Friday, January 28, 2011

More To Come On The Olmert-Abbas Talks

I'll be going silent for a few days, to finish the piece flagged here by Ethan Bronner in today's Times on the Olmert-Abbas talks. Events in Egypt make one wish they had succeeded all the more.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Guardian Watch: More Reprehensible Journalism

Just following up on the Guardian's distorted and inflammatory claims. The paper reports that Saeb Erekat recognized the principle of Israel "as a Jewish state," and that, correspondingly, Tzipi Livni pressed for the transfer of Israeli Arab citizens to Palestine, in effect, adopting the principle "backed in its wholesale form by rightwing nationalists such as the Yisrael Beiteinu party of the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman."

I just spoke with Tal Becker, Livni's aide, and her chief negotiator in the talks in question. Erekat in no way recognized Israel as a Jewish state. What he said, clearly, was that it was not the business of the Palestinians to determine what Israel would call itself, or, presumably, the business of Israelis how Palestinians called themselves, legislated identity, and so forth. He had said (the Guardian had this but ignored its implications), "This is a non-issue. I dare the Israelis to write to the UN and change their name to the 'Great Eternal Historic State of Israel'. This is their issue, not mine." Is this the same as recognizing Israel as a Jewish state?

As to "transfer," Livni certainly did not adopt Lieberman's vision. She was addressing only those towns which the Green Line already bisected, and she was hoping to settle the disposition of their municipal governments in a humane fashion; so she suggested that these towns be reunited, and then be either wholly Palestinian or wholly Israeli. Naturally, she assumed that it would make more sense for them to be Palestinian. But when Palestinian negotiators rejected the idea, assuming the residents would, she tabled the issue. The Guardian went on in its next paragraph to note that Livni had told Palestinian leaders how "the basis for the creation of the state of Israel is that it was created for the Jewish people," as if this were her rationale for "transfer." Really.

With editing and reporting like this, you have to wonder if the real story here is not the shoddiness of agenda-driven journalism. It also makes you wonder, Becker adds, "if the Guardian committed to this kind of spin in order to secure the leaks from Al Jazeera." Does the paper really not realize that headlines and teasers travel much faster than truths and that lives may be at stake?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Al Jazeera Leaks: The Guardian Is Irresponsible

Al-Ersel office complex now under construction in Ramallah 
I am busily crafting a piece on the Olmert-Abbas negotiations, having interviewed both leaders on Friday, and at length. Much more about this soon. But I can't forbear saying that the Guardian's spin on the talks, based on documents leaked by Al Jazeera, is outrageous.

The Guardian has seemed bent on making Palestinian concessions seem like a betrayal. But they have reported only one hand clapping. Palestinian territorial and other concessions, I will show, were the other side of significant, creative Israeli proposals and concessions. Any prospective agreement would be a compromise, for God's sake. The Guardian is curiously pandering to Palestinian rejectionists the way Fox News panders to AIPAC.

The real point of an agreement is to create conditions that allow each side to build their culturally distinct civil societies—to allow Israel to continue pursuing its economic globalization, and allow Palestinians to build in the West Bank something like the city-state Palestinian leaders and entrepreneurs are building in Ramallah (and have already built in much of Amman, Jordan). We need to keep our eye on the ball and avoid childish sensationalism about who is weak and who is strong. The Guardian has a huge picture on page one of a Palestinian teen waving a flag. How about a picture of Palestinians building the Al-Ersal office towers in Ramallah?

Most irresponsible is the paper's treatment of Saeb Erekat. He is reported to have told Tzipi Livni: "It is no secret that...we are offering you the biggest Yerushalayim [the Hebrew word for Jerusalem] in history. But we must talk about the concept of al-Quds [Jerusalem in Arabic]." The Guardian put in the headline only the first part of the sentence, and then implied in the story that Erekat was a kind of Patti Hearst, adopting the conquerer's language, when he was in fact trying to create an atmosphere of empathic reciprocity. Does the Guardian actually like this conflict?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Political Winds: The Parties Of Global Israel

Uriel Reichman at the Herzliya Conference
There is no need for me to comment on Ehud Barak's decision to bolt the Labor Party, or shall I say unhinge it. Daniel Levy's long, thoughtful analysis on Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel tells you all you need to know, and more. As I said a few posts back, a new party is taking shape to organize democratic globalist forces in the country, and whether it is called Labor or something else is simply a matter of branding, like Southwestern Bell's decision to swallow AT&T but adopt its name.

This new political coalition will be called "leftist" or "Social Democratic" by journalists here and abroad, but the moniker is misleading. The kind of politics this group will practice would seem entirely centrist and unoriginal to, say, Europeans. The idea is peace and a shared business ecosystem with Palestine, a globalist agenda for Israel's entrepreneurs, separation of religion and state, full civil rights for Israeli Arabs, a conception of national Israeliness rooted in Hebrew culture, intense investment in education and national infrastructure, monetary stability, green technologies, and nondiscriminatory access to public assets.

If President Sarkozy or Prime Minister Merkel were Israeli, they could live very nicely within the precincts of this politics. So could, say, Senator Schumer. They would also call for international (read: American) diplomacy to lead the peace process, mainly by refocusing Israeli and Palestinian leaders on the achievements of past negotiations. It is a testament to how warped the governing parties of greater Israel are that this politics could seem radical.

AS SIGNIFICANT AS Labor's earthquake, though less noticed outside Israel, is a little column in today's Haaretz by Uriel Reichman, the president of the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya--a column that reveals, rather, the movement of tectonic plates. Reichman was slated to be Kadima's Education Minister back in 2006, when Ariel Sharon was expected to win a landslide. He is already educator-in-chief of the children of Israel's business elites, who has shown a remarkable gift for talking Israel's oligarchs (Arison, Ofer, etc.) and American machers (Zell, Lauder, etc.) into endowing disciplinary schools at the excellent private college he founded.

Reichman fought on the savage Golan front in the 1973 war, in which he lost a brother--a death that shattered his family. He was a founder of Shinui, the liberal "Change" movement, which helped topple Labor in 1977; and he once campaigned to reform the electoral system. But he's always prided himself on a rather hawkish commitment to national security and his (and his students') connections to the IDF. He provided a home for Uzi Arad's Herzliya Conference and the Counter-Terrorism Institute. He was also my boss for a couple of years and, let us say, did not find my politics quite "Zionist" enough. (He also claimed not to read Haaretz anymore.)

Today, Reichman, of all people, has called for the Obama administration to propose a bridging deal, fast, before the whole issue of Palestine is thrown to the UN General Assembly and Israel finds itself internationally isolated. I have been arguing for some time, especially in The Hebrew Republic, that Israel's business and professional elites constitute a strong constituency for peace and cosmopolitan values--that the people of global Israel would ultimately find their voice against the people of greater Israel. Reichman would not be writing what he did today if these elites were not finally getting mobilized. Reichman writes:

It is doubtful whether direct negotiations will produce an agreement. The Israeli coalition structure, the weakness of the Palestinian leadership, the complexity of the issue and the shrinking timetable before possible recognition by the UN of a Palestinian state will make it very difficult to achieve an agreement by consensus. At most we will see an exchange of accusations between the parties, whose objective is to support the vote of the General Assembly or to prevent it.

One significant route is still likely to lead to an agreement. Due to political constraints there is a gap between what the sides are capable of offering and receiving and what they would be willing to compromise about. Bridging this gap is possible only through an American initiative, which begins in a trilateral discussion and ends in an American proposal for an agreement.

The whole column is well worth reading, especially with the 2011 Herzliya Conference about to be convened. It is a signal to powerful domestic forces that their way of life is at risk. It should also be read by the Obama Administration as a kind of assurance. If America leads, Israel's elites will follow.

Bombing Iran: Goldberg Responds

In response to my recent post, Jeffrey Goldberg sent me the following email, which I reproduce in full:

I read your recent article, and I don't feel that the merits of your case are strong. When I completed the reporting for the Atlantic piece in June (it was shipped in July and published in August), the Obama Administration was just finishing to put in place the multilateral sanctions on Iran that have only in the past two or three months begun to hurt the regime's ability to buy, among other things, the steel it needs for its nuclear program. The Obama Administration, and the Netanyahu government, have both expressed pleasant surprise in the past two or three months about how effective the sanctions have apparently been. Also, the Stuxnet program, which of course wasn't known to me in June (and wasn't known, out of necessity, by most of the Israeli officials I interviewed) has only been shown to have been effective -- crippling as many as 20 percent of Iran's centrifuges -- over the past two months or so. At the time I wrote the article, in June, Israeli officials, of various political inclinations, believed that the military option was going to have be considered in 2011. I was not, of course, the only person to notice that Israeli officials, from Netanyahu on down, thought this way. I could not write, in June of 2010, that the sanctions would be more effective than the Obama Administration thought, because the new sanctions had not yet been put in place; and I could not write about the damage caused by the Stuxnet virus to the centrifuges, because the damage had not yet been done, or learned about by Western intelligence agencies. I reported accurately on what was generally believed at the time, both in Israel and in Washington. As for the various insults you level at me, they don't merit a response. Please feel free to publish this response.

I leave it to readers to decide whether this letter addresses the issues I raised in my various criticisms of Goldberg's article here, here, and (with Reza Aslan) in The International Herald Tribune. Read also this post and consider whether the article (entitled, remember, "Point Of No Return"), or its critics who have been calling for calm, proved more credible, and even more in line with Israeli intelligence strategists, to whom Goldberg notionally had special access, and on whose anticipated actions he was ostensibly reporting.

Just to be clear: I did not mean to level insults at Goldberg, and do not consider this a personal matter. If he feels himself personally insulted, I regret this. As I have written here in the past, I greatly admire a number of Goldberg's past articles, especially his ground-breaking coverage of West Bank settlers when he was writing for The New Yorker. We have many friends in common, who assure me he is good company.

But I believed his article this past summer was irresponsible. The fact that "Israeli officials, of various political inclinations, believed that the military option was going to have be considered in 2011" was not news and required no muckraking. Nor would the Atlantic have published any piece that was simply about an "option that was going to have to be considered in 2011."

The point of the article, clearly, was to create a sense of plausibility, even sympathy, for that belief, and even to justify a preemptive American military strike on Iran, since an "existentially" necessary Israeli attack would draw the US in anyway; to imply that even Arab regimes in the region would welcome an American strike. The article came out at a time when the Obama administration was trying to salvage the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and much to Netanyahu's satisfaction, no doubt, changed the subject from Israeli settlements to Iranian threats of genocide.

In his letter, Goldberg explains the mitigating circumstances that caused him to report what was knowable as opposed to what was not. Fair enough, I suppose. But the thing that was knowable--what Netanyahu and Israeli rightists believed, or at least said they believed--was not only knowable, it was irresponsible, too. A former head of the Mossad, Ephraim Halevy, called the prospect of war with Iran "madness." This view did not make it into "Point Of No Return."

He was not, after all, writing about the knowable and unknowable facts of a campaign for mayor of Trenton. The inference for action was regional war in which tens, if not hundreds, of thousands would die; also the preclusion of a peace process that Netanyahu, whose coalition loves the status quo, wanted to put into eclipse. If one is going to justify war, in other words, should one not know unknown facts that have a half-life longer than June, July, and August?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Update on Dalal's Case

From Gershom Gorenberg:

I want to thank everyone who has lent a hand to Dalal Rusrus and her family by writing to Israeli military officials to ask about her parents’ permits to bring her to Alyn Hospital in Jerusalem. The usual unnamed sources are taken aback by the interest in the case, which is very good. Today Dalal’s mother Sunya was given a one-day permit to bring her to the hospital day for an initial treatment, in preparation for a two- week hospital stay due to begin next Sunday. Later today, the family received word that Sunya will get a permit to come to Jerusalem for two weeks to be with Dalal.

This is an important step forward. However, Sunya cannot bring the couple’s infant with her to the hospital. To avoid unnecessary hardship to the family, it is essential for Dalal’s father to get a permit to come to Jerusalem. He still has not received a positive answer on that request.

May I add a note of my own? The response by readers of this blog has been overwhelming. I am very grateful, though I cannot thank all of you individually. Now, let us keep up the pressure to allow Dalal's father to accompany her to the hospital.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

20,000 Rally For Democracy In Tel Aviv

A coalition of Jewish and Arab civil rights groups claimed the streets of Tel Aviv last night. It is clear that a new political party is in the making, to fill the vacuum the demonstrators feel, though who knows yet who will lead it.

You Mean We Don't Have To Bomb Iran After All?

It is now about six months since the world was dramatically warned, in an Atlantic cover story, and by a reporter who claimed unprecedented access to the Israeli intelligence community, that while the Obama administration would not strike Iran militarily, Israel very well might within the year--and who could blame them? That perhaps America should do the job itself, since it would be drawn into war anyway and could do the job better:

More likely [than an American strike], then, is that one day next spring, the Israeli national-security adviser, Uzi Arad, and the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, will simultaneously telephone their counterparts at the White House and the Pentagon, to inform them that their prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has just ordered roughly one hundred F-15Es, F-16Is, F-16Cs, and other aircraft of the Israeli air force to fly east toward Iran—possibly by crossing Saudi Arabia, possibly by threading the border between Syria and Turkey, and possibly by traveling directly through Iraq’s airspace, though it is crowded with American aircraft...

In these conversations, which will be fraught, the Israelis will tell their American counterparts that they are taking this drastic step because a nuclear Iran poses the gravest threat since Hitler to the physical survival of the Jewish people. The Israelis will also state that they believe they have a reasonable chance of delaying the Iranian nuclear program for at least three to five years. They will tell their American colleagues that Israel was left with no choice. They will not be asking for permission, because it will be too late to ask for permission.

The article's author, Jeffrey Goldberg, was so widely quoted, his warning so widely debated, and his scoop (based on interviews with " roughly 40 current and past Israeli decision makers") so widely admired, that he was soon making the rounds from Stephen Colbert to Fidel Castro. Oh, he was not actually calling for a strike, or so he said. His position, he wrote on his blog, "involves deep, paralyzing ambivalence." It's just that an Iranian bomb would provide a “nuclear umbrella” for Hezbollah missiles and Hamas terrorism. It would force the Gulf states to ally with Iran against the United States and its cornered ally.

Israel’s only option was a pre-emptive strike, like the ones it carried out against nuclear reactors in Iraq and Syria. It is only a matter of time.  Anyway, a good reporter, so his colleagues at The Atlantic defended him, ferrets out the facts, whatever their implications. I mean, how many of us know the difference between an F-15 and an F15E. As the judicious (and obviously perplexed) James Fallows implored, "please take his reporting for the achievement and contribution that it is."

OKAY, LET'S DO that. Last week, the head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, gave a series of exit interviews to the press; he'll be leaving his post shortly. His key point: The Iranian nuclear threat is far from ripe. Israel and the international community still have plenty to do to undermine it. A military assault is not the right solution.
The Mossad's Meir Dagan
For "it would make the Iranian people rally around the regime, would make Israeli-American relations extremely difficult and could result in a war, in which the Israeli home front will be bombed by thousands of rockets and missiles from Iran, Lebanon and Gaza. The IDF would find it very difficult to achieve a decisive victory in such a war." Disinformation? Perhaps, but not a great way to prepare a population for a shower of missiles. And Dagan has been publicly joined in this position by outgoing Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin.

And now we know, from today's New York Times, what Dagan was implying by "plenty to do" short of a military attack. (We can also see what good reporting actually looks like, though early reports if the Stuxnet virus appeared as early as November, as a consequence of the Wikileaks dump.) It turns out that Israel and the US have been working closely all along to undermine the Iranian program through covert operations, attacking Iranian software controlling centrifuges--this in addition to international sanctions--not by bombing nuclear facilities in which hundreds, if not thousands, would die, and regional war would almost certainly ensue. Maybe I am being petty, but should not our retrospective view of Goldberg's sensational article "involve" a certain anger and dismay?

Goldberg's friend, Christopher Hitchens, once shrewdly remarked that America is the only country in the world where people tell you "Your history!" and they're insulting you. But even Americans ought to be able to remember how they were misled and hyped a mere six months ago. Many argued then, notably Ken Silverstein at Harper's, and Glen Greenwald at Salon, that readers should beware the work of a reporter who had campaigned so actively for the Iraq war and had got so many things wrong then; someone so close to the Netanyahu circle. Some of us who live in ground zero despised the war-mongering, which helps keep the Netanyahu government in power.

For his part, Goldberg has been saying that the Stuxnet virus means "Israelis are looking at extending their time line on a possible armed response to the Iranian program, but the prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu, is still sounding hyper-vigilant..." Translation: Sorry for being right too soon. Still, I wonder if Fidel will now ask The Atlantic to upgrade it fact-checking department, at least for some of its correspondents.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Mailbag: Let The Child Be Treated!

This just in from Gershom Gorenberg:

I am trying to help a three and a half year old Palestinian girl from the West Bank who suffers from CP get essential care at an excellent hospital in Jerusalem. The girl's name is Dalal Rusrus. According to Dr. Eliezer Be'eri of Alyn Hospital in Jerusalem, if Dalal is treated, there is even a chance that she might eventually be able to walk. If she is not treated, she will not even be able to use a wheelchair.

The Civil Administration is refusing to give her parents permission to enter Jerusalem, which makes it impossible for her to receive care. You can help by contacting the relevant spokespeople and asking why they aren't getting permits. If the authorities know the world is interested, there is a reasonable chance that they could grant the permits to avoid the embarrassment. Please note: The girl needs to get a permit by Monday. So send an email today, and take ten minutes when you get up Sunday to make a phone call or three.

The Israeli hospital wants to help her. Israelis and foreign donors have contributed for her care. Instead of letting this humanitarian cooperation take place, the military bureaucracy is standing in the way.

After Dr. Be'eri examined Dalal in the West Bank in October, Alyn hospital invited her to come for a full examination. Two appointments were canceled because her parents could not get permits. Finally, her mother was given a permit and Dalal was given a multi-disciplinary examination on Dec. 20.

Now Dalal is supposed to go to Alyn on Monday, Jan 17 for a preliminary treatment, and then be hospitalized on Jan 23 for two weeks. In order for the treatment to happen, permits are needed for her parents, especially for her father. The mother is caring for a 9-month-old infant and it would be extremely difficult for her to be the one to accompany Dalal. The family has no immediate relatives in the area who would be able to help out.

So what you do is write or call both of the spokespeople below and the Civil Administration health official, say that you are writing a story, and you want to know if the Osama, Sunya and Dalal Rusrus have received permits to enter Jerusalem and if not, why not. The name of the spokespeople link to their email addresses. You should include the ID numbers of Osama, Sunya and Dalal, which you will find below.

IDF Spokesman's Office (Foreign Press Branch):
Lt.-Col. Avital Leibovitz: 972 2-5485807/2, Fax: 972 2-5485825, Mobile: 972 57-8186248

Civil Administration, Judea and Samaria:
Capt. Amir Koren: 972 2-9977372, Fax: 972 2-9977341, Mobile: 972 50-6234081

Civil administration health coordinator:
Dalia Basa: 972-2-9977084, or 972-2-9977022, Fax: 972-2-9977041

Here are the ID numbers:
Osama Rusrus 909512386
Sunya Rusrus 903627057
Dalal Rusrus 420037004

You can find more information on her story at these links:

For all further info to build the story, you can contact the B'Tselem human-rights organization's fantastic health staffer, Suhair Abdi

Warmly, Gershom

Thursday, January 13, 2011

'Breaking The Silence': Diagnosis Is Not Treachery

Soldier with a Hebron settler. Nahal Brigade, 50th Battalion. Hebron, 2003

"How are we going to retain respect for human life? This is the contradiction, this is the paradox with the whole business. What we’ve got to avoid is cheapening life and becoming conquerors. We mustn’t become expansionists at the expense of other people, we mustn’t become Arab haters.”

More testimony from soldiers affiliated with Breaking the Silence--you know, the radicals delegitimizing the Jewish state? Actually, this passage is quoted from an extended conversation of elite Israeli soldiers immediately after the 1967 war, famously edited and published by Amos Oz and Muki Tzur; a book called Siach Lochamim ("A Conversation of Fighters") in Hebrew, and published in English as The Seventh Day. It sold something like 100,000 copies in a state of less than three million people in the year after it appeared.

Siach Lochamim also had soldiers rhapsodizing about retaking the Wailing Wall and Temple Mount, speaking of their determination never to surrender the Golan Heights, and so forth. But my point is that no sooner had Israeli fighters conquered the Palestinian territories in 1967 that some significant part of them began to wonder where this would all lead, and especially about the corrupting influences of conquest.

Yes, the concern may all have been a little hypothetical, the kind of worry you express because you have read modern colonial history and want to prove you have learned its lessons. Perhaps some were being moral show-offs, the way those of us who wrote about the settlers back in 1975, and wondered out loud if settlements of 20,000 or 30,000 people "would make negotiations impossible," were also showing off a little, not really believing that things like that could ever happen to us. Anyway, there is nothing hypothetical about the concern of "becoming conquerors" anymore.

BREAKING THE SILENCE has just published (still in Hebrew, but an English version is forthcoming) a compendium of testimonies that, for anyone who had read Siach Lochamim, will evoke a shock of recognition, what the children of Israel should feel when a prophesy is fulfilled. Breaking the Silence's book contains many testimonies about extreme actions by the army during the Al-Aqsa Intifdah, which leave one wondering what is cause and what is effect. Let's leave those aside.

The most revealing testimonies are more recent and address the question of army control per se, the actions of an IDF and Secret Service insinuated in a system where showing the defeated population who rules has become an end in itself; the fear of letting go of the levers of power--routine efforts at intimidation, networks of collaborators--which seem even more important, in a way, than promised land:

Unit: Paratroopers [Reserves] - Location: Tul Karem district - Year: 2007
[T]he army, since the time of the [Lebanon] war, concluded that it needs to take advantage of every day of reserve duty that a soldier does in order to bring him to complete competence for the next war that will come...I started my reserve duty on the 11th of March [2007]. It was my second reserve duty deployed in Ariel. We knew that the reserve duty would begin with three or four days of training.

The Friday before the 11th was a Sunday...I’m listening to the news and they are talking about an exercise done by the central paratroopers brigade, towards pre-operations training in the Bet Lid village. Now, that’s me. Meaning, it’s clear to me that if that’s what the battalion before me did, then I’m going to do it on Sunday...the terrain of Lebanon, in the area of Samaria, which will simulate movement towards targets, with lookouts and ambushes and all kinds of things like that during the process. And in the end it concluded with the occupation of a village.

...[Y]ou go into a village in the middle of the night…with blanks and stun grenades and explosives at the end. A village in which the people living there didn’t present a threat beforehand, they won’t present a threat afterwards…maybe afterwards they will…and you basically disrupt their night. Children pee in their beds, mothers scream, things that happen when you get into…they put on [the radio] an attorney who spoke, they put on my deputy brigade commander, the deputy brigade commander of that same brigade. And the guy is talking – how important it is after Lebanon to train and whatever and everything is OK. 

And he concludes with a sentence that I was in shock when I heard it that…he said: “I was the last to leave the village in the morning and the locals, with smiles and understanding, blessed me to go in peace.” Which is, beyond the ignorance and the arrogance with which he allows himself to speak, you know – apologize, say that the military attorney general is checking it, give a military response maybe, but I wish for this deputy brigade commander for an exercise like that to happen in the kibbutz where he lives. That at four in the morning they go in with stun grenades, and I want to see the rice he’ll throw in the morning at the soldiers who are leaving. Because it’s really chutzpah, unlike any other...

Now, I imagined, in my innocence, that for us it would be different. Meaning we would come, and since it already made it to the media, and there is a military attorney general in the world and there are other legal authorities, there is someone who will take care of it. So I got to reserve duty..., they were at the height of preparation for the exercise. The story of everything that I heard is still running through my head, and I wanted to see if there would be some kind of difference. I arrived at the second to last briefing..., the deputy company commander...opened with, “guys I don’t care. From my standpoint, you can go to the media, tell them whatever you want, but what’s important to me is that you do this, this, and this…” 

And in reality, what happened was exactly what the description of the battalion exercise had said--it also happened with us. We walked all night and made ambushes and invasions here and there and everything, what you do during an exercise like that. And in the early hours of the morning we found ourselves in Al Hayad, in the direction of incursion into the village itself....

...We finished the exercise in the middle of the village. We started on the march that is called “logistical” towards the buses waiting at a distance of a few kilometers from there. Look, you see the residents like standing, looking, smiling and whatever. The words of that deputy brigade commander reverberate for me again, yes, but it’s not smiles and understanding. It’s smiles and understanding of the fifth or fourth time that this exercise is happening in their village without anyone coordinating it with them...

VILLAGES HAVE NOT only become periodic props for training.  They are more often at odds with settlers encroaching on their land. They army is called in to "keep the peace," supposedly neutral, but actually enforcing a status quo in which the settlers gain:

Unit: Kfir Battalion · Location: Susiya · Year: 2004-2005 
How was the relationship with the settlers there? Ups and downs. For the most part, during that time they did respect us, sometimes they also spoiled us, meaning they hosted us in all kinds of places. There were also people that for them the work we were doing wasn’t tough enough, all kinds of catchphrases like, “We want security, not protection.” One thing, sometimes the one responsible for the security of the settlement, how do you say this, they think of themselves as our commanders, not the company commander. They would try and give us orders about what to do, where and when.

They had influence...Meaning, if they would say: “Your guys didn’t send away the shepherds when they were too close,” or perhaps they would say to us: “next time you are in the same situation, be sure to do it right and be more aggressive.” It wasn’t a situation where they would tell the company commander what to do, but they definitely had influence...The security coordinators would meet with the company commander at least once a week, both for a situation assessment and routine, but also to say what they thought about what we were doing, and what they thought that we needed to do. I don’t know how much they cared in the higher ranks. In the lower ranks, there were instances where the company commander didn’t listen to them at all. There were cases where he did exactly what they said...

WILL THESE TESTIMONIES embarrass Israel?  Yes--or at least they should, the way organizing against Jim Crow in the South embarrassed the US, though this came during the worst of Cold War. But they can heal Israel as well.  For anybody with the slightest appreciation for how democracies work, the question of "delegitimization" is just demagogy. As those fighters after the 1967 war understood, Israel was about to face the very serious question of how, and whether, to conduct an occupation. The soldiers understood how they, and their government, could get things very wrong, and the only way to get things more nearly right was through expressions of anxiety and public criticism of brutal behavior.

There is a difference, after all, between diagnosis and treachery. If a doctor tells you you have AIDS, it is true that she is also telling you something that will make you, shall we say, less desirable at the bar. But you have to be pretty thick to suppose that, in making the diagnosis, she is actually trying to give comfort to your rivals or generally wreck your life. Breaking the Silence may be wrong in its diagnosis (it is not), but then the only way to get things right is to investigate the facts and explore how they came to be what they are.

Being "democratic" is not just a product feature to be celebrated by Israel's brand managers in America. The issues Israeli democracy, or what's left of it, enables Israelis to debate are a matter of life and death. True enough, a Knesset majority, swayed by Avigdor Lieberman, is now trying to shut up Breaking the Silence through hearings and investigations. Which only goes to prove that a majority, especially one locked in a colonial project, is often a democracy's greatest enemy.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Mailbag: Geneva Lives!

I just got this note from my friends at the Geneva Initiative, which in view of the current situation makes better reading than ever. The initiative remains a strong rebuke to those who argue that there is no partner for peace on the Palestinian side. And if an international peace plan ever does take shape, it won't look very different from this.  

In viewing your posts, we noticed that you link to a number of relevant blogs and websites. We were hoping you might consider linking to the Geneva Initiative website, which contains a wealth of resources on the peace process and a detailed blueprint for an Israeli-Palestinian final status agreement. There you will find the latest polling data, Annexes to the Geneva Accord outlining solutions to final status issues, and an archive of relevant news and opinion. We believe readers of your blog would be interested in the resources we have to offer, and it would be our pleasure to make the connection. We also run a Hebrew language blog, which might interest you, as well as a Facebook page.

Mailbag: Sachar Is Free!

A great many readers of this blog post, it seems, have tried to read Howard Sachar's excellent short article, "Enforcing The Peace," in the current Foreign Affairs, only to find it (as forewarned) behind the paywall--so many, in fact, that the magazine's Senior Editor, Sasha Polakow-Suransky, just informed me that they are generously making the article free in the "hope of provoking some debate." You can download the article here. Share it.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Look To The Bund, Again

Haaretz published a shortened (and slightly more coherent) version of my recent post on Nazareth, and the parallels between Israeli Arab parties and the Polish Bund. The article appeared last Friday. You can read it here.

Bil'in: Deadly Political Theater

Young rock-throwers challenging the army at the security fence in Bil'in, the tear gas rising

My friend over at Magnes Zionist has a post about our Friday afternoon in Bil'in. He saves me from having to report things in detail. But I have to say I left the demonstration feeling more perplexed than inspired, given the many deaths the cause has occasioned. I left, that is, wondering if I had not just participated in something so highly ritualized, in which each of us was playing to form, knowing that it will all be the same next week--in short, something so connected to a kind of political theater, played out for a half-paying-attention international press--that fatalities on the site seem all the more horrible and preventable.

We are dealing here with a case that is even more cut and dried than what is going on in Sheikh Jarrah. The Israeli Supreme Court has already ruled that the route of the security wall, which separates the town of Bil'in from hundreds of dunams of its agricultural land, must be moved to restore this land to the town. So the Defense Ministry, in effect, is brazenly violating a decision of the Supreme Court by not complying. One activist leader told me that much of this land has already been tendered to contractors, in order to expand local settlements, so the government is also feeling pressure from private financial interests not to implement the court ruling.

The case, in other words, is appalling in a way a great many Israeli liberals could understand; and it is indicative not only of the ways the occupation corrupts the state but also of the caution with which the Supreme Court now proceeds, especially in confrontations over Arab rights, in order not to provoke a backlash against its dwindling power. But all of this also means that the weekly Bil'in demonstration could just as effectively be held, not at the site of the wall, but at the the Defense Ministry in downtown Tel Aviv. For the dozens (or in Friday's case, hundreds) of democratic activists who drive and climb and march to the town for weekly confrontations with army troops--most of them painfully young under their riot gear--the demonstration feels a little like yelling at the person who answers the phone at a call center when your bank has failed to credit your account.

For the young Arab demonstrators, of course, the ritual is very different. This is their town and, for now, the fight is the meaning of their lives. Twenty-one have died in West Bank town demonstrations like this over the last six years. (Take a moment and let that number sink in.) On Friday, many young locals were wearing masks, throwing rocks, taunting the soldiers in what seemed a rite of passage. They were accompanied to the wall with ambulances. It was as if they had seen movies of the first intifada, the slingshots and televisions cameras, and were determined to live up to this legacy--just not allow past deaths to have been in vain, a sentiment which seems, pathetically, to invite more.

The bravest move closest to the fence, virtually daring the soldiers to fire, dancing in spite, tossing stones. They scatter when a young soldier--obviously enjoying his power, his own rite of passage--goes into a crouch, pointing and cocking his rifle demonstratively. The army could literally do nothing but squat behind riot shields and the result would be the same; but that would signal "weakness" or something. Arab and Jewish activists who wish to prove their steadfastness within the bounds of nonviolence merely shake at the fence, allowing themselves to be sprayed with a liquid blended to smell like human feces, holding their ground until the squad finally gets the order to start using tear gas.

All of this posturing would be fair enough if it were only theater. But, again, now and then someone gets killed, the latest fatality, of course, Jawaher Abu Rahme, who died inhaling gas--whose death was the reason I decided to come. And when people are dying in demonstrations, you can't help ask the question whether there is some larger political context that will be moved by such terrible sacrifice; whether the demonstrations can serve to crystallize some larger political movement that will ultimately prevail, like Gandhi's salt march; whether a larger fight is a part of the strategy, or whether there is even a strategy at all. I left Bil'in simply unable to answer the question to my own satisfaction.

To the extent that the relevant audience is international opinion, have not these demonstrations achieved their purpose, or exhausted international attention span, or both? When I was myself retreating (from surprisingly stinging tear gas), I was passed by a young correspondent from Fox News, jogging purposefully, speaking into his microphone, careful to remain in his camera's range, relieved (I suspected) that there was some drama. But to the extent that the demonstrations aim to move the Israeli public, it is precisely scenes reminiscent of intifadas that cause ambivalent reactions. Again, the larger point might best be made at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv.

I do not mean to imply that these demonstrations are pointless. No fight for justice is pointless. And there is such a fundamental injustice here that people with democratic instincts will, instinctively, respond. Here is a small agricultural village whose lands have been expropriated; here is a court order in a putative democracy that is not respected. What cause could be more pure? Yet I cannot help thinking about that young woman who died, or her brother who died a year ago when he was hit in the chest by a tear gas canister. Death seems a very high price to pay to become an item on Fox News.

And when you walk around the town, the goats munching on scrub grass strewn with ubiquitous blue plastic bags--a town of stone houses and rusting car parts and trash all over the commons--a town looking over the gorgeous, Santa Fe-like hills at the wierdly out of place but encroaching high rises of Modiin Ilit--you have to wonder also how much of this life is sustainable, even if Bil'in got its land back tomorrow and it was the apartment blocs of a Palestinian state rising on the horizon.

People with democratic instincts, after all, also once invented the term "modernization." Had those young people not been killed, how many disquieting wonders beyond this benighted town might they have lived to see?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Rising Calls For An American Imposed Peace Plan

Howard Sachar is the historian the rest of us of who write about Israel are cautious about referring to in our work, for fear of giving away just how much of his research and analysis we borrowed. His A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time, published in 1976, is a magisterial book: a sweeping narrative line; a sequencing of facts and data representing years of careful digging into memoirs and economic archives; a humane drama that makes you feel the state's founding as a world-historical event without a trace of parochial special pleading. His work on modern Jewish life in the West is equally compelling. The son of Brandeis University founding president Abram Sachar, he is in many ways the embodiment of its haskalah.

If American Jews honored their scholars as much as their pundits, they would take note of Sachar's evolving views, too. Which is why Sachar's newly published article in Foreign Affairs should not be skipped (spring for the $.99 and buy the pdf.). Without the usual equivocations, he is calling on President Obama to propose a peace plan and rally the Quartet to impose it:

But with so-called proximity talks and even faceto-face discussions endlessly collapsing in a lethal series of cross-border Arab rocket attacks and Israeli military retaliation, the great powers themselves at long last are faced with the challenge of borrowing from historical precedent and operating not as mediators but as principals.

Will they accept that challenge? More specifically, will U.S. President Barack Obama grasp the opportunity to jump-start a reasonable version of the Quartet’s master plan for the Holy Land? It is a formulation, after all, that reflects the weight not only of its sponsors’ best collective judgment and self-interests but also of their untapped collective powers of enforcement, including the selective bestowal or withdrawal of diplomatic, economic, or military support.

This is, by the way, virtually the same conclusion that the Economist has finally come to in its most recent issue:

Instead of giving up, Mr Obama needs to change his angle of attack. America has clung too long to the dogma that direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians are the way forward. James Baker, a former secretary of state, once said that America could not want peace more than the local parties did. This is no longer true. The recent history proves that the extremists on each side are too strong for timid local leaders to make the necessary compromises alone. It is time for the world to agree on a settlement and impose it on the feuding parties.

Curious, the collapse of face to face talks was thought to be a setback, but it is perhaps the very thing that was needed to show what was always true: that as with Camp David I, when Begin and Sadat could not longer sit in the same room, peace has no process until the American administration forces things.