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September 29, 2008

Oslo at 15 Years--A Vanishing Dream

This piece appears in today's Opinion Wire of the McClatchy-Tribune News Service

This month marked 15 years since the signing of the Israel-PLO Declaration of Principles on the South Lawn of the White House, launching the Oslo process and a new hope for the Middle East. The anniversary was largely ignored, overshadowed by the latest rounds of political uncertainty and upheaval in both Israel (where the ruling Kadima party elected Tzipi Livni its new leader) and in the Palestinian territories. Indeed there was little cause for fanfare or celebration. The latest incarnation of Oslo, the Annapolis effort, is sputtering toward another unrealized peace deadline, the end of '08.

For some this latest Annapolis failure is another "almost moment" in a fundamentally sound process that has been bedeviled by near misses of timing, politics, personalities and just plain bad luck. Others roll their eyes - there can never be peace in the Holy Land, the two-state solution is a dream, better to move on to something more promising. A few contrarian souls tout alternative plans to the two-state solution - some even appear beautiful in power-point presentations - none seem to have any chance of gaining acceptance, let alone majority support among both publics.

The two-state solution remains the only option that has real popular traction with both Israelis and Palestinians. It may very well still be attainable, but 15 years later it is probably fair to say that the Oslo model will not be the formula for getting there.

The peace process framework bequeathed by Oslo endures to this day, but it suffers from severe structural flaws. First is the idea that the parties, as part of a gradual process, can build confidence on issues like settlements or security without actually defining the endgame. The future is unknown and the present is adversarial, unsurprisingly the product is not a relationship of trust.

Second is the notion that institutions of statehood can be built, a fledgling Palestinian economy can thrive and that a Palestinian Authority can balance domestic credibility with being an Israeli security sub-contractor, all under conditions of ongoing, hostile foreign occupation. It does not work.

Third, Oslo began life as a bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process (the Norwegians were wonderful and effective hosts, not deal-brokers). When it comes though to reaching closure on the toughest issues - exact borders, how to dividing Jerusalem, finessing language on refugees, it is unlikely that the parties, with the political baggage that they carry, can do this alone. Nobody, though, has actively carried the parties over the finishing line.

Finally, Oslo and its progeny of peace efforts have been too much about getting an Israeli-Palestinian deal in isolation from broader regional developments in the Middle East. The Syria track has its impact, how Iran is managed is a shaping factor, as is the disposition of the Gulf and other Sunni-Arab states. There has not been a comprehensive regional effort led by the United States or the international community.

To all this one should add that the existing Oslo framework was ill-equipped to deal with the emergence of democratic, multi-party politics in Palestine. The political success of Hamas does not have to mean the end of the two-state solution, but the way the Hamas issue has been managed could produce that outcome.

The Bush administration's Annapolis effort indulged too many of these structurally embedded obstacles. The temptation for the next U.S. government will be to try a 16th and then subsequent years of the same approach. A new administration may bring greater enthusiasm and energy and may even appoint an envoy, but the results will likely be as familiar as they are unflattering, absent a major structural adjustment. In its mid-teens the Oslo process suffers from the law of diminishing returns - at each unsuccessful turn confidence is sapped, pragmatism tarnished, and skepticism entrenched.

The two-state solution does retain a resilience and considerable popular support, if only for lack of attractive, realistic alternatives. Yet even this resilience cannot withstand further failures and setbacks - potentially leaving Israel, its American ally, the Palestinians and the region with no workable medium-term solutions.

After 15 years certain conclusions are both overdue and urgent; final borders are needed (sustainable CBM's and Palestinian institution-building don't work under occupation); solutions will require a region-wide and inclusive approach (especially with Syria and Hamas); actual de-occupation will have to be front-loaded while providing Israel with international and regional security guarantees, manifested in a physical troop presence; and all this should be externally driven, and U.S.-led. Internalizing this reality and acting on it is probably the only way to still implement the vanishing Oslo vision of two states.

September 25, 2008

Happy New Year from Israel’s Radical Right

Israelis awoke today to what most would consider to be very scary news.  Hebrew University Professor and peace activist Ze’ev Sternhell received minor injuries after being the target of a pipe bomb attack.  OK—maybe this rates not so high on the Israeli scariness scale, but it’s a warning sign to Israeli democracy—a serious one.  Sternhell himself commented from the hospital that “if this act was not committed by a deranged person but by someone who represents a political view, then this is the beginning of the disintegration of democracy”—a sentiment he has echoed before.  Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, is treating this as an act of political violence, inspired by the far-Rightist settler ideology.  Fliers and pamphlets were found in nearby areas offering 1 million NIS (about $296,000) for the assassination of any Peace Now leader. 

Professor Sternhell would be the first to recognize what an ironic target he makes:  he is one of the world’s preeminent scholars on the origins and development of European Fascism.  He certainly is no stranger to the threat any democracy, Israel’s included, can face by indulging domestic expressions of Fascism—and the settler right is providing plenty of them.

The Israeli police are now providing stepped up security around Israeli peace leaders, and Israeli TV tonight unearthed vile videos threatening the Secretary-General of the Peace Now movement, Yaariv Oppenheimer, a former colleague of mine.  Israeli progressives—you know the kind of people, who believe in hard-headed diplomacy, security through peace, de-occupation—are used to being vilified and branded as traitors, even if a majority of the Israeli public supports their solutions to Israel’s problems. 

And of course it would not be the first time that the thuggish political rhetoric of the radical right would be translated into criminal action.  On U.S. Presidential Election Day, it will be the thirteenth anniversary of then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination at the hands of Yigal Amir.  And years before that, in an often forgotten episode, Peace Now activist Emil Grunzweig was killed during a peaceful protest march against the Lebanon War in 1983, the victim of a grenade attack hurled by a right-wing activist.  

The particular danger now is the extent to which settler radicals are out of control, armed, and are going about their violent destructive business largely unimpeded by Israel’s law enforcement authorities.  When some Israelis first crossed the old 1967 border, the Green Line, and became the settler movement, they also began to cross all kinds of red lines both of international and domestic Israeli law.  Radical settler violence is now a sadly prevalent and well-documented phenomenon.  Israeli academic Idith Zertal and Haaretz award-winning journalist Akiva Eldar have painstakingly documented what they describe as the land of the settlers and its struggle with the state of Israel, in their book Lords of the Land.  Another thoughtful Israeli, Bernard Avishai, has described Israel as being comprised of essentially two separate states, with a democratic, Hebrew civil society defining the one, and a revolutionary, Jewish settler ideology marking the other (see, for example, his comments here).

Of course, the acts of extreme violence and lawlessness are a penchant of a minority of more radical settlers.  In fact, the majority of Israelis living in the occupied territories are enjoying economic benefits rather than realizing deeply held ideological convictions.  But the recent episodes point to a disturbing new trend.  After the disengagement in Gaza, a radical wing of the settlers basically disengaged from Israel, viewing the state as the enemy and increasingly taking the law into its own hands.  When the tiny outpost of Yad Yair was evacuated by the IDF earlier this week, settlers went on the rampage against Israel’s own military, wrecking the property of Israeli reservists at a local army base and physically attacking and breaking the hand of one soldier.  Oh—and they frequently call the Israeli soldiers Nazis for good measure.  This, in addition, to the ongoing harassment and violence meted out against the Palestinian civilian population. Rampaging settler outrages have become a frequent feature of the nightly Israeli news and constitute an embarrassingly large number of hits on YouTube (the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has launched an innovative response operation called “Shooting Back”,  consisting of ‘arming’ local Palestinians with cameras in order to both document and deter). 

While there has been widespread condemnation in Israel of the ongoing radical settler violence, and in particular of last night’s outrage, little action has been taken with the army that oversees the settlement areas—not wanting to get involved, and the police not making this a priority.  The leader of the Meretz party in Israel, MK and former minister Haim Oron, struck a timely note of caution today when he urged people to focus not only on the few bad apples, but to also recognize the culture of incitement that has been cultivated in Israel’s political environment by large swathes of the ideological, settler right.  So that’s the Happy New Year calling card from Israel’s radical right.

And where does the U.S. come into this?  Well, in addition to ongoing American fecklessness in the face of Israeli settlement expansion, which of course does no favors to Israel itself, there is also the noteworthy private contribution of the right-wing in America, including John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel, in directly funding settlement expansion and entrenchment.  And then there are the usual suspects—Sheldon Adelson and Irving Moscowitz, chiming in with their own brand of helping Israel commit suicide.  And who would have thunk it—these are some of the same people who are funding the distribution of the anti-Muslim hate film Obsession in swing states right now. Shana Tova!


The New Face of Israel?

Here is a peek at my newest piece which has just been put up at The Atlantic online:

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert handed in his resignation. Israel’s Foreign Minister and the newly elected leader of the Kadima party, Tzipi Livni, has now been formally given the mandate by Israeli President Shimon Peres to build a governing coalition and thereby become prime minister. Olmert has faced ongoing corruption investigations, but the cloudy circumstances did not prevent him from leaving on a playful note. In convening the cabinet to inform them of his resignation, Olmert explained that there were a number of items on the agenda, and proceeded to give a rosy update on a series of Israeli weekend sporting successes—in the Para-Olympics, Davis Cup tennis, and the European basketball championship—before getting to the final item on the agenda, his own political demise.

The rest can be read here.

September 18, 2008

Initial Thoughts on the Livni Kadima Victory

September 17, 2008

Beginning to Bid Farewell to Olmert

At the time of writing this, Ehud Olmert had just congratulated Tzipi Livni on her victory in the Kadima leadership primary.  The final results aren’t yet in, but it now seems that she will be the next party leader and be tasked with trying to form a new governing coalition.  I will be writing more about the next steps and what to expect in the coming days, but in the meantime Ehud Olmert is becoming a caretaker Prime Minister and transitioning out of his post.  As I wrote several months ago, the immediate punditry may well be unflattering to Olmert—history, however, may record him as being one of the more frank Prime Ministers and refreshingly so when it came to some of his descriptions of Israel’s predicament.

As his term neared its end, Olmert’s propensity for straight talk became ever more pronounced.  So on this night of choosing a new Kadima leader, rather than jump right into more speculation, I thought it might be fitting to do a little farewell to Olmert, and list some of the more powerful quotes from his time in the Premier seat.  I may be wrong, but I have a feeling that Olmert will continue to be, and perhaps even more out of office, a voice for Israel to finally implement the two-state solution.  For this at least he should be thanked and acknowledged.  Here, then, are some choice Olmert lines which we can use long into the future (it’s not exhaustive and there may be more to follow):

Every day that goes by without an agreement with the Palestinians is a day we may regret in the future…If we do not achieve an agreement quickly we will miss the opportunity, and the price for missing that opportunity may be intolerable. There is no magic formula for reaching an agreement, and the price will be very high. –Ma’ariv, September 15th 2008


Greater Israel is over. There is no such thing. Anyone who talks that way is deluding himself. –Haaretz, September 16th, 2008


If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights (also for the Palestinians in the territories), then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished…The Jewish organizations, which were our power base in America, will be the first to come out against us…because they will say they cannot support a state that does not support democracy and equal voting rights for all its residents. –Haaretz, November, 29th, 2007

I join in expressing sorrow for what happened
to the Palestinians and also for what happened to the Jews who were expelled from Arab states [referring to the refugee crisis that accompanied Israel's establishment]. –Haaretz, September 15, 2008


I thought that the land from the Jordan River to the [Mediterranean] Sea was all ours. But ultimately, after a long and tortured process, I arrived at the conclusion that we must share with those we live with if we don't want to be a binational state. -Haaretz, September 16th, 2008

We are closer than ever to concrete understandings that will likely serve as a basis for agreements in our dialogues with both the Palestinians and the Syrians. On the day the dream of peace comes true we will all stand and wonder: How did we not achieve this sooner?” –Haaretz, August 1st, 2008


Some day soon, sooner than we think, we will long for the solutions that some of us reject today. -Haaretz, September 16th, 2008


I am not hiding or obscuring anything. If we want a territorial compromise it will be close to a one-for-one formula…There are various ways of reaching that formula, by means of exchanges of territory. I think it is not impossible to reach an agreement, but the more time passes, the higher the price that we will pay will be. –Ma’ariv, September 15th 2008


September 10, 2008

Putting Jews Back in Their Place

 This piece also appears at Huffington Post

Jews in America have, essentially since 1932, felt far at home with one party and voted accordingly.  Democrats could rely on a solid 75% plus of the Jewish vote and the Jewish community could comfortably feel that they had a home in a party which embraced positions and values with which they could identify.   It looked for a time as if 2008 might be different and that the percentage of Jewish support for the Democratic Presidential candidate might slip into the low 60s or worse.  A considerable effort was invested in scare-tactics and smear campaigns against Barack Obama.  Joe Lieberman was thrown into the mix.  The McCain campaign had reason to be cautiously optimistic.

That McCain hope may now be receding as the latest turn in the Republican campaign seems to have one unifying theme when it comes to the Jewish community:  a determination to put as many Jews as possible back in their place—in the Democratic camp.  The GOP have scored an amazing trifecta - choose a Veep candidate who is a neophyte on Israel and foreign policy and has never stepped foot in the Holy Land, stoke the kind of cultural wars that make the Jewish community distinctly antsy, and then deploy old and crude anti-Semitic stereotypes when attacking Obama.

Sure, there is about a quarter of the Jewish vote that is now solidly Republican.  These are people who are Republicans because they want lower taxes on the most wealthy, more religion in the public sphere and a hard-line foreign policy both as it relates to America and to Israel. That demographic will remain Republican.  But the additional 10-15% of the Jewish vote that the GOP tried to put in play this November is now  feeling not only alienated, but downright offended by the latest offerings of the McCain message machine.  That new Palin-powered propaganda effort may play well in parts of the country, and it may be enough to get McCain elected, but it is likely to have the opposite effect on the floating Jewish voter—which could matter (perhaps a lot) in Florida and elsewhere such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, or even Nevada

The Obama campaign had already made significant inroads in pushing back the slur tactics and in creating a comfort level amongst Jewish voters with Obama’s personal life story, his message, and him visiting Israel again recently.  Putting Senator Joe Biden on the ticket—someone with a long and strong history of trusted relations and closeness to the Jewish community, and deep, unquestioned foreign policy experience—likely strengthened that trend.  But the more important development is likely to be the GOP’s decision to tightly embrace a politics and style that creates a maximum discomfort amongst even those parts of the Jewish community that were beginning to be susceptible to McCain’s appeal.  Part of this is a deep seated, understandable, and very real tension between the world views of the Christian right and of the mainstream Jewish community. 

Three moves in particular have the potential to create a backlash amongst Jewish voters and to drive the Jewish community to find its place with the Obama-Biden ticket in numbers that match historical levels of Democratic support. 

First, McCain chose a candidate for Veep who has no history whatsoever of interest in, understanding of, or concern for Israel.  The Israel issue does not move all or even most Jewish voters, but it matters to many.  Sarah Palin has never been to Israel.  The only place she has ever visited in the Middle East is Kuwait.  Her website issues page lists nothing on foreign policy or Israel, as others have pointed out (here and here).  Governor Palin did meet with AIPAC during the recent RNC convention in Minneapolis and they did give her the kosher stamp.  But one can fairly assume that this had more to do with AIPAC’s confidence in its own ability to sway the possible future V.P. than with any deep appreciation for Israel’s predicament displayed by the candidate.  Surely all the pro-Israel groups from right and left could agree that a politician who has never visited Israel, who doesn’t know the issues affecting Israel, and has so little national security and foreign policy experience should not be a heartbeat away from the Presidency. 

Second, and as part of the Palin-fest, the Republicans have made a strategic decision to place cultural wars front and center in this election campaign.  Former New York Mayor Ed Koch has called Sarah Palin and what she represents “scary”, and one can understand why.  Palin is about as right-wing as it gets when it comes to the ideological and value issues she promotes.  She has the hard right, Christian conservative wing of the electorate highly enthused and mobilized.  Jewish voters and Jewish values tend to sit uneasily with positions such as making abortion illegal (even in cases of rape and incest), teaching creationism in school and blurring the separation of religion and state, and banning books—all positions espoused by Governor Palin.  As Salon.com pointed out, such theocratic tendencies are more normally associated with Muslim fundamentalists.  This is bigger than Palin; this now a cultural values election as much as it is an economics or national security policy election—it is a defining moment, especially when Supreme Court nominations enter the calculation. 

But there is also a Jewish specific cause for concern in the Palin pick.  Just three weeks ago, with Sarah in attendance, Palin’s church hosted the Executive Director of Jews for Jesus, David Brickner—a group much criticized by the ADL.  As Ben Smith pointed out in Politico, Brickner “described terrorist attacks on Israelis as God’s ‘judgment of unbelief’ of Jews who haven’t embraced Christianity”.  Palin’s Pastor at the Wasilla Bible Church, Larry Kroon, warns of God taking retribution on a sinning America. She trades on an anti-intellectualism and playing of small town vs big city or suburban America that is alienating to most Jews.  Mayor Koch is right:  this is “scary” stuff. 

Third, and perhaps most bizarrely, the types of attacks used by leading Republicans against Senator Obama should be making Jewish voters feel distinctly uneasy—they are taken straight from the vernacular of classical anti-Semitism.  When Rudy Giuliani during his RNC keynote address put a big sneer on his face and used the word ‘cosmopolitan’ to attack Obama, I was rattled—literally shocked.  Words have coded meanings, and I don’t think it would be Jewish paranoia to remind ourselves of the coded meaning of ‘cosmopolitan’ when used in that insulting, demeaning, and group-defining political fashion.  We Jews are after all the quintessential, rootless cosmopolitans. ‘Cosmopolitan’, ‘elites’, ‘urbane’, ‘liberal media’—in trying to negatively define Barack Obama, the Republicans have chosen to use a convenient and familiar existing vocabulary for defining the ‘other’—the vocabulary of anti-Semitic stereotypes.  At the very least this is deeply insensitive to Jewish opinion. 

It is shameful that Republican Jewish circles have been silent in the wake of this ugliness.  It would be even more shameful if it was allowed to succeed. Fortunately Jewish voters, in Florida and elsewhere, will have a big say in the matter. 

September 9, 2008

Israeli President’s No to Bomb Bomb Iran

 This piece also appears at TPMCafe

Israel’s President Shimon Peres came out unequivocally this past weekend against a military strike on Iran. “There are two ways [to deal with Iran] –a military and civilian way.  I don’t believe in the military option – any kind of military option…it will not solve the problem…an attack can trigger a bigger war.” Many have argued, myself included, that Israeli interests would be better served by ratcheting down the military rhetoric and embracing a more far-reaching diplomatic approach – especially given statements by the Pentagon’s top brass against a military strike and the impact that war talk has in emboldening and strengthening President Ahmadinejad’s hard-line camp in Tehran.  What is remarkable though is the political timing of the statements by Israel’s president and other senior Israelis coming as it does in the thick of an American political campaign that pits the uber-belligerent “bomb bomb” Iran ticket of McCain-Palin against the more savvy ‘tough diplomacy for a tough world’ ticket of Obama-Biden. 

 Apparently, if Israel’s president has anything to do with it, all the talk of a possible Israeli strike in the November-January window (if Obama wins out of concern for his possible policies) – would be consigned to the total nonsense file. 

This is the first time that Israel’s president has come out with such an unequivocal statement.  He even criticized American foreign policy stating they are “making a mistake” by relying too much on military intervention rather than economic and diplomatic persuasion.  Ok, so the presidency in Israel is not an executive decision making position but rather a ceremonial head of state.  Some would even say, well what do you expect from Shimon Peres, given his (largely undeserved) image as a peacenik dove. Yet Peres historically, and especially in his new presidential role, acts as the consensus politician and bellwether for opinion – he developed Israel’s own nuclear program, supported the settlements, and vacillates between rejectionism and peace advocacy as the public mood shifts. 

More importantly Peres is not alone – both the outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have been talking down any unilateral Israeli threat posture vis-à-vis Iran, and have chided the more bellicose occasional comments emanating from their cabinet colleagues.  Foreign Minister (and possible next PM) Tzipi Livni already several months ago was reported as arguing in favor of talking down the Iranian threat and suggesting that it “did not pose an existential threat to Israel.” One of the other contenders in next week’s leadership primary to replace Olmert as head of the governing Kadima party, the current Interior Minister, Meir Shetreet, went a step further.  Here is what Minister Shetreet said during this election campaign (by the way he is unlikely to win that primary): “Israel must on no account attack Iran, speak of attacking Iran or even think about it…it is a megalomaniacal reckless idea…we are not permitted to gamble away Israel’s future.”

So there is something of a shifting mood in Israel that is beginning to recognize that the current policies have not produced results, that more threats are unlikely to do so, and that other diplomatic options might need to be considered.  That does not mean that Israel has definitively dropped the attack option or that there are no voices now advocating for it – but they are beginning to look like the outliers rather than the opposite. The most outspoken hawk remains the other Kadima leadership contestant, Transportation Minister (and former chief of staff) Shaul Mofaz, who was roundly criticized from many quarters when he made headlines earlier this summer by claiming that an Israeli attack was “inevitable.”    

So there is an interesting convergence here; very highly placed Israelis are no longer talking themselves into a frenzy of fear over Iran and instead are taking a more considered and realistic approach; the international community is stating its clear preference for a diplomatic solution, the latest being the French president Sarkozy who said that an attack would be “a catastrophe” that “must be prevented”; and even the Bush administration sent its third ranking diplomat Under-Secretary William Burns to Geneva recently as part of the P5+1.  Of course, presidential candidate Barack Obama has long advocated unconditional hard-bargaining diplomacy with Iran. 

So who is left behind in his bunker? Yes, Senator John McCain, the “bomb bomb Iran” man (one assumes that Governor Palin does not have a position given that Iran does not border Alaska).  The McCain-Palin ticket seems wedded to a rather peculiar brand of hope and change policy on energy and national security that can best be described as a “drill and kill” policy.  What is refreshing is that in the president’s residence in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel, that is apparently not the kind of change they are willing to believe in.