimal are not completely helpless. Already several times this small village was razed and destroyed, and each time the residents rebuilt their meager huts and sheds as soon as the soldiers and bulldozers departed. It's not so much because they are determined to confront and defy strategic plans of the government of Israel and its armed forces. It is mainly because this  god forsaken small village is their home and they have nowhere else to go.

On the same day and almost at the same hour when the soldiers reached Khirbet Um al-Jimal, the Swedish Ambassador Carl Magnus Nesser arrived at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. There, the Deputy Director European Affairs Aviv Shir-On handed to him the official reprimand from the government of Israel: "The statement by your Prime Minister about willingness to recognize a Palestinian State is harmful, and we strongly object to it. It may create an expectation among Palestinians to achieve their goals by unilateral acts rather than through negotiations. "

Khirbet Um al-Jimal (photo: IMEMC)

The Swedish Parliament, Stockholm 
(photo: Wikipedia)

Friday, October 3, 2014

Poisoned atmosphere

A Paper Tiger?

Making a quick search on the Hebrew Google for "Netanyahu" + "Holocaust" I found 204,000 results. A search for the same in English turned up no less than 3,940,000  possibilities. Holocaust references keep coming up in the speeches of the Prime Minister of Israel, in many different contexts.

A thought experiment: suppose the State of Israel had had the great misfortune to go through fifty days of war in the course of which 2100 Israelis were killed, including more than five hundred children, and in which whole neighborhoods in Tel Aviv were razed to the ground and hundreds of thousands left homeless. Assuming all of that, would PM Netanyahu have referred to such a horror in his speech at the UN, a month later? An affirmative answer is virtually certain. Would he have used the very strongest terms in talking of it? That, too, seems quite a safe bet. But would the word "Holocaust" have cropped up in Netanyahu's speech, in such a case? On the basis of known facts, there is a high probability for that as well.

In actual reality, with no need hypothetical assumptions, it was Mahmoud Abbas who mounted the podium at the UN General Assembly on behalf of the Palestinian People and made ​​a speech full of anger and bitterness about what his people in Gaza had gone through last summer. So, he spoke not only of murder and war crimes, but of genocide which is, however horrible the death toll was, too big a word.

It was Binyamin Netanyahu who immediately set out for New York to make a furious rebuttal to Abu Mazen’s “speech of lies and incitement". He had come  to the General Assembly to tell the world the truth and nothing but the truth: The Israel Defense Forces are the most moral army in the world bar none; it is the  Palestinians and only them who are guilty of war crimes in Gaza; Hamas is ISIS and ISIS is Hamas and Iran is both Hamas and ISIS, they are all the same, they are all malevolent Muslim extremists and enemies of humanity against whom all-out war should be fought. And since Mahmoud Abbas had established a Government of Reconciliation jointly with Hamas, he is actually also Hamas, which essentially means he is ISIS too, and anyway he is a Holocaust denier and certainly is not a partner. How nice and pleasant not to have a Palestinian partner any more, no one to whom occupied territories have to be given up.

Unlike previous years, in this year’s UN speech, Netanyahu did not bother to include – even as  a lip service - the words "A Palestinian State." But he did utter these words at the meeting with President Obama in Washington two days later, and there he also reiterated his sincere wish and aspiration to achieve peace with the Palestinians. It can be assumed that neither Netanyahu nor Obama took these words very seriously.

Obama was probably considering the meeting with Netanyahu as a piece of nuisance, unavoidable especially in view of the proximity of the critical mid-term Congressional elections – to be gotten through so that he could get back to the very urgent business of the war in Iraq and Syria into which he had very reluctantly entered. But just during that meeting there arrived across the ocean an urgent message from the Peace Now movement in Israel, which is regularly monitoring the fine print of the bureaucratic processes involved in approving construction. Precisely on the eve of the Prime Minister’s visit to the White House, the Jerusalem Municipality promoted the creation of a large new settlement neighborhood at a key position in Palestinian East Jerusalem.

Furthermore, just ahead of the meeting in the White House, dozens of Israeli settlers accompanied by a heavy police escort, invaded dozens of Palestinian homes in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, south of the Jerusalem Old City wall. One of the residents who tried to prevent their entry got beaten up by police who told him "Go to Gaza".

The settlers claimed that they had legally bought the houses from their owners - an assertion which is very difficult to validate, as the alleged sellers have disappeared.

Anyway, Housing Minister Uri Ariel did not really care about the problems of legality. Just at the time when the Prime Minister sat down in the White House, expressing to the President his desire for peace with the Palestinians, his Housing  Minister conducted a visit of his own to the settlers in Silwan, “in order to strengthen and encourage them". With his own hands the Minister affixed a mezuzah to the doorpost of a house which had been a Palestinian residence twenty-four hours earlier, so as to express that it would be a strictly Jewish home henceforward. "Now dozens of new families can come and significantly increase the Israeli grip and sovereignty over the City of David and its environs. Settlement in Jerusalem will continue full force, throughout the city. Abbas had never been a partner and is not a partner now, instead of engaging in the pursuit of peace fantasies we should sustain the settlement effort all over the country. We are ready to immediately offer for sale  thousands of housing units in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria, and I expect it would become possible on the PM’s return from his visit to the United States."

Two hours later, the White House spokesperson published a statement of strong condemnation summing up the Israeli Prime Minister's visit:
“Israel’s plan to continue construction in a sensitive area of East Jerusalem is poisoning the atmosphere - not only with the Palestinians, but also with the very Arab governments with which Prime Minister Netanyahu said he wanted to build relations. This leads to serious doubts as to Israel's commitment to peace. I can say that the United States is deeply concerned. Israel might face international condemnation, even from its closest allies, if it proceeds with this massive new housing project in East Jerusalem.”

Veteran commentator Sima Kadmon made some skeptical comments at her column in the weekend Yedioth Ahronoth. "In the beginning of his term, Netanyahu was very apprehensive about a confrontation with Obama and the potential implications of such a conflict on Israel-US relations. But after several such confrontations, including one in which the Israeli PM lectured the US President in the White House itself, Netanyahu revealed that the sky did not fall. On the contrary, in some such contests Netanyahu emerged the winner".

This week, the Palestinians implemented the plan they had been talking of already for some time, formally presenting to the UN Security Council the text of a draft resolution which would require Israel to end the occupation within two years, thus preventing Israeli military rule from reaching its fiftieth anniversary in 2017. When this text comes to a vote in a few weeks, will the American Ambassador's hand be raised once again to cast an automatic veto on behalf of Netanyahu?

The term "paper tiger" is an ancient Chinese expression. In the West it had become known especially due to a statement of Mao Zedong in 1956: "In appearance America is very powerful, but in reality it is nothing to be afraid of. America is a paper tiger. Outwardly a tiger, it is made of paper, unable to withstand wind and rain."

And in 2014?