Saturday, April 4, 2015

A complicated chess game and a Liberty Holiday in military prison

In the beginning of this week, the far-right paper Makor Rishon published an exclusive report entitled "Germany gave the order not to visit Ma'aleh Adumim – because it is Palestinian territory". As was related, the international Jewish organization B'nai B'rith organized an Israeli visit by the German female soccer team FFC Turbine Potsdam, to culminate in a friendly match with a team of Israeli girls. The trip was funded from German Foreign Ministry's special budget for celebrating the fifty years’ anniversary of diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany. For the German girls’ pre-match training, the Israeli organizers found a suitable location in… Ma'aleh Adumim.
"Then followed an amazing and shocking development" recounted Ralph Hoffman, president of B'nai B'rith in Germany and Europe, "The German embassy in Israel sent email messages to the team managers and told them unequivocally to cancel the visit to Maale Adumim, stating that Ma'aleh Adumim is a settlement in Palestinian territory, and that a visit there will be a violation of International Law. Our representative in Israel immediately called the Embassy. He hoped to hear there's been some mistake or misunderstanding. But no, the diplomat told him explicitly that this was indeed the official policy!"
"I'm still upset" added the president of B'nai B'rith. "Can you imagine it? Seventy years since the liberation of Auschwitz, and they behave like this. Is this friendship? Is this a way to treat Israel? If they behave like this in sport, how will they behave on other issues? What will they do to business people?"
 


Indeed, the German government, which spends hundreds of millions of Euros from the German taxpayers’ money to provide the Israel Navy with submarines capable of carrying nuclear missiles, dares to also require German soccer players who traveled to Israel at government expense to abide by International Law. What a nerve!
On the same day that this news broke out, there was a radio interview with Bonni Ginzburg, past goalkeeper of Israel national soccer team and presently a well-known sports commentator: "This evening our team faces a hard test with Belgium. The Belgians are among the best in the world. We would have to struggle hard for every chance at the ball. But I would be willing to have Israel suffer a harsh and humiliating defeat on the pitch, if only I knew that the Lausanne negotiations would fail and that this bad agreement with Iran will not be signed. In fact, the next morning’s news broadcast told of soccer team losing at 1: 0 to the Belgians, and of a seeming deadlock at the Lausanne negotiations.
Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s old-new Prime Minister, once again demonstrated his talent of creating catchy sound bites and arousing waves of panic. On election day two weeks ago he had warned against "Arabs being bused in droves to the polls in order to bring the Left to power". This week, it was the turn of "The Iran-Lausanne-Yemen Axis" which Netanyahu proceeded to describe in the strongest terms: "The agreement being worked out in Lausanne would be intolerable, an existential threat to Israel and to the entire region and to the whole world. The Iranians are trying to take over the entire Middle East in a pincer movement. It is impossible to understand how representatives of the powers close their eyes to this aggression, when Iranian forces continue to occupy more and more territory in Yemen. The agreement which is emerging in Lausanne sends a message that there is no price to be paid for aggression – on the contrary, Iran's aggression is being rewarded". (Zvi Barel expressed in Haaretz some surprise at seeing Netanyahu being "strongly opposed to the occupation of territory and protesting the International Community’s inaction in face of that occupation. In Yemen, of course.)
Exactly a year ago, Secretary of State John Kerry experienced a bitter diplomatic failure, which Netanyahu probably remembers proudly. This time, Kerry and President Obama were determined to see it would not happen again. Even after the passing of the original deadline, 31 March, there continued over day and night the intense and crisis-ridden negotiations between the foreign ministers of the six world powers and of Iran. On Thursday night was announced the agreement, designed to halt Iran's nuclear program for ten to fifteen years. Minutes after the dramatic press conference in Lausanne, President Obama delivered a passionate speech in Washington, speaking of a historic deal which will make the world a safer place: "This is the right way, the best and safest way to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons. And it is certainly preferable to a bloody war."
Obviously, Netanyahu was not pleased – the transatlantic call by which President updated Prime Minister on the agreement achieved was yet another in the ever-lengthening series of head-on confrontations between them. The Prime Minister was quick to convene his Inner Cabinet and pass a unanimous resolution characterizing the agreement as no less than "an existential threat to Israel." Evidently, in the coming months he intends to wage another running struggle on Capitol Hill, with the help of his Republican friends. House Speaker John Boehner, the impresario of Netanyahu's famous speech last month, visited the PM this week and promised his help. But as noted by Nahum Barnea in Yedioth Ahronoth, "The Republicans are happy for any occasion and excuse to bash Obama, but they would not want to be perceived in American public opinion as those who led the United States into a new war in the Middle East."

"Israelis tend to judge the agreement by their own standards, so they find it hard to believe that Iran would really give up its nuclear program" continues Barnea. "Israel, in a similar situation, would not give it up. Israel would play tricks. Why should Iran behave differently from us?". Actually, it's not a hypothetical question. Israel was indeed in a similar situation in the early sixties, facing President Kennedy. And indeed, at that time Israel did not give up its nuclear program, but rather played tricks. Eitan Haber, who was Chef de Bureau to Prime Minister Rabin and became a rather sober and cynical columnist, wrote even more openly: "Every beginner politician knows that where nuclear facilities are concerned, it is perfectly acceptable to cheat and deceive the whole world. A country which invests billions of its best resources in constructing nuclear plants would also be ready to invest hundreds of millions in fraud and deception. Iran will not give up. The concessions which Iran made during the talks in Lausanne were similar to the concessions of another country, a country which we all know very well – a country which outwardly exhibited exemplary behavior and got high marks, but still built first-class nuclear facilities and already for years and generations subsists on nuclear ambiguity." Netanyahu’s aforementioned triad "Iran-Lausanne-Yemen" does not include Dimona, nor does it rhyme.
According to several commentaries in the American press, especially in the Wall Street Journal, the nuclear deal with Iran is part of a much broader political initiative taken by President Obama - the final goal being to "do with Iran what President Nixon did in China" and make the rogue country into a key player in the system of US alliances in the Middle East. Compared with the murderous fanatic entity known as ISIS, which erupted with great force in the past year and whose trademark are ever-new execution clips released into the web, the broadly smiling Iranian diplomats at Lausanne seem the very epitome of moderation. Indeed, precisely during the talks in Lausanne came reports from northern Iraq on the significant success of the forces fighting to expel ISIS from the key city of Tikrit, birthplace of Saddam Hussein. Planes of the US Air Force launched heavy bombardments from the air, greatly aiding the pro-Iranian Shiite militias on the ground in penetrating to the center of Tikrit.
This direction in American policy is very worrying to Netanyahu - and also to Saudi Arabia, the United States’ long-standing ally. It is not by chance that, exactly during the talks in Lausanne, the Saudis formed an alliance of Arab and Muslim countries to go to war in Yemen and send planes to bomb the pro-Iranian Shiite militias. In these bombings American planes are not directly involved, although the US did announce its support for "the military operation designed to strengthen the legitimate Government of Yemen" and reportedly provided intelligence reports and satellite imagery to assist the Saudi bombers in locating their targets. Also this week the United States resolved to resume military aid to Egypt, resigning themselves to the fact that General Sisi, the Saudis’ ally, had an impressive success in crushing the buds of democracy which sprouted in Egypt four years ago.

(In the circuses of old it was common to feature the daring stunt of riding two galloping horses at once. How will Obama fare with such a stunt?)
And what about the Palestinians? Following the signing of the agreement in Lausanne, Secretary of State Kerry stated that there are greater threats than Iran to the security of Israel – namely, ISIS and the failure of peace efforts with the Palestinians. With regard to Iran, France was the power most skeptical about Iranian intentions, constantly pressing for tougher terms, and Netanyahu had pinned quite a bit of his hopes on the French. But conversely, on the Palestinian issue France intends, already in the near future, to submit to the Security Council a new, far-reaching draft resolution which would state unequivocally the principle of the 1967 borders as the basis for the future border between Israel and a Palestinian state. And, to Netanyahu’s alarm, it is far from certain that the US would veto such a decision – indeed, it is even possible that the Americans would join it.
It was just a week that Obama launched his broadside, stating that he quite believed Netanyahu’s elections pledge to the extreme right voters – "there will be no Palestinian state during my term". Conversely, the President found it difficult to take seriously the pale retraction published by Netanyahu after the elections, declaring that he was not opposed to the principle of a Palestinian state, provided that it will remain a purely verbal statement and never, God forbid, become a reality. Netanyahu had also taken two concrete conciliatory steps: The Palestinians were given the hundreds of millions of tax money which Israel is collecting on their behalf in accordance with the Oslo Accords, which were held up at the Israeli Treasury for several months – this, provided that Palestinian do not submit a complaint against Israel at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. And in East Jerusalem, preliminary approval was given to the construction of thousands of housing units for Palestinians - the first decision of its kind since Israel occupied and annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, and which had been delayed for many years, right-wing officials holding key positions in the governmental and municipal bureaucracy. Though, to be sure, realization on the ground of that decision might take years - while for the sake of balance, bulldozers in the here and now embarked on construction of yet another neighborhood for Jews only...
Still, on April 1 the State of Palestine officially became the 123th adherent to the International Criminal Court, fully authorized to sue and initiate legal proceedings for any violation of International Law committed in the territory recognized by the UN as part of Palestine. That would apply both to civilians killed in the bombing of Gaza and to the expansion of settlements in the parts of the West Bank designated by the State of Israel as "State Lands". "We are preparing files on all these issues. We will start proceedings when the appropriate time comes" stated the veteran Saeb Erekat for the Palestinians. "I hope that the very fact of our ability to file such judicial proceedings will act as a deterrent and inhibiting factor affecting Israeli behavior on the ground, from now on."
Will the ICC membership indeed make a difference on the ground? For example regarding the issue of forced displacement about which Human Rights activist Niv Michaeli warns?


"Dear Friends, I recently joined B’Tselem as data coordinator responsible for handling communities at risk of forced displacement. There are dozens of such communities scattered throughout Area C in the West Bank: especially in the Jordan Valley, the South Hebron Hills and east of Jerusalem. Home to thousands of people, most of these small farming and shepherding communities have existed for decades. In recent years, they have been subjected to ever more persistent attempts by the Civil Administration and the Israeli military to expel them from their land under various pretexts. With a view to gaining greater understanding of these communities, I joined B’Tselem’s field researchers on a visit to the area. I saw the long, arduous journey villagers must undertake to get water; the mind-boggling gap between the rough conditions in which they live and the conditions in nearby settlements, sometimes mere meters away. Words and photographs are inadequate to depict this reality.
 
It is also hard to convey the feeling of uncertainty that permeates daily life in these communities, of knowing that at any given moment your home, source of livelihood or property could be demolished or confiscated and that you are powerless to prevent it. Two such incidents occurred this month alone: on 4 March, military and Civil Administration personnel came to Khirbet ‘Ein Karzaliyah in the northern Jordan Valley and – for the fifth time since January 2014 – demolished the homes of the community’s five families. Two weeks later, on 18 March, Civil Administration personnel demolished the homes and livestock pens of four families in Khallet Makhul, a nine-family community that has lived at that site for decades. The Civil Administration had previously demolished all of the community’s structures in 2013. The residents of these communities are entitled to live undisturbed in their homes, as are all people. The Israeli authorities’ repeated attempts to displace them must cease. "
 
In the meantime, the calendar has once again brought us to Passover, also nicknamed the Festival of Liberty – a holiday which Jewish tradition had set to commemorate the miraculous deliverance of the Hebrew slaves from captivity in Egypt, thousands of years ago. Whatever its historical basis, the Exodus is certainly one of the great emancipatory texts of human culture, and has throughout history served as a source of hope and inspiration to people who dreamed of liberation from bondage. In particular, it was a source of hope and inspiration for Black Americans.
Over here, Passover will also this year be celebrated by the soldiers engaged in the daily routing of occupation and oppression. And Passover will be celebrated with special devotion by a thousand settlers living in an armed enclave at the heart of the city of Hebron. In the general elections two weeks ago, these thousand settlers had the vote – which was not given to two hundred thousand Palestinians living in the city all around them.
Passover this year will be marked behind bars, by four young Israelis who resolved to refuse being part of the system of occupation, oppression and colonization - Edo Ramon, Yehiel Nahmany, Effie Darshner and Yaron Kaplan. Each of the four has a different background and different specific reasons for the decision to embark on refusal: Ramon refuses to enlist out of a straightforward objection to the military's policy in the occupied territories; Darshner is an Anarchist; Nahmany is a Gandhian pacifist; Kaplan refused to go on being a soldier.


Edo Ramon: "I don’t believe that force and war can lead to anything other than death and suffering. All the more so when this is an army which claims to be made for defense but is the tool of bloodthirsty politicians, a body calling itself 'The most moral army in the world’ which holds millions of men and women under occupation, in violation of their most basic rights. I will not wear this army’s uniform and will not obey its orders. Such an obedience would mean submitting to injustice, indeed becoming its accomplice. That’s what I told the recruitment officer in Tel Hashomer."
Yechiel Nachmani wrote: "After thousands of years of violence and abuse, a new way must be found. We must get ourselves, get the world, out of this cycle where all are casualties. I see online videos on the behavior of soldiers in Hebron, and my small and simple mind can’t comprehend how anyone can think that such conduct can provide a solution. What are the chances of these children in the video to make peace, to love, after what they suffered that night at the hands of the soldiers? In the words of Mahatma Gandhi: 'By opposing hatred with hatred we do nothing but spread hatred’. I'm not willing to join a system in which the supreme value is the use of force. My challenge in prison is to find a way to overcome hatred for the military and for the prison guards, to find a way of loving them, too. They are human beings and always remains in them something which is deeper than any of their behavior, something which gives me the hope that they can change."


Effie Darshner, an Anarchist active in the Achdut ("Unity") group, was unable to send from prison a detailed message giving in detail his reasons for refusal to serve in the army – since he went on to also refuse to wear a military uniform while being in the military prison, which led to his being placed in isolation.
 


Yaron Kaplan has already served eighteen months in the army, and his experiences during that time seem to be what led him to decide that he was not willing to continue this service.
 
Next Monday (April 6) at 12:00 pm, there will be held at the gates of the Tel Hashomer Recruitment Center a vigil in solidarity with the imprisoned objectors. Protest organizers cite the traditional saying: "In every generation one must see himself as if he himself came out of bandage in Egypt."
 
 
Journalists play chess outside the conference hall in Lausanne, waiting for the results (photo:Reuters) 

Demolitions in the Jordan Valley (photo B'Tselem)
 
  Effie Darshner holding an Anarchist flag, shortly before his detention (photo: Achdut anarchists)
Military Prison 6 at Atlit, where refusers – and ordinary disobedient soldiers – are housed in big tents (photo:Yesh Gvul )
 



Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Occupier's democracy

Holon, 8.30 am, Wed. March 18

A bitter morning. A morning of disappointment and dashed hopes, after a tense elections day and a long sleepless night.

No further need of discussing and debating whether or not an Israeli Labor Party government would be truly able to reach peace with the Palestinians, and if Yitzchak Herzog can become a good Prime Minister.


In the freshly printed issue of "Yediot Aharonot", Sima Kadmon writes: "Those who hoped to wake up to the dawn of a new day, will find themselves in yet another yesterday morning. The State of Israel is today getting the Super-Netanyahu, a master campaigner who in three days managed to transform his party’s negative momentum into a wild victory. But Netanyahu’s victory cannot hide the fact that Israel is split and polarized. For half of us, yesterday’s result was no less than a fist in the belly." (Of course, had we won it would have been a fist in the belly for the other half…)
Only yesterday morning (how far away that looks now) I listened to the Voice of Israel news bulletin reporting that "Supreme Court Judge Salim Jubran, Chair of the Central Elections Committee, visited the Ofer Military Base near Jerusalem in order to follow the voting of the IDF soldiers". The radio reporter had recoded Justice Jubran talking with two young women soldiers, who had been charged with preparing the camp’s Military Polling Station for their comrades-in-arms. The judge congratulated the two for their contribution to the popular decision-making process of Israeli democracy.


The reporter did not mention what is the Ofer Military Base and to what use the IDF is putting it. But it is not exactly classified information that Ofer is a Military Detention Center erected on a parcel of West Bank land near the city of Ramallah, designed for holding the Palestinians captured on the raids conducted every night into Palestinian towns and villages on the West Bank. Many of them are held in Administrative Detention without trial. Needless to say, these imprisoned Palestinians have no share in the democratic process and cast no votes in the ballot box reserved for their guards. What was truly going through the head of Salim Jubran, the first Arab to ever get appointed to Israel’s Supreme Court?

photo Gadi Elgazi

It is already for forty-eight years that the State of Israel maintains this double system. On the one hand there is a multy-party parliamentary democracy in which the citizens of Israel – about eighty percent Jews and twenty percent Arabs – elect the government which governs them and the legislature which makes their laws; and on the other hand a military dictator called the Commanding General, IDF Central Command who is the almighty governor, legislator and judge who rules over the lives of millions of Palestinians, his authority not seriously impaired in the twenty years when the Palestinians were allowed to have a "Palestinian Authority" to whom the Commanding General deigned to delegate some limited authority.

Even we, who are totally opposed to this state of things and seek to change it, have become used to it. After every general elections the Central Elections Committee publishes the precise and detailed report of the results; we have gotten used to it that every time this report contains a column entitled "Hebron" which provides information of the votes cast by several hundred Israeli settlers living in an armed enclave at the heart of Hebron (invariably, they all vote for the extreme right). This column would, on the other hand, contain no reference to more than two hundred thousand Palestinians living in the city of Hebron, who have no vote or voice in Israeli elections.
 
In these elections we had a sweet illusion which lasted a few weeks. The illusion that the citizens of Israel, in majority vote under these rules of Israeli democracy, might freely vote to elect a government which would get its armes forces out of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. In that case, at long last, by the next elections all who are governed by the Government of Israel would also take part in electing that government. It had happened before in other countries, where those having the vote decided to terminate a colonial or military rule over others. But it was not to be – not in Israel, not in these elections.
Not that we had the illusion that the issue of the occupation and of the Palestinians under occupation, as such, would be at the focus of the Israeli voters’ attention. To the contrary, throughout the campaign it was clear that this was precisely the subject which Israelis avoid to mention by name. But there were good reasons to feel that most Israeli citizens have had enough of the rule of Binyamin Netanyahu. Especially, because of the socio-economic woes which in 2011 brought hundreds of thousands into the streets, and which were not seriously addressed also after that. And if the Labor Party were to come to power, even if due to other causes, perhaps its leaders would have also taken up the difficult and painful Palestinian issue.

So, what did happen here? Were all the dozens of flattering opinion polls fundamentally mistaken, in persistently showing the Labor Party ("The Zionist Camp" as it is now called) opening a gap ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud? Or were the polls accurate, as of last week, but "Wizard Bibi" did manage to reverse the trend and get Likud supporters to come out en masse, with his intensive inflammatory campaign of the last days? There is an international conspiracy against me, tens of millions of Dollars are coming is from Europe and especially from Scandinavia in order to finance a defamation campaign against myself and my wife in order to put the Left back into power and that they would give up territory which would be used by radical Islamists to construct missile bases. The rule of the Right-wing is in danger, the Arab voters are moving in droves to the ballot boxes, the Leftist associations are bussing them in, the Arabs are coming to the ballots, the Arabs are coming to the ballots, the Arabs are coming, the Arabs are coming, Danger, Danger, Danger, Danger…

Certainly, there are going to be dozens and hundreds of detailed analyses of these elections. But the bottom line on this bitter morning is obvious and clear-cut: Netanyahu had gotten an unequivocal mandate, and he will be once again Israel’s Prime Minister. He had drawn into his own party most of the votes of his extreme right partners, creating a large and powerful Likud faction in the new Knesset. (Not that I shed any tears over various racists and nationalist demagogues in the smaller parties who got their wings clipped by Netanyahu’s clean sweep…).
In order to gain the extreme-right voters, Netanyahu needed to make an unequivocal declaration: "If I am re-elected Prime Minister, a Palestinian state will not be created". Clear cut. No more "Bar Ilan Speech, no more lip service, no more ambiguous formulations. The veteran Saeb Erekat – who, it seems, will not be negotiating with Israel on behalf of the Palestinians any time soon – reacted: "Clearly, the Palestinians have no partner for peace in Israel. Now, more than ever, the international community must rally behind Palestinian efforts to internationalize our struggle for dignity and freedom through the International Criminal Court. The first case to be brought by the Palestinians in the Hague is due in early April.


Meanwhile, there remains on the agenda the resolution of the PLO institutions to put an end to the cooperation of the Palestinian Security Services with Israel, a cooperation which is highly unpopular among Palestinians. This resolution has only the status of a recommendation – but now, President Mahmud Abbas might find it more difficult to ignore it. The Israeli Security Service has gone on record stating that ending of the Palestinians’ security cooperation might lead to instability and the outbreak of violent incidents throughout the West Bank. As will be remembered, in the beginning of this month, the army carried out large-scale exercises, simulating various scenarios of the outbreak of a new Intifada

Immediately upon formation of a new cabinet, Israeli Prime Ministers are in the habit of going to the White House. But Netanyahu is not a new PM, he is well known – and not particularly loved – in Washington. So what is going to be said in the Oval Office when Netanyahu goes there and declares outrightly his new position "No Palestinian state on my watch. Period"? What will happen in the State Department? In the European capitals? In the UN Assembly General, and in the Security Council, and on the next occasion when the issue of casting or not casting an American veto will come on the agenda? The task of the new Foreign Minister, to be appointed in Netanyahu’s cabinet, is not enviable (though several senior Likud ministers will anyway contend for the job…)

It can also be expected the words and acts of the new Israeli government might increase the tendency of civil society in various countries to call for a boycott of Israel. By coincidence, precisely on elections day Ha’aretz published an extensive article about Israeli artists who perform abroad, who increasingly encounter hostile reactions, and some of whom tend to hide or obscure their Israeli identity.

What kind of cabinet is Netanyahu going to form? With the elections results, he will have no difficulty in forming a governing coalition with what he calls "my natural partners", the whole collection of extreme-right, religious and ultra-orthodox parties (or what is left of them after Netanyahu’s blitz capture of their voters…). But facing such a government, it should be possible to form a big and strong parliamentary opposition – the Zionist Camp aka Labor Party, which did not attain power but did significantly increase its representation; the newly formed Joint Arab List, which managed to significantly increase the voting percentage among Israel’s Arab citizens; the Meretz Party, which was caught in between the last two, lost many voters but did manage to survive and get back into the Knesset; and Yesh Atid (There is a Future), headed by Ya’ir Lapid who was Netanyahu’s Finance Minister for nearly two years until being kicked out, and who insists upon being "not a Leftist but a Centrist". Could all of these work together in a concerted parliamentary opposition, harass the new Netanyahu Government from its first day and shorten its lifetime? Or would one of them be tempted to crawl into the cabinet and serve as Netanyahu’s fig leaf?

Knesset Member Stav Shafir, who got to the Labor Party from the 2011 social protest movement and who in the outgoing Knesset distinguished herself in an relentless struggle against the funding of West Banks settlements, was the first to regain her wits early this morning, immediately after the elections results have become clear. Appropriating on behalf of the left-wing parliamentary opposition the veteran slogan of the Israeli right-wing "The Eternal People is not afraid of a long and hard road" she wrote:
"Friends, this is not the time for self-pity. This is the time for hard works, maintaining militancy and hope, with the same determination and courage which were exhibited in earlier key moments of this country’s history.

It is the morning after, and it is not an easy time. These are not the results we expected. The Prime Minster had conducted a shameful campaign, systematically inciting hatred. A campaign of incitement against the media, incitement against the trade unions, incitement against the Arabs, incitement against the left. In other words, incitement against anybody who does not agree with him.

Nevertheless, our party, our camp, has become stronger. A large part of the public has expressed a complete lack of confidence in Bibi’s way. The challenge now facing us is to give expression to this wide section of the public, to offer it a leadership and a vision. And most important – to work together, out of the opposition benches, in order to build an alternative to the right-wing’s misrule, their violence and corruption.

Bibi’s new government will be a bad government. A government which would further inflame social polarization, which would isolate Israel in the world and will endanger Israel’s security. We will struggle against this government, relentlessly.

We must not let ourselves be drawn into internecine struggles. On the contrary: all forces which share the aims of Social Justice, Democracy, Peace and A Real Security must come together. We must present a clear and comprehensive vision, adhere to it and struggle for it with all our might.

Good Morning, Israel!




Friday, March 13, 2015

Redemption from the mouth of a leper


Photos: Motti Kimchi/AFP - Ynet

The final stretch. Four days to elections, and everything is still hanging in the balance, and nothing has yet been decided. Will Binyamin Netanyahu fall or remain in power? Will a new government  be established in Israel, or will it not? And if a new government does come about, will it bring about a significant change or will it prove nothing but bitter disappointment? Until the morning of March 18, we will not know, and maybe not then, either. In these last days I think a lot about something which happened on one night many years ago, and of its significance for the political upheaval which will or will not occur in the Israel of March 2015.


In the summer of 1971, the word "Intifada" had not yet entered the Hebrew language. In the papers of the time we could read of the army and security service launching “a large-scale anti-terrorism operation in the Gaza Strip", but the reports did not really go into the fine details. At the invitation of a high school classmate, I arrived one evening at a meeting in the damp basement of an old house in downtown Tel Aviv. Twenty youngsters were sitting there, and in front of us was a soldier in uniform, just returned from Gaza. He told us things that were not published in any newspaper. He told of the arbitrary beatings of by passers in the streets  of Gaza, sometimes using whips, of bulldozers razing houses and whole streets in the refugee camps, and also of extrajudicial executions.  "People are located according to blacklists, captured, shot in the head at point blank range, and the bodies are thrown into dry water holes". We, the high school students assembled in that basement, protested strongly. We did not believe it, we did not want to believe it. "That's not true! Our army does not do such things!". The soldier said, "It’s all true. I've seen it myself. I have done it myself, and now I can’t sleep at night”.

Then we produced on an old stencil machine which stood at the corner of the basement several thousand leaflets entitled "The Truth about what is happening in Gaza! Residents of Tel Aviv, read what the military censorship is hiding from you!". We went out, two by two, to spread the leaflets in the mailboxes of the sleeping city, one putting them in and the other keeping an eye for police patrol cars.
Sometimes I happen to meet  one of the others who had been there on that night, most of whom are no longer politically involved.  When I ask "Do you remember that evening with the soldier from Gaza?" the answer is invariably "Of course I remember, how can  you forget something like that?”
I will never know the name of that soldier who influenced my life. But by now I do know the name of the commanding officer who sent him on such tasks. The name of that commander, cleared for publication many years later, was Meir Dagan. Dagan was a confidant and personal friend of Ariel Sharon, then the General in charge of the IDF Southern Command, and he headed a secret unit called “Sayeret Rimon” which was in charge of dirty tricks in the Gaza Strip. At that time the operation was considered  a great success – though that success proved quite temporary, the Palestinians rising up again, with greater intensity, some years later. Meir Dagan continued to be among Sharon’s associates through various vicissitudes of military and political fortunes. After being elected Prime Minister, Sharon appointed Dagan to head the Mossad, Israel’s external intelligence agency. Most of what he did in the later part of his career is still classified information, but the clues which the media let drop made it clear that also after 1971 he managed to accumulate a lot of "blood on the hands”.
After completing his term as Mossad Director, Meir Dagan began to voice public criticism, ever more acute, of government policies. In particular, in the years when the possibility of an Israeli attack against Iran stood conspicuously on the public agenda, Dagan placed himself in the vanguard of public opposition to any such offensive. At first it was a little surprising to see him in that role - then we grew accustomed to it.
Thus, on Saturday night a week ago, it was not a total surprise to find the same Meir Dagan as the keynote speaker at the rally held in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square under the slogan "Israel Wants a Change," a rally designed to mobilize and focus the struggle for the overturn and replacement of Binyamin Netanyahu. Tens of thousands of people filled the square, overflowing into side streets, the largest most hopeful gathering of the Israeli Peace Camp for many years. Meir Dagan’s speech was greeted with prolonged clapping.
”I do not belong to any political party. I'm speaking as a soldier who wishes to do whatever is necessary and possible for the country to whose security I have devoted forty-five years of my life. I have no other ambitions. Israel is a country surrounded by enemies, but these enemies do not frighten me, I am frightened by our leaders. I am afraid of a leadership which has no determination and gives no personal example, which exhibits indecision and stagnation. For six years in a row Binyamin Netanyahu has been Prime Minister, six years in which he has not taken any real initiative to change the face of the region, or create a better future. Why do you want to be in charge of our destinies if you are so afraid to take responsibility?
”On Netanyahu's shift, Israel waged the longest war since the War of Independence. For an entire summer Israel’s civilians huddled in air raid shelters under thousands of rockets, while the soldiers suffered heavy losses. And it ended with nil results - zero deterrence, zero political achievement.
 “The health care system is collapsing. The housing crisis is peaking. The gaps in income continue to grow, the periphery had never been so far behind the center. One in three children lives in poverty. 40% of Israelis can’t make ends meet. Israelis look and  see a national leadership which cares nothing about them. So, where are you going, Mr. Prime Minister? Why should a person seek a position of leadership when he does not want to lead? How is it that this country, which is far stronger than all other countries of the region put together, is unable to make a strategic move that will improve our situation? The answer is simple: we have a leader who is involved in one struggle only  - the struggle for his own political survival.
”I do not want to get to a binational state. I do not want an Apartheid state. I do not want to rule over three million Arabs. I do not want us to remain hostages to fear, despair and stagnation. I think it is time to wake up, I hope that the people of Israel will no longer be held frozen by fear, by the ever new  threats of which we are warned  day after day.
“I have a dream - to leave my three children and seven grandchildren a different  country. I dream that they will be able to devote their life to growth, development, realization of dreams – not to fighting for their homes. I would like to leave them a better life than the life I have lived. I would like to leave them a society which will root out discrimination and violence, which will take back its heritage and take up responsibility for its fate. A society which will ensure a real opportunity for all its citizens and will strive for true equality.
”To get out of our difficult situation, all it takes is a courageous leadership which is able to take decisions. Does anyone think that the country’s current leadership is such?". The crowd responded with a resounding “No!". "I would like to appeal to all those who still say that there is no alternative to Netanyahau. I speak as one who has worked personally with three different Prime Ministers, having  different styles of leadership, as one who knows many of the contestants in this elections. There definitely is a better alternative!”.  The crowd responded with chants of "Herzog, Herzog, Herzog!”.
In his long interview on Channel One TV, Meir Dagan reiterated much the same positions, but added something personal hitherto unknown. “This is a photo of my grandfather, who was the Rabbi of a small town in Poland. The German soldiers who murdered the town’s Jews have taken this photo of him a few minutes before killing him. It was found in a Nazi archive after the war." - "And what is your conclusion from this chilling story?" "Of course, I have an obvious conclusion, 'Never Again', that nowadays we can defend ourselves. But I think also of the other side of the story. How the Nazis took a unit of regular soldiers, who to begin with were not so  different from the soldiers of any other army, and made of them cold-blooded killers. With all the differences in the situations, this is a danger that any army must be aware of." There can be no doubt that Meir Dagan knows what he is talking about.
As the crowd around me on the square cheered Meir Dagan,  I recalled the soldier from 1971 and the improvised leaflets furtively spread in the mailboxes of Tel Aviv. If next week Yitzhak Herzog of the Israeli Labor Party is elected Prime Minister of Israel, he will have a great debt to Meir Dagan and to the speech delivered in the square a week and a half before elections day.
“But I will not take the news of redemption / If it comes from the mouth of a leper. /Let a pure one bring the news, let the pure redeem/ and if the pure prove unable/ then let me die among the ravages of the siege”. So wrote the poet Rachel Bluwstein in one of the most famous pieces of modern Hebrew poetry - her imagery based on the Biblical story of the besieged city whose inhabitants were reduced to starvation and cannibalism and to whom four despised lepers brought the message of the miraculous lifting of the siege.
I feel I can’t afford to be that squeamish. If a person who had shed a lot of blood and perpetrated many atrocities can at an advanced age become the standard bearer of the Peace Camp, I will not reject him.
Of Binyamin Netanyahu, his government and his friends and colleagues, there is nothing to expect - not even the slightest pinch of hope. The Herzog Government, if it gets established , may well disappoint us – only those of whom you expect something can let you down.  Let’s take the risk.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

After the elections, the deluge

The Edies family home after the visit of the soldiers - photo ISM


He came. He saw. He made a speech – he made a speech indeed. Did he also win? That remains to be seen.

On Rotschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, there was no clapping to the speech of Netanyahu. Activists of the renewing social protest movement erected a tent camp to protest the rising costs of housing, making the finding of an apartment a nearly impossible mission for hundreds of thousands of young Israelis. They erected a huge sign reading “All my friends have left the country, that is a greater threat than Iran” and invited the public to watch on a large screen the speech from Washington and make their comments: “While he will speak in America, we will remember the real situation of our lives. When the man for the Prime Minister’s Residence will stand in front of the US Congress we will look at both speech and a presentation on the standard and conditions of living here in Israel in the past few years. We will talk of our real problems:  frightening rents, a completely unbalanced housing market, destruction of the public housing and food prices beyond control. He will talk to the Americans,  and we will talk to each other in our own language, about the true problems of our daily life and the way to solve them. Come to the Netanyahu speech  and bring Purim rattles.” It is the immemorial Jewish custom on Purim to make noise with the rattles whenever the name of the evil Haman is mentioned.     
***
 “Netanyahu has no rivals in his acting ability. It would be very easy to imagine the PM on the stage in Broadway – with his ringing tones, well-timed pauses, changing expressions, eye blinks and hand movements” wrote Sima Kadmon in Yedioth Aharonot. To which can be added that Netanyahu not only plays the main role but also writes and directs the play.
As in any good theater play, there were several preliminary scenes designed to build up tension towards the climatic peak. First, the Wailing Wall and the highly publicized prayer for the success of his mission, which Netanyahu defined with characteristic modesty as “fateful and historic”. Then the photo opportunity of Prime Minister and loving wife boarding the plane.  True, in between there were some disharmonious background noises: Former Mossad Director Meir Dagan declared that Netanyahu’s visit to America and speech in Congress are causing the state of Israel a strategic damage and a long-term undermining of relations with its main ally. Similar things were written in an open letter signed by some two hundred retired senior military officers and security officials.
Netanyahu was not really perturbed: “In this historic mission I represent all citizens of Israel, also the ones who oppose me” he declared at the airport, and after a few seconds’ pause “And I represent the whole Jewish people”. Indeed, an elected Prime Minister can claim to represent all citizens of his country – though two weeks before new elections he might have been expected to wait and see if his mandate would be renewed. As to Jews who are not Israeli citizens, quite a few of them shared the position of the Jewish US Senator Dianne Feinstein, who defined Netanyahu’s claim to represent her as “arrogant and unworthy behavior”. Arrogant or not, whether or not world Jews want to be represented by Netanyahu, he had made up his mind to represent them and speak for them.
 While the Prime Minister’s plane was making its way over the Atlantic, the diplomatic commentator on the Voice of Israel news magazine remarked: “The United States has been in existence for 230 years. In all these years, this is the very first time that a foreign Head of State came to Capitol Hill in order to express open opposition to the policies of the President of the United States and make a sustained effort to foil those policies”. A historic opportunity indeed.  Knesset Member Ze’ev Elkin, PM Netnayhau’s close confidant, made a sharp attack on the Israeli opposition leaders: “The Prime Minister is going on a vital national mission, and instead of supporting him the opposition is  shooting him in the back”. Also Naftali Bennet of the Jewish Home Party, Netanyahu’s partner and rival, elaborated on the “shooting in the back” theme.
And then Netnayhau landed in Washington, and hurried to the warm-up performance at the AIPAC conference, telling sixteen thousand cheering supporters that they were all members of the Family, the “Mishpuche”. And from there to the climax which had been talked about for such a long time in advance, the rising of the curtain at the premiere at Capitol Hill. Until the last moment speculations continued on how many Democrat Senators and Representatives  would boycott the speech, and how many would enter the hall and perhaps even join some of the clapping. In the event there were about sixty boycotters, out of 232 Democrats in Congress. Is that a lot or a little? To be sure, it was more than the zero boycotters at any previous Congress speech by an Israeli Prime Minister.
Of course columnist Amnon Lord, the most loyal of Netnayhau’s retainers in the Israeli press, was sitting there in the Congress Gallery. Immediately afterwards he hastened to write an awe-struck report: “Also the Democrat leaders in Congress cheered Netanyahu! The first thing which I tried to see at the beginning of the session was what was going on at the Democrat side of the hall. When Nancy Pelosi  showed up in her brown dress and even Dianne Feinstein in purple, it was clear that those who hoped to see empty places would be disappointed. The hall was packed. Dozens of cheers raised the roof, there were some twenty standing ovations.” 
Indeed, Nancy Pelosi  - majority leader until the mid-term elections and still the leader of a considerable minority – was not among the boycotters. She entered the hall and remained seated throughout the Netanyahu’s speech. But a few hours after Amnon Lord sent his enthusiastic report from Washington, she a bit spoiled the picture for him. As other news channels reported, “Nancy Pelosi  left the hall demonstratively before Netanyahu’s departure, turning her back on him. ‘As a friend of Israel, I was near tears during this speech. I was saddened by his condescension. It was an insult to the intelligence of the American people."
 So what will happen now in Congress? The Republicans have a majority. They will pass a law to tie Obama’s hands in achieving a deal with Iran. Obama will promptly veto it. To overcome the Presidential veto, a two-thirds majority in Congress will be needed. The Republicans don’t have two thirds, to achieve that would require a mass defection of Democrats siding with the Republicans (and with Netanyahu). Would a speech constituting an insult to the intelligence be enough to get the Democrats into a head-on confrontation with an incumbent President of their own party?
So what is left of Netanyahu’s great speech? The net result is a king-size elections propaganda stunt, with the US Congress as a fabulous backdrop, broadcast into every Israeli household two weeks before elections day. The result: mediocre. It seems that the seepage of Likud voters, who had started wandering to other electoral attractions, was halted. By the latest polls, Likud is once again more or less neck to neck with Herzog ’s Labor Party (“The Zionist Camp” as it is now known, in alliance with Tzipi Livni). “If that is the extent of what Netanyahu achieved by a massive salvo of his heaviest artillery, he has some reasons to worry – and there are still a week and half of campaigning left to get through” wrote Yossi Werther, the veteran Ha’aretz commentator.   
And one more thing was left in the wake of the speech – yet another massive and highly emotional calling up of Holocaust, in service of the present-day political interests of the Government of Israel. “This is an existential issue for Israel and for the Jewish people, they want to exterminate us, Never Again!” was the refrain of Netanyahu’s speech, underscored by pointing to his character witness in the gallery, his good friend Elie Wiesel – the man who survived the Holocaust and made of that a quite good career over fifty years.  And since the speech was about Iran and it was the time of the Purim holiday, Netanyahu did not pass up the opportunity to make also an ample reference to the Persian villain Haman, who already 2300 years ago plotted to destroy the Jewish people (that is, assuming that the Book of Esther in the Bible depicts actual historical events …)
Netanyahu elaborated further on the theme of Nazis and Holocaust and the grave existential threat hanging over Israel. “If Iran is allowed to enrich Uranium, even without making bombs of it, that is as if the world in 1939 allowed Germany to construct the facilities at Auschwitz without as yet placing the Jews inside the gas chambers” wrote Orly Goldklang. And the aforementioned Amnon Lord added: “Netanyahu had no other choice but go to Washington and deliver his speech, in order to do all he could to avert this dangerous deal with Iran. His only other option was to do what Czechoslovak President  Benes did in 1938, sit at the edge of his bed and cry bitterly at hearing that the British and French had delivered his country to the Nazis in the Munich Agreement”.  But should Iran ever get nuclear weapons, would there really be nothing left to the Prime Minster of Israel other than bitter crying?
 “There is nothing secret about Iran’s acts and plans. You just need to google, it is all there on the Net” said Netanyahu in his speech. Which is quite true. But there is another subject which can also be found on the Net in great detail – the history of the Israeli nuclear program in the past sixty years. As will be found by anyone bothering to search, the State of Israel became a “nuclear threshold state” already in its first decade. Israel’s Founding Father David Ben Gurion aspired to nuclear arms, the Ultimate Deterrent, immediately upon the foundation of the state, and mobilized talented nuclear scientists to start on the job. As part of the 1956 military alliance with France, Ben Gurion’s disciple Shimon Peres got French aid in constructing the Dimona Nuclear Pile. The State of Israel crossed the threshold and was on a verge of constructing a nuclear bomb in the early 1960’s. U.S. President John Kennedy was strongly opposed to the Israeli nuclear project and made a great effort to stop it, though at the time the confrontation mostly did not get into the media. After Kennedy was assassinated and replaced by Lyndon Johnson, American opposition greatly decreased, and by 1967 Israel was already in possession of one or two nuclear bombs.  
 As had come out some years ago, during the time of great tension between Israel and its neighbors in May 1967, Shimon Peres and others Israeli decision-makers considered the option of making public Israeli passion of the Bomb and threaten to use it. As is well known, that option was not taken, the Bomb was kept under wraps and instead Israel embarked on the conventional offensive in which the West Bank. Gaza Strip and Golan Heights were captured.  In 1969 Israeli PM Golda Meir and US President Richard Nixon agreed on the “Nuclear Ambiguity” formula, still in force up to the present, under which the US would tolerate Israeli nuclear armament as long as Israel did not officially admit it. A lasting heritage of the most crooked of American Presidents, who amply earned the nickname “Tricky Dick”. 
Ever since, the Dimona Pile continued tireless operation and production of  ever-increasing stockpiles of weapons-grade uranium. Dozens, or possibly hundreds, of bombs were constructed, as well as missiles capable to delivering these bombs to any point in the Middle East and far beyond. Even the location of the bases where these missiles are placed is well known,  and satellite photos of them can be seen on the net. A few years ago, a handful of anti-nuclear activists conducted a protest vigil near the fence of one of these bases, near Moshav Zacharia west of Jerusalem (it did not get any media coverage). To complete the picture, Israel aspired also to a “Second Strike Capacity”, i.e. nuclear-armed submarines which can deliver a deadly revenge also to a surprise attack which would  devastate Israel. Such submarines the US was not willing to provide to Israel, but the government of Germany stepped into the breach.  In 1991, faced with the accusations of German companies having supplied raw materials for Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons, Germany bought an Israeli good conduct certificate by agreeing to supply Israel with submarines capable of launching missiles from mid-sea (it incidentally also helped create jobs at German shipyards facing harsh competition from the Far East…). Apparently, one of these submarines, carrying these missiles with these bombs, is also at this moment cruising deep under the Indian Ocean waters, off the shores of Iran. And such a submarine would also be there in the event of the harsh bad scenario in which by 2025 or 2030  Iran would cross the threshold and obtain one or two nuclear bombs of its own. 
As stated, in all of this there is no new or original revelation of mine. Everything was already said and written and is available on the net to anyone seeking it. Still, any Israeli talking of it must add cover up towards the military censorship with the face-saving formula “according to foreign sources” (as you can see, I am also doing that, Mr. Censor!).  But it would be vain to look anywhere in Netanyahu’s speech for this elephant in the middle of the room (considering the creature’s size, it might be more appropriate to call it a  tyranozaur).  Not can its presence be detected in the enormous volume of debate around the speech, neither in the words of Netanyahu’s supporters nor even in those of his opponents in the Israeli and American mainstream.
In all the history of Israel’s Knesset, there were very few Members who ever dared to try raising at the Knesset House the nuclear issue. It is an issue under a taboo even far deeper than the Palestinian issue. Year after year, the government of Israel renews the prohibition on nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu leaving the country. Evidently, not because he still knows some 1986 vintage secrets which had not yet been revealed, but because if he were to get to Washington and say loudly what everybody knows, he would cause a serious headache to the governments of Israel and the US alike. It is far easier to simply stop him from leaving the country. Thus, hardly anyone hears Vanunu. The whole world heard Netanyahu deliver a speech in which Iran is the one and only Middle Eastern country seeking to obtain nuclear arms and threaten its neighbors with them.
Yes, it should be noted that Netanyahu did mention the dangerous precedent of a country which succeeded in getting nuclear arms though the US President at the time tried to prevent it. North Korea, of course.
 ***
So, the elections are in less than two weeks. What is higher on the agenda of the voters – Netanyahu’s struggle against Iran, or the crazy soaring of housing prices and the other problems and difficulties in the daily life of most Israeli citizens? What is certain is that the Palestinian issue will not get to the top of the agenda in these elections. Except for Meretz, which is not doing well in the polls, and the United Arab list, no one seems very eager to place the Palestinians on the campaign agenda.
Information on events in the territories under Israel’s military rule is available to anyone interested. Sometimes it even gets into the Israeli mass media – though as long as there are no Israeli casualties, it usually makes only the back pages. After the big snow in Jerusalem, the sluices were opened to let out the water from melting snow, causing a flood in the Aida Palestinian Refugee Camp  in north Bethlehem. The Palestinian model city of Rawabi was built west of Ramallah, to provide better housing to middle class Palestinians seeking to improve their life – but for a year the new tenants could not move in because Israel refused to link them to running water. The Israeli Electricity Company twice cut off the current to Palestinian cities of Jenin and Nablus, each time for half an hour without warning.  While arresting Palestinian youths who confronted settlers, Israeli soldiers set dogs on a 16-year old Palestinian. At Deheishe Refugee Camp Israeli soldiers conducted a routine raid, camp youths tried to block them, and the soldiers shot to death a 19-year old Palestinian. Economic hardship in the Palestinian territories grows since Israel confiscated the tax money which it collects on behalf of the Palestinians. In April, the Palestinians intend to start a first judicial proceeding against Israel at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. And so on and so on. Bits and pieces of all this get occasionally to the TV news broadcasts. In the elections broadcasts of the rival parties, seeking to attract the voters, the word “Palestinians” is hardly ever heard.
One of reports which the International Solidarity Movement sends to those interested in what happens in the Occupied Territories included a detailed report of the raid conducted by the army at 2.30 am on the night between February 22 and 23 this year, on the home of the brothers Yichya and Salah Edies in the Hebron neighbourhood of Tel Rumeida. The soldiers called on a loudspeaker: “If you don’t open within five minutes, we will break open the door!”. When the door was opened, the soldiers demanded that all family members including small children concentrate in one room. After a long debate one family member, who is heavily handicapped and finds it very difficult to move, was allowed to stay in his bed while the search was going on. For about an hour the soldiers searched the house, overturned and destroyed furniture, threw everything in complete chaos on the floor, and finally departed. International activists alerted by a family member counted some thirty soldiers leaving the house, and made some photos of the conditions which they left. What were they looking for? Did they find it? Israeli soldiers on the wild West Bank need not produce search warrants in order to enter wherever they choose, nor are they obliged to give an account of their actions. There was nothing special or remarkable in this search, except that usually there are no witnesses to report to the outside world. It was one of twenty houses searched in the city of Hebron on that night, one of hundreds a week and thousands per month. Every Palestinian family under Israeli rule has already undergone this experience, usually more than once.

The Tel Rumeida Neighbourhood of Hebron is the abode of a group of particularly extremist and violent settlers, who often harass their Palestinian neighbors (though in this case, the serach was by soldiers alone). Also Baruch Marzel, a faithful disciple of the notorious late Rabbi Meir Kahane, lives there. Marzel is a candidate in the current Knesset elections, with a good chance of getting in. The Hebron Palestinians of course have no vote in these elections where the government ruling over them will be elected. Yesterday Baruch Marzel and his fellows conducted a festive procession to mark the Purim holiday, under a tight military escort. Soldiers prevented Palestinians from leaving their homes so as not to disturb the settler’s procession. Baruch Marzel was in a good mood when interviewed by Israeli TV news. He said: “My program is very simple – to put a smile on Jewish faces and wipe the smile form the faces of our Arab enemies”. He himself was smiling broadly when saying this.
This week the IDF conducted a giant surprise exercise, ordered by incoming Commander in Chief Gadi Eisenkot who also took personal charge of it. Nearly the entire regular combat strength of the army took part, as did 3000 reservists who were called up in their homes and commanded to show up immediately in their units. Another 10,000 reservists were told to hold themselves in readiness to join immediately upon order. As stated in the military communiqué “The IDF conducts constant activitity aimed at improving and increasing the capacity and preparedness of the forces on all echelons and operational levels. Taking part in this two-day exercise are regular and reservist battalions of the various Infantry strength, including Special Forces. This is an exceptional exercise, with one of the largest deployments of forces seen in recent years, including all the operational forces of the Judea and Samaria Sector, with laison established with the Air Force, Intelligence Corps and the General Security Service (Shabak). The forces arrived at the same areas where they are scheduled to be in charge of ongoing security activity. As part of the extensive exercise the regular and reserve forces simulate various scenarios such as kidnappings, the hurling of Molotov cocktails, significant disturbances of public order and the apprehension of suspects wanted for interrogation”.
 
The generals, unlike the politicians, give a lot of thought to the Palestinians. They estimate that the hot time will be at the end of March or the beginning of April. But that will be after the elections. Après nous, le Déluge.