Tag Archives: Palestine

Nothing New in Israeli Politics

The Palestinian question cannot be shunned by Israel’s political class and by its Jewish electorate since it is part and parcel of Israel’s essence. No “new” coalition can change this fundamental fact.

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Although almost two months have passed since Israeli citizens have cast their vote to elect the 19th Knesset, a government is yet to be formed.

In the meantime, there are three considerations to be made. The first one regards Netanyahu’s claim that the main issue on which his government will focus will be “socioeconomic”. In the summer of 2011 tens of thousands of Israelis protested against austerity measures and the rising price of housing. The opposition seized the opportunity and accused the Netanyahu government of mismanaging the economy and finance of the country. Therefore Netanyahu pledged to make it his priority to see to it that no Israeli will ever again have to suffer financial angst.

There are two hidden aspects to the “socioeconomic” agenda. Firstly, Netanyahu believes that by focusing on it he will be able to focus solely on “domestic” issues. That is, he will be able to cast aside, at least for a while, anything which is “foreign”. By “foreign” Netanyahu means one thing and one thing only: the stagnation of the peace process with the Palestinians due to settlement construction in the occupied West Bank. Thus it is not a sincere desire to ease Israeli citizens’ lives that drives the Netanyahu to focus on the “domestic socioeconomic” issue but rather a desire to to postpone the creation of a Palestinian state.

The second hidden aspect is the fact that the “socioeconomic” situation which needs to be ameliorated pertains to Jewish Israeli citizens and not to all Israeli citizens. Indeed, the “socioeconomic” status of the Arab population has been neglected up to the point of asking whether Israel is a democracy at all. No wonder less than half of the Arab population was expected to vote.

The second consideration concerns the fact that any “new” coalition will not be that new after all since it will either be constituted by political parties which are not sincere about peace or by political parties which, while professing to be part of the “peace camp,” have not won enough seats to make a real difference.

The two possible heavyweight candidates to join Netanyahu are Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home), led by Naftali Bennet, a software tycoon, who has made explicit his intent of expanding settlement construction and to annex Area C of the West Bank, equivalent to 61% of the territory (indeed, Netanyahu himself pledged not to dismantle any settlements); and Yesh Atid, a centrist political party founded by Yair Lapid, a former journalist and TV presenter, who has delivered his main electoral speech at the University of Ariel, arguably the biggest and most controversial settlement in the West Bank. Mr. Lapid has also stated that Jerusalem must remain undivided (read: Israeli).

The political parties which seem genuinely interested in the peace process are Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah which won a mere 5% of the votes; Meretz also at 5% and Kadima at 2%. The three Arab-Israeli parties combined did not even make it to 10%.

Since settlement construction is deemed illegal under international law, it can be safely stated that the “new” government will be composed of criminal elements. The international community should condemn ferociously the policies of these political parties and make it clear that Netanyahu’s alliance with them is frowned upon. Alas, the only reaction seen so far was the usual hand tapping by the British Foreign secretary William Hague.

The previous two brief reflections lead me to the third and final one which perhaps is the most important: governments are not formed ex nihilo, they are elected by the people. Two things follow from this. Firstly, the policies which are implemented or which the elected parties pledge to implement reflect the values of the people voting for those same parties. Therefore the underlying problem is not so much that there are a few racist individuals in Israel’s political arena but that a great part, if not a majority, of the Israeli public shares these racist values and wishes for them to be implemented.

Secondly, and following the above remark, the Israeli public shares the responsibility for racist policies being implemented against the native Arab population. We are accustomed to aim criticisms at governments and other political institutions for injustices perpetrated by nations. The fact of the matter is, though, that in Israel people do elect governments and therefore share responsibility. Change will not come by putting pressure on the political establishment but only once the Israeli institutions will be reformed in such a way as to create a radical shift in the Jewish Israeli public’s values.

The Palestinian question cannot be shunned by Israel’s political class and by its Jewish electorate since it is part and parcel of Israel’s essence. No “new” coalition can change this fundamental fact.

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Photo Credit: Lilachd

Time For Palestine To Join The Arab Spring

Palestinians must decide whether they want to continue living in dire conditions under a brutal Israeli regime or take the plunge, join the Arab Spring and strive for the opportunity to achieve justice and freedom for themselves.

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As uprisings continue to sweep the Arab region, from the North African country of Tunisia all the way to Syria and Bahrain, it is rather astonishing that the Palestinians have not jumped on the bandwagon and joined the Arab Spring movement. After all, it would have been a timely opportunity to join the momentum of those revolutions that continue to strike the region in hope of achieving freedom from brutality. It would have also put the Western nations in a difficult situation. Western Europe, together with the United States, has been very supportive (at least in rhetoric) of the Arab Spring, playing a crucial role in overthrowing Gaddafi and continuing to be an important player in the Syrian civil war. It is well known, however, that the West-especially the United States-shows undeniable support towards Israel. This was witnessed during the last Israeli attacks on Gaza when the United States blamed the Palestinians for the conflict. For this reason, a Palestinian uprising would put the United States in a peculiar position. Could America really continue to show full support to the Syrian rebels and Egyptian civilians, who are once again demonstrating on the streets against their current leader Morsi, yet deny the Palestinians the opportunity to protest against the many grievances: Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the ghetto-like Wall that separates Gaza from the rest of humanity, the illegal settlements, the unfair treatment of Palestinians living in Israel, the shootings of Palestinian children on the Gaza border, the lack of food and clean water due to the Israeli blockade and against the constant threat that Israel will strike again any minute. While western nations are notoriously known for their hypocritical stance when it comes to their foreign policy in the Middle East (which usually reflects their own national interests), the denial of the Palestinian right to rise up against Israel would set in stone what the majority already fear: the West’s lack of concern for human rights of others.

Though the Arab Spring started in 2011, the uprisings are still in full swing and therefore it is not late for Palestine to join the movement. It would be essential for the Palestinians to carry out a peaceful protest (i.e. no rockets from Hamas and no killings of Israelis), but nevertheless a protest that sends out a clear message that they will not back down until some progress is made. This would deny Israel their usual defence: that Palestine is an aggressive region and poses a threat to Israeli national security. This protest should not be about borders, or about a potential creation of the Palestinian state, but about a simple desire to be treated like human beings rather than caged animals. The majority of the international community already support the Palestinians. Not only has Palestine been granted the status of an observer non-member state at the UN, but the reports by the United Nations continue to condemn and criticise the inhumane actions of Israel. If Israel were to retaliate with violence and force against a peaceful uprising by the Palestinians, the Jewish state would risk more alienation from the international community and more disapproval from the general public around the world. A nation cannot continue to survive with a long queue of enemies.

In 2011, the Arab populations took the leap of faith. Many knew that their uprisings could lead to brutal response from their dictators. Some were aware that perhaps they would not survive to see the end of authoritarianism in the Middle East. Yet as the saying goes, when you have nothing, you got nothing to lose. The Palestinians have suffered to the point of near-total submission. However they must use the inspiration from their fellow Arabs who made the decision that enough is enough. Emiliano Zapata, a leading figure in the Mexican Revolution against the dictatorship in 1910 said that “it’s better to die upon your feet than to live upon your knees”. The Palestinians must now make the choice between whether they want to continue living in dire conditions under a brutal Israeli regime or take the plunge, join the Arab Spring and strive for the opportunity to achieve justice and freedom for themselves.

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Photo Credit: Joi

Food & International Security: Wasted

Globally there is a disproportionate lack of post-harvest food loss related scientific literature, practical research, development projects, funding for agricultural research and extension programs and public attention. Despite this, both governments and the market have failed to address this crucial issue.

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Water wars are set to become more widespread in years to come. This is especially relevant to the Middle East, because so many fresh water sources straddle international boundaries. Israel-Palestine negotiations often stumble over the issue of sharing water, and in the past both Jordan and Syria have identified threats to their water supply as a crucial factor in deciding whether they will go to war with Israel.

This situation is expected to worsen: the number of ‘water-scarce’ countries in the Middle East “grew steadily from three in 1955 to eight in 1990”. Now twelve of the world’s fifteen water-scarce countries are in the Middle East and North Africa.

Agriculture is the cause of “70% of all global freshwater withdrawn worldwide”, and this is set to rise, especially as meat consumption in Asia rises. The Middle East is no exception – agriculture is “the main cause of depleting water resources in the region”.

Much of this is in vain – estimates of global food waste have been as high as 30 or 50%. Stuart argues that if 25% of the world’s food is unnecessarily wasted (assuming that between a third and a half is wasted, but that it is not realistic to cut down on all of it), this represents a loss of “approximately 675 litres” of water, “easily enough for the household needs of 9 billion people using 200 litres a day”. The executive director of SIWI said that reducing food waste “is the smartest and most direct route to relieve pressure on water and land resources”. It is thus essential that the world addresses its food waste, if it wants to avoid water wars in the future.

Land is also a great source of conflict. Here too, reducing food waste would alleviate the pressure by liberating vast swathes of agricultural land for other uses. McKinsey Global Institute estimate that ““reducing food waste at the point of consumption in developed countries by 30 percent could save roughly 40 million hectares of cropland”. Their report examines resource productivity opportunities in energy, land, water, and materials that could address up to 30 percent of total 2030 demand” – reducing food waste is considered the third most important measure.

Food scarcity is also linked with conflict. It has been suggested that recent food price spikes played a role in triggering the Arab Spring. Actually, these food spikes were primarily driven by commodity speculation in futures markets rather than by supply-demand factors – similar in behaviour to inflated housing prices. However, in the long-term food prices have been driven up by food waste, which both creates an artificial scarcity by taking food off the market, and places strain on scarce resources which act as agricultural inputs, driving food prices up. In a world where 925 million people are undernourished, it is vital for both humanitarian reasons and security that food waste be addressed.

Finally, reducing food waste is vital to addressing climate change, itself a threat to international security, through its harmful effects of increased droughts, degradation of agricultural land and likelihood of environmental disasters. Stuart estimates that in the UK and US, assuming that consumers waste approximately 25% of their food, “10 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions” comes from “producing, transporting, storing and preparing food that is never eaten”. Moreover, the FAO states that “considerably less energy and other inputs are required to conserve food than to produce an equal quantity of food”. For instance, “the total energy cost of good grain storage practice is about one percent of the energy cost of producing that grain”. Weaning ourselves off fossil fuels has obvious significance for international security related to oil.

Reducing food waste is also generally economically desirable compared to productivity increases. For instance, in the UK it has been estimated that “increasing the proportion of a farmer’s crop that gets into the supermarket by just 5 per cent can increase the farmer’s profit margins by up to 60 per cent”.

Despite all this, globally there is a disproportionate lack of post-harvest food loss related scientific literature, practical research, development projects, funding for agricultural research and extension programs and public attention.

Both governments and the market have failed to address this issue. Governments have focussed development programmes excessively on productivity increases. The market’s uneven development creates inadequate investment in post-harvest infrastructure in developing countries, and the power of retailers within developed country supply chains enables them to profit from pushing food waste onto suppliers and consumers.

Iran has been the first to address food waste as a geopolitical issue. We must all wake up to the geopolitical significance of food waste: our future security depends on it.

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Photo credit: Bobolink

Wither Zionism? Israel’s ‘Rightward Shift’

Zionism is, and always has been, a rational product of liberal nationalist ideals. Though diaspora Jews for thousands of years mouthed prayers of divine redemption and ‘return’ to Jerusalem, it was the European enlightenment and the rise of egalitarian and socialist currents that inspired ideological young Jewish pioneers to ‘reclaim’ what is today the State of Israel.

The reality today is markedly different, as Israel’s General Elections loom on the 22nd of January. The incumbent right-wing administration is almost certain to return to power, with Benjamin Netanyahu set to become Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister.

Frequently, this phenomenon is labelled Israel’s ‘rightward shift’; pundits often paint long-term reductionist portraits of the dwindling electoral fortunes of Israel’s left-of-centre parties.

The truth is more nuanced: Israel’s Jewish voters are not inherently right-wing nor overwhelmingly harbour annexationist desires vis-à-vis the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

The left-wing hegemony over Israel’s electoral politics was total for the first three decades of the young state’s life. In both 1993 and 1999, Israeli voters realised that a political, not military solution, was exigent and necessary to end spiralling violence.

In 2008, the last time Israelis went to the polls, the centre-left Kadima Party emerged as the largest political force in the Knesset, yet were outmanoeuvred by the savvy Netanyahu and sent packing to the opposition.

Today, Israel’s liberal-left is in disarray, with a myriad of parties jockeying for the centre ground, constrained and divided by egoism and Prime Ministerial ambitions, handing an increasingly radical right the keys to the Prime Minister’s Office.

This represents an incremental threat to the Zionist project. The only viable resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict remains a two-state solution that will preserve Israel’s Jewish essence whilst simultaneously avoiding the creation of an apartheid system that annexation, with its demographic realities, would necessitate. This has consistently been the message of Israel’s Zionist left.

Despite Netanyahu’s endorsement of Palestinian statehood in 2009, senior lawmakers from the Prime Minister’s Likud Party have recently openly declared the party hostile to the two-state solution.

Based on the record of the outgoing administration, it is easy to believe their claims. The longer left-wing infighting continues, the further peaceful coexistence within a Zionist framework slips away. Israel’s left is down, but not out: divided, squabbling and disappointing, but retaining a monopoly over the only feasible, Zionist solution to a festering, existential conflict.

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Photo credit: IsraelinUSA

The Rise Of The Israeli Far Right

Several months ago, my two-piece article for this website offering an introduction to the upcoming Israeli elections of January 22nd devoted a scant one sentence to the potential merger of The Jewish Home and the National Union, two parties representing Israel’s radical right.

The Middle-East represents a taxing milieu for the clairvoyant and/or budding political pundit. Though the Jewish Home boasted a paltry three representatives in the previous Knesset, the party’s absorption of the National Union has sent shockwaves throughout the political system.

This is thanks to the elevation to the party’s leadership of Naftali Bennett: a risk-taking multi-millionaire venture capitalist with an indisputably patriotic record, having served with distinction in a Special Forces unit. If there is an Israeli answer to ‘The American Dream’, Bennett’s résumé embodies it.

The party’s platform presents a wish-list of nationalist-religious extremism: an increased role for Jewish law at the expense of Israel’s liberal-democratic moorings, a socially conservative agenda and, the icing on this terrifying cake, annexation of 60% of the West Bank.

A poll published this week predicted Bennett’s party becoming the second-largest in the Knesset, after the ruling Likud-Beitenu Party led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, a fellow traveler of the political right.

The rise of Jewish Home has eclipsed an even more worrying development; the takeover of the Likud Party by an entryist, far-right group seeking to inject extremist rhetoric into the mainstream right-wing. This is perhaps embodied best by Moshe Feiglin, who will almost certainly represent the Likud in the next Knesset.

Feiglin stood on the ever-so-pragmatic platform of replacing the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, with a rebuilt Jewish Temple. Whereas previously his voice represented a minute segment of the centre-right big-tent, only a small  majority of Likud’s incoming Knesset Members have expressed support for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

By betting on two horses, Israel’s far-right has this one in the bag. Whether The Jewish Home enter the cabinet or not, Netanyahu will have to mollify an unprecedented swing to the right amongst Israel’s already conservative electorate. If the world thought Netanyahu represents the unbridled face of Israeli intransigence, they may yet turn out to be as flabbergasted as those of us who follow Israel’s volatile electoral system.

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Image: The grave of Baruch Goldstein, the Cave of the Patriachs murderer.
Credit: Yoni Lerner

Israel & Palestine: To Cyberwar

It was particularly – if also perversely – interesting to watch Israel wage its quasi-digital offensive against Hamas. The internet wasn’t just a tool for broadcasting their cyberwar message, it was an integral part of the conflict.

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A spate of deadly conflict breaks out, the latest collapse in the notoriously unstable Israel-Palestine quest for peace. Lives are lost – as one might expect in any armed conflict – including those of no small number of innocents. However, in November 2012 there was a difference: the conflict was carried out through a complicated blend of online-offline skirmishes.

Elsewhere, and a scant few weeks later, the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), which “was supposed to be simple and straight-forward… Insert a few platitudes about the importance of universal communications access. Celebrate internationalism, congratulate the ITU on its stewardship of the negotiations, and go home“, failed spectacularly the minute the internet became an issue.

This probably isn’t surprising, given that the lead-up to the Conference supported events like a panel asking whether the WCIT would spell “the end of the internet.” Nonetheless, internet policy advocates looking to move forward after the WCIT would do well to pay attention to the Israel-Palestine conflict, and what it suggests about the relationship between businesses, individuals, and governments online.

As a scholar of cyberlaw and international cyberconflict, I found it particularly – if, admittedly, also perversely – interesting to watch Israel wage its quasi-digital offensive against Hamas. The internet wasn’t just a tool for broadcasting their message, it seemed to be an integral part of the conflict.

Yes it was, in part, a war of images broadcast into cyberspace in an attempt to win hearts and minds for each side’s cause, and the internet undeniably has greatly leveled the playing field in this regard. It also had more immediate, on-the-ground implications; as one commentator observed when describing the internet’s role in the conflict: “This is something new.”

Israel began the conflict with a tweet, warning “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces in the days ahead.” Hamas, as one might expect, responded with an assertion – also via twitter – that they would retaliate in kind. If it had stopped there, or even with the myriad tweets to come in subsequent days, it might have simply been the typical political posturing of leaders in conflict situations.

Instead, Israel took it further: they posted a YouTube video showing the strike that killed a prominent Hamas leader. This type of public display of violence and force is very much part of the act of war itself, and its introduction into the online sphere (by a government, no less) is unprecedented. It is striking to consider that a “country can declare — via Twitter — that it is at war,” and, beyond that, continue to carry out the various actions of war online.

The internet, moreover, allowed private citizens– once relegated either to enlistment or ideological battles on the sidelines– to get involved as well. Anonymous quickly responded to a purported threat against Palestinian internet access by hacking Israeli websites. More telling still, once a cease-fire was declared, cyberattacks against both Israeli and Palestinian websites increased by a huge margin.

And therein lies the rub.

Governments not only have new means by which to wage war, but sympathetic citizens and outsiders can easily inflict widespread damage to ideological opponents without any of the messy concerns that the acts might be found attributable to the state (the standard for which, the International Court of Justice tells us, is whenever the state can be said to have effective control of a third party– a high standard, but not an impossible one, particularly when cyberattacks require so much less to enable them).

Governments thus have simply too much to lose for any attempt to raise the internet as a telecommunications issue, or even as a trade issue, to succeed.

The WCIT was replete with examples of just such a discourse, with debates about the internet often being framed as “a global split between those countries that favor openness or “Internet freedom” and those that want to control their citizens’ activities online.”

(Consider, for instance, the US State Department’s assertion: “We believe [the proposed] provisions reflect an attempt by some governments to regulate the Internet and its content, potentially paving the way for abuse of power, censorship and repression.”)

The true story is more complicated, of course – the foregoing discussion should underline that all governments, in favor of “freedom” or not, have a stake in internet governance that serves to strengthen their own power. The internet is, as Babak Rahimi highlights, a space of contestation where states seek to negotiate the boundaries of their power against both their own citizens and other states.

Thus, internet policy and international law – particularly as it relates to international conflict – are deeply intertwined in ways that ideological battles about protection of certain core rights, on the one hand, and cybersecurity, on the other, fail to capture. Individuals from both fields must attempt to integrate their insights to create policies that take into account the internet’s unique role in our public and private lives.

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Photo credit: Vectorportal

The Perils of International Recognition

The road to Palestinian independence and to a peaceful, Assad-free Syria seems to be significantly longer and bumpier still.

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The past two weeks have seen two significant developments in terms internationally recognized national legitimacy in the Middle East. On November 29, the United Nations General Assembly approved Palestine’s upgrade to non-member observer-state status, and on December 12, the United States and a number of other countries recognized the Syrian Opposition Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. After 65 years of statelessness, the Palestinian people have inched closer than ever before to a juridical homeland, and after two years of increasingly brutal civil war, the international community has acknowledged that Bashar al-Assad and his Alawite regime no longer holds a mandate representative of the Syrian populace. In the West Bank and in northern Syria, however, things continue much as they have, despite what Barack Obama and Ban Ki Moon might say.

The past two weeks have also seen increased belligerence (political or otherwise) by the entrenched regimes that those actions were directed against; Israel and Syria’s Assad-controlled military. Israel’s parliament responded to Palestine’s nascent statehood by approving 2,000 new Israeli settlements in the A-1 zone of the West Bank, which not only drew the rancor of the international community, but also makes a contiguous Palestinian West Bank, with East Jerusalem as its capital, geographically unfeasible.  While the Israeli action seems a direct tit-for-tat (unilateral UN statehood-bid, unilateral annexation of previously untouchable territory) with significant political and diplomatic ramifications, any settlement construction would not begin for about two years, thus leaving the A-1 as a bargaining chip for the time being. The increased violence in Syria in the hours following the announcement of support by the US et al. for the SOC is a far direr situation. The Assad regime, perhaps sensing its back against a wall, reportedly began launching Scud missiles at rebel targets in the north of the country. And why shouldn’t they, given their most ardent supporter’s recent acknowledgement that there soon may be a Syria without Assad.

In addition to giving pause to rebel forces, should short-range ballistic missile use continue, Turkey, who also acknowledged the SOC as the legitimate representative body of the Syrian people and shares a long border with Syria, has also expressed their concern with regards to this development. NATO has responded in-kind, deploying 400 American troops and US-made Patriot missile batteries to southern Turkey.

Both of these developments came at something of an impasse. Mahmoud Abbas’ UN vote was a response to more than 20 years of failed peace talks with the Israelis, and a firm statement that the Palestinian cause no longer believed that the Israeli government, under Binyamin Netanyahu, was any longer pursuing a two-state solution in earnest. The US support of the SOC follows two years of escalating violence and civil war in Syria and only after it became apparent that Assad’s regime might not actually win. Protracted situations beg for drastic solutions, but in both of these instances, international recognition of ‘change’ may not simply be enough – correlated or no, Palestine’s observer status and the SOC’s recognition have only caused Israel and Assad to dig their heels in deeper.

What is clear is that international opinion does not factor much into the (perceived-to-be domestic) policy calculus of entrenched regimes, particularly in these circumstances. Assad did not respond to the SOC’s elevated status by buying an apartment in Paris, he increased his aggression. Netanyahu did not grudgingly acknowledge the “sovereignty” of the West Bank, he simply doubled down on his illegal settlement building and refocused his attention on Gaza and Cairo, where suddenly conversation seems a bit more productive.

Acknowledged, both of these situations are wildly disparate. A very hot civil war, versus a mostly cold secessionist conflict, call for different foreign policy prescriptions for every state or actor directly or peripherally involved. In both cases, international recognition may be a critical step on the path to juridical and empirical sovereignty. For the time being, however, the road to Palestinian independence and to a peaceful, Assad-free Syria seems to be significantly longer and bumpier still.

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Photo Credit: lilivanili

A Palestinian State…In New York

Statehood was granted to Abu Mazen, but what exactly is his state? 

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Mahmoud Abbas’ successful upgrade to Vatican-status in the UN should be seen as a Palestinian victory, in diplomatic terms. Cynics who predicted that Israel’s “Operation Pillar of Defense” was a ploy to highlight the fact that rockets seem to freely launch over walls, thus highlighting Palestinian anathema towards a peaceful coexistence with Israel and thus preventing a UN affirmation of Palestine’s statehood bid were proven wrong. The overwhelming majority of “yes” votes in the UNGA would seem to be an international mandate for rule for Mahmoud Abbas, in the same way that the overwhelming “yes” vote for the partition of the Holy Land seemed to be an international mandate for David Ben-Gurion 65 years ago. November 29, 2012 will be remembered as an historic day for the Palestinian national identity, and rightly so. The international community has taken its most meaningful step towards the creation of a Palestinian state since the dissolution of British Palestine.

This will, in functional terms, accomplish very little in terms of moving towards a viable Palestinian nation-state on two levels. First, Mahmoud Abbas long-sought-after victory at the UNGA is overshadowed by the lack of faith he has from the Palestinian people. At a victory speech in Ramallah, Abbas promised to restore the “unity of the Palestinians and their lands and institutions.” This promise, of course, comes on the heels of Israel’s assault of the Gaza Strip, through which a ceasefire was negotiated between Israel and Hamas, the Islamists who run Gaza, in Cairo – notably without representatives of Fatah at the table. Elliot Abrams notes that Fatah has been in a steady decline since the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004, with Hamas being the more popular, and more powerful, of the Palestinian political entities. After all, it was Hamas’ (and Islamic Jihad’s) continued belligerence that sparked the most significant military exchange between Israel and the Palestinians in four years, and it was Hamas who brokered a ceasefire, in which Israel was forced to give significant concessions. All the while, Mahmoud Abbas was readying for his speech to the UN.

More importantly, it is clear that Israel neither takes Abbas seriously nor sees him as a legitimate broker of a comprehensive peace agreement. Talks broke down as recently as 2010 between Israel and Fatah, largely because of Abbas’ inability to cope (this is not a normative assessment of Israel’s settlement policy; this is a criticism of Abbas’ ability to operate politically from the lesser side of a power dynamic) with Israeli intransigence over settlement construction in the West Bank. Israel does not have this problem with Hamas in Gaza, where they have not had settlements since 2006. Israel also greeted the Abbas successful non-member observer statehood bid with plans to build 3,000 new housing units in strategically important territory in the West Bank, which would significantly obstruct Abbas’ vision of a geographically united West Bank, let alone a geographically united Palestine. For better or for worse, and Israel’s new settlement plans have been roundly criticized even by states historically friendly to the Jewish State, this indicates that Israel simply does not accept Abbas’ political will as a political reality. While Fatah should not follow Hamas’ lead and start lobbing Fajr-5’s into Old Jerusalem in order to indicate to Bibi Netanyahu that they are a force to be reckoned with, a near-absolute majority in the UNGA clearly sends a weaker message. Israel recognizes not only that Hamas poses a threat to Israeli citizens in the south, but also that they have a legitimate mandate from the Palestinian people, and that Abbas and Fatah do not.

I have written and published in the past that I believe that de jure partition – partition resulting in the creation of separate states – is the only method in which prolonged, ethnic civil wars can result in lasting peace between the rival populations, and that this is the only solution for peace in the Holy Land. I believe this continues to be the case, although with some doubts as to what this partition might look like. Substantive efforts at peace between Israelis and Palestinians (UNSCOP, Oslo, Camp David) have all pushed for a two-state solution, albeit with slightly different terms. Mahmoud Abbas’ victory at the UN would seem to be a further step in this direction, but is just another episode in the saga of failed peace talks. While international recognition of a Palestinian state is, again, something to be celebrated, the truth of the matter is that none of the central players in this drama, the United States, Bibi and his Likudniks, and the Palestinian populace, gave their vote to Abu Mazen on November 29. Increasingly, at two-state solution seems farther and farther away. Functionally, at least, three sovereign nations west of the Jordan River seem more likely than two.

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Photo Credit:  Neubie

Gaza – No Good, No Evil

 As long as Israel remains the state of the Jews and Palestine remains the perfect site for Islamic extremists to launch attacks on Tel Aviv, the two can never coexist in complete harmony.
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This month Israel launched the first major attack on the Gaza strip in years. Hundreds of missiles rained down from Israel itself, artillery pounded the strip from the coast and tanks lined up on the border ready to roll in with an unstoppable rampage. Over 150 are dead, over a thousand injured, many women and children. The leader of Hamas’ military division is dead, killed by a missile strike which started the hostilities.
Or at least that’s the simplest way to look at it. Israel react completely disproportionately to Gazan rocket attacks, flatten Gaza at the cost of over a hundred innocent lives and then happily continue to go about their slow conquest of the West Bank. It’s an easy image, the demonic Israel oppressing and killing Palestinians almost arbitrarily. It’s a story of good and evil, of the underdog being crushed under the boot of the giant oppressor.
The reason this concept is so powerful is because it’s so easy to grasp. It’s the story-line to almost every good film ever made, from comedies to action in the cinema. People love to root for the underdog, and they love the black and white nature of good and evil. They cheered for Rocky Balboa, Dr. Richard Kimble, Seabiscuit, even Average Joe’s Gym and Po the Panda. Underdog stories of a small good guy against an stronger evil villain are probably the simplest stories to tell, and therefore the easiest to take sides on. This seems especially true of students across the world. Despite being in the best position to take the time to investigate the complex truths of every conflict they seem most likely to resort to simplistic ideological extremes of support.
But reality is never that simple. No, not even the Nazis, and certainly not the Japanese.
The present conflict did not start with Israel’s targeted killing of the military head of Hamas, it started with a weekend of huge numbers of rockets being fired from Gaza into Israel and attacks on Israeli soldiers on the borders. Over two thousand rockets have been fired into Israel in 2012, resulting in repeated evacuations of homes in the south. These attacks in turn were motivated by continued occupation of the West Bank and blockade of the Gaza strip. The blockade was the result of the 2008-2009 three-week war where Israel responded to 2,378 missiles launched during 2008 by assaulting the Gaza strip, bringing rocket attacks down to only 190 during 2009, however at the cost of over a thousand Palestinian lives. The war was a result of Hamas’ victory in the earlier elections and defeat of Fatah, which in turn was a result of the 2004 conflict where Israel had attacked the Gaza strip again in response to rocket attacks. The list continues to go back. Gazan rocket attacks are responded to with overwhelming force which stops the rocket attacks but through the use of traumatic violence which convinces more Gazans to turn to violence and launch rocket attacks which is responded to with overwhelming force. The attacks of November 2012 are just the latest in a long cycle.
Who’s to blame? Is it Israel for causing the situation which pushes Palestinians towards extremism? Or is it Palestinians for continuing to resort to attacks which they know full well with be responded to with such a display of force? Is it Israel for blockading the strip and occupying the West Bank, or is it Palestinians who’s attacks created the justification for these moves?
The truth is, neither. It makes things easy to take a side and demonise the opposition as the great evil, but it does not make such a position correct. If you want to really get to the crux of the issue it is all the fault of France and Britain who completely arbitrarily broke up the Ottoman Empire and through doing so caused not only the present Israel-Palestine conflict but also the ongoing Syrian Civil War, Iraqi sectarian conflict and Kurdish conflict through the creation of artificial states which could fit into straight lines. Britain created an Israeli state impossible to defend due to its surrounding highlands filled with enemies; therefore necessitated the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Golan Heights.
Yes, you can point to the Israeli blockade and the civilian casualties in Gaza. But on the other side of the coin the blockade was necessitated to reduce the huge influx of weapons into the strip which resulted in the rain of rockets of 2008. Civilian casualties are actually extremely low considering the vast number of targeted attacks directed at Hamas military leadership and rocket sites. Over one thousand strikes have taken place, making the casualty rate astoundingly low. Israeli troops even warned Hamas fighters to move civilians before strikes. The Hamas fighters which launched hundreds of rockets over the year knew what they were inviting in return, in fact it is reasonable to argue that Israel has left such a campaign of deterrence too long. The number of rockets fired by Hamas and Israel are almost the same, Israel’s are simply bigger and more accurate. At least eight Palestinian deaths have been executions carried out by Hamas, and several more have been faulty rockets, including many children.
Yes, you can point to the continual threats from Islamists to wipe Israel off the Earth and constant threats of terrorist attacks Israeli citizens live under the shadow of. However Israeli rejection of international law in the West Bank makes Palestinians feel like a sub-people unable even to vote towards the leaders of the power which controls their lives. The Israeli blockade has created terrible conditions in Gaza pushing people towards armed conflict as their only resort in response.
There is no good and evil in this conflict. Both sides have been terrible to one another and have done good things for their own people. The truth of the matter is that the very idea of placing two fundamentally opposing states on the same stretch of land, in an era where without control of high ground it is impossible to defend yourself, is itself ludicrous. Israel cannot be expected to allow Gaza, the West Bank, the Golan Heights or southern Lebanon to become militarised, to do so would be a gross failure of their duty to protect the citizens of Israel. Likewise the Palestinians cannot be expected to endure sub-standard conditions with no true representation or recognition in the face of an ever-advancing wall.
Boycotting Israel will not work, to think it will is naive. Demonising either side as the evil party oppressing the other will not help, it will only goad them further into conflict. Supporting Palestine as a recognised state will not make any difference at all, and will only serve in legitimising a solution which should never have been attempted and may never work. It may be easy to simplify the conflict into an easy duality of good and evil, underdog and oppressor, but it simply is not accurate. Maybe it is time to question the viability of the two-state solution, which has been gradually eroded to the point of irrelevance for over half a century.
The Gaza conflict is the creation of the concept of Israel and Palestine as two states, fundamentally opposed, and yet squeezed into a space too small for the both of them. As long as Israel remains the state of the Jews and Palestine remains the perfect site for Islamic extremists to launch attacks on Tel Aviv, the two can never coexist in complete harmony. The cycle has continued for too long, it is long past time to take a look at the other options.
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Photo Credit: Gigi Ibrahim

Operation Cloud Pillar: Deterrence, Not Ballots

The road to Operation Cloud Pillar was paved not by the ballot box, but by strategic failures of the Israeli government. Rather than present a clever political manipulation of patriotic fervour that is inherent in high-stakes warfare, Netanyahu’s dereliction of deterrence may actually cost him dearly in January’s elections.

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Benjamin Netanyahu

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Benjamin Netanyahu is something of an enigma. Though every opinion poll published both before and after national elections were called augured his re-election as Israel’s Prime Minister, Netanyahu (or ‘Bibi’- his Israeli moniker), took the political gamble of a lifetime. Following a deluge of rockets on Israel’s southern cities from the Gaza Strip and the breakdown of the Middle-East’s worst kept secret- a truce between Hamas and Israel- Bibi ordered the assassination of Ahmad al-Jabari, the head of Hamas’ military wing.

Naturally, things have since gone from bad to worse. Whilst norms and ‘red lines’ are being re-written daily, perhaps the greatest misconception regarding the conflict is its origins. Just why did Israel’s Prime Minister order the attack?

Because this is the Middle-East, conspiracy theories abound. The current cynic’s claim is that, with elections on the horizon, Bibi sought to monopolize public debate, engendering a patriotic surge and paving the way for his re-election. Indeed, the Israeli Labor’s party prioritisation of a socio-economic agenda has all but disappeared from national discourse. It has also been argued on this website that international factors, such as Palestine’s bid for statehood at the United Nations, precipitated the need for drastic Israeli action.

The problem with this analysis is that it is myopic, favouring baseless speculation over reality. It is true that many Israeli offensives have been closely followed by elections: from Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996 to the last tit-for-tat offensive in late 2008- Operation Cast Lead- and many more, bombs usually pre-empt ballots.

However, starting a war before an election has frequently backfired, literally blowing up in the face of the incumbent government. Following Cast Lead, the ruling Kadima Party lost power, whilst in 1996 then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres undid his rosy showing in the opinion polls by ordering the bombing of Lebanon.

These operations have something else in common: the subsequent elections were both won by then-leader of the opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu. Bibi, for all his many faults is a political mastermind, with scant desire to fall into the traps of his predecessors.

Rocket fire from the Gaza Strip declined sharply after the previous government launched Operation Cast Lead, which was a classic manifestation of Israeli deterrence policy. Strategically, the goal of deterrence is conflict management, rather than resolution; by inferring unacceptable costs on the behaviour of a belligerent, a state successfully projects a deterrence equation, limiting the strategic toolbox of the enemy. In order to ensure that the threat is real, states have to ‘make good’ their promises of unpalatable response; deterrence constantly needs ‘topping up’ if the opposing actor errs into the arena of unacceptable norms.

From its inception, Israel’s response to non-state terrorism based in nearby states has been to simply ignore the terror group and punish the state, forcing it to reign in the hostile actors. For this reason, I’m constantly bemused by so-called ‘Israel advocates’ claiming Israeli responses to terrorist acts are not ‘disproportionate’, because disproportionate response is the foundation of Israeli deterrence equations. The goal is not to ‘bomb your way to peace’, but to coerce nearby states and state-like entities into compliance, so a relative ‘quiet’ takes hold. In layman’s terms, Israel’s message is: ‘If you hurt me, I will hurt you ten times harder, so don’t hurt me’.

Whilst those of us on the left constantly lambast his administration for its right-wing reactionary stances, Netanyahu’s nationalist bombast obscures the truth: Bibi’s administration has rejected Israeli disproportionate deterrence policy. After five Israeli tourists were killed by a suspected Hezbollah bomber in Burgas, Bulgaria, I argued that Israel must learn that ‘excessive restraint begets further bloodshed’. Netanyahu agreed, promising that ‘Israel will respond forcefully to Iranian terror’. However, his bark was bigger than his bite: no tangible Israel response was forthcoming.

The most obvious manifestation of this ‘speak big, do nothing’ approach was on Israel’s southern borders. Under Netanyahu, when rockets were launched from Gaza, the Israeli Air Force targeted the rocket crews, not the governmental apparatus of Hamas. Rather than opt for massive retaliation, forcing Hamas to reign in the rocket crews, Netanyahu’s preference was for dialogue and negotiations, leading to several rounds of ‘truces’ which brought relative quiet.

However, Bibi’s restraint gamble unravelled rapidly. The number of rockets fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip increased substantially in recent weeks, suggesting that Hamas was either unwilling or unable to constrain smaller, more radical fellow travellers. Netanyahu was dragged back down the path of deterrence and disproportionate response, kicking and screaming all the way in the face of Israeli public uproar over perceived government inaction. Here lie the origins of Israel’s latest game-changing assault: ‘Operation Cloud Pillar’.

Four days into the operation, Netanyahu retains a preference for limited ‘surgical’ strikes over the strategic employment of disproportionate force. In the first four hours of Cast Lead, over 100 targets including police stations and bureaucratic offices were hit in Israel’s opening salvo, killing approximately 140 Palestinians. By contrast, the first four days of Cloud Pillar has witnessed around twenty Palestinian deaths.

However, every rocket erodes the legitimacy of surgical restraint. Hamas proved that they too are capable of game-changing tactics: for the first time since 1991, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (where I am fortunate/unfortunate enough to live) were struck by rocket attacks. At the time of writing, the Israeli Defence Forces were subsequently granted permission to call up 75,000 reserve troops and close off the roads surrounding the Gaza Strip.

Thus, the road to Operation Cloud Pillar was paved not by the ballot box, but by strategic failures of the Israeli government, which lead to public uproar. Rather than present a clever political manipulation of patriotic fervour that is inherent in high-stakes warfare, Bibi’s dereliction of deterrence may actually cost him dearly in January’s elections. For those of us on the left, we are once again faced with the stark reality of a region where excessive force delivers quiet, whilst restraint begets clumsy, last-minute regressions to well-trodden strategic norms, of which Operation Cloud Pillar is increasingly looking like another example.

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Photo Credit: Abode of Chaos

Resistance and Retribution: Israel’s Follies in Gaza

The IDF is entering another endless rabbit warren from which it will emerge victory-less after it inevitably fails to achieve its aims. Gaza will be left in a considerably worse shape. Of course, it will be the international community’s fault for not letting them finish the job.

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After reports of 30,000 Israeli reservists mobilising after a day of tit-for-tat attacks between the IDF and Hamas, some commentators are predicting an ‘Operation Cast Lead 2.0’. The situation in Gaza has exploded since the assassination (or targeted killing, whichever your sensibilities prefer) of Ahmed al-Jabari, the commander of Hamas’military wing and many of us have been left trying to comprehend the course of the events.

Despite the tragedy unravelling before us across a multitude of news and social media platforms, swarming us with swathes of information and subtle misinformation. Already journalists are noting the ‘cyber battlefield’ between Hamas and the IDF, and now even Netanyahu himself is jumping into the Twitter front line, unsurprisingly denouncing Hamas as cowards for using their fellow Palestinians as improvised body armour. However, we see a shining example of how too much information is even more debilitating than too little and it has become near impossible to see through the fog of the information war to understand what is going on

Rather than attempt to tackle the course of events from an unfamiliar perspective, if we approach the IDF’s counterinsurgency strategy towards Gaza then we can gain valuable insight into some of the factors at play.

First and foremost, Gaza is not an existential threat to Israel. Short of Hamas acquiring a nuclear bomb, there is very little that could develop in Gaza that could alter Israel’s threat picture. Existential threats are a classification reserved only for threats such as a hostile Egypt – the linchpin in any conventional assault on Israel – and the Iranian nuclear programme. Hamas’ rockets, however, do pose and existential threat to the government. While sporadic rocket attacks on southern Israeli settlements closest to the border with Gaza are to be expected, Fajr-5 rockets falling on Tel Aviv will start making people question their government’s ability to protect its citizens.

Second, there are number of international factors at play whose influences are still obscured by the ‘shock of capture’ from the rapid deterioration of events. There’s the ongoing chaos in Syria, which has started to draw in the IDF after exchanges of mortar bombs and tank shells in the Golan. In early October, Hizbollah flew an Iranian-made reconnaissance drone into southern Israel, while the rest of Lebanon simmers from the tension exacerbated by the Syrian conflict. There is the ongoing crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme and the international sanctions, combined with the drop in the Rial, are straining Iran’s ability to support the Assad regime, Hizbollah and Hamas. In the US, Obama’s re-election has foiled Netanyahu’s hopes of a Romney-Ryan presidency.

What is the IDF trying to achieve? It is blatantly clear that their assassination of al-Jabari has escalated the situation. Fajr rockets dropping on Tel Aviv is a very significant development. The fact that Hamas has only decided now to bring them to bear on the cosmopolitan Israeli city indicates a red line has been crossed. There are two possible conclusions: the Israeli government underestimated Hamas’ reaction or they intentionally provoked a reaction out of the organisation. Considering the reported competence of Israel’s intelligence organisations, the former is very unlikely and there is little chance the IDF was caught off guard. The latter is far more likely to be the case. Furthermore, they will have calculated Hamas’ most dangerous course of action as firing Fajrs onto Israelis cities and have considered it as an acceptable risk to their larger aims.

We need to backtrack to Lebanon in 2006 to get a better sense of what is going on. In 2006, after a month of heavy fighting with Hizbollah, Israel withdrew from Lebanon defeated. Both the Israeli civilian and military leadership were shocked at the IDF’s poor performance against an enemy they had badly underestimated. After the war, the government conducted a probing investigation into what went wrong.

Israeli operations in Lebanon and Gaza show the reality of COIN doctrine without all the fuzzy frills of ‘winning hearts and minds’. The doctrine determined the IDF’s operations in Lebanon during its occupation from 1982 to 2000, again in 2006 and once more in Gaza in 2009 in Operation Cast Lead. Not-so-coincidentally, Israel failed to achieve any of its aims in these operations. But while US and British thinkers are beginning to criticise COIN as a viable strategy after NATO’s experience in Afghanistan, it seems that 6 years on from Lebanon the only visible adjustment the Israeli government has made towards it strategy on the Palestinian issue is to set up the IDF with a Twitter and You Tube account.

According to an IDF tweet, one of their objectives is to ‘cripple Hamas’ terrorist infrastructure in Gaza’. There is no single, universally accepted definition of a terrorist. If you cannot agree upon the definition of a terrorist, then it is impossible to define the limits of ‘terrorist infrastructure;. It is an ambiguous (presumably intentionally) term that could be applied to Hamas’ leadership, their rocket launch sites, roads, mosques and the list goes on. It does not define the end state for IDF’s operations and gives them considerable scope to cause significant damage across the Strip.

The IDF’s actions are the most telling sign that the conflict is even further from peace, and not just because of another explosion of violence. After a moment of national introspection following the 2006 war, the Israeli government has decided to stick with a military solution to the Palestinian issue. The IDF is entering another endless rabbit warren from which it will emerge victory-less after it inevitably fails to achieve its aims. Gaza will be left in a considerably worse shape. Of course, it will be the international community’s fault for not letting them finish the job.

And, of course, the operation has nothing to do with the Israeli elections in January.

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Photo Credit: Rahuldlucca

Israel’s Deadly Game of Politics

Desperate times call for desperate measures and it seems Israel has decided that the only way to deter Palestine from achieving an observer state status at the United Nations is to destabilise the region and use the argument that Palestine is not ready to become a state due to its violent and confrontational nature.

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israel flag gaza palestine hamas

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On Wednesday 14th November Israel killed the military commander of Hamas in an airstrike on the Gaza Strip. Hamas said Ahmed Al-Jabari, who ran the organization’s armed wing, Izz el-Deen Al-Qassam, died along with a passenger after their car was targeted by an Israeli missile. Jabari has long topped Israel’s most-wanted list. Israel blames him for a string of attacks, including the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit in 2006. The Israeli military says its assassination of the Hamas military commander marks the beginning of an operation against Gaza militants.

The consequences of Israel’s actions were already noticeable just a few hours after the announcement as immediate calls for revenge were broadcast over Hamas radio and smaller groups also warned of retaliation: “”Israel has declared war on Gaza and they will bear the responsibility for the consequences,” Islamic Jihad said.” There is now a real chance that this event can lead to another full-blown conflict similar to the three week conflict in 2008 and 2009.

However perhaps a full blown conflict in the region is exactly what Israel wanted. On the 29th of November, Palestine will put in a resolution to upgrade the status of Palestine to that of a non-member observer state in the organization. Unsurprisingly Israel with the support of the United States have opposed this move arguing that it will hinder real negotiations, despite the fact that the majority of UN members believe Palestine should be granted a full state membership at the international organisation. Israel has bluntly said that they will consider partial or full cancellation of the Oslo Accords if the United Nations General Assembly adopts the resolution. On Sunday, the Foreign Ministry sent an urgent cable to all Israeli representatives around the world, asking ambassadors to deliver a number of messages to senior officials in those countries as soon as possible. “You are asked immediately at the beginning of the work week to contact the foreign ministry, prime minister’s office, national security adviser or president’s office and request to do all possible to halt the Palestinian initiative because of its far-reaching consequences,” the cable to the ambassadors said. As opposed to the decisions of the UN Security Council, General Assembly decisions cannot be vetoed, therefore the USA cannot play its ace card to prevent Palestine achieving its objective. Despite strong pressure from Israel, the Palestinian President has defiantly said he will not back out from his plan to table the resolution at the United Nations.

Desperate times call for desperate measures and it seems Israel has decided that the only way to deter Palestine from achieving an observer state status at the United Nations is to destabilise the region and use the argument that Palestine is not ready to become a state due to its violent and confrontational nature. Hamas have always argued that asking the UN to grant Palestine a member status would be purely symbolic and would not achieve anything on the ground. For this reason, it is likely that Hamas will retaliate against Israel after the death of Al-Jabari, which is exactly what Israel wants them to do. Abbas is likely to plead to Hamas not to seek revenge at such a crucial time for the Palestinian state, but Hamas (who are already on cold terms with Abbas) are unlikely to listen, giving Israel more ammunition to claim that Palestine is a divided nation and thus do not deserve a place at the United Nations.

While many claim that it would be purely a symbolic matter if Palestine were to become an observer non-member state, the consequences are far greater than that. Netanyahu is fully aware of the fact that the new status as a non-member state would allow Palestine to be accepted as a member of the International Criminal Court of the UN in The Hague and demand Israel and its leaders be tried for war crimes. This is a very serious threat to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian land and teh Israeli officials will not take this lightly.

One may argue that the two events (UN resolution vote on the 29th November and Wednesday’s assassination of the Hamas militant) are purely coincidental in their close timing. But as Roosevelt said: “In politics nothing happens by accident”. Not much else needs to be said.

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Photo Credit: Lilachd

An Introduction To The Forthcoming Israeli Elections (Part Two)

With the recent announcement from Benjamin Netanyahu that Israeli elections will be held approximately 8 months ahead of schedule (in early 2013), we thought an introduction to the domestic Israeli political landscape was in order. 

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The Streets of Jerusalem

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This is the second of a two part series. You can read the first half here.

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Yesh Atid: New Kids on the Block

Perhaps the most unpredictable ‘wild card’ in the 2013 Israeli elections is Yesh Atid, a new party chasing the oft-cherished chalice of Israel’s ‘secular middle-class’. Led by the charismatic journalist-turned-politician Yair Lapid, polls suggest the party will garner between 11 and 18 seats.

The party’s policy platform is deliberately vague, flitting from left to right with each of Lapid’s daily pronouncements. Yesh Atid is something of a populist ‘anti party’; Lapid frames his near-total lack of foreign policy, security or parliamentary experience as an asset, by labeling himself as ‘the outsider’.

Yesh Atid has successfully wooed pan-demographic, cross-party notables: Lapid made a national-religious rabbi his right hand man, whilst also co-opting popular mayors from as far afield as Meretz and Yisrael Beitenu.

Whilst ‘Yesh Atid’ translates from Hebrew to the optimistic assertion that ‘There is a Future’, questions persist as to the long-term survivability of the party, which is something of a one-man show. Does anyone remember Shinui, a secular, liberal middle-class party that disappeared from the electoral map just as quickly as it had risen? In case you were wondering (which you weren’t) it was headed by Yair’s father, Tommy Lapid. Thus, the barometer of Yesh Atid’s durability is not this election, but whether it still exists by the next one.

Wildcard #2: Shas

Shas are anything but newcomers: the party has maintained a near-constant presence in governments of both right and left since its appearance in 1984. Despite representing ‘traditional’ (orthodox, but not ultra-orthodox) Mizrahi voters, a cursory glance at Shas’ higher echelons betrays Charedi hegemony; its leaders are beholden to a ‘spiritual’ guide, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

The party is ‘flexible’ on the peace process, instead prioritising its domestic agenda: an unholy alliance of religious intolerance and welfare capitalism. Under leader Eli Yishai who recently claimed that ‘this country belongs to us, the white man’, the party has outshone even its own outstanding roll-call of bigotry.

Before the dawn of ‘Bieberman’, Shas’ continuation in government was almost a certainty, despite polls suggesting the party would continue to hover at around ten seats. However, Lieberman legitimised the merger through a call to limit the size of ‘small parties’, a thinly-veiled reference to the disproportionate power wielded by Shas, throwing the party’s future role into doubt.

Yishai’s authority now hangs in the balance due to the re-admittance of Aryeh Deri, a former party leader and convicted criminal. Deri is far more prone to working with the left and prioritising socio-economic concerns; expect an interesting and increasingly ugly power struggle to unfold.

The Zionist Fringe: The Far-Right and Meretz

Recent elections have not been kind to Meretz. The green/socialist/secular ingathering of the leftists has consistently staked its position as the most radical of all the Zionist parties and has languished in opposition since 2001, barely surviving the 2009 elections with just three seats.

However, thanks to Kadima’s downward spiral and Labor’s abandonment of the peace process, the party may double its representation to six seats. Whilst Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On is busy creating clear red water between the party and Labor, she has also ruled out sitting in government with Likud. Resultantly, Meretz is likely to remain in opposition, arguably its natural home as the party of the non-conformist left.

By contrast, the fate of the far-right is anyone’s guess. Exemplified by the fringe religious Habayit Hayehudi and the National Union parties, talk is afoot of a merger between the two groups.

Throwing a spanner in the works, the National Union’s Michael Ben-Ari has called for the formation of a new party– inspired by the deceased racist Rabbi Meir Kahane. Because Ben-Ari openly admires a leader who spawned a proscribed terrorist organisation, all signs point to a life sentence in opposition and a splintered radical right; the least explicitly racist elements of which may wrangle their way into government if Yesh Atid and Likud-Beitenu can’t cobble a coalition together that is spared the demands of fringe parties.

Left/right in the Cold? United Torah Judaism and the Arab Parties

Whilst Shas may stand to gain Likudnik Mizrahi voters who object to Yisrael Beitenu’s secularism, the same cannot be said for United Torah Judaism (UTJ). UTJ’s electorate is almost entirely Charedi; the party doesn’t try and ‘reach out’ to other demographics, instead relying on staking a place in multi-party coalition governments to retain its authority.

Followers of Israeli politics will remember party leader Yaakov Litzman attempted to make Swine Flu ‘Kosher’ (renaming it from to Mexican Flu, causing a diplomatic spat), and refused to shake the hand of the Belgian Health Minister, on account of her being a woman.

UTJ approach the election from their most disadvantageous position in years: if the newly-formed Likud-Beitenu alliance wins enough seats, narrow religious interest parties, traditional ‘king makers’ of coalition governments, may find themselves out in the cold.

Whilst the fate of the Jewish parties is anyone’s guess, the chances of the ‘Arab parties’ gaining a seat at the cabinet table are negligible. Of the four parties currently representing Israel’s Arab population in the Knesset, none have ever entered government. This is the result of a bizarre unspoken status-quo agreement: the Arab parties generally refuse to ‘prop up’ Zionist governments, whilst being perceived as reliant on the non-Zionist Arab parties would be the kiss of death for any Israeli administration.

Until the Arab parties learn to emulate Shas and UTJ and serve as kingmakers and powerful community representatives, voter turnout amongst Arab communities will remain low, whilst representatives’ influence will be negligible.

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Photo credit: dmitrysumin

Recognizing A Palestinian State Would Be Disastrous

A hoorah enthusiasm to accept Palestinian statehood at the United Nations no matter what – and with no regard for Israel’s say in the matter – would be catastrophic. We must be patient.

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A view of Jerusalem

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This is a response to  ‘Blocking Palestine: America’s Big Mistake

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Many groups have seen hope for a solution to the Middle East conflict in the Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN, the thinking being that international pressure will exert  pressure on Israel. Following this logic, American opposition to the move is regarded as a diplomatic mistake given a growing consent among the UN member states for the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) request for statehood. Americans, the argument goes, are opposed to it out of concerns that the Palestinian state could then file a lawsuit at the International Criminal Court (ICC) against Israel for illegal occupation of its territories. This stance takes root in its loyalty to a close ally despite the fact that such policy goes against its principles and values and undermines its influence across the Arab World. American behavior with regards to the PA is even more perplexing when one takes a look at its efforts to support democratic changes in North Africa.

I would like to counter that argument. Accepting a Palestinian bid for statehood would be a dangerous development, not only for the US and Israel, but first and foremost for Palestinians and the wider region. Americans oppose Palestinian statehood out of security concerns rather than a morally dubious attachment to its ally. At this moment in history Palestine is by no means ready to become a state, and the blatant international disregard for the Israeli input in the matter could have dire consequences, including an all-out conflict across the region.

The first and most important risk originates in the fact that the PA does not exercise full control over its territories, even in Zone A, and cannot guarantee the rule of law over all of its lands and stability at its borders – the Gaza Strip and Hamas, for example. Let’s imagine the PA finally gets the statehood it wanted – how is it supposed to oust Hamas from Gaza and reinstate itself as the ruling power? What do Abbas’s assertions on peaceful cooperation with Israel mean if once Palestine becomes independent Hamas will continue to dictate its own policies, fire missiles at Israel and recruit Bedouins to attack from Sinai? Palestine can only become a state if it has all the features of a state – territory and population are not enough.

Let us imagine the newly independent Palestine files a lawsuit against Israel at the ICC, the ICC finds Israel guilty and demands its withdrawal from the Occupied Territories. Then what? No state in history will voluntarily abandon strategic positions without being fully confident that its withdrawal will not be instantaneously used against it. Palestinian state apparatus and security forces are too weak to deal with rioting and protests, let alone successfully fight domestic terrorist groups. Can Abbas really guarantee that no missiles will be launched on Ben Gurion Airport from the West Bank hills? That he will make sure nobody smuggles firearms from Jordan into Ramallah? That Hezbollah operatives would not enter Palestine to train and recruit new terrorists?

The risk is just too big to take, especially now with sectarian conflicts raging all over the region. The PA does not wield enough power – state institutions are weak and security forces are ill-trained and corrupt. Israel contains the terrorist threat coming from the Occupied Territories at the disgraceful costs of humanitarian abuse and violence, but its tactics and strategy are successful. Can Israelis gamble put their safety and security in the hands of weak and semi-failed institutions out of a moral imperative? It would be against common sense to claim they should.

The first condition for the PA is to exercise the full rule of law, both in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, when it will be able to contain terrorism on its own territory before it hits Israel. Secondly, Israel cannot be forced into an internationally orchestrated Palestinian statehood. Israelis would not yield to such pressure, whereas encouraged Palestinians would interpret such move as a green light for staging a Third Intifada. The consequences would be more bloodshed, more violence and a greater Israeli military presence in the Occupied Territories. Such a move would delay any chance for a comprehensive solution for another couple of decades.

The peace process must be negotiated with the involvement of the great powers. The counter-argument is irrelevant as all the parameters for a peace solution have been set and defined as far back as Taba Summit in 2001. The problem lies in the lack of good will between the two sides; if the solution was mutually desired, Palestine could become an independent state over one night. Any international solution without the Israelis on board would deteriorate the situation, enhance the risk of violence, and fuel hawkish moods both in Israel and in Palestine.

Lastly, statehood would be disastrous for the PLO and its legitimacy. If the PLO could not gain any substantial improvement in the Palestinian situation following recognition, Palestinian society would question the PA’s ability to deliver, thus further undermining its already weak support. It is not hard to imagine a wave of social protests bolstering radicals’ support base, who could build their popularity on harsh critique of the PLO’s inertia and passiveness, calling for the people to forcefully take what has been promised by the UN itself. If another intifada were to break out, the PLO would have no chance of controlling the uprising, nor would it be able to compete with the militant and populist Hamas in rallying the support of the society to lead the fight. If Arafat could not control the Second Intifada, it is beyond the realms of possibility that someone as uncharismatic as Abbas will do better.

I do not intend to defend Israeli policies; I am no fan of Bibi and his politics. But a hoorah enthusiasm to accept Palestinian statehood at the UN no matter what – and with no regard for Israel’s say in the matter – would be catastrophic. We must be patient and appreciate the current situation, as irrespective of what we think, Israeli-Palestinian relations, both on official and social levels, haven’t been as peaceful as they are now for some time.

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Photo credit: Adam Biggs / theriskyshift.com

An Introduction To The Forthcoming Israeli Elections (Part One)

With the recent announcement from Benjamin Netanyahu that Israeli elections will be held approximately 8 months ahead of schedule (in early 2013), we thought an introduction to the domestic Israeli political landscape was in order. 

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The Streets of Jerusalem

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The government of the 18th Knesset was one of the most stable in the topsy-turvy world of Israeli politics: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now the second-longest serving premier in Israel’s history of squabbling, multi-party coalition governments. This represents a rare achievement in the fickle world of Israeli politics, where internal wrangling and ego-fuelled disputes are daily occurrences.

With the Israeli elections scheduled for 22nd January 2013, all of the Knesset’s 120 seats are up for grabs. Below, I attempt to navigate the obfuscated, irascible and often irrational nature of Israeli politics, by providing an outline of the ‘major’ parties vying for representation in the 19th Knesset.

Likud Squared

‘Likud’- Hebrew for ‘Consolidation’, constitutes a merger of a disparate band of right-wing parliamentary parties. The 2013 elections have wrought the ‘consolidation of the consolidation’ in the ‘nationalist camp’: the merging of Likud with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu. Shocked political commentators compensated for being caught off-guard by coining the new slur towards this government-in-waiting: ‘Bieberman’.

The ideological incongruity between these parties contextualises cross-party shock at the news. Yisrael Beitenu is a ‘special interest’ party of Israel’s Russian-born population. Branded ‘The Russians’, Lieberman supporters are unique for their espousing of both secularism (Yisrael Beitenu are often called ‘The Pork Party’) and right-wing ‘ultranationalism’.

By contrast, Likud rose to power in 1977 on the backs of ‘Mizrahim’: orthodox Jews from Arab countries alienated by the Europeanised, socialist secularism of the Labor-led administration. Whilst Lieberman’s pronouncements during his current tenure as Foreign Minister were crass and peppered with nationalist bombast, the American-educated Netanyahu represents the Western-media savvy, ‘silver tongue’ of the Israeli right, taking the Likud to its current 27 seats.

At a glance, one can discern the underlying fundamental precipitants of the merger. Representing but one section of Israeli society and holding only 15 Knesset seats, Lieberman’s lofty Prime Ministerial ambitions would indubitably be rendered unlikely. By co-opting the rising star of the right, Netanyahu neutralised a potential Prime Ministerial contender, positioning Lieberman as an heir, not an opponent. Both leaders have, naturally, denied that a power-sharing deal was cemented.

Though polls had previously been kind to both parties, snap post-merger polling has painted a less rosy picture. Likud may lose both Mizrahi voters put off by Lieberman’s secularism and centre-right voters who eschew Yisrael Beitenu’s apathy towards the international community. The merger has also engendered discomfort from Likudniks who considered themselves Prime Ministers in waiting. Whilst the happy couple are enjoying the honeymoon, inter-party acrimony is already fermenting. 

Yalla (Bye?) Kadima

Kadima is a name rooted in Israeli slang: ‘Yalla Kadima’- ‘let’s go: forward’- is ubiquitous during rush-hour traffic jams. Thus, it is ironic that ‘Yalla Kadima’, a centrist party founded in 2005, is at risk of becoming ‘Yalla Bye’- a streetwise idiom denoting decampment.

Since Ariel Sharon, Kadima’s founder, suffered a stroke in 2006, the party was led by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and then by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. The loss of government to Likud in the 2009 elections led to Livni being displaced as leader by her rival, Shaul Mofaz. The latter’s bumbling has not endeared the party to skeptical Israeli voters: despite joining Netanyahu’s coalition in May 2012, Mofaz backtracked, returning Kadima to opposition in mid-July. Polling has consistently shown the party plummeting from its current position of 28 Knesset seats to single-digit figures.

Despite being mired in sleaze and corruption, rumours abound about Olmert’s return to politics as head of a centre-left ‘mega-party’.  Livni is also the subject of speculation; will she found a centrist partyjoin Labor or ally with Olmert? Rather than stand as a testament to their survivability, the resurgence of previous washed-up leaders is demonstrative of a vacuum of electable talent on the centre-left.

The Redemption of Labor

Despite having led every Israeli government from 1948-1977, many pundits predicted the demise of the Labor Party throughout the 18th Knesset. The party enters the 2013 elections with its  lowest-ever mandate of eight Knesset seats, having been decimated by former Labor leader Ehud Barak’s decision to split from the party in 2011.

Barak, the highest-decorated soldier in Israeli history, was replaced by Shelly Yachimovich, a political neophyte with no security experience, often a necessity for Israeli electoral success. Unlike its European namesakes, Labor has failed to connect with working-class Israelis, many of whom are Russian or Mizrahi, due to the predominance of hawkish positions in these demographic groups vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

Starting from a low point, Labor is oddly well-placed to spin a lacklustre result as a positive gain. Buoyed by widespread societal dissatisfaction at the high cost of living, Labor strategists hope to broaden the party’s appeal by focusing on socio-economic issues, rather than the flaccid peace process: Yachimovich has successfully recruited the leaders of the cross-party social protest movement.  With Kadima faltering, opinion polls suggest Labor will supplant them as the official opposition.

Netanyahu’s government finally fell due to the unwillingness of his coalition to agree to a wide-ranging budget of austerity measures. When the cuts bite, Labor is banking upon the vindication of their social-democratic platform: if they under-perform electorally, expect them to play ‘the long game’ and sit out the next government in opposition.

This is the first of a two part series. You can read the second part here.

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 Photo credit: dmitrysumin