Ottomans and Zionists- Blogging about Turkey and Israel, the two most interesting countries in the Middle East. It is written by Michael Koplow, Turkey and Israel observer, Red Sox obsessive, and father of three adorable kids.
Events in Gaza have followed a predictable cycle dating back to last spring. Hamas ramps up the violence along the border fence and launches incendiary devices – whether rockets, balloons, or kites – toward Israel. In return, Israel promises to do a wide range of things to alleviate the situation in Gaza, from allowing in Qatari cash to allowing diesel fuel into the territory to expanding the fishing zone from ten miles to fifteen miles. Hamas becomes unsatisfied at the speed with which Israel is acting or wants to force further concessions, or Israel does not actually carry out what it has said it would do as part of the truce arrangement, and the balloons continue to burn southern Israel’s fields and shootings resume at the border fence, and the entire process repeats. It has become something of a morbid joke to read every couple of weeks about the latest truce arrangement, nearly always brokered by Egyptian intelligence or the indefatigable UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov, in which both sides predictably pledge to transform the stubborn equilibrium that reigns on the border, and just as predictably the truce breaks down in a matter of days, if not hours.
Yet in the past few weeks, something actually has changed in Gaza. The three biggest problems plaguing Gaza – insufficient electricity, insufficient waste treatment, and insufficient cash to sustain the economy – are being addressed in new ways, and the evidence so far suggests that things along the border have been quieter. It is far too early to say whether any of this represents a true paradigm shift or is just a temporary lull, not to mention that relying on Hamas’s good faith and fidelity is a fool’s errand. What makes these developments important is that they are based on a completely different – and in my view, more sensible – theory on how to deal with Gaza and ultimately weaken Hamas’s grip on the territory.
Since Hamas’s takeover of Gaza in 2007, Israel – with the U.S. following suit – has proceeded on the assumption that blockading Gaza will result in Hamas either capitulating or being dislodged from power. After over a decade, it is clear that this strategy has not worked. Not only is Hamas still there, it has benefited from the situation by taking control of the smuggling tunnels and taxing everything that comes in or goes out. The population of Gaza has suffered while Hamas’s grip on every aspect of Gaza’s political and economic life has expanded, and Israel has felt the consequences of the growing humanitarian crisis as well. Going in the opposite direction and lifting some of the restrictions on Gaza will certainly benefit Hamas in some ways but will also break its absolute monopoly on the entirety of Gaza’s commerce and perhaps even buy some goodwill from the Palestinians living there. It is a tactic that has been encouraged by Israel’s security establishment but largely opposed by the political class.
Whether because the situation in Gaza has gotten so bad or because Israel’s military and security chiefs have been able to move the ball, there appears to be a marked shift in policy taking place. In the spring, Israel quietly began construction on a new electricity line – known as Line 161 – into Gaza that would increase the amount of electricity provided to the strip by 100 megawatts, nearly doubling the 120 megawatts that Gaza currently receives. The line is expected to take a few years to build and so is certainly not a short-term answer to Gaza’s current problems, but Hamas and other jihadi groups in Gaza understand how important it is to get the line built and maintained. Not only would it go a long way toward solving the basic electricity problem, it would also improve sewage and wastewater treatment, as sewage pumps are frequently inactive due to a lack of power. Israel was previously reluctant to hand Hamas what would be perceived as a victory in the form of alleviating the electricity crisis, but with Qatar agreeing to finance the line’s construction, building is going ahead.
In addition, Israel approved a new sewage line that will bring waste from northern Gaza to the Israeli treatment facility that serves the Sha’ar HaNegev regional council. In this case too, events on the ground seemingly left Israel little choice, as wastewater from Gaza was flowing into Israel and contaminating the groundwater. Nevertheless, the fact that Israel is working on a permanent solution, rather than relying on a temporary system of pumps that can be more easily shut down, is a clear statement that the Israeli government has come to the realization that alleviating a public health crisis in Gaza outweighs the stratagem of not handing Hamas any potential wins.
Perhaps more pertinent than either of these moves has been Israel’s quiet lifting of restrictions on Gazan workers entering Israel. With the export blockade in place, few opportunities for employment inside Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority’s sanctions on Gaza in the form of slashed salaries for PA employees, the most pressing problem that Gaza faces is a shortage of cash needed for basic commerce to take place. Despite the IDF’s longstanding recommendation that 5,000 day laborers be allowed into Israel from Gaza daily as a way of injecting cash into the economy through their wages, the Shin Bet’s concerns over the potential for terrorists to infiltrate this group made Israel’s government reticent. This month, however, Israel increased the number of permits for businessmen from 3,000 to 5,000, and by all accounts has been turning a purposeful blind eye to the fact that these “businessmen” are actually manual laborers who are getting paid each day in cash and taking those wages back into Gaza. While this may seem trivial for a territory of approximately two million people, even this relatively small measure has the potential to make a big difference given the complete absence of any other sources of cash that are not directly controlled by Hamas and its smuggling operation.
These moves may all be reversed in short order, and the relative quiet that exists right now can easily end at the drop of a hat. But leaving aside the short term success of these policies and questions about their durability, this change represents Israel’s willingness to try something new, and not incidentally something that has been recommended by experts in Israel and the U.S. Perhaps it is a chimera, but if policy on Gaza does slowly start to change, it will provide a chance to evaluate the argument that the decade-old approach of crippling blockade has been an abject failure and that some new thinking is required.
As Israel’s do-over election approaches and political alliances form and reshape, parties on both the right and the left have some big decisions to make. With Ehud Barak’s formal reentry to politics, Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett’s decisions whether to try their luck again or sit this cycle out, new party chiefs for Labor and Meretz, and the Arab parties’ efforts to reconstitute the electorally successful but politically fractious Joint List, there are lots of machinations taking place. Here are two of the biggest ones to look out for in the slightly more than two months that remain until Israelis vote on September 17.
Where does Barak fit in on the left?
Ehud Barak made a temporary splash with his return to Israeli politics through a new vehicle that he has named the Israel Democratic Party, rather than attempting to rejoin Labor or link up with his fellow former chiefs of staff in Kachol Lavan. Barak brings with him some serious pedigree and advantages. He has enormous name recognition having been prime minister, defense minister, IDF chief of staff, and a public figure for decades. He has no compunction about directly challenging Prime Minister Netanyahu on politics or policy. He is the last and only Israeli politician to successfully thwart Netanyahu as an incumbent and prevent him from retaining the prime ministership. It is harder to dismiss him as being unfit or unprepared to be prime minister given his extensive record and the fact that he has served in the role before.
But Barak also has some serious drawbacks. His tenure as prime minister was a short one and is perceived as having been a failure, remembered mainly for his withdrawal from Lebanon – widely viewed as emboldening Hizballah – and for his presiding over the outbreak of the Second Intifada. He has a reputation for being untrustworthy and often too clever by half. More importantly for the purposes of the upcoming election, many Labor voters revile him for his breaking away from the party in 2011 in order to continue serving as defense minister and maintaining Netanyahu’s cushion to keep a Knesset majority. Many Arab voters revile him for his pledge before the 1999 election to include Arab parties in government and then shunning them entirely when it came time for coalition negotiations. And right-wing voters revile him for what they see as coddling Yasser Arafat and being the first prime minister to negotiate the formation of a Palestinian state.
This all leads to the question of how Barak’s inclusion in the anti-Netanyahu coalition impacts the chance of those parties unseating Netanyahu. In the previous vote, Kachol Lavan essentially took over Yesh Atid’s votes and cannibalized the rest from Labor, leading to its 35 seats and Labor’s nearly complete collapse. The latest polls have Barak between four and six seats, and most of those are probably former Labor voters who either still like Barak or who want to vote for a security figure that embraces a more left of center position than Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi. The danger of Barak going alone is that he may end up playing the same role on the left that Bennett and Shaked’s New Right and Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut did on the right on April 9, drawing over 100,000 votes that are wasted because he does not make it past the 3.25% threshold.
That concern may lead Barak to run jointly with Labor, but that arrangement could cause problems as well if it prevents a merger between Labor and Meretz and thus pushes Meretz below the threshold. And even if Labor, Meretz, and Barak’s Israel Democratic Party form a single list, Barak’s presence will turn off some Arab voters who may otherwise vote for Meretz and thus cost votes. There is also a question as to how Barak impacts Kachol Lavan, since there is an argument to be made that any voter who is security-minded and does not want to vote for Netanyahu was already captured by a party headed by three former chiefs of staff, and the potential to have Barak sit in a coalition with them may drive some of those voters away if they feel sufficiently negative about Barak.
Barak’s return will only be successful if he manages to enlarge the anti-Netanyahu bloc. Simply taking the 55 seats that were split last time between Kachol Lavan, Labor, Meretz, Hadash-Ta’al, and Balad-Ra’am and redistributing their market share while adding a sixth party into that mix will accomplish nothing electorally. Whether Barak actually adds to this bloc rather than detracts from it is an open question, and Labor and Meretz in particular have to figure out how to interact with him, and whether running together with him gives them another asset or adds a new liability.
Where does Shaked fit in on the right?
The New Right’s failure to make the 21st Knesset has made Shaked a hot commodity. The consensus within Israeli political circles is that responsibility for the party’s failure lies more with Bennett, and Shaked is still seen as a popular figure who will provide a boost to whichever party she joins. Reports have had her being wooed at various times by Likud, Avigdor Liberman, the Union of Right-Wing Parties (UWRP), and Bennett, and it seems that the only sector entirely uninterested in her is the Haredi one.
But there are hurdles to arranging a successful union between Shaked and any of her suitors. In many ways, it makes sense for Shaked to land on her feet with Likud, which is not only the most natural place for her to be politically but also sets her up best for a post-Netanyahu world, in which she will be a strong competitor to take over the party. The fact that she is such a political asset – smart, savvy, had immense policy success as Justice Minister, and is a woman – is precisely what makes integrating her into Likud so difficult, as it threatens the potential Netanyahu successors who have been cutting their teeth in the party for a decade as they wait for the Netanyahu era to end. It also doesn’t help that Sara Netanyahu has reportedly banned Shaked from Likud.
UWRP has its own issues, having passed the threshold by less than half a percentage point in the last election and only squeaking in by virtue of its inclusion of the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party. While the two parties that make up the majority of UWRP – Bayit Yehudi and Tkuma – have agreed to run together again despite major tension between their respective party heads Rafi Peretz and Bezalel Smotrich, Otzma Yehudit has not yet agreed because it feels like it was used for votes but then not given its proper due in terms of power and influence. As Shaked used to be a co-chair of Bayit Yehudi, this would seem to be an easy spot for her, but it is complicated by anger at her for leaving the party before the last election; the fact that she never quite fit in ideologically with a religious Zionist party given her secularism; her reluctance to accept anything other than top billing and Peretz’s reluctance to give it up as he is now the party chief; and the fact that there is no scenario in which Shaked agrees to run with Kahanists, which may put UWRP’s electoral viability into question.
And then there is Bennett, Shaked’s longtime political partner. The dynamic between them in the past was that Bennett was number one and Shaked was number two, but any new arrangement between them would likely flip that order. What is unclear is whether Shaked views Bennett as helpful given New Right’s disappointing performance last time, and whether she has any interest in being part of an arrangement that includes Feiglin, with whom Bennett has also been negotiating.
As opposed to the question facing the left with Barak, where the bloc needs to be enlarged but there is no definitive view on whether he is an asset or a liability, everyone seems to agree that Shaked is an asset. The issue for the right is how to avoid wasting another 200,000 plus votes as its voters did last time, and while nobody would argue that Shaked will not be helpful in that regard, the question is whether her stature will make it difficult for the parties that need her the most to incorporate her.
David Friedman and Jason Greenblatt are living their best lives. Greenblatt had just finished telling CNN after wrapping up the Peace to Prosperity workshop in Bahrain that he has not found a solitary thing, no matter how small, about which to criticize Israel after two and a half years on the job, when the two U.S. representatives were back in Israel, having put the thorny subject of Israeli-Palestinian peace aside and moved on to other priorities. It began at a Yisrael Hayom conference that doubled as a party for Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, where Greenblatt rejected the use of the term settlements to describe Israeli communities east of the Green Line and Friedman held up Yisrael Hayom, the free propaganda sheet that Israelis derisively refer to as the Bibiton, as a paragon of truth and objectivity. It continued on Sunday, when Friedman and Greenblatt attended a ceremony at the City of David archeological park in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan and both gleefully took turns with a sledgehammer to help break down a ceremonial wall and inaugurate the newest City of David tourist exhibit. This came on the heels of Friedman saying that for Israel to ever vacate Silwan – a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem that is estimated to have between 40,000 and 50,000 Palestinian residents and 700 to 800 Jewish ones – would be akin to the U.S. giving up the Statue of Liberty. Whatever Greenblatt and Friedman are doing, they are creating a very different standard for what one might expect from American representatives in the region.
I understand where Greenblatt and Friedman are coming from. I grew up in the same New York Orthodox Jewish community from which they hail, and graduated from the same Orthodox high school as Greenblatt. I’ll wager that I spent more time in Israel as a kid, whether with my family or on various teen summer programs, than they did. I feel just as strong an emotional attachment to Jerusalem as they obviously do, and have spent countless hours across years at the Temple Mount southern wall excavations, the City of David site, and other archeological exhibits in Silwan. I’ve written before about the disgrace of Palestinian denials of the deep Jewish connection to Jerusalem and I think that the U.S. has an interest in clearly and forcefully recognizing those historical, religious, cultural, and political ties. None of this changes the fact that Greenblatt and Friedman are acting in wildly inappropriate ways for U.S. diplomats, and as American citizens, we should insist that they do better.
It is glaringly obvious that Greenblatt and Friedman are letting their personal views and interests interfere with their jobs. It must be so nice for Friedman that he had the opportunity to attend the City of David inauguration and that he got to help unveil a staircase that his ancestors may have used two thousand years ago to ascend to the Second Temple. Why something like that requires the actual participation of a U.S. government official in such a high profile way, particularly when it involves such a diplomatically sensitive and controversial site, is mystifying. Do the U.S. government and the Trump administration have such a vested interest in Jerusalem archeological digs that Friedman not only needed to be there, but that he needed to help knock down a wall and give a speech while stretching the bounds of credulity by claiming that “there has been enormous support for the City of David by the American public” when asked why this whole thing is an American concern? Friedman’s personal political views are his own business and he has every right to hold them. But the idea that he is acting in his capacity as an American ambassador, rather than using his status as an American ambassador to do things that he loves to do, beggars belief.
More mystifying is not why the American ambassador was involved, but why the official American peace negotiator was involved too. The City of David is run by Elad, an NGO that works to turn Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem into Jewish ones by evicting Palestinian residents and moving in Israeli Jews. It has a clear and transparent political agenda, and whatever one thinks of that agenda, bringing Israeli-Palestinian peace any closer is not part of it. And yet there was Greenblatt, lending his presence to a process and ceremony that was condemned by the Palestinians and condemned by the Jordanians, all the while making his stated mission that much harder. Even if I were to accept the argument that Friedman’s participation is defensible because he represents American support for our ally Israel, there is no universe in which the person who is tasked with getting the two sides to an agreement should so blatantly be casting aside the appearance of objectivity in such a controversial and contentious way. Friedman and Greenblatt are acting like middle-aged men who go to baseball fantasy camp, mingle with their favorite athletes, and pretend that they have their dream jobs, and not like people who actually have those jobs and of whom something different is required.
But perhaps I am wrong, and their actual jobs do indeed require precisely what they are doing. Recall the umbrage that Trump administration officials took following President Trump’s Jerusalem announcement when critics accused them of tilting the peace process playing field, and they insisted – from Trump himself and on down the line – that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital without mentioning a word about Palestinian claims to the city was not a statement about borders or final claims of sovereignty. Yet now we have two of the three most visible American officials on the Israeli-Palestinian issue celebrating with an NGO whose actual mission is to eliminate a Palestinian presence from Jerusalem. We have an ambassador who says in an interview that Israel giving up a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem that is not part of the Old City is the same as the U.S. giving up its most famous monument and most iconic symbol. We have American diplomats participating in a ceremony that is intended to be a loud nationalist statement rather than a discrete archeological project. It is impossible to credibly claim with a straight face that the Trump administration has not now weighed in quite clearly on how it views the balance of claims in Jerusalem. The only question remaining is why Trump officials still feel the need to pretend that they are doing otherwise.
After treating everyone to their theater of the absurd in Manama that was a figurative destruction of any vestiges of a serious American-mediated resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Friedman and Greenblatt decided that they needed to provide a literal image of destruction that could serve as a metaphor for what the administration has accomplished in this arena. How wonderful for them that they got to do it in their favorite historical and religious playground.
Last month, Jason Greenblatt took to Twitter to defend the Trump administration’s decision to end U.S. funding of the East Jerusalem Hospital Network. Because the hospitals are the only locations where Palestinians have access to some cancer treatments, the funding had previously been deemed so vital that the network of six hospitals was exempted from the Taylor Force Act restrictions passed by Congress and signed into law by President Trump. In response to journalist Barak Ravid’s query as to why the administration stopped funding the hospitals, Greenblatt tweeted, “We want those patients to receive the best care -the PA could easily pay its own bills to the hospital by ending incentive payments to terrorists/their families & use the $ to care for their ppl.” Five days later, he tweeted about the end of American assistance to the hospitals, “Every Palestinian has a right to know they’re losing access to quality health care because the PA decided support to terrorists is more important.”
The Trump administration’s Peace to Prosperity plan for the Palestinian economy, released on Saturday ahead of the Bahrain workshop that took place on Tuesday and Wednesday, contains three broad initiatives. The first and the second, described as “unleash the economic potential of the Palestinians” and “empower the Palestinian people to realize their ambitions,” both mention investment in and secure access to hospitals for Palestinians in their single paragraph summaries, promising that “access to quality healthcare will be dramatically improved, as Palestinian hospitals and clinics will be outfitted with the latest healthcare technology and equipment.” In a stand-alone section entitled “Empowering the Palestinian People By Investing in Healthcare,” Greenblatt and his colleagues identify the current problem as, “Deficiencies of staff, medicine, equipment, and supplies in Palestinian medical facilities cause gaps in the Palestinian healthcare system and force many Palestinians to forgo care,” and declare that their proposal will “provide financial support to ensure hospitals and clinics receive medicine and equipment to improve treatment for those most in need of care.”
Welcome to the Monty Python version of Israeli-Palestinian peace, where no contention is too absurd to be floated, facts are mere inconveniences, dead parrots are merely resting or daydreaming about fjords, the party that created a healthcare funding crisis decries the healthcare funding crisis and extolls the importance of reversing it, and the same people who cut off every single dollar of U.S. aid to hospitals that serve Palestinians and defended the move on political considerations now insist that their economic plan must be considered in isolation from any political considerations.
Parts of the Peace to Prosperity publication really do seem to be a cruel parody. The images used throughout the plan were lifted from promotional materials put out by USAID touting aid and civil society programs that the Trump administration defunded and canceled. The document’s closing image is of schoolchildren wearing school uniforms from UNRWA, an organization whose defunding has been one of the centerpieces of the Trump team’s approach to the Palestinians. The plan envisions the construction of a highway and possibly a rail line connecting the West Bank and Gaza despite Israeli policy – supported by the U.S. – of not allowing Gazans to travel to the West Bank at all and of treating the two entities as completely separate. One wonders whether the creators of this document did this intentionally while hoping that nobody would realize, or if they themselves did not comprehend the farce at work. But leaving aside the purest examples of hypocritical chutzpah, the bigger issue with Peace to Prosperity is the idea that politics can be shunted aside.
While Jared Kushner, Greenblatt, and others who worked on Peace to Prosperity undoubtedly put in lots of time and effort, it is chock full of absurdist fantasies that result from this insistence on skipping over any and all first order questions of politics and security that must necessarily be addressed before any of the economic problems can be tackled in full. For instance, the plan proposes supporting development of 4G LTE and 5G telecom services, but West Bank Palestinians only received access to 15 year old 3G service of their own last year due to an Israeli ban on 3G entirely until November 2015 and a ban on Palestinian 3G networks until January 2018, while the ban on the current higher speed technology still exists. The plan declares that Palestinian goods and people must be able to move easily across borders, but Israel controls all of the border crossings and imposes overwhelming restrictions and delays on everything coming in and out. The plan stresses the importance of logistical travel challenges within the West Bank, yet on the same two days that this very plan was being discussed in Bahrain, Israel closed the Hawwara checkpoint and cut off the northern West Bank from the southern West Bank.
There are reasons for all of these Israeli restrictions, some very convincing and others far less so. But none of Israel’s security objections will simply go away and allow these plans to proceed in the full and extensive manner that the Trump administration envisions without a political arrangement first. Israeli-Palestinian peace is not a question of economics. Even growing the Palestinian economy is not primarily a question of economics. The barrier is the absence of a political agreement that will allow for permanent arrangements with regard to basic questions of governance, security, and sovereignty. Without that, the rest is convincing an irate customer that his dead pet isn’t really dead, no matter how well-meaning the shopkeeper.
Speaking in Bahrain on Tuesday, Kushner conceded that politics cannot be ignored forever, but described the economic pathway as a necessary precondition to solving the political issues, which has things exactly backwards. The administration has this glittering plan to inject $50 billion into the Palestinian economy, but thinks that this will work without first figuring out who will actually control that economy, spend and administer the money, or even what the basic political structure in the West Bank and Gaza will look like. To bring in another comedic reference that too often scarily approximates real life, this is the equivalent of the South Park underpants gnomes, where the business plan is to collect underpants in phase one, skip over phase two, and then phase three is profit. Amazingly, Kushner told reporters on Wednesday that the people who worked on the economic plan were completely siloed from those working on the political plan, and don’t even know what the political plan contains, so anyone hoping for a silver lining of there being a grand unified theory here is destined for disappointment.
The tragedy is that many of Peace to Prosperity’s ideas and proposals are good ones. In the right environment, there would be lots here to work with and build upon, and the economic vision presented is one that treats Palestinians as capable and promising agents for change. But the environment for an extensive and interconnected economic vision such as this is following a permanent status political agreement between Israel and Palestinians, and not before even having a basic discussion about what that agreement should or could look like. John Cleese and Michael Palin would be proud.
Over the weekend, the New York Times’ David Halbfinger published an interview with U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman that squarely placed the issue of Israeli partial annexation of the West Bank on the table. Asked how the U.S. would respond to Israeli annexation, Friedman responded, “Under certain circumstances, I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank,” and added, “Certainly Israel’s entitled to retain some portion of it.” Many understandably view Friedman’s position as the first step in a process that will lead to American approval and legitimation of, if not outright advocacy for, Israeli annexation of settlement blocs, and his interview prompted a storm of reactions both supportive and condemnatory. I wrote last month why partial annexation would be a policy disaster, but there is a political component to this argument as well, and it can be seen even more clearly since Friedman’s comments, which were no less alarming by dint of their being wholly unsurprising.
A bipartisan consensus on Israel still exists in some corners, but it is becoming increasingly hard to find. Setting aside the pure Trump variable, in which he has in many ways become a stand-in for Israel and Israel has become a stand-in for him, the shattering of what used to be a large bipartisan space is a function of two other complementary factors; starker and more strident policy positions related to Israel, and a political incentive to use Israel as a campaign issue in response to demands from the base. These dynamics are taking place in both parties, and partial annexation feeds into both of them directly in enormously unhelpful ways.
Democrats have almost universally wanted to avoid a fight on Israel. It makes them uncomfortable on policy, as their instinct is to support Israel’s security as a critical and deserving ally but they find it hard to ignore Israel’s various misdeeds in the Palestinian arena. It makes them uncomfortable politically, as they are squeezed between a pro-Israel legacy and a donor class that is more supportive of Israel on one side and an activist base that is far more critical of Israel and American support for it on the other. So far, however, Democrats have largely held the line on policy because the politics have not overwhelmed them. Aside from Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, there is no support in Congress for BDS. Efforts to cut back American military aid to Israel have gotten little traction. Democrats still travel to Israel and meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu and other members of the government in large numbers and with great frequency.
Partial annexation of settlement blocs threatens to create a tipping point that changes the political incentive structure away from constructive engagement with Israel and toward harsher criticism twinned with policies that will carry real costs for Israel. Annexation of blocs is not something that will slip under the radar with minimal detection, and it is not something that is viewed in the U.S., as it is in Israel, as simply formalizing an arrangement that everyone knows will be realized in the aftermath of a peace deal anyway. Because places like Ma’ale Adumin and Gush Etzion are firmly within the Israeli Jewish consensus, it is easy for Israelis to miss that the rest of the world, including Israel’s friends in the U.S., views Israel’s unilaterally annexing blocs outside the framework of a negotiated settlement as a revolutionary move that upends the entire framework of Israeli-Palestinian peace. The position that acceptance of land swaps as a concept means that Israel can do away with the entire process and skip ahead to the end of the line is going to open the door to political problems for Israel that most Israelis seem not to grasp.
A sneak preview of this was unveiled on Tuesday when Pete Buttigieg gave his first foreign policy address of his presidential campaign and specifically called out partial annexation as a move that should trigger an American response. In speaking about the importance of a two-state solution, Buttigieg warned, “And if Prime Minister Netanyahu makes good on his promise to annex West Bank settlements, he should know that a President Buttigieg would take steps to ensure that American taxpayers won’t help foot the bill.”
What precisely Buttigieg meant by that is unclear. He may have been threatening to cut or freeze existing military assistance to Israel if annexation takes place, something that may seem like it should be entirely under Congress’s purview but would be reminiscent of President Trump’s freeze and eventual cancellation of aid designated for the West Bank and Gaza as a result of his unhappiness with the Palestinian Authority. He may have been saying that he would condition how military assistance can be utilized, as annexation would bring with it additional security costs of building a new barrier, or the far greater costs of policing the entire West Bank if partial annexation leads to the collapse of the PA. He may have just been making the point that the U.S. should not be expected to entertain any future requests for additional assistance that arise out of costs that go along with annexation.
But whatever Buttigieg meant, the takeaway is that a leading Democratic presidential contender – one who is viewed as a moderate, as pro-Israel, and someone who has gone out of his way in the past to defend Israel and Israelis – sees a clear political benefit in challenging Israel over annexation. It is naïve to think that this will be confined to Buttigieg, either among presidential hopefuls or among Democrats writ large. Rather than U.S. assistance to Israel being the rhetorical equivalent of a motion that passes with unanimous consent, it is now going to be an open question that is asked of politicians, brought up at presidential debates, and everyone will be forced to defend a position on it one way or the other. This will also not be confined to the halls of Congress and the campaign trail. Making annexation a central plank of Israel’s politics and diplomacy is going to create protests against Israel on college campuses and in progressive enclaves around the country, and the BDS movement will be the greatest political beneficiary as it convinces more and more people that the problem to be solved is not the occupation but Israel itself.
Nothing about this benefits Israel, and it is entirely a result of Netanyahu and right-wing Israeli politicians advocating West Bank annexation, and American officials consistently refusing to voice opposition to it and implying that they will support it. This cannot be blamed on radical progressive politicians, the BDS crowd, anti-Semitic leftists, champions of intersectionality, or any of the other usual suspects that are rounded up and brought before the rhetorical Star Chamber when aid to Israel is challenged. The incessant push for annexation has political consequences, and it is entirely the fault of the pushers, who won’t be satisfied until they have brought the calamity to pass.
The irony of all this is that the annexation talk is not only creating pushback among Democrats, but is reinforcing support for two states that was assumed to be entirely dormant among Republicans. After returning from Israel last month, Senate Foreign Relations Middle East subcommittee chairman Mitt Romney said that he saw no alternative to two states, which notably came right on the heels of Netanyahu’s campaign promise to apply sovereignty to all of the settlements no matter how large or small. Despite reported pressure from the Israeli government to disavow two states, Lindsey Graham this week also reiterated his support for two states and is expected to co-sponsor a Senate resolution with Chris Van Hollen explicitly endorsing a two-state framework.
If the Israeli government and supporters of partial annexation assume that this will be a politically cost-free move, all signs are pointing in the other direction. And much as with the policy implications, once partial annexation actually happens, turning back the clock on the new political realities is going to be next to impossible.
The past week has been filled with encouraging signs for American Jews who have been worried about the direction in which Israel has been moving, and most of those signs have come from the unlikely source of Avigdor Liberman. Liberman prevented Prime Minister Netanyahu from forming a government last Wednesday by taking a stance against the Haredi position on the compulsory draft, but more broadly announced that he was standing against Orthodox religious compulsion in Israeli life. When Union of Right-Wing Parties MK Bezalel Smotrich reiterated his desire to become Justice Minister in order to implement a system of Torah law and return Israel to the legal regime that he believes governed the land during King David’s reign, Liberman immediately jumped on it and pointed out the inherent danger and absurdity of Smotrich actually being a candidate for the post. Netanyahu’s own statement categorically ruling out Israel becoming a state governed by halacha (Jewish law) soon followed, and on Wednesday the Justice Ministry officially went to Amir Ohana rather than Smotrich. For many American Jews and American Jewish organizations, Orthodox domination of Israeli state religious institutions has been the single greatest source of tension between American Jewry and Israel over the past few years, and Liberman now seems like a welcome hero.
But those who view Liberman’s interventions as the potential pathway to an Israeli government that is more attentive to the religious concerns of nearly half of global Jewry are fated to be disappointed. It is true that Liberman is as frustrated as American Jews are with the power of the Haredim and the Orthodox monopoly over marriage, conversion, and determining who is a Jew. It is also true that what Liberman wants is not the religious pluralism that motivates American Jewish concerns over issues such as recognition of Conservative and Reform Judaism and egalitarian prayer spaces at the Kotel. While American Jews are largely fighting for Israeli religious pluralism, Liberman is fighting for Israeli secularism. These are not one and the same, and while the two may indeed have a common foe, it does not follow that Liberman’s battle will garner American Jews any of the things that they want.
American Jews want their uniquely American form of Judaism to be recognized inside of Israel. While denominational Judaism was not invented by American Jews and is a German import, it is now an almost wholly American phenomenon. American Jews that fight for religious pluralism in Israel want not only a mixed-gender option at the Kotel, but they want that option to be one that is controlled by recognized Conservative and Reform movements. They want the state to fund Conservative and Reform rabbis and institutions the same way that the state funds Orthodox rabbis and institutions. They want Conservative and Reform conversions to be recognized by the Israeli state. They want Israel and Israelis to recognize and acknowledge the Jewish diversity of the U.S., where there is no chief rabbinate or state involvement in religion and thus no central arbiter of what will and won’t be permitted, and grant that diversity a place in the Jewish state for the millions of Jews who subscribe to it.
For this to happen, American Jews recognize that it requires overcoming the obstacle of uncompromising Orthodox domination of Jewish religious institutions in Israel. Liberman is thus the perfect avatar for this particular moment in time. But Liberman is not battling the Haredim represented by UTJ or the Hardalim represented by Smotrich in order to see religious pluralism flourish. In fact, few inside of Israel are battling the Haredim on behalf of religious pluralism. Liberman could not care less about whether Conservative and Reform priorities are fulfilled or whether these streams of Judaism are even recognized. Liberman represents Israeli secularism, which wants to end Orthodox domination for altogether different reasons.
Liberman wants public transportation on Shabbat not so that people can take the bus to synagogue, but so that nobody has to be bound by any type of Shabbat restrictions or observance. He wants to end the Orthodox monopoly on conversions not so that Conservative and Reform conversions are recognized, but so that Russian olim are not forced to go through a conversion process at all. He may care less about prayer arrangements at the Kotel than any other political figure in Israel because it is not something that matters at all to him or to most of the constituents he represents. Liberman is just about the savviest politician there is in Israel, and he clearly recognized that the path to reversing Yisrael Beiteinu’s downward electoral trend was expanding beyond his base of Russian voters and being the loudest voice across all sectors speaking for secular Israelis. I do not mean to suggest that he doesn’t believe in what he espouses or that this is not a worthy fight, because I think he does and it is. It’s just not the same fight that American Jews are fighting.
There are all sorts of theories about why denominations and formal religious pluralism flourished among American Jews and not inside Israel, but the easiest one to intuitively grasp is that Israeli Jews did not need to create such stark lines and boundaries as Jews in a majority Jewish state, where Jewish identity is far easier to maintain simply by living there and bonds of group identity are literally everywhere you look. In the U.S., where Jews are a minority, tribalism and a sense of group belonging are more difficult to inculcate because it requires actually working for it, and denominations were a way of doing this amidst Jewish diversity that made macro group identity harder to maintain in the larger culture and society. Whatever the reasons though, formal Jewish pluralism is not something that Israelis easily grasp, and nobody should expect that to change overnight. And even more unlikely is that the agent of change will be Liberman with his narrow view of secularism.
Cheer on Liberman if you want to end Orthodox domination inside of Israel. Be happy that he prevented the formation of a government that would have been even more in thrall to the Haredim than in coalitions past. Just don’t expect that his fight is the same as that of American Jews.
On April 9, Israel held Knesset elections. In September, Israel is once again going to hold Knesset elections. Here is your one-stop explainer for why.
Ok, why is Israel having new elections?
On the face of it, Israel is going to elections again because Prime Minister Netanyahu received a mandate from President Ruvi Ruvlin to form a government but was not able to do so. Despite the fact that parties representing 65 seats in the Knesset recommended Netanyahu to Rivlin, Netanyahu was unable to sign coalition agreements with all of them. Actually, it’s worse than that; Netanyahu was unable to sign a coalition agreement with any of them. The basic dispute is between Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and its five seats and the Haredi UTJ and its eight seats, and it consists of neither side willing to back down from its demands over a new military draft law. Without both of them agreeing, Netanyahu cannot get to the magic number of 61, and despite weeks of pressure from him on Liberman to back down, Liberman refused. And Israel is going to new elections.
That seems straightforward. Why did you say, “on the face of it?”
Because the open secret is that a national unity government could be formed in the space of two minutes between Likud with its 35 seats and its competitor Kachol Lavan with its 35 seats. Not only was that Kachol Lavan’s preferred outcome for the last election, it is still what it would like to see happen, as would a number of others within Likud itself. None of this wrangling between Likud and the smaller parties that are supposed to be making up its prospective coalition has to take place at all, and their leverage could be removed instantaneously.
If it’s so easy smart guy, why didn’t it happen?
It didn’t happen because the one obstacle in its path is Netanyahu. Kachol Lavan essentially ran on a platform of Netanyahu policies without the Netanyahu corruption and assault on state institutions, making it impossible to climb down from its anti-Netanyahu tree and retain a shred of capability. What Kachol Lavan wanted prior to the election was to beat Likud by enough seats that the party would push Netanyahu out the door and make forming a broad center-right government as easy task. Were Likud MKs to somehow sideline Netanyahu now, this would still be the most sensible option for both sides. But as should be glaringly obvious to everyone by now, Netanyahu has one overriding interest, and that is to remain prime minister come hell or high water.
So what were Netanyahu’s options to stay in his post?
In 2009, Tzipi Livni was given the first chance to form a government after Kadima took one more seat in the election than Likud, and her refusal to capitulate to Haredi demands ultimately left her unable to cobble together a coalition by the deadline. Netanyahu was then given the next shot at forming a government, and he has been prime minister ever since. Netanyahu did not want to risk suffering Livni’s fate if Rivlin had appointed Benny Gantz to try and form a coalition after Netanyahu failed, although the likelihood of that working would be small since the basic coalition math still does not add up for Gantz. More pressingly and embarrassingly for Netanyahu, what he was really trying to avoid was Rivlin appointing another Likud member to put together a coalition, since that would have cleared the decks for a unity government with Netanyahu left on the sidelines. After weeks of trying to get Liberman to cave, and then a few hours of pressure on the Haredim to cave, Netanyahu was out of options, and pushed through the bill to dissolve the Knesset and go to elections yet again as the only way of preserving his position and getting another bite at the coalition apple.
And he thinks that if there is another election, the math will change in his favor and make it easier to form a government?
He would definitely like things to shift by at least one seat, which would have given him the space to form a government this time without being held hostage by Liberman. But the true aim here is not about increasing seats; its about forming a government and passing an immunity law and/or Supreme Court override before his indictment hearing on October 2. It is why he did not request another extension from Rivlin and risk having elections any later than mid-September, and also why he suddenly flipped on the Haredim at the last second yesterday and tried to get them to back down once he realized that Liberman wouldn’t blink. Netanyahu thought that threatening new elections would scare one or both of the intransigent prospective coalition members, but they both called his bluff. He is now forced into elections despite not really wanting them given the extremely short time horizon it will give him to form a government and get those laws passed. He is now hoping for one of two outcomes; either the combination of Likud and Kulanu – which are now running together as a joint list – will do better than the 39 seats for which they combined this time and will push Liberman underneath the threshold, or the tens of thousands of wasted rightwing votes that went to Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s Hayemin Hehadash and Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut last time will this time get one or both of those parties over the threshold, giving Netanyahu more parties to work with and thus more leverage over all of them.
Is his gambit going to work?
There is simply no way of knowing. On the one hand, there is the scenario I just outlined above, in which Bennett and Shaked run again and make the Knesset, Likud and Kulanu are bigger the second time around than the sum of their parts the first time around, and Netanyahu ends up with a relatively easy march to a coalition. On the other hand, since the election Netanyahu has bent over backwards for the Haredi parties and their demands regarding the draft and shutting down the country on Shabbat, positions that are broadly unpopular with Israelis writ large. He has bent over backwards for the Union of Right-Wing Parties and their plan of attack on the judiciary and secular and gay Israelis, and tacitly endorsed their extremism that is also broadly unpopular with Israelis writ large. The new elections are also unprecedented in Israeli history and a naked attempt to save his own skin rather than protect the right-wing government for which most Israelis expressed a preference, not to mention that another round of elections will cost hundreds of millions of shekels from state coffers and prolong Israel’s current political stasis. There is a good chance that all of this will backfire, particularly if Kachol Lavan is able to quickly absorb the mistakes it made last time and readjust its tactics and messaging to accord with the inevitable frustration among Israelis at what just happened.
Without the benefit of letting the dust settle first and peering into the clear air, my hunch is that this will backfire on Netanyahu. Israelis are not sympathetic to the Haredi positions, and not only did they harden them during these negotiations, Netanyahu made it crystal clear that he was siding with them. Going to elections again for no obvious reason is also going to give Israelis a new sense of Netanyahu fatigue, and it may also create a measure of resentment over a perception that Israel is broken in an unprecedented way. I also expect for some of the cracks in Likud to become fissures, and for the behind the scenes grumbling about Netanyahu to emerge more openly now that the aura of inevitable invincibility that he like to project has been pierced. But this is all mere speculation until September, so in the meantime enjoy another four surprise months of Israeli campaign season!
The latest twist and turn in the unveiling of the Trump peace initiative – it will be rolled out right as the calendar turns! Before Israeli elections! After Israeli elections but before the government is formed! Right after Ramadan! As soon as Shavuot ends! – is that it will kick off with a workshop in Bahrain at the end of June focused on “an ambitious, achievable vision and framework for a prosperous future for the Palestinian people and the region, including enhancements to economic governance, development of human capital, and facilitation of rapid private-sector growth.” Despite the White House going to great lengths to deny what is now plain as day, the announcement confirmed the long-held suspicions of many analysts and observers that the Trump administration is focusing on economic peace and temporarily shelving whatever political component its initiative contains.
The announcement that the administration’s opening salvo is to convene some finance ministers and businessmen to talk about the future of the Palestinian economy despite not including any representatives from the putative Palestinian government, and that the same administration that froze all funding to development and civil society projects in the West Bank is now going to ask others to contribute to development and civil society projects in the West Bank, was widely mocked by many, myself included. But it’s worth laying out precisely what the Trump administration seems to be aiming for with this plan and what it is they are betting on, and why those bets are far more weighted in the other direction than they want to allow.
For starters, the White House is betting that economics can override politics. From the consistent refusals to be pinned down on what type of ultimate arrangement Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, and David Friedman envision, to Kushner’s focus in public comments on improving the daily lives of Palestinians, it is evident that the Trump team hopes that enough money can solve anything. The theory behind the Bahrain gathering is to demonstrate to Palestinians just how much they are potentially giving up by not engaging, and that their insistence on focusing on political issues is going to cost them economically.
This is the other side of the coin of the Trump policy toward the Palestinians, which has been to punish them financially through all cessation of aid and development projects so as to raise the costs of their alleged intransigence and make them yield. That policy has not paid off dividends so far, largely because the Palestinian national project is about nationalism rather than quality of life and thus cannot so easily be bought off, but the White House is intent on doubling down on this particular bet.
Next, the administration is betting that it can separate the Palestinian people from the Palestinian leadership by fomenting grassroots anger at the Palestinian Authority not engaging with the peace plan. The logic behind this is that it will pressure the PA to ultimately concede the point and deal with the Trump plan, or perhaps – in the Trump administration’s wildest dreams – lead to an uprising that will overthrow Mahmoud Abbas and the current leadership entirely. Trying to get Palestinians excised about the PA is one way of making sense out of Greenblatt’s Twitter feed, which is an almost non-stop screed against the Palestinian leadership and its hostility toward the Trump administration’s efforts to improve Palestinian quality of life in the West Bank.
One can also read into the invites to the Bahrain workshop sent to a group of Palestinian businessmen whom Greenblatt has been promoting on Twitter the stirrings of an effort to promote an alternative Palestinian leadership. The notion that the U.S. can engineer a grassroots uprising, particularly given the Trump administration’s absolute toxicity these days among Palestinians, is farcical, and the entire pursuit is reminiscent of the Ahmed Chalabi gambit for Iraq that the Bush White House cooked up before the Iraq War. Nevertheless, the Trump team is pretty obviously not only trying to isolate Abbas but to challenge his authority.
The White House is also betting not only that Arab states will play along with the Trump plan, but that they will commit to investing in specific projects in the Palestinian territories, or even donate piles of aid, on nothing but blind faith despite having no insight into what the status of those territories will be or what political system will exist in the West Bank. Will it be an independent Palestinian state in 96% of the West Bank? Will it be an autonomous enclave in 40% of it? Will it be integrated entirely into Israel and under direct Israeli control? There are literally no answers to these questions, because the Trump administration has neither advanced a vision of statehood nor committed to releasing any part of the political framework before asking countries to commit billions of dollars to a black hole. As Tamara Wittes so aptly put it, “Releasing an economic vision for government ‘investors’ without specifying the political structures that support it is like selling apartments in a skyscraper for which there are as yet no architectural plans.” My guess is that states attending the workshop will end up showering the Trump effort with some platitudes and a bunch of empty commitments that never get fulfilled, but that it is an exercise in kabuki theater.
Finally, the administration is betting that this entire enterprise, whether it is nothing more than economic peace or indeed advances down the road to a tangible political agenda, can be done while ignoring the split between the West Bank and Gaza. For years, the Netanyahu government and its allies argued that no progress toward a permanent status agreement could be made without Palestinian reconciliation – a point that absolutely has merit – and now the Trump team is trying to do exactly that without any prior effort to prod Fatah and Hamas to reconcile or to return the Palestinian Authority to Gaza. It suggests either a supremely naïve hubris, or that furthering the West Bank-Gaza split rather than mending it is actually the point. Prime Minister Netanyahu has purposely tried to keep the West Bank and Gaza separate precisely in order to avoid having to deal with any serious diplomatic overtures, and an initiative that is aimed at improving the West Bank economy without addressing how to integrate the West Bank and Gaza, or really addressing the political issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at all, is straight out of his wildest dreams.
None of this is to say that the Trump administration won’t claim victory once the workshop is over. Israeli officials will attend alongside Arab officials in an Arab country, there will be grandiose pledges made and even more grandiose words spoken of the untapped potential that is within the Palestinians’ grasp if they would only stop being so stubborn and insisting on a viable sovereign state, and the Kushner team will declare their vision and approach vindicated. While it will not bring the two parties any closer to an agreement, it will absolutely give Israelis more ammunition to argue that the Palestinians will never agree to anything put forward by anyone, and strengthen the voices inside of Israel that are calling for unilateral moves that will upend the entire Israeli-Palestinian dynamic for good. And rather than bringing the two sides to peace, perhaps that is ultimately the point of this entire exercise.
The amount of outrage that was generated this week about Rashida Tlaib was not surprising, but that does not make it any less unfortunate. It was unfortunate for two reasons. First, it was based on a complete distortion – in some cases deliberate – of what Tlaib said about the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel. Second, it generated so much fire that it created a smokescreen obscuring some far more worrisome developments that are truly deserving of outrage.
When Tlaib talked on the Skullduggery podcast about the “calming feeling” that she gets when she thinks about how much Palestinians lost in the wake of the Holocaust in service of providing a safe haven for Jews in the aftermath of history’s starkest persecution, she said nothing anti-Semitic. Here is the full quote, courtesy of Andy Silow-Carroll, for anyone who did not watch or listen to the interview and wants to judge it independently:
“Let me tell you — I mean, for me, I think two weeks ago we celebrated, or took a moment I think in our country to remember, the Holocaust. And there’s a kind of a calming feeling, I always tell folks, when I think of the Holocaust and the tragedy of the Holocaust in the fact that it was my ancestors — Palestinians — who lost their land and some lost their lives, their livelihood, their human dignity, their existence in many ways had been wiped out, and some people’s passports — I mean, just all of it was in the name of trying to create a safe haven for Jews, post-the Holocaust, post-the tragedy and the horrific persecution of Jews across the world at that time. And I love the fact that it was my ancestors that provided that, right?, in many ways. But they did it in a way that took their human dignity away, right, and it was forced on them.”
Tlaib was not praising the extermination of Jews, trivializing Jewish persecution, denying the Holocaust, and certainly not saying that the Holocaust itself gives her a calming feeling. To accuse her of doing any of these things suggests one of two, and only two, possibilities: either you are intentionally lying about what she said to further your own political agenda in which Jews are pawns to be used in the service of expedient demagoguery for electoral purposes, or your command of the English language is so tenuous that you should immediately enroll in remedial language classes. I’ll leave it to you to decide which of these possibilities best describes President Trump and Representative Liz Cheney.
The point that I think Tlaib was trying to make – which becomes more obvious when you listen to her similar comments on the New York Times podcast The Dailyon the same subject but which did not refer to the Holocaust – is that Israel was a necessary and understandable safe haven for Jews after the horrors of the Holocaust, but that this safe haven was created in a way that treated Palestinians unjustly and that was forced upon them. Not only do I see nothing objectionable about that formulation, I think it is entirely accurate. Palestinians did not want a Jewish state, did not want or accept Israel’s creation, and they were the unquestionable losers as a result of the way that history unfolded. That does not absolve them of the share of the blame that they deserve, but it does not make it any less true.
A less charitable way of interpreting what Tlaib said – and one that squares more with her office’s follow-up statement that “her ancestors were involved in helping those tragically impacted by the Holocaust” – is that she made a grossly ahistorical assertion that Palestinians actively tried to create a safe haven for Jews rather than opposing it at every turn. That is how most people interpreted her initial comments, though I think erroneously so in light of her explicitly saying at the end that this state of affairs “was forced on” Palestinians. But even if this reading of Tlaib is the correct one, then she is guilty of misrepresenting history in an irresponsible way – and in a way that is eerily reminiscent of those who claim that Palestinians are or should be grateful for Israeli occupation because it provides them with a better situation than they would have were they living in Syria, Yemen, or other surrounding Arab states – but not of anti-Semitism or applauding the Holocaust. It points to a naive ignorance, not only of the Palestinian role in preventing Jewish immigration to Palestine but of the state of relations between Jews and Arabs in Mandatory Palestine, and perhaps sheds light on why Tlaib naively believes that one state would be workable today. And the fact that there remains ambiguity around what precisely Tlaib meant is Tlaib’s responsibility given her awkward choice of words, not to mention that it is always best to avoid bringing up the Holocaust in order to make any tangential point as a general rule. But none of that warrants the pile-on that occurred.
Not only was the pile-on unwarranted, it was actively damaging beyond what it says about the credibility of Tlaib’s most vociferous detractors in this incident. Every time an easily disprovable and overblown allegation of anti-Semitism is so loudly and publicly leveled by so many, it makes it far easier to dismiss real anti-Semitism when it occurs. This is the real-life embodiment of the boy who cried wolf, and it’s unclear to me why anyone views Republican politicians who do this as great friends and supporters of Jews.
The communal freakout over Tlaib also made it easy for people to miss some far more important things that went on this week that will impact the American Jewish community in uniformly negative ways. Netanyahu and his political partners are barreling ahead not only with plans to begin annexing parts of the West Bank, but on passing an immunity law for Knesset members that is intended to protect Netanyahu from indictment and eliminating the judicial review authority of Israel’s High Court over Knesset legislation. What is the bigger threat to Israel, a freshman congresswoman who talks about historical Israeli injustice or a current Israeli government that actively seeks to eliminate judicial oversight and legislate current injustice? What is more likely to get people to support BDS, a freshman congresswoman who says that Palestinians were happy to suffer in statelessness in order to support a nascent Jewish state or a move to annex the West Bank and consign Palestinians to forever suffer in statelessness in order to support an expansionist Jewish state? What is more likely to do more damage to the U.S.-Israel relationship, a freshman congresswomen who supports one state or the spectacle of Democrats en masse rightly defending the country’s most vocal and visible supporter of one state because she has been tarred for saying something that she did not say?
The focus on Tlaib’s comments is no different than a toddler being distracted by someone jingling a shiny set of keys in front of its face. American Jews are imminently facing having to defend Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship while Israeli democracy is being eroded from within, and are instead consumed not by trying to warn our Israeli friends about this imminent disaster but by raising hell on the basis of a conspiracy theory that a member of Congress defended the Holocaust.
We are better and smarter than this. I fundamentally disagree with Tlaib’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and am still repulsed by her comments from months back alluding to dual loyalties regarding Israel. But in this instance, she should not be the focus of opprobrium, and continuing to rail against Tlaib for supporting the Holocaust or for historical revisionism is fiddling while Rome burns.
On Tuesday night in Tel Aviv, Israelis and Palestinians held their fourteenth consecutive joint Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) ceremony in what has become one of the most polarizing events in Israel. It is an event opposed by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who in his capacity as defense minister denied entry permits to Palestinians wishing to attend but was overruled by Israel’s High Court. It is also an event opposed by many – if not most – Israeli Jews.
The opposition to a joint memorial ceremony marking the most solemn day on Israel’s calendar is easy to understand. Yom Hazikaron is dedicated to the memories of Israeli soldiers who were killed defending their homeland and Israeli civilians who were killed in terrorist attacks, with those numbers standing respectively at 23,741 and 3,150. It is a reminder of how perilous Israel’s existence was in its early years, and how vigilant Israel must remain today. Unlike Memorial Day in the U.S., Israelis do not celebrate it as a day off filled with barbecues to mark the unofficial start to summer, and the idea that it should be expanded to incorporate Palestinians who died while trying to kill Israelis is for many beyond the pale. Many Israelis see it as an insult to the memories of those who gave their lives in service of the state and as a further provocation in implying that there is equivalence between Israel’s fallen heroes and those who were responsible for their deaths.
There is something particularly jarring about it this year in particular coming right on the heels of the most sustained rocket fire on Israel from Gaza since Operation Protective Edge in 2014 and the deaths of four Israelis. And indeed, the opposition to the ceremony organized by Combatants for Peace and the Parents Circle Families Forum came this year in the form of denunciations by politicians and efforts to disrupt the event, with five protestors arrested for attempting to cross police barriers and throwing trash at participants.
I’m not sure that I would be comfortable participating in a joint Yom Hazikaron ceremony were I an Israeli. This is an instance where particularism feels altogether appropriate given the circumstances. Israelis should be able to remember their dead and mourn as a society without turning it into a larger statement on the universal tragedy of war and expressing a common humanity. This is all the more so given that Israelis are not living in a post-conflict reconciliation period and Israel is not a place where the fallen are removed from most people’s direct experience; Israelis still routinely die in the service of the state and even more commonly are killed in terrorist attacks. Moreover, Israelis have a personal connection to military experience that only a fraction of Americans – and an even tinier fraction of American Jews – will ever have. I do not for a moment judge Israelis who don’t want to participate in a shared Israeli-Palestinian memorial service, or who are repulsed by the fact that it even exists.
But there is a powerful reason for Israelis – and particularly right-wing Israelis – who find the entire enterprise offensive and inappropriate to nonetheless be grateful that the joint ceremony happens every year and is in fact growing in size. One of the fundamental differences in worldview between those on the right and those on the left is what precisely drives the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For the left, it is largely a question of circumstances, namely the occupation and the growing settlement enterprise, and ameliorating and then reversing these circumstances will eventually lead to a peace agreement and the end of the conflict. For the right, it is largely a question of ideology, namely the refusal of Palestinians to accept Israel’s legitimacy and right to exist as a Jewish state, and thus the conflict will continue indefinitely until Palestinians en masse acknowledge Israelis’ rights and connection to their historic homeland.
This diagnosis of the problem has led Israelis to make Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state a core demand, and encourages the view that the conflict is not about Israel’s presence in the West Bank but about basic recognition. As Netanyahu said in his 2016 United Nations General Assembly speech, “this remains the true core of the conflict, the persistent Palestinian refusal to recognize the Jewish state in any boundary.” Once this recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and the Jewish narrative happens, the right views all of the other issues receding into the background and being easily solved.
The joint Yom Hazikaron ceremony is the starkest example of precisely what the right-wing wants to see happen. Set aside for a moment the Israelis who are involved and toward whom other Israelis’ ire is directed; the Palestinians who apply for permits to come to the Jewish state and mourn their dead in the first modern-day Jewish city alongside Israeli dead on the day that Israel has set aside as its national memorial day are providing the recognition that Israelis so crave. They are legitimizing Israel, its right to exist, its right to defend itself, and its right to do so in the historic Jewish homeland. They are memorializing the IDF soldiers whom the overwhelming majority of Palestinians see as invaders and military occupiers, and instead accepting them on Israeli terms as defenders of the Israeli state and as guarantors of Jewish rights. The Palestinians who participate are going against the recidivist elements in their own camp, spurning the powerful forces in Palestinian society pushing for anti-normalization, and not conditioning recognition of Israel or its own narratives on any larger political objective. They are modeling the exact mindset that Netanyahu and many Israelis have identified as the one thing that Palestinians must do in order for peace to flourish, and rejecting the single thing that Netanyahu and many Israelis have identified as the biggest obstacle. Shouldn’t everyone be cheering this on as precisely the type of movement that needs to grow and be nurtured rather than tar it as a disgraceful affront? Shouldn’t the Israelis who have engaged with these Palestinians be celebrated for their success in engaging the other side in Israel’s core narrative rather than demonized as Nazis and traitors?
I understand the anger and the discomfort from the Israeli side. But if you take a step back, you will see that a joint Israeli-Palestinian memorial ceremony is precisely the recognition that Israel wants. Today, as we celebrate Israel’s independence, it should be a reminder that Zionism’s ultimate success is not national self-determination and sovereignty in the historic Jewish homeland, but will come when that self-determination and sovereignty is accepted and recognized by all.