For Israel, Syria Intervention is Both a Security Imperative and Risk

Daily Beast 8/27/13

After Secretary Kerry’s strong statement yesterday, there is little doubt that the U.S. and its allies plans to carry out a military strike against Syria in the coming days. With over 1,000 people dead following a chemical weapons attack, there is really little choice in the matter.

It seems that Israeli military intelligence discovered the smoking gun via intercepted calls between senior commanders in Assad’s army.

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a statement about the use of chemical weapons in Syria at the Department of State August 26, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

On Friday, Israel’s Channel 2 News reported that the weapons were fired by the 155th Brigade of the 4th Armored Division of the Syrian Army, a division under the command of the Syrian president’s brother, Maher Assad. The nerve gas shells were fired from a military base in a mountain range to the west of Damascus, according to the report.

The images of children gassed to death in the country next door galvanized leading voices from across Israel’s governing coalition to urge for international intervention. From the Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett on the right, to the dovish president Shimon Peres, there is broad agreement: From both security and ethical perspectives, Israel cannot allow chemical weapons to be used on its door step.

Over the past three years there has been an ongoing debate between foreign policy analysts about whether Israel wants Assad to stay or to go. On the one hand, it’s good to have a strong man in place to keep things quiet across the border. But this particular strong man is also in league with Iran and Hezbollah, with his survival directly tied to theirs.

By urging international intervention in Syria, Israel is of course running a security risk. Much like Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War of 1991, Assad’s most obvious response would be to attack Israel. If Israel responds, that could potentially enflame the region, which would play right into Assad’s hands. The Syrian dictator probably hopes the Arab world would rally around the flag and be distracted from the atrocities he is responsible for in his own country.

I am sure that there are many high level discussions going on now, with Israeli officials urging their American counterparts not to respond in case of a Syrian counter attack, as they did in 1991 when the enemy was Iraq. But the U.S. is not the same as it was 22 years ago and neither is Israel. Netanyahu has been clear today—Israel is not part of the Syrian Civil war, but if they are attacked, they will respond with force.

With Obama’s “red line” regarding chemical weapons now breached, the situation is worrying. If the U.S./NATO forces respond with military action against Syria, would Assad lash out by unleashing chemical weapons on Israel? This is an open question. But there is no doubt that the stakes are higher now than they have been since 1973.

I believe that the international community must act and should have acted long ago, given that at least 100,000 Syrians have been killed over the past two years. A failure to respond to the use of chemical weapons would be a green light, signaling that non-conventional weapons are back on the table. But it is vital to remember that Israel that will be on the front lines of a response even if they do not participate in any military action against Syria.

The unfolding events of this week are a constant reminder that Israel is located in an unstable region and faces security challenges every day. While we should all understand the need for an international response to chemical weapons we should remember that the Syrian response will attempt to make Israel into its whipping boy.

Kerry’s Task: Close the Incredulity Gap

Daily Beast 24/5/13

With Ghaith al-Omari and Danielle Spiegel Feld

President Obama’s challenge to the thousand Israeli students he addressed in Jerusalem was clear: “Speaking as a politician, I can promise you this: political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see.” The President, once a community organizer himself, understands the importance of grassroots momentum to change the status quo.

Secretary of State John Kerry has since made important progress towards reviving the two-state agenda: On the political front, the Israelis appear to have agreed to impose a settlement freeze of sorts, while the Palestinians have temporarily agreed not to pursue international legal actions against Israel. On the economic front, a private sector team of business leaders now stands ready to examine investment opportunities within the West Bank. And regionally, the Arab League has revived its 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, demonstrating that there is still Arab support for the idea of two states.

Yet, despite these promising developments, the Israeli and Palestinian publics are no closer to believing that peace is on its way.

The latest Pew polls report that 61 percent of Palestinians believe there is no way for an independent Palestinian state to coexist peacefully with Israel. Within Israel the figures are somewhat better—only 38 percent see no way to coexist—but the whole peace process was still virtually ignored in Israel’s last elections.

Thus, even though poll after poll indicates a plurality of each population would accept a two-state solution, a vast “incredulity gap” remains within each society. The physical erosion of the two-state solution due to settlement expansion, provocations by each sides’ leaders, violence that followed the Gaza disengagement, and relentless effects of the occupation, are causing both peoples to lose faith in the ideal of two states living beside each other in peace.

The incredulity gap poses a serious hurdle for Secretary Kerry. If the people do not believe a two-state solution is plausible, they will not actively push for it. And as President Obama made clear, without strong stakeholder engagement, there will be no pressure on political leaders to return to the negotiating table, nor remain there if the talks do take place.

There is, however, one bright spot in the recent polling data: a plurality of Israelis and Palestinians wants President Obama to play a bigger role in resolving the conflict (49 percent of Israelis and 41 percent of Palestinians). This provides an opening for Secretary Kerry to speak directly to these constituencies, bolstering support for civil society groups on both sides of the Green Line.

These groups need this extra attention: We cannot expect the grassroots in the region to make change when the mediators seeking to achieve that change pass them over.

The U.S. has established an admirable record of supporting people-to-people dialogue and regional cooperative initiatives, particularly through the auspices of U.S. AID funding programs. The Obama Administration is also in the midst of an important project to map the different civil society groups in the region to see how American support can best be allocated.

But given the urgency of the moment, the Administration needs to do more. The most immediate way of doing so is for Secretary Kerry to elevate the profile of Israeli and Palestinian two-state advocacy groups by meeting with select organizations during his next visit to the region. This meeting should mark the beginning of heightened U.S. engagement with civil society groups within each nation.

Many Palestinians believe that the U.S. has been deaf to their plight and blinded to the changing realities on the ground. By speaking with Palestinians directly, the Secretary can start a conversation that demonstrates he understands their position and promotes their understanding of his.

To be most effective, Secretary Kerry will need to speak with representatives of the varied voices of Palestinian civil society, including those who have remained active in peace advocacy as well as those who have grown too pessimistic to continue investing in the two-state solution. Kerry might not like all that he hears from these groups, but without engaging all these stakeholders, he will not be able to bring the people with him in this process.

Engaging with peace advocates in Israel is equally as important. Despite the fact that a majority of Israelis still identify the two-state solution as their preferred outcome, Israeli groups advocating two states are demoralized right now. By giving these groups an audience, Secretary Kerry can help reenergize Israel’s committed two-state advocates, emboldening them in their fight against the skepticism that abounds. And by speaking with political groups outside of the committed “left,” the Secretary can help publicize news of the promising recent developments, hopefully chipping away at the sense of futility that fuels many Israelis’ detachment.

With the same enthusiasm that Secretary Kerry has approached the economic, political and regional dynamics, he must now try to bring the people on board by directly engaging with those who have suffered the continued failures of initiatives past, building their support for efforts to start anew. If he is diligent in this task, the Secretary may just be able to translate his early diplomatic progress into concrete changes on the ground.

Nine Steps that will Kill the Two-State Solution

Daily Beast 3/21/13 also Ottomans and Zionists

With Obama visiting Israel, many groups are trying to get his attention so they can let the President know what they think he should do. Included within the pleas from the peace camp and the ‘Free Pollard’ camp is a document prepared by the Yesha council titled, “Judea and Samaria – It’s Jewish, It’s Vital, It’s Realistic.”

Questions answered within this Kafkaesque document include: why the demographics are on the Settlers’ side, why are the Palestinians stealing water from Israel, and what is the legal history of Israel’s settlement enterprise. Most interesting, however, is the nine-step plan that the Yesha council has created at the end of the document to fulfill their vision.

The main tool that the Yesha council has to achieve its vision are its political advocates in the Knesset and in the government. Their building in the West Bank happens through the good graces of the state authorities. Of course the main party for the Yesha council is HaBayit Hayehudi, but they also have representation through the Likud and Yisrael Beytanu and a scattering of MK’s in some of the center parties. Members of their communities operate across the center and right of the Israeli political spectrum.

Looking at the nine steps we can see the underlying HaBayit Hayehdui strategy during the coalition talks. Additionally we can start to make sense of some of the other Knesset and moves and statements by members of the settler community on the national stage.

Step 1: Renewing the strong belief in the supremacy of the Jewish claim to the Jewish Homeland and the justness of taking measures to maintain control of it

In the coalition agreement between Likud and HaBayit Hayehudi was a bill to make the Jewishness of the State supreme. This is a redo of the Avi Dichter bill from the last Knesset. No one is quite sure of which version will hit the Knesset, if it gets through Livni, but it is part of a big move to decouple the concepts of Jewish and Democratic state as equal and promote the former at the expense of the latter. The motivations behind this become clear in a strategy that is tied into biblical land claims and preparing for a situation where the civil rights of millions of Palestinians are going to have to be restricted.

Step 2: Uniting the nation and its leadership

Throughout the coalition talks, Bennett was the peacemaker between Lapid and Netanyahu and has pledged to be a leader for all of Israel, not just the settlers. His party has also taken over key ministries that can affect the cost of living across Israel. Bennett has been very keen to be seen as responding to the J14 protests and be a transformative politician that can transcend the tribal politics of the moment and be one of the new leaders of Israel alongside Lapid. By also slipping in the raising of the electoral threshold into the coalition agreement, he can ride the wave of HaBayait Hayehdui current popularity and force others from his camp to work with him if they want any representation at all. By forcing people into a broad tent he gives himself a broader appeal and solidifies himself and by extension the Yesha council firmly into the mainstream.

Step 3: Military strength and control of the territory by the security establishment

Though many ex-military and security men veer to the left after they retire from service (just see The Gatekeepers), the new Defense Minister, Moshe Yaalon, most definitely veers to the right and was the first choice of the settler community. Though the security establishment is pretty much entrenched in the West Bank already, Barak had been the thorn in the side of the Yesha council. With him removed the security establishment can work in concert with the Yesha council in helping it expand both from the Knesset and on the ground itself.

Step 4: The elimination of terror and cessation of incitement in Palestinian schools

While all Israelis want to see an end to terror and incitement, the previous governments’ flat-out rejection of the State Department’s school textbook report demonstrates a complete unwillingness to examine the issue of incitement on both sides of the border. It is essential to demonize the Palestinian national narrative while maintaining that individual Palestinians are ok and stating that the Settlements actually have had great relationships with the communities pre the first intifada.

Step 5: Creating a situation where it becomes clear to the international community that another state west of the Jordan River is not viable

The serious policy community is split about whether the two-state solution has already been killed by the settlements and the Yesha Council or if it is merely on life support. Needless to say, the Yesha Council is well on its way to pulling the plug. The new Deputy Foreign Minister, Ze’ev Elkin, already ascribes to this point of view. Though many advocates of one-state agree that the settlements have killed the two-state solution they do not share the Yesha councils vision of what a one-state solution would look like. The power and establishment will be with the Yesha council and in doing so they will have a tremendous momentum on the ground when two-states is officially abandoned to fulfill their vision before anyone else gets a look in. Yes Israel will lose friends and allies and there might be a brain drain that could seriously affect the economy. But I sadly have less faith that pressure will force Israel to give up its reason d’état of providing the Jewish People with self-defense and power by giving those they have been occupying full civic rights. The death of the two-state solution will mean the Yesha council has won, read the rest of their document to see how they view Palestinians.

Step 6: The further immigration of one million Jews to Israel to secure a permanent Jewish majority in Israel

In the coalition talks, Bennett managed to carve the Diaspora portfolio out of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and into his own portfolio. The reason for this now becomes crystal clear, he is desperate to get more Jews to immigrate. Bennett demanding this portfolio always seemed odd. The Settlements are often the largest bone of contention between Israel and her Diaspora (amongst Jews who are engaged at least). Passing on this responsibility to the former general secretary of the Yesha council looks on the surface to be a recipe for disaster. This step helps us understand the real consequence of why this demand was made. What will be interesting to see is how Bennett attempts to bring the Diaspora to Israel and how their aliyah will be tied to step 7. Is the aim just to lock in the demographics regardless of where the Jews live or to get them to move to the West Bank and lock in the settlements?  We will have to wait and see but watch to see where new job incentives will be made for new immigrants, Bennett has the ability through Trade and Industry to create incentives where he chooses.

Step 7: One million Jews in Judea and Samaria, tripling its Jewish population

With the housing and trade ministries, Habayit Hayehudi can now start working on this. The proof will be in where the new low-income housing is built. Even if just restricted into the settlement blocs, if this plan is being followed the aim will be a massive increase in settlers. As with step 6, we will have to see if alyiah and settlement are linked. President Bush (1st one) conditioned the aid to help resettle the Russian Jews on them not being housed in the West Bank understanding the threat there. One other important step to remember, Bennett received the public diplomacy portfolio as well. Through this he can push the settlements into the official Israeli government narrative both at home and abroad.

Step 8: The creation of large residential areas surrounding the current communities of Judea and Samaria

Housing, Trade, Knesset Finance chair – between these three portfolios and a willing defense minister the sky is the limit on step 8. I predict the concept of settlement bloc will expand and large scale projects begin to be planned as expansions in key areas. Even more so then Yaalon, Danny Danon is a particular fan of the Yesha council and he is deputy Defense Minister.

Step 9: The execution of a construction, development and economic plan for the million residents of Judea and Samaria

Habayit Hayehudi has already indicated that they would rather release prisoners and transfer taxes to the PA than freeze settlement construction. Looking at this nine-step plan, it is easy to see why he would rather give any other ‘confidence building measure’ than allow the slowing of the settler population.  The one thing that they cannot allow is a settlement freeze as it destroys the plan above.

This should be seen as nothing less than a strategic effort to kill the two-state solution. Keep in mind that Prime Minister Netanyahu just committed his new government to two states for two peoples in his joint press conference with the President on Wednesday. Looking at how this is planned out it is clear that the only thing that could stop this from happening is freezing settlement construction. The sad fact is that a settlement freeze has already been tossed by the US administration as a failed attempt.

The Yesha Council is very open about their aims, objectives and methods. If people want to do more than pay lip service to the idea of two-states, they must not only oppose the Yesha council at every turn of this plan but offer their own step by step approach to how to create a two-state reality today. Though it is the establishment opinion that two-states will happen, those opposing it literally are executing on a plan to kill it. Those of us who wish to see it come about must equally set out a plan and start building today facts on the ground to make it so.

British House Of Lords Versus U.S. Senate

Daily Beast 2.12.13

The British House of Lords is anathema to many on this side of the Atlantic. Even with reforms, there are still members of the chamber who are there due to an accident of birth, and its members’ titles sound like a Shakespearean play. Yet despite the unelected, privileged and often detached nature of many of the peers, the House of Lords took time on Thursday to debate the role of civil society in building peace in Israel and Palestine.

The Lords and Baronesses of Great Britain decided to have an in-depth discussion around the civil society groups, so often overlooked and ignored by analysts and decision-makers, and elicit a government response. The members who participated range from the former chair of the Liberal Democrats Friends of Israel group, Lord Palmer, to Baroness Tonge, a passionate advocate for Palestine.

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Snow falls on the Houses of Parliament on January 18, 2013 in London, England. (Oli Scarff / Getty Images)

The groups mentioned included ACRI, OneVoice (full disclosure: I am a staff member), Hand in Hand, B’tselem, ALLMEP and others. The discussion ranged from funding levels to normalization, refugee rights and educational policies.

In the United Kingdom, the House of Lords exists to provide expertise on legislation, and a discussion that has a small check and balance on the House of Commons. Back here in the U.S. where I now reside, the Senate, where discussion is supposed to be king, is clearly failing with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The lack of intelligent public discussion on the challenges and opportunities in the conflict coming from members of Congress is frankly appalling. Though high profile confirmation hearings bring out the worst grandstanding from Senators, the repetitive nature of the inquisition of Senator Chuck Hagel demonstrated the poverty of the debate.

Compare the obsessive fixation on Israel in Senator Hagel’s confirmation with the softball questioning of Senator John Kerry in his confirmation for Secretary of State. One could argue it demonstrated a lack of real interest in what’s going on on the ground, in such an important area of U.S. foreign policy.

The power of the Senate to affect the conflict dwarfs that of the House of Lords by such a magnitude that it is hard to even hold them side-by-side. The more power the chamber has, the more it seems to have an inverse effect on the level of debate. The more power, the less informed televised debate happens, and all of us who care about the conflict suffer.

When was the last time anyone heard anything new or interesting about the conflict in a Senator’s remarks? If elected officials are going to fixate on Israel and Palestine, they should at least have something interesting to add to the discussion.

I love the power that the American political system embodies in Congress: Elected officials in the United States are far more than the lobby fodder of their British counterparts. With six-year terms, Senators have the time and power to truly make a difference. It would be nice if they actually did.

Terrified of Each Other

Daily Beast 3/29/12

With a new month comes a new poll of Israelis and Palestinians on a variety of issues. All the usual suspects dominate the executive summary: whether Israelis believe in the viability of two states, what they think about an attack Iran or a settlement freeze.

The poll tells the story that many of us expect from the populations caught in the depression and pessimism of the present. But the really frightening statistics come in the penultimate questions.

 

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Palestinian girl covers her face to protect is from tear gas, Abbas Momani / AFP / Getty Images

 

Any solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, with any number of states, depends on the populations’ sense that they are safe as they go about their daily lives. They need to feel that their next door neighbors will not try and destroy them. To the question, “to what extent are you worried or not worried that you or a member of your family could be hurt by Arabs in your daily life?” 54% of Israeli Jews responded that they are worried or very worried. For the Palestinians, 75% are worried or very worried that, “you or a member of your family could be hurt by Israel in your daily life or that your land would be confiscated or home demolished.”

The daily fear of ordinary Israelis and Palestinians infects over half of the populations. When we look at what they believe the intentions of the other are, we find that 50% of Israeli Jews believe that the Palestinians are out to destroy the Jews in Israel and take over the country. 62% of Palestinians believe that Israel is out to take over the entirety of the Greater Land of Israel and expel all Arab residents.

Whichever end of the conflict/occupation you are pursing these figures present the most significant challenge facing anyone who sees an end to the status quo. Yet if we look at what topics of conversation are dominating the various civic spheres in each country we can’t help but expect that these figures will continue their upward climb.

In Israel the newly minted leader of the opposition Shaul Mofaz will attempt alongside Yair Lapid and Shelly Yachimovich to capture the social protest vote that shook Israel over the summer. The protests focused internally on Israel’s own social justice issues while ignoring the wider conflict. It is this very lack of focus on security issues that has felt like a breath of fresh air to many in Israel and opened up new avenues of productive debate.

Yet nothing about this conversation speaks to the raising tide of anger within the occupied territories, strategic options about Gaza nor the wider regional shifting picture all of which creates a blanket of fear and pessimism across the society. The welcome distraction of socio-economic conversations gives suspicion and fear space to go unchecked.

This might work in Israeli society, but Palestinian society cannot escape the realities of the occupation so easily. The civic space in Palestine is dominated by an increasingly bullish anti-normalization campaign that is effectively clamping down on any discourse that does not follow its rules for joint Israeli-Palestinian work.

And normalization is a tough thing to get around when you’re a Palestinian. It is defined as “he participation in any project, initiative or activity, in Palestine or internationally, that aims (implicitly or explicitly) to bring together Palestinians (and/or Arabs) and Israelis (people or institutions) without placing as its goal resistance to and exposure of the Israeli occupation and all forms of discrimination and oppression against the Palestinian people.” Avoiding contact with Israelis that does not actively “resist or “expose” the occupation keeps the conversation within the small circle of activists in israel who already agree with each other.  It stops a wider Israeli audience from exposure to Palestinians. While one can understand the desire to avoid normalization of the occupation, closing down all interaction between the populations (except under maximalist Palestinian prescriptions) furthers the gulf between the societies.

Further, as the Israeli economy continues to grow in excess of the OECD average, BDS victories should not be seen in damaging Israel’s economy, rather in furthering the reach scope and power of its sister movement, the anti-normalization campaign.

Neither protests nor innovative peace-making projects will find success while the momentum on each side turns us and them inward rather then looking outward, towards the other. Until the populations can focus and reflect on the other side, the despair and fantasim of the present will continue.