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

Warning: An Angry Post About Gaza

A rocket being launched from the Gaza strip into Israel
A rocket launched from Gaza heads towards Sderot, Israel. Photo: Jack Guez/AFP

I mostly feel hopeless right now…and a bit numb. My facebook page is exploding with hatred, ignorance, and even bigotry from people on both sides of the widening chasm. I just want to scream and swear and say “how the &$!#! can you be so unbelievably stupid to actually believe the old slogans that EVERY (with a big emphasis on every) Muslim wants to push Israel into the Sea,” or the opposite, that “Israel deliberately targets civilian areas in order to kill Palestinian children?”

The fact is that the Gazans live in a hellhole. Although Hamas is certainly partly to blame the truth is that they have lived in a hellhole long before Hamas took over the government. Yes, it’s true; Hamas is also responsible for this escalation, as they were for the escalation that led to Operation Cast Led. It’s also true that giving up Gaza in 2005 did not help Israel, but in many ways only made it worse. It emboldened Hamas and obviously made it more difficult for the IDF to keep track of weapons, bomb making, rocket labs, and tunnel smuggling. But it’s also true that except for a few years of economic upswing in anticipation of the Oslo agreement (a time during which support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad was at an all-time low), Gaza is a living hell and the only country that has the power to instigate a change is Israel.

Don’t tell me that the Gaza Palestinians can choose to go to any Arab state; you know that’s not true. Don’t tell me they were recent immigrants to Palestine anyways before 1948 so they are not really refugees anyways; it just shows you are bigoted and ignorant. Many of the refugees from Haifa and Jaffa had lived there for generations and probably even have Jewish genealogy. Somebody should check their DNA just for the heck of it. Could be funny – it would set off a firestorm on both sides.

Don’t tell me I am being anti-Israel, anti-Zionist or pro-Palestinian – seriously, what do you think happens if a million people are locked up in a big prison for over 60 years lacking even the most basic supplies and amenities, including access to adequate education? They may get a bit restless, and angry, and then somebody comes along and brainwashes them. At that point, deterrence does not work because they really have nothing to loose, especially if someone guarantees them 77 virgins in heaven. Most of them can’t double-check the facts anyways, as they have no computers.

I have no passion for Hamas or Islamic terrorists and I agree that they still have no right to shoot rockets into Israel and that something has to be done to stop it quickly – no country can live under a constant barrage of random missiles that are hitting civilians in apartment buildings, schools, and nurseries. I also agree that there is very little coverage in the international press about this constant barrage. But I am also a political scientist who studies world events and analyses the cause and effect. And, as Washington Post Jerusalem bureau chief Janine Zacharia asks in Slate: What is Israel’s long-term strategy for Gaza to try to change this situation?

An Israeli child seen through a window of a building in the Southern Israeli town of Netivot that was hit by a Gaza rocket. southern town of Netivot. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
Haaretz: A breakdown of the Fighting between Israel and Gaza

In fact, except for “cutting the grass” – in other words, “bomb them back to the Middle Ages” every ten years, the current government has NO STRATEGY. Why? Because “they are never going to stop hating us,” so why bother to make their lives better?

I do agree with Zacharia’s assessment when she says: “It’s time to declare Israel’s policy toward Gaza and Hamas a failure. This is not an anti-Israel statement. Rather, it is an honest acknowledgment of the facts, which are simply too numerous to avoid.”

Regardless of who was there first, who shot first, who hates whom, and who’s God is right, if Israel really wants to stop this from recurring it has to figure out a way to get rid of the problem. If the preferred outcome is to move the Gaza Palestinians to Arab states, then negotiate with those Arab states to allow them to emigrate. Bribe them, do whatever it takes! I am sure that at least 50% of Gazans would happily leave. If the preferred outcome involves leaving them where they are ask what can be done to educate the next generation of Gazans in order to prevent the indoctrination they are currently getting.

But most importantly, for Israel’s sake, look around the region. “Cutting the grass” and “bombing them back to the middle Ages” with impunity may leave them with a smaller stockpile of weapons for the next few years but it is not going to work for that much longer as Israel’s neighborhood is drastically changing. As U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta noted last year: “The question you have to ask: Is it enough to maintain a military edge if you’re isolating yourself in the diplomatic arena? Real security can only be achieved by both a strong diplomatic effort as well as a strong effort to protect your military strength.’’

Instead, Israel assassinates the guy who apparently was just about to put his signature on a cease-fire agreement. True, he had a lot of blood on his hands, but are his followers going to be more accommodating? And how about the kids and the grand kids?

Some sources for latest information and opinion:

The rocket count on IDF’s blog

LA Times: Israel attack on Gaza: Familiar tension, new circumstances

Live blog from Haaretz

Slate: Why Israel’s Gaza Campaign is Doomed, by Janine Zacharia

BBC blog/tweet page

NY Times, Nov 16th: As Battlefield Changes, Israel Takes Tougher Approach

The Daily Beast, Daniel Levy, Nov 16th: “Living By the Sword”

Confused About Where the Middle East is Heading? I don’t blame you!

I don’t blame regular hardworking citizens in the US and Europe for being confused and frustrated about what is going on in the Middle East. In preparation for a small talk about the Middle East this week in Switzerland, I sat down and searched the news for a pattern, or some kind of red thread that could provide me with that Zen-like power to explain what is really going on in the Middle East and why Europeans should care. Not surprisingly, my quest was unsuccessful. For the long list of seemingly random and contradictory events that took place over the weekend in various parts of the Middle East, please go to my blog on the Times of Israel.

This picture called the “Middle East confusion map,”  is a very good rendition of current events that I came up with (I am sorry I cannot find the name of the artist):

Artist unknown

To say that we understand what is going on in the Middle East is one thing. But to claim that we alone have the power to discern right from wrong, good from evil, or perhaps more accurately, evil from evil, is quite another. Anyone who does so without pragmatism is, in my opinion, 100% wrong. But then again, can you really blame people who grow up in an environment where you are either right or dead?

However, looking at this list of findings, it needs to be pointed out that most of the news items describe stories that involve human lives and reflect the yearning of individuals to live free from oppression and tyranny.  They are about the human desire to live in peace without rockets or sectarian violence, without dictators or foreign occupiers, and without the fear of religious persecution. What is missing in the Middle East is the realization that these desires cannot be mutually exclusive, or else the violence will surely continue.

The Mutual Misunderstanding – America, Islam, and the First Amendment

Photo: Mohammed Abu Zaid/AP Photo. Protestors in Cairo scale the walls of the American embassy.

There is a fundamental misunderstanding in the Muslim world about American society and how it works, something that has become glaringly obvious in the week that followed the killing of the US Ambassador to Libya and three of his staff. As the world reacted to the initial attacks in Libya and Egypt, a spokesperson for the Egyptian President, Mohammed Morsi, condemned the violence and issued condolences to the US government, while also calling on the Obama administration to prosecute the “madmen” behind the US made video that is said to have sparked the violence. In response to the video (but before the violence) the US Embassy in Cairo issued a statement, condemning the “continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”

The statement of the US Embassy and the subdued US response to the continued violence during the past week illustrates the American dilemma in trying to improve its relations with Muslim countries in the Middle East while also preserving its own national interests. On the one hand, the US image suffers from decades of direct support to authoritarian dictators who suppressed Islamic political movements and basic freedoms. On the other hand, the US is a country defined by its civil liberties, allowing the administration has very little control over “free speech” content that is produced and published by private Americans on the Internet.

In societies where technology is relatively new and still largely controlled by the authorities, it becomes quite natural to believe that what appears on the internet from across the Atlantic has government backing and represent the united sentiments of all Americans. In addition, for the “Arab street,” it may appear strange that a superpower that has propped up their countries’ militaries and invaded three countries in the Middle East since 9/11 has no power—or willingness—to control its own population’s “hateful outbursts” against “other” religions.

Such a reaction shows that the biggest misunderstanding about American society in the Arab world is probably about how the principle of freedom of speech and religion works. While there are plenty of anti-Islamic fear-mongers in the US, Islam is not generally considered an “other” religion; it is one piece of a mosaic of religious traditions in the United States, all of which get criticized and bashed by those of other or no faith as a result of the imperfect society/democracy that we live in.  While Islam may have been unfairly targeted more recently (especially as a result of 9/11) Muslims are not alone in feeling like they are always on the defensive about their faith. While hate speech can be prosecuted in the US when it targets individuals, the principle of religious freedom in the US allows Americans to attack each other’s religions and Deities almost indiscriminately, as long as it doesn’t lead to attacks and persecution against individual members of those faiths.

This is why, for most mainstream Americans, one quick glance at the absolutely absurd controversial movie trailer “the Innocence of Muslims” would have been enough to realize that this one could not possibly be considered serious enough for anyone to get up from the couch to defend or attack religious freedom. Yet, as soon as it was translated into Arabic and went viral in the Arab world, it was understood as an orchestrated American attack on Islam and Muslims in general.

As violence is spreading in the Middle East, one wonders what, if anything, can be done to prevent similar episodes in the future? What can the US do to ameliorate relations with the Arab and Muslim world in order to prevent a further deterioration of the situation?

The classical answer—sending troops—will not be sufficient this time around. Instead, the US may need to take a hard look at its own national security strategy in order to formulate a more effective policy for improving the US image with the Arab—and Islamic—street. Such an approach will need to have both long-term and short-term elements and include a serious evaluation of how the US fundamental rights of freedom of speech and religion affects people outside of our borders. How can we explain to people, whose freedoms have been suppressed by US-sponsored dictators, that the US is not a “dictatorship” in its own country and is therefore unable to prosecute anyone who expresses anti-religious sentiments in a “public” forum, including the Internet?

One way would perhaps be to take a longer-term perspective, adopting a broader view on the first amendment that would allow a discussion about how such expression affects the religious sensitivities of those religious groups targeted. While the hate speech prohibition in the US protects individuals from persecution on the basis of their religious or ethnic/personal identity, it does not protect those communities from attacks that they themselves may consider the worst kind; blasphemy. In other words, we need to be aware that hate speech may be experienced differently from religion to the next.

Curtailing freedom of speech on behalf of national security is extremely controversial and is certainly not advocated in this piece. However, having the discussion about how something that we take for granted affects those outside of our borders would benefit both sides of the Atlantic while doing little harm.

NY Times/Damien Cave: An American woman protests the planned Gainsville Koran burning by photographing her daughter with a peace sign.

However, should the US have this discussion alone, or can we expect the Muslim world to meet us half way? Muslims also need to be aware that the recent spread of violence against US and other Western embassies in places as diverse as Tunisia and Australia does not improve the image of Islam in the eyes of non-Muslim Americans. Further, it is understandable that some Americans have a difficult time seeing how the burning of Korans and the making of insulting videos are any worse than flag trampling and church-burning in the Middle East. While some Muslim bloggers have pointed out that the timing of the Libya attack (on September 11th) was proof that the attack was orchestrated by Al-Qaeda and did thus not represent the mainstream view of Libyan Muslims, such an explanation does not fully carry over to the subsequent mass demonstrations and violence in other places around the world.

Moderate Muslims thus also have a difficult task ahead; to convince their societies that confrontation and violence is not likely to improve anything but will only make matters worse.

Israeli Identity and Its Security Dilemmas

Photo: Flickr

Religion is fundamental to Israeli identity politics and cannot be separated from the country’s geography or society, argues Tova Norlén. This, however, does not translate into uniform thinking when it comes to defining Israel’s security dilemmas.

To read the whole piece go to the International Security Network website here

Egypt now: democratic spring, Arab awakening or populist winter?

With the presidential elections in Egypt underway, this article, published on the website of the EU Institute for Security Studies explores the process of democratic transition following the Arab Spring in a country where advocates of political Islam are currently locked in an electoral struggle with Mubarak’s old Prime minister. See the entire article here.

Armageddon and the Stalemate: Time as a Conflict Strategy

In this post, written for the Times of Israel, I argue that we need to continue to make efforts to get Palestinians and Israelis back to the negotiation table. Even if it perhaps may seem so, continued stalemate and time does not work in favor of either party in the long run.

For the entire text, see my post in the Times of Israel