Israel’s New UN Ambassador Danny Danon: A reckless choice or a calculated gamble?

Mark Chagall: The Love Story
Mark Chagall: The Love Story

Marc Chagall, one of my favorite painters, had a quirky way of painting people, especially his fellow Jews of Vitbesk, Russia. They were always hovering above their  gloomy villages, as if suspended so as to show that they did not really belong there but only made a harsh living out of the poor soil. Think Fiddler on the Roof, blue cows and all.

At least that’s the meaning I always assumed even if I don’t recall being told so by anyone steeped in the subject. However, Israelis no longer need Marc Chagall to symbolize their otherness or to make sense of their rootless narrative: Instead, Marc Chagall’s symbolism should be graciously loaned out to those who better need them in order to make sense of their reality; the Palestinians. Perhaps even better, Danny Dannon, the newly appointed Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations, and a staunch opponent to a Palestinian state and everything peace, should relinquish the Israeli cultural hold on the Chagall floating people imagery as a new model representing his suggestion for a new Palestinian non-territorial reality: “See, it works! We did it for centuries as the Jewish people in exile, you can do it too!”

Netanyahu’s appointment of Danny Dannon to be Israel’s new UN Ambassador is a bit of a joke; at least that’s what I thought when I first saw it announced. It’s not just for the most obvious reasons: that he does not believe in negotiating with the Palestinians, that he believes there should never be an independent Palestinian state, that he thinks Israel should annex most of the West Bank, or that he has argued that Israel should cut off water and electricity to the Gaza Strip. As he himself has pointed out, a majority of current Knesset members may even support him in that position. Rather, what’s more worrying is his complete misunderstanding or perhaps disregard for what the Palestinians have been asking for during the past 50 years: No, it’s not citizenship! (they tried that with Jordan) No, it’s not self-government! (they tried that in the 1980’s) No, it’s not economic and cultural opportunities! (they tried that since Oslo)

In fact, it’s much more simple: it’s territory stupid!

And it’s not just the territory of the built-up areas of Beit-Jala, or Nablus. These are not sky cities that can be connected remotely to the two countries that Dannon suggest should offer Palestinians citizenship. It also happens to be the hills and pastures and the springs and olive groves of their ancestors, the graves of their prophets and saints. They are asking for a homeland, marked by the distance that church bells chime and by the echoes of the muezzin. One where they can plant and sow, build and re-build, and even go hiking. Imagine that: Palestinian hikers! Or perhaps more specifically understood, and currently accepted, it’s the homeland that was left after the 1967 armistice agreement.

While Dannon’s promise of a life without checkpoints in their self-governed Palestinian population centers sounds alluring, having to navigate traffic jams on cocoonish highways between walled-off cities is just not going to cut it, nor is having to plop down from above like Chagall’s subjects, not touching the ground in between, not belonging, but always remaining a visitor. One thing that Danny Danon should know from Jewish history is how deeply territorial a nation can be and how it defines most Middle Easterners existential experience.

Of course, there is a chance that he does know and that his policies and opinions are meant to refute and deny that very possibility. In other words, Dannon represents the personification of the Golda Meir’s question, “Who are the Palestinians,” only with more definite answers this time: annex their unpopulated territory, make them satellite citizens of Egypt and Jordan, cut off Israel’s responsibility for them and hope that they will move. The fact that 70% of Jordanians are already “East Bank Palestinian” (rather than Bedouin) does not make it a homeland for those originating from the former Mandate of Western Palestine. In the Middle East, if you are not a nomad, tribe cannot substitute for territory.

Netanyahu’s appointment of Danny Dannon to the UN, the guardians of the Security Council Resolutions that outline the two-state solution, is therefore both a statement and a rebuke; a statement to the Obama administration that Netanyahu is still not ready to reconcile, and a rebuke to the international community and the UN. But perhaps even more, Dannons appointment—given his outlandish views and his direct personal rivalry with Netanyahu—to a forum where he needs to speak in Netanyahu’s voice, seems beyond reckless. Some have argued that Netanyahu wanted to get rid of Dannon so badly from the country and the cabinet that the UN appointment was the most effective way to accomplish that goal.

But there is also evidence that Netanyahu may in fact be taking another stab at the Obama administration with this move. Dannon’s closest US friends are clearly on the GOP side of the aisle, and he is so well connected to the conservative donor community that he had to pay a fine in the last Israeli elections (2013) because he received too much money from abroad. According to this article, 22 donations came from the state of Arkansas alone! When evangelicals and conservatives, such as Glen Beck, Mike Huckabee, or Sarah Pailin visit Israel, Dannon is apparently their favorite tour guide. As Johns Stewart said about Huckabee’s most recent trip to Israel: “He won’t be meeting any Palestinians on this trip. That’s good because then they might convince him that they actually exist.”



The Strange Bedfellows of the Iran Nuclear Agreement: Israel and Saudi-Arabia

What the Israel-Saudi-Arabia dissent to the agreement shows more than anything is that it’s no longer just about nuclear weapons but about regional politics.

Netanyahu is doing everything in his power to scuttle the nuclear deal painstakingly worked out in Vienna between Iran and the P5+ partners. Most recently, he welcomed a delegation of 22 Democratic freshman congressional members to Israel, some of whom were on their first trip to the country. This was an all-expense paid trip, one of many that is coordinated by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), where US legislators are brought to Israel to tour the country and meet with important members of the foreign and defense establishment.

In an almost two-hour long meeting with the visiting members, Netanyahu—who apparently spoke for most of that time himself—expressed a strong opposition to the agreement, while refraining form explicitly telling the members how to vote in next month’s ballot. According to Steny Hoyer, the most senior member of the delegation, Netanyahu “feels strongly about it, so he argues strongly.” However, he did so in a logical fashion, outlining the various sections of the deal one by one, explaining his disapproval.

As House and Senate members are lining up for or against the agreement, it is interesting to note that a similar process is going on in Iran, where President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif are being challenged by hardliners, who have recently lambasted the deal on various Iranian TV channels. Apparently, according to one report, when Javad Zarif together with head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, submitted the full text of the deal to the Iranian parliament and proceeded to answer questions, some of its most hardline members pretended to be sleeping. But perhaps even more interestingly, a leading Teheran Ayatollah, Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Movahedi Kermani, proclaimed in his Friday sermon (on July 16) that, “The Zionist regime (Israeli) and Saudi Arabia are angry about the nuclear deal, and this is the best proof of the value of the deal.”

Thus, we have come full circle, and it has to be asked: has it occurred to Netanyahu that he may have been one of the main driving forces behind his now much-hated agreement? Did Bibi not consider that openly addressing congress to convince US lawmakers to oppose the deal was the most effective road to more substantial Iranian concessions? If these things did indeed occur to him, then why would he still want to try to scuttle the deal and why is he risking a new all-time low in US-Israeli relations?

We have all heard the arguments for and against. While convincingly explained by Joe Lieberman in a congressional hearing, simply explaining to Iran that US domestic legislators were “not sold” on the deal and that we now have to go back to the negotiation table is not likely to be very effective. In fact, as this report claims—and as Zarif himself has pointed out earlier—Iranians are well aware of how US domestic politics works, and most likely, a rejection of the deal in congress would mean a retaliatory rejection by the Iranian Parliament. Just about the opposite of an approval to go back to the negotiation table. Indeed, most of those critical to the deal seem to understand that the alternatives, short of using force, are not going to produce an ideal outcome given the circumstances and the progress that has already been made in the negotiations. That should also be obvious to Prime Minister Netanyahu.

In fact, such an outcome may even be preferable to Netanyahu. Because he has probably decided that it was not all about nuclear weapons after all. In fact, it was more about regional politics. Looking at Saudi Arabia’s reaction makes this point clear. According to former IAEA director Hans Blix (and I paraphrase from a conversation that I had with him in 2005), “most Middle Eastern politics could be explained through the lens of Iranian behavior.” When asked why Saddam Hussein had presided over the destruction of his country’s nascent WMD stockpile but then refused to admit to it to the IAEA, he explained, “because Saddam wanted Iran to believe they still had them.” Thus, similarly, Saudi-Arabia is more afraid of a denuclearized Iran that has the money to influence the region’s politics, than a defiant and rogue, but poor, Iran that acts as the world’s favorite Pariah, and that can legitimately be “squashed” and checked at only a moment’s notice.

Although Israel’s certainly has not dropped its concern over Iran’s nuclear capabilities and breakout time (nor should they), Netanyahu’s posture shows that he prefers deterring Iran’s nuclear capabilities over a more complex verification and monitoring regime that promises an enhancement in US-Iranian cooperation and Iranian conventional capabilities. For Iran, this agreement does indeed give them the tools to regain their economic strength and dominate the region, a prospect feared by Saudi-Arabia, with a large Shia minority. For Israel, while an economically strong Iran is not necessarily a threat, an economically strong Iran with strengthening commercial relations with both the US and Europe, is. Under such circumstances, a strengthening of ties with Saudi-Arabia may be Israel’s best bet. And it’s indeed what is happening: Iran and Israel recently officially admitted that they have held secret talks—no less than five times over the past 17 months according to this report. According to Shimon Shapira, a retired Israeli general and an expert on Hezbollah, the Israelis and Saudis have discovered they share the same problems and challenges, as well as answers.

However, there is one slight problem, Saudi-Arabia does not recognize Israel and does not plan to do so in the near future. Full cooperation, say the Saudis, would only be possible if Israel accepts and implements Saudi-Arabia’s proposal for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the Arab Peace Initiative. So Netanyahu is effectively stuck between a rock and a hard place. But one can always dream…wouldn’t it be nice (and a bit ironic) if a peace with the Palestinians would be the side-effect of Israel’s rejection of the Iran nuclear deal?

Then life happened…

Screenshot 2015-08-12 16.27.13Dear friends, colleagues, “followers” and other readers,

I have been on a two-year hiatus from writing and updating this Blog as “life happened” around me, but I am beginning to restart the machines on a small scale again. Look here for new posts appearing shortly.

As they do appear, please let me know what you think: Be generous…be responsive…be understanding…but do not spare the critique!

All comments are greatly appreciated! Please enjoy reading!

Thank you,

Tova Norlen

Are security concerns important for the Israeli-Palestinian relationship?


Is the Israeli policy toward the Palestinians in the West Bank driven by security concerns or are there mostly other reasons for why Israel maintains the territorial status quo with respect to the 1967 borders?  What has Netanyahu done to improve Israeli-Palestinian relations and what is his new government expected to do in the near future? Given their obvious negative impact on Israel’s security, why does the Israeli government continue to allow civilian settlements in those areas?

While the recent Israeli elections showed that Netanyahu’s political support has begun to slip, there is also evidence that most Israelis are happy with his foreign policy decisions and share his skepticism regarding the seriousness of the Palestinian partners.  But Israel is deeply divided between “hawks” and “doves” and the division regarding what to do with the territories acquired in 1967 stems from ideological and religious factors rather than security. These issues and others are addressed in a piece published today with the International Security Network, in Zurich, Switzerland.

Peace Not Likely a Priority for Israel’s new Coalition

Prime Minister Netanyahu meets with President Peres to announce that he has put together a government

As Netanyahu presented his coalition for the 33rd government to President Shimon Peres on March 16th, he also included the customary declaration hoping for an improvement in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship:

“The coalition’s basic guidelines state that “Israel will pursue a peace agreement with the Palestinians with the goal of reaching a diplomatic accord that would end the conflict; if such a resolution is reached, the government would be asked to approve it and should the need arise, it would be subject to a referendum.”

For those of us who are hoping for the resumption of peace talks if for no other reason than for the fact that talking is better than not talking, this seems like good news. However, it only takes a quick glance at the outlines of the new government coalition to see that any advancement in the dialogue with the Palestinians is guaranteed to come with a spill-proof “no territorial concessions” guard.

That guarantee comes from the handing of major government ministries with influence over key government decisions regarding settlements directly into the hands of Naftali Bennet’s HaBayit HaYehudi, a party that is directly apposed to the peace process and supports the expansion of settlements. While it may seem expected that the prime minister himself would set policy towards the West Bank, most important routine decisions regarding construction of housing and infrastructure is under the control of the Ministry of Housing, a ministerial position that has been filled with HaBayit HaYehudi’s number two, Uri Ariel.

Haaretz: Israel's new ministers
Haaretz: Israel’s new ministers

Ariel, a former secretary general of both the settler organization Amana and the Yesha Council, was ranked as the most effective right-wing member of the Knesset in 2011. The ranking was based on a number of nationalist achievements in the areas of “nationalist achievements” and “sovereignty and construction.” Ariel’s achievements listed in the study were laws passed on settlement building, making Jerusalem a “national priority zone” and legislation towards improving cell phone service in the West Bank.

Naftali Bennet himself will be in charge of the Economy and Trade Ministry, (formerly the Ministry of Industry, Trade, and Labor), a cabinet position that will most likely give him substantial control over the promotion of economic growth and regional economic development in Israel.  According to its website, the ministry is “engaged in the encouragement and support of export and international commerce, in order to assist Israeli businesses in enhancing their exports and entering new markets abroad.” While this may not seem like an important post for someone whose primary concern is the promotion and expansion of settlements, it is in fact one of the major quiet battlegrounds where the ideological struggle over resource allocation to settlements is played out. This ministry determines whether how economic and industrial support is allocated, including whether or not economic growth is allowed and encouraged in the West Bank. Being in charge of the export market also gives him certain powers over how West Bank products are marketed and sold in the rest of the world, something that is becoming increasingly important as the international divestment campaign against settlement products is gaining ground.

As defense minister, Netanyahu picked former General and deputy prime minister, Moshe Ya’alon, explaining that at this decisive time when “region all around us is stormy” Israel needs an experienced man on this post. Ya’alon, who came in fifth place in the 2011 ranking of the most right-wing MKs, is well know for his hard-line views towards the Palestinians and his hawkish views towards Iran. However, Ya’alon should not be dismissed as a one-dimensional character. His roots are in Labor Zionism, and he originally supported negotiating with the Palestinians and the signing of the Oslo accords, but like many Israelis, became disenchanted when the results were unsuccessful. Instead, Ya’alon argues for a “bottom up” rather than top-down approach to peace, where Palestinians first must recognize Israel as a Jewish state, then prove themselves economically and politically, before gaining the right to statehood.

Finally, and if he is exonerated from the corruption charges against him, the foreign ministry will remain in the hands of Yisrael Beiytenu’s Avigdor Lieberman, who does not miss an opportunity to point out that he is adamantly opposed to any freeze in settlement construction anywhere at all for the purpose of restarting the peace effort.

Tzipi Livni, Leader of Kadima Party -Israel. צ...

Thus, whether Tzipi Livni, charged with the Ministry of Justice and Israeli-Palestinian affairs, will have any chance to make concessions that can be acceptable to the minimum Palestinian demands, seems highly unlikely. As “chief negotiator” Netanyahu has promised not to side-step her, but any concession that she makes would be subject to a vote both in the coalition and in the full Knesset, and possibly also to a referendum. Palestinians, it was reported, are underwhelmed by her appointment.

Bennet defies prediction and allies himself with Lapid!/image/3988980943.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_640/3988980943.jpg
HaBayit HaYehudi’s leader
Naftali Bennet (Photo:Haaretz)

I said I never try to predict anything and for good reason. The news this morning shows that my prediction yesterday that Bennet would accept the offer by Likud-Beytenu could not have been more wrong. Instead, Bennet has decided to ally himself with Yair Lapid in order to prevent the haredi parties from entering the government. That story is detailed this morning in Israel Hayom. What Bennet’s strategic calculations will gain or cost him remains to be seen. Most news sources in Israel at the moment are focused on the story about the jailed Australian Mossad agent who committed suicide his prison cell.

The rest of the prediction–the one about Netanyahu bargaining about his own political survival–actually seems even more likely now that both Bennet and Lapid are pushing for a seat at the table.

Bibi’s Double Bargain

Netanyahu walks a frayed tightrope. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Prime Minister Netanyahu may find that the outcome of the bargaining process to determine the coalition for the 33rd government will have repercussions for his future political survival.

I try not to predict things very often, especially in Israeli politics, but the news coming out of the latest coalition talks between Netanyahu and Naftali Bennet make “predictioneering” very tempting.  So here we go: if Naftali Bennet takes Netanyahu up on his very specific offer to join the government—an offer that would only be on the table for 48 hours—the next Israeli government will lead a tumultuous life and is unlikely to survive until the next elections.

Most likely, Naftali Bennet will accept the offer. With its 12 Knesset seats, Bennet’s HaBayt haYehuda party is a contending force in Israeli politics, representing more hawkish views than the Likud party, and is a heavily favored political choice in the modern orthodox and national religious settler communities. However, it is not concern for the party’s relative numerical strength that will compel Bennet to join the coalition. Neither is it his own personal political ambitions (of which I am an unqualified judge). Rather, the nature of the party itself and the issues that it promotes makes a role in the opposition unthinkable and utterly meaningless.

This is because Bennet’s party is essentially a one-issue party; its only true concern being the prevention of any developments in the process to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace that could lead to the creation of a Palestinian state and the surrender of Israeli-held territory. Because of its singular focus, a seat around the coalition table is crucial, as it would only take one political “misstep” for the next Israeli administration to destroy the party’s raison d’etre

The lessons of the Olso Agreement and the Gaza evacuation taught the national religious that “peace” can “strike” at any moment and that even the most staunch settler allies (read Ariel Sharon) can have what seams like a sudden change of heart. This is sometimes referred to as the “peace disease” or “peace fever” and can be described as the realization by Israeli politicians—once they assume a leadership role—that territorial sacrifices are necessary in order to prevent further deterioration of Israeli democracy as a result of the impending Palestinian demographic “bomb.” In other words, they come to understand that it is imperative to separate Israel from territories that are heavily populated by Palestinian Arabs in order to retain a Jewish majority inside of Israel’s borders. How HaBayt haYehudi intends to deal with the impending demographic inevitability is the topic for another day (and one that resembles the debate between evolutionists and creationists). More important, however, is what awaits Israel and the world if Bennet accepts to be part of the coalition.

According to recent reports, the party was offered a number of important ministerial posts to sweeten the deal, including the education portfolio and a top-level economic portfolio. Apparently, the party would also get the portfolio of deputy of defense, which would mean that it would have broad authority over the expansion of settlements and construction in Judea and Samaria. If it’s true that Likud-Beytenu is also willing to grant Bennett’s party the chairmanship of the Knesset Finance Committee their victory over those who promote a settlement freeze would be complete. In other words, should Yair Lapid also decide to join the coalition, he will be in for a battle.

For the rest of this article, please read my blog post in the Times of Israel.
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Jewish Home (HaBayt HaYehudi) leader Naftali Bennet