Friday, August 15, 2014

Gaza 'Without Illusions': A UN Mandate

Israel’s Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has made his reputation telling what he imagines to be hard truths that others shrink from. He says that he sees the world “bli ashlayot”—without illusions.

In 2001, he said that if Egypt stationed troops in the Sinai, Israel should respond “strongly,” by, say, bombing the Aswan Dam, on the Nile. He has said that Israeli Arabs who don’t swear loyalty to the state should be stripped of citizenship. He has even argued that Israel should negotiate with the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas on the basis of a (demographically agreeable) land swap, whereby Israel would annex large West Bank settlement blocs while handing over to the Palestinians three hundred thousand third-generation, Hebrew-speaking Arab citizens in towns near the pre-1967 borders.

Since the beginning of the latest Gaza operation, Lieberman, unsurprisingly, has done to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu what Netanyahu did to his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, in 2009: outflank him on the right by insisting that no ceasefire be considered until Hamas is vanquished. The current ceasefire is still provisional, and Lieberman has declared that Israel will not coƶperate with any war-crimes investigation by the United Nations Human Rights Council.

It was surprising, then, that when Lieberman testified before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last week, he suggested that Israel and the Palestinian Authority might consider turning control of Gaza over to a United Nations mandate.

Read on at The New Yorker

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Let's Blame Kerry

This has just been published by TheWorldPost, a partnership of The Huffington Post and the Berggruen Institute on Governance 

By the second week of the Gaza war, Israeli media were decided that Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomacy was fatally inept. Presumably, much of the subsequent suffering on both sides might be laid at his feet. The most serious—certainly the most caustic—claims were advanced by Haaretz’s Ari Shavit:

Kerry ruined everything. Very senior officials in Jerusalem described the proposal that Kerry put on the table as a ‘strategic terrorist attack.’ His decision to go hand in hand with Qatar and Turkey, and formulate a framework amazingly similar to the Hamas framework, was catastrophic…The man of peace from Massachusetts intercepted with his own hands the reasonable cease-fire that was within reach, and pushed both the Palestinians and Israelis toward an escalation that most of them did not want…If Israel is forced to ultimately undertake an expanded ground operation in which dozens of young Israelis and hundreds of Palestinian civilians could lose their lives, it would be appropriate to name the offensive after the person who caused it: John Kerry. 

The “proposal” Shavit was referring to was a draft ceasefire plan which Kerry sent from Paris to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on July 26; it was the product of a meeting he convened with European foreign ministers that included Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid Al Attiyah—both in more or less steady communication with Hamas’s political chief, Khaled Meshal. The proposal called for a cessation of all violence, to be followed within forty-eight hours by meetings in Cairo between Israel and “all Palestinian factions.” It would “secure the opening of crossings, allow the entry of goods and people and ensure the social and economic livelihood of the Palestinian people living in Gaza, transfer funds to Gaza for the payment of salaries for public employees and address all security issues.”

What Shavit considered the “reasonable cease-fire that was within reach”—before Kerry allegedly began his clumsy meddling—was an earlier proposal, from July 14th., advanced by Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. This had called only (and vaguely) for talks in Cairo about opening the Rafah crossing from Egypt into Gaza, which Sisi had closed—in part because he regarded Hamas as an off-shoot of the hated Moslem Brothers. Netanyahu had accepted the Egyptian proposal, and began bombarding Gaza in response to Hamas’s missile attacks. Meshal, speaking from Qatar, insisted that the fight was to the death, if necessary. “We will not accept any initiative that does not lift the blockade on our people and that does not respect their sacrifices,” he said. By the time of Kerry’s proposal, casualties in Gaza were climbing to over a thousand, and over thirty Israeli soldiers had been killed. Shavit was convinced that, had Kerry simply reinforced Netanyahu’s threats, Sisi’s pressure, and used Qatar to leverage Meshal, Hamas would have cracked then and there.

No wonder, Shavit implied, Kerry’s draft was decisively rejected by the Israeli cabinet. Nor was Shavit alone. The proposal was leaked and criticized the following day by Haaretz’s diplomatic correspondent, Barak Ravid (“What was he thinking?,” Ravid, normally an acerbic critic of the Netanyahu’s policies, fumed), at which point public scorn for Kerry in Israel was wall-to-wall. Curiously, now that a cease-fire is finally taking hold, the terms of Kerry’s July 26 proposal don’t seem so ruinous. In fact, they seem much like the ones on everyone’s mind, including such different members of the cabinet as the centrist Tzipi Livni and the rightist Avigdor Lieberman: the Israeli security quid for the Gazan development quo. Was the American Secretary of State really so ham-fisted by suggesting them early on? Or should we just forget the carping, chalk it up to taut nerves, and move on?

This would be a serious mistake, I think, for it would mean ignoring the tortured strategic logic that helped propel the Israeli government into this war—and earlier ones. What’s been vexing for Israeli officials and commentators alike, you see, is that Kerry interfered in a game of regional brinkmanship Israelis imagine themselves masters of and the only ones with the nerves for. In this game, Israel’s forces must bring something like decisive victory, or the perception of having decisive power, if “deterrence” is to be reestablished—the only security strategy the Netanyahu government has been offering the Israeli public.

I have sat through many intelligence briefings in which Israeli officials fill PowerPoint presentations with assessments of Palestinians’ power: their “motivation” and “capabilities.” But press these officials and they almost always define motives in terms of capabilities—if Palestinians can hurt us, they will want to. The desire to eliminate Israel goes back to the Naqba, presumably. It cannot be allayed, only (naively) appeased. Talk of occupation is a distraction, a propaganda victory for them. So Israelis cannot imagine deterring Palestinians unless they make them feel defeated. Might makes, of all things, right.

The war did little to undermine this logic. The unexpected death of so many soldiers—sons looking back cheerfully in newspaper pictures, pulled from their classes, hook-ups and trips to Nepal—endowed “deterrence” an elevated sense of pathos. In social media, at least, the tunnels pushed many Israelis to hysteria. Another veteran journalist, Akiva Eldar, wrote soberly in Al-Monitor that grief had transformed tunnels into a symbol for Israel’s darkest fears. Polls show that the war is overwhelmingly popular. Facebook and Twitter, Eldar laments, are lit up with discussion of “a horror scenario,” in which the tunnels provide Hamas with an infrastructure for a ground invasion: thousands of Hamas troops, dressed in Israeli uniforms, could fire hundreds, or even thousands, of rockets into the center of the country. Eldar quoted a wildly popular blogger who wrote, “Under those circumstances, Israel would potentially have to contend with tens of thousands of casualties, the paralysis of all its systems and the need to create defensive measures for individual neighborhoods and even for streets.” The blogger went on, “Counter-attacks by the air force won’t help when everyone is dug in deep underground, laughing all the way to Jerusalem.”

Kerry’s folly, then, was to imply flexibility, a willingness to respond to manifest grievances, when the game called for convincing ruthlessness. Perhaps one would wish to rehabilitate Gaza; former defense minister Shaul Mofaz has called for a fifty-billion-dollar redevelopment plan, after all. But if Hamas was for it, Kerry was “reckless” not to be against it. If only he had pressured Hamas just a little harder, Hamas’s will would have been broken. Hey, didn’t Qatar just buy eleven billion dollars in defensive missiles from the U.S.? Instead, Kerry squandered American authority. He was in over his head, sinking beneath the surface of Israel’s tautology.

The point is, you dig into this Israeli media criticism and its rests on these flimsy assumptions about the psychological state of the Hamas leadership. They understand only force. Inflict pain, secure “quiet.” Moreover, to criticize Kerry for working with Qatar and Turkey is to demand he remove from play American channels to, and leverage on, Hamas’s diplomatic supporters—the very ones Israeli leaders are now counting on to achieve a more permanent quiet—even the “demilitarization,” which Netanyahu now insists on.

In retrospect, one might conclude that Hamas was in no way on the verge of breaking: that Hamas leaders saw the casualties rising through the fog of war and assumed that many deaths on both sides worked to their advantage; that the very frame of mind that makes them terrorist also makes them cynically apocalyptic, suicidal, carried away by solidarity; that they knew very well how more Israeli bombardment could play into their hands, provoke international condemnation, possibly a new Intifada in the West Bank, a rising in Israeli Arab cities, missiles from Hezbollah, riots in Amman, or all of the above; that Hamas was about to lose its tunnels in any case and could not maintain its moral prestige among Gazans without making a stand to “break the siege.”

More reasonably, Kerry’s Paris proposal assumed that next diplomatic steps would take place in Cairo, under Egyptian auspices—as, indeed, they are now, since Egypt still controlled Rafah, the first imaginable crossing to open. “All Palestinian factions” was an obvious euphemism for the united government of the Palestinian Authority which the U.S. had already tried to work with and Israel tried to break Abbas away from. This government had already agreed to participate in an international effort to monitor the crossings, work on Gazan development and pay the salaries of Gazan officials with funds committed by Qatar. Israel, meanwhile, will discuss “all security issues.” It will also sit down with this government, though not with Hamas directly—again, just what Kerry expected.

None of this means that Israeli journalists who’ve mocked him will stop doing so. They’ll accuse him of childishness for insisting a comprehensive deal is necessary to improve on an unsustainable status quo. Yet they’ll parentalize him and the American presidency—assume that violence against Israel is the result of totemic American fumbling. It is not a bad to career move—a various neocons have proven—to declare that the Obama administration’s weakness is responsible for every attack from the world’s awful people. Yet, hopefully, Kerry will press on. Soon enough, Israelis will be carping also at themselves.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Dread And Wishful Thinking

A conversation with John Cassidy about the miserable war, on The New Yorker "Political Scene" podcast.  Jeffrey Toobin moderates.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

An Open Letter To Philip Weiss


Dear Phil,

I understand that, in Weissworld, it is considered a compliment to be singled out as a representative of the mainstream media, someone “finally” alienated from Israeli policy—and, as an additional commendation, to be credited with having termed Israeli attacks in Gaza as a “war crime.”  I think that anyone who bothers to read the whole article—to which you curiously provide a link—will immediately see how seriously you’ve flattened my views.  I write, among other things:

Familiar, finally, is the posturing and the doublespeak, Hamas’s Big Lie countered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s half-truths. A senior Hamas official told Haaretz, “When Israel started operating against our people, some decided it was time to act and show that we are one people and one nation that must defend our people in the West Bank.” As if Hamas defends its people by provoking luridly photogenic attacks on Gazans; as if launching Iranian-made missiles, acquired through its Sinai tunnels, does not appear to justify the Israeli siege that Hamas says it is trying to break; as if Hamas has not consolidated an occupation regime of its own, plunging Gaza into a parochial horror in which almost ninety per cent of adults live in poverty.

“The difference between us is simple,” Netanyahu says. “We develop defensive systems against missiles in order to protect our civilians, and they use their civilians to protect their missiles.” That’s a good line, and even a true one. But it’s also true that the Israeli government knew the kidnapped teens were almost certainly dead when, in an alleged desperate effort to save them, it began a crackdown that resulted in hundreds of Hamas supporters being thrown in prison. More plausibly, it took this opportunity to crush Hamas as a political force. Netanyahu and Israeli military tacticians openly consider all homes of known Hamas officials or fighters to be part of Hamas “infrastructure.” Bombing these homes every few years—“mowing the lawn,” as one commander put it before earlier Gaza operations—demonstrates that Israel will not shrink from inflicting hundreds of random civilian casualties, through which it hopes to discredit Hamas. If you don’t think this is a war crime, talk to your Palestinian friends.

Justice Goldstone established what war crimes are. I won’t compete with him here. Let us say neither Hamas nor the IAF are doing credit to the human species, whose record wasn’t great to begin with. I clearly meant that both sides are cynical about civilian casualties in Gaza, tolerating them, even using them, for alleged strategic gain. Where, in your blog, is a post about how missile attacks ought to distance us from Hamas? Anyway, even if Israeli strikes can be vaguely justified as a response to them, you need to be incapable of compassion, or devoid of Palestinian friends, to refrain from seeing the bombing as criminally cavalier.  This is what I argued, which is not really what you insinuate, is it?

I also consider that “finally” condescending. You write: "It is just a matter of time before some liberal Zionists (who are merely the most amenable voice inside a reactionary American support community) begin to jump off the Zionist tank.” Presumably, people like myself, otherwise reactionary liberal Zionists, are finally summoning the courage to come around to your principled alienation. This isn’t the place, either, to explain all the ways I find your views about historic Zionism misinformed, even crude, and your political analysis one-sided. But some of us, in and out of Israel, have been willing to take the unpleasant consequences of non-conformity, criticizing the occupation and its consequences—including arguably just wars that might nevertheless have been avoided—since the time of Golda Meir. However queasy we may feel about Weissworld’s tribute, we certainly weren’t waiting for its spine.

Best, Bernie

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Watching Gaza

We may think we have been here before, but we haven’t. The images of escalation are the same: exhaust tracing through Israeli skies; Gazans frantically picking through rubble; Israelis glued to their televisions, reduced to observers of spectacle, some poised to run for shelter but most affecting readiness, protected by rocket science and probability, fascinated by the deadpan proficiency of military officials whose mission may confuse them but to whom they suppose they owe their lives.

And the circular ultimatums are the same, as are the grim tallies that supposedly establish advantage: we stop bombing if you stop launching, we stop launching if you stop laying siege, we stop the siege if you give up your missiles, we can’t give them up as long as you occupy us and have the means to bomb us. As in 2008, the I.D.F. is prepared for a ground invasion. About fifteen hundred Hamas targets have been hit by Israel, more than five hundred largely homemade Qassam missiles have been launched by Hamas, and more than two hundred and twenty Palestinians have been killed. Just since yesterday morning, more than a hundred rockets and mortars have been fired into Israel, the vast majority intercepted by the country’s Iron Dome defense system. One Israeli man was killed at the border. The fresher grievances turn the older ones vague: three hitchhiking Israeli teens were kidnapped, two protesting Palestinian youths were shot dead two weeks before, there was a revenge murder by a rogue group of Israeli fanatics—you can unspool this vendetta back to the Balfour Declaration, in 1917.

Yesterday morning promised a break in the cycle, but this, too, seemed merely familiar. At Secretary of State John Kerry’s urging, the Israeli government announced that it had accepted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s terms for a ceasefire, which looked a great deal like the terms offered by President Mohamed Morsi in 2012, which the Israeli government accepted at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s urging. Both sides, according to the latest Egyptian terms, would stop their attacks; indirect talks, to be held in Cairo, would take up opening Gaza crossings to Egypt, though the agenda for such talks is vague; and Hamas would restrain underground groups like Islamic Jihad. Again, Hamas would seem to have achieved nothing for the Palestinian lives lost, which is why it rejected the deal and why Israeli planes resumed bombing.

Familiar, finally, is the posturing and the doublespeak, Hamas’s Big Lie countered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s half-truths. A senior Hamas official told Haaretz, “When Israel started operating against our people, some decided it was time to act and show that we are one people and one nation that must defend our people in the West Bank.” As if Hamas defends its people by provoking luridly photogenic attacks on Gazans; as if launching Iranian-made missiles, acquired through its Sinai tunnels, does not appear to justify the Israeli siege that Hamas says it is trying to break; as if Hamas has not consolidated an occupation regime of its own, plunging Gaza into a parochial horror in which almost ninety per cent of adults live in poverty.

“The difference between us is simple,” Netanyahu says. “We develop defensive systems against missiles in order to protect our civilians, and they use their civilians to protect their missiles.” That’s a good line, and even a true one. But it’s also true that the Israeli government knew the kidnapped teens were almost certainly dead when, in an alleged desperate effort to save them, it began a crackdown that resulted in hundreds of Hamas supporters being thrown in prison. More plausibly, it took this opportunity to crush Hamas as a political force. Netanyahu and Israeli military tacticians openly consider all homes of known Hamas officials or fighters to be part of Hamas “infrastructure.” Bombing these homes every few years—“mowing the lawn,” as one commander put it before earlier Gaza operations—demonstrates that Israel will not shrink from inflicting hundreds of random civilian casualties, through which it hopes to discredit Hamas. If you don’t think this is a war crime, talk to your Palestinian friends.

Read on at The New Yorker

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Slipping The Terror Trap

On Thursday, Israeli secret-service officials finally released the names of the Hamas militants from Hebron, Marwan Qawasmeh and Amar Abu Aisha, whom they’ve alleged are responsible for kidnapping three hitchhiking yeshiva students—Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrah—on the night of June 12th. Their belief in Hamas’s involvement seems to have been reached by process of elimination—Qawasmeh and Aisha have gone missing—but, in a way, the Netanyahu government needn’t bother producing evidence that is more conclusive. Hamas’s leaders would be incompetent if they rejected responsibility, so well have events since the kidnapping played into their hands. (As if on cue, Hamas’s chief, Khaled Meshal, told Al Jazeera that he cannot confirm or deny the organization’s involvement, but, he added, “I congratulate the abductors, because our prisoners must be freed from the prisons of the occupation.”)

Continue reading at The New Yorker

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Republicans, Likud, And The Big Con

Just a coda to my post yesterday in The New Yorker regarding Abbas's unity deal--more specifically, about why the Netanyahu government is rallying opposition to it--claiming this is Abbas's capitulation to violent rejectionism--when it so clearly represents Abbas's provisional victory of over Hamas, and more generally for a non-violent, internationalized political process in Palestine.

The answer, I fear, is that the specter of Hamas's growing power always worked nicely for the Likud. And there is an analogy here to congressional Republicans:

If you are the party of laissez-faire and American plutocracy, you cannot say so. There is no majority for this. So you say, rather, that you are simply living with no illusions, being tough-minded, the party of government-is-the-problem. Then you resist or sabotage every government program or presidential initiative, people start saying “Washington is broken,” and you, of all people, seem vindicated—for American politicians, the Big Con, perfectly executed.

The same is true of the Likud, which benefits incrementally from the Occupation. Netanyahu’s government can’t just say it is committed to Greater Israel, theocracy-lite, and settlers—there is no majority for this. It merely claims to be tough-minded, not naive--as Avigdor Leiberman says, "bli ashlayot"--the government of we-have-no-partner. And this leaves in place a condition of spreading settlement, and army repression (to "keep the peace"), that is bound to produce periodic eruptions of violence and movements like Hamas (which. by the way, didn’t emerge before the first Intifada in 1987). The violence and the movement prove that we have no partner.

In either case, the strategy is not to spread ideology but sow cynicism. It works the same in every country.