If anyone is updating the White House's in-house guide to world etiquette, he might add that showing up in Israel during the Jews' annual Pesah-preparation madness—bollixing traffic, insisting on big important meetings—is just not done. Bibi Netanyahu, for all his faults, would know not to arrange a Washington visit on, say, December 23.
Yair Lapid, chairman of Yesh Atid party gives a speech during the celebration of their suggested 19 mandates on January 22, 2013 in Tel Aviv. (Ilia Yefimovich/Getty)
Netanyahu, though, has good reason to ignore the bad manners. Barack Obama has completely distracted attention from the startlingly right-wing government that Bibi installed on Monday. The only person who must be happier about this distraction is Yair Lapid: The centrist electoral phenom of January is the neophyte negotiator who signed the give-away coalition deal of March. Many houses will be built in West Bank settlements, and many social services will be cut inside Israel, in honor of Lapid.
The one consolation for Israelis who voted for change is that the new government is structurally weak, and more vulnerable to protest and public anger. (Lapid, to be fair, deserves credit for this as well.) This is an opportunity, not a gift: It will be worth nothing if it is not seized.
After six weeks of coalition talks, Lapid agreed to become finance minister. This is one of the three most prestigious ministerial posts; the others are defense and foreign affairs. Equal prestige does not mean equal power. In Likud governments, the finance job is often a trap, assigned to someone whom the prime minister wants to destroy politically or to control. Ariel Sharon nearly finished Netanyahu by making him finance minister in 2003; Bibi took all the blame for policies that made the poor poorer. Last term Netanyahu gave the post to his lackey Yuval Steinitz, who was never heard from again.
"He's always talking about red lines."
--United States President Barack Obama jokingly refers to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu after being instructed to follow the red lines marked on the floor at Ben Gurion International Airport. (Ynet)
- Peace Now's surprise for Obama - Peace Now movement prepared a special spectacle for the US President and put it under the flight path of Obama's helicopter to Jerusalem. "We the people want peace!" (SEE PHOTO in Maariv/NRG Hebrew)
- IDF will not evacuate E1 outpost until end of Obama visit - According to the IDF, until the end of the presidential visit by Barack Obama there will be no evacuation of the Palestinian settlement set up in E1. (Ynet)
- Settler neighborhood inaugurated in the name of Jonathan Pollard - During celebratory ceremonies in honor of the US President, the settlement of Karmei Tzur in Gush Etzion held a ceremony declaring the name of the new caravan neighborhood, 'Tzur Yehonatan' in honor of Israeli spy, Jonathan Pollard. (NRG Hebrew)
- Polite refusal - In his meeting with US President Obama, President Peres raised the issue of releasing spy Jonathan Pollard from jail and gave him a petition with 200,000 Israeli signatures. The US President listened, expressed sympathy, but ruled: it won't happen soon. (Yedioth, p. 16)
- Obama's plant placed in quarantine - Agriculture Ministry says seedling Obama brought with him to plant in Peres' courtyard must be checked for possible pests; likely to be returned to President's Residence. (Ynet)
- Ehud Barak: "Israel should launch a daring peace initiative vis-à-vis the Palestinians" - One day after leaving office and on the day that Obama arrives in Israel, the former defense minister publishes an Op-Ed in Wall Street Journal saying, "The status quo leads to a binational state." (Haaretz Hebrew and Wall Street Journal Op-Ed.)
- Facing the (Passover) music at Yad Vashem - Obama to receive musical notes to original Passover melody composed by former chief cantor of Amsterdam, who was killed in Holocaust. (Haaretz+)
For the full News from Israel.
Today, while President Barack Obama was landing in Tel Aviv, I was stopped at the checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem. Although this is a notoriously difficult checkpoint, security was tightened for the arrival of the American president.
While I was waiting to hear whether or not I would be able to travel to Jerusalem, President Obama stepped off of Air Force One and greeted the masses with a simple “Shalom.” The crowd went wild.
US President Barack Obama is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during an official welcoming ceremony on his arrival at Ben Gurion International Airport on March, 20, 2013 near Tel Aviv, Israel. (Uriel Sinai / Getty Images)
Meanwhile, I replied “todah”—thank you in Hebrew—to the two young Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers who graciously informed me that I needed to wait five minutes before the police came to verify my identity and see if I could pass from Ramallah to Jerusalem. When I said, “Shalom, Officer” he seemed less than impressed. He wanted to know if I spoke Arabic, and if I had any Palestinian blood—he insisted that I did.
During that time, President Obama gave a speech to the political leaders, religious leaders, military leaders and press who assembled for his arrival. He did not mention Palestine once.
I didn’t mention Palestine either. In my experience, it is easier to get around the Israeli authorities if you don’t mention Palestine. It seems like this might be the case in Barack Obama’s experience, too.
In his response to my recent article explaining why there is no question that Israeli settlement activity is prohibited under international law, David Suissa proves my main point perfectly. He and others seek refuge in a more comforting legal and political alternate universe because there are elements of reality that are simply too painful or inconvenient. Compounding his continued refusal to recognize the unanimous international consensus that Israel is the occupying power in the territories conquered in 1967, and that settling occupied territories is strictly prohibited under international law, he didn't actually read my article at all. Instead, just as one who prefers a dreamworld to reality predictably would, what he saw (and responded to) is a mirage. It is the coinage of his own imagination that he takes on with such gusto, not my words, and a completely different article other than the one I wrote.
Banned from Migron, residents are being moved to another settlement nearby. (Lior Mizrahi / Getty Images)
Suissa's entire response is based on the illusion that I described Israel's occupation as "illegal." In fact, of course, what I was discussing was the indisputable illegality of Israel's settlement activity, and I laid out an irrefutable case for why that is so. The question of whether the occupation itself is "legal" or "illegal" is a far more complex one, and entirely irrelevant to the question of settlements. It's symptomatic of his overall disconnection from international legal and political realities that Suissa not only thinks I passed judgment on the "legality" of Israel's occupation, but also that it has any implications at all for the indisputable illegality of settlement activity.
Suissa dutifully trots out almost every argument I noted that Israel and its supporters make in trying to either deny there is an occupation at all or that settlement activity is somehow not unlawful. He cites a number of Israeli documents and opinions to back this up, but, as I said, these arguments exist. The crucial thing is not that there are no forms of legal sophistry deployed in order to make these claims. It is rather that they are restricted to Israel and its closest supporters, and are categorically rejected by every other government and international authority in the world. Everyone can rationalize their own misbehavior, or that of their friends, but when no one else at all is buying it, you've clearly got no real argument.
It’s a sure sign of nervousness when people start using the vocabulary of absolute certainty—when they refuse to allow for even the possibility of debate. That’s precisely what Hussein Ibish did in his response in Open Zion to my column last week where I suggested that Israel’s presence on the West Bank ought to be characterized as “disputed” rather than “illegal”—he refused to give an inch, or even a millimeter.
David Buimovitch / AFP / Getty Images
His headline captured his certainty, if not his smugness: “Of Course the Settlements are Illegal.” His point of view was not even a point of view; it was, he declared, a “political and legal fact.” Anything else is an “entirely fictive alternate reality” where people who disagree with him “neurotically retreat.”
I don’t blame Mr. Ibish for his anxiety. For years now, Ibish and other critics of Israel’s occupation have had the field pretty much to themselves. It has become one of the world’s hard-rock truisms that Israel’s occupation is “illegal,” repeated reflexively throughout the world’s media and spawning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign to isolate and delegitimize the Jewish state.
President Obama began his trip to Israel by visiting an “Iron Dome” missile defense battery. Israel claims that Iron Dome intercepted nearly 90 percent of Hamas rockets launched during Operation Pillar of Cloud. However, experts are beginning to raise concerns about the effectiveness of the IDF’s rocket defense shield. Noted missile defense skeptic Theodore Postol has conducted a partial investigation into Israeli claims about the system’s effectiveness, and argues that the IDF is wildly overstating its intercept success rate, perhaps by a factor of ten or more.
A full evaluation of Dr. Postol’s claims requires a more complete technical study of Israeli intercept data. However, given Postol’s track record in debunking past claims of interceptor success (most notably the record of Patriot missile batteries in the first Gulf War), and the long history of exaggeration by missile defense advocates, skepticism is clearly warranted.
President Barack Obama, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, tour the Iron Dome Battery defense system at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, on March 20, 2013. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
We should also note that the IDF has several good reasons to mislead the world about the effectiveness of Iron Dome. Part of the point of the system is to deter rocket launches, and if neither Hamas nor Hezbollah believe the system works, they will presumably not be deterred (although given the expense of a successful interception, they may not be deterred in any case). Similarly, some have argued that Iron Dome rendered a land invasion of Gaza unnecessary, under the logic that the IDF would have been under great public pressure to attack in the absence of an effective defense system. To call this claim “speculative” radically overstates its evidentiary foundation.
Since President Obama is reportedly going to Israel in part to improve his relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu, here’s an opening line he might want to try upon greeting the Israeli leader at Ben Gurion Airport: “Good news, Mr. Prime Minister. I’ve become you.”
When it comes to the Palestinians, at least, it’s largely true. Two basic instincts govern Netanyahu’s behavior toward the Palestinians. The first is domestic political fear. Talk to Israelis who know Netanyahu, and they mostly say that he’s not as right wing as he sometimes appears. They say he recognizes that Israel is heading toward a dangerous one-state reality. But that realization doesn’t matter, they argue, because he lacks the will to confront his political base. Netanyahu’s greatest failure, they insist, is not zealotry but timidity.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
The historical record bears that out. In his book The Missing Peace, Dennis Ross recalls Netanyahu telling him that a leader must never abandon his “tribe” of core ideological supporters. In 2010 Newsweek cited a Netanyahu adviser as saying that “Bibi always quotes [his American political consultant] Arthur Finklestein—keep your base.” And Netanyahu has loyally followed that advice since entering politics a quarter century ago. As Ben Caspit and Ilan Kfir note in their 1998 biography, Netanyahu: The Road to Power, Bibi’s first campaign for the Knesset, in 1988, was managed by the Likud leader in the settlement of Ariel. In 1996, when Netanyahu first won the prime ministership, settlers were among his most devoted campaign workers. Avigdor Lieberman, a settler and head of the far-right party Yisrael Beiteinu, served in the 1990s as Netanyahu’s chief of staff. Netanyahu later gave the job to Naftali Bennett, now head of the settler-dominated Habayit Hayehudi. In office, Netanyahu has always created right-leaning coalition governments that constrain his ability to move toward a two-state solution but satisfy his hawkish base.
Curious about President Obama’s trip to Israel and the Palestinian Authority? Behold! The Israeli Embassy in Washington is here to help!
The Embassy produced a short video in advance of the trip, which, in the spirit of our times, is meant to both inform and amuse. You’ll find it below, but just in case you’re stuck in a super boring meeting, one of those meetings at which reading the Internet is possible but watching videos would be déclassé, let me describe it for you!
Air Force One takes off—and all of North Africa and the Middle East begins to quake! All except for the Gaza Strip, which has literally disappeared from the map (maybe it fell off when the quaking began?). As the plane comes in for a landing, it sounds very much as if it might crash, which serves as an unfortunately apt metaphor for my own fears surrounding the trip, but I’m sure that was unintentional.
President Barack Obama is going to Bethlehem for Easter. When I heard this my ﬁrst instinct was to book a ﬂight from Newark to Tel Aviv to join him. My apartment in Bethlehem (Palestine, not Pennsylvania) is a stone’s throw away from where the President of the United States will be on his ﬁrst ofﬁcial trip to the Holy Land and who better to guide him than me, his former delegate? His guide, in reality, will be some corrupt, Palestinian Authority puppet. But if I were be President Obama's guide, this would be our itinerary:
We would begin our trip by having POTUS forego Air Force One to join me at customs in Ben Gurion airport. Here could witness how U.S. citizens are discriminated against, depending on their faith, from the moment they step foot in Israel. For giggles, I'd let him call the U.S. embassy for help. They could inform him they won't help him because although he's POTUS, he's still the wrong religion. The airport is in Tel Aviv and I know that POTUS “wishes he could wear a fake mustache and roam around Tel Aviv.” I would never let him do this. I'd explain to him, as we drove past Jerusalem, that it'd be far too dangerous; then educate him on the violence and hate crimes endured by the African population living in Israel.
Our ﬁrst stop would be to the heart of segregation, Hebron. We'd stroll down Shuhada Street and he could see with his own eyes what settlements really are–religiously exclusive housing. I'd explain that, although I was his delegate at the 2008 DNC, I no longer support the president because his veto of U.N. resolution blahblahblah endorsed, excused, and encouraged this horror. He could see how lovely the supremacist settlers are. How they throw garbage/feces and spit at the natives who happen to be the wrong faith. He voted to protect hate, bigotry, and supremacy; so he should enjoy it.
Continuing our lesson on modern day segregation, or apartheid, or bigotry or whatever you choose to label this, we would jump on the bypass road, and head to Jerusalem. Just kidding! POTUS needs to live like the Palestinians do, so no paved roads with trafﬁc lights and a direct route to Jerusalem that the settlers enjoy. Instead, he'd get to take the Palestinian’s road with me. I’ll drive, because it’s super dangerous. The roads are narrow and the curves are meant to be killer. Here he can get his ﬁrst taste of a checkpoint. We'd be stuck there quite a while, so it'd be a good time to explain to him that Palestinians are forced to carry Israeli-issued IDs that state their religion.
Call it a welcoming committee. Around noon here, just as Barack Obama’s plane was slated to touch down in Israel, a group of Palestinians donned masks bearing the American president’s likeness and took to Shuhada Street in Hebron, in the southern West Bank. Joined by international and Israeli activists, all wearing tee-shirts that read “I have a dream,” they caught the army unawares. Within minutes, five Israeli soldiers swarmed the group of just over 20 protesters, detaining seven or eight of them (reports remain unconfirmed), including the two Palestinians leading the protests. Their crime? Walking down the street.
A Palestinian protester wearing an Obama mask is arrested in the West Bank city of Hebron on the day the U.S. president arrived in Israel. (Ahmed Amro)
“Obama, come here to Hebron,” shouted Issa Amro, a local protest leader, in English, just as a scrum formed between the demonstrators and a handful of soldiers, who rushed to the scene. “I am Obama,” he added as a young settler, perhaps 12-years-old, snatched the cardboard Obama mask from his face, crumpling it into his back pocket. Within minutes, Amro was shoved to the street. He rose briefly only to be knocked down again, before being dragged off into detention.
Segregation is too light a word to describe what happens in Hebron, a city of less than 200,000 that feels like ground zero of the Israeli occupation. Home to Jewish holy site, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Israeli settlers began arriving in droves after Israel’s takeover of the West Bank in 1967 (a small, longtime community of Jews coexisted peacefully here for more than a century until 1929, when 67 were killed). The city is now dotted by small settlements, each home no matter how remote guarded by a soldier from the Israeli army. Now, several hundred settlers live directly in the city. Settlers moved into Shuhada Street, a narrow road that used to house a local market. Eventually, in perhaps the starkest act of discrimination here, much of the road was closed to Palestinians altogether in 1994. Palestinian life in the area has suffered dramatically since.
The protesters had marched down from a local house, joining a cadre of others and walking with Palestinian flags and a banner reading, “We have a dream/ Apartheid in Hebron/ Open Shuhada Street.” Other demonstrators held up photos of Martin Luther King, Jr.—some wore masks of his likeness, too—and Frederick Douglas. The protests took on King’s spirit of non-violence: no demonstrator hurled so much as an insult, let alone a rock. Just as they passed into the section where the road becomes “sterile”—meaning Palestinians are not allowed to walk—a group of five soldiers confronted them, attempting to form a barricade. A settler emerged from a nearby building and moved a white Volkswagen panel van across the street, bottlenecking the pedestrian traffic. But a few of the protesters broke through, only to be stopped a few meters down the road.
“I was excited when they told me I had been selected. I am crazy for Obama, he is a good president.”
-- Amit Koren, an engineering student at the Technion, who wrote a poem for Obama and won a seat to his speech.
- Jordanian king: Ties with Netanyahu very strong, may be too late for two-state solution - Jordan's King Abdullah II tells American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that increased coordination with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has contributed to stability in his kingdom, also says Israel may have to choose between 'apartheid and democracy' if Palestinian state not created.(Haaretz+ and Ynet)
- Jerusalem scrambles to prepare for Obama visit - Whole swaths of the newly clean city will be closed during the U.S. president's two-day visit to accommodate his entourage, foreign journalists and hundreds of other guests."In honor of the visit we scrubbed the highways and the city streets, and hung about 1,000 Israeli, U.S. and Jerusalem Municipality flags," said Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat. (Haaretz+ and Ynet)
- WATCH: U.S. and Israeli diplomats give Obama's visit a whimsical twist - In an attempt to cast contention aside, the Israeli embassy in Washington and the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv release amusing videos ahead of U.S. president's trip to the Holy Land. (Haaretz)
- Palestinian Anti-Obama protesters scuffle with police - Palestinian Authority police scuffled on Tuesday with scores of demonstrators protesting against the visit of US President Barack Obama to the occupied West Bank later this week. (Maan)
- Protesting for Pollard in Jerusalem: 'Obama, save him' - More than 2,000 people, mostly youths, call for release of spy for Israel currently serving 28th year in US jail; Ramallah residents demonstrate against US president's schedule visit to city. (Ynet)
For the full News from Israel.
Ali Gharib’s rather long tirade against my recent blog post in the Forward on Ben Ehrenreich’s New York Times Magazine story deserves a brief response.
The story about Nabi Saleh was framed in the context of a Palestinian village testing “the limits of unarmed resistance.” Those were the words Times’ editors placed on the cover of the Sunday magazine (yeah, I’m old-fashioned, and still read in print) and it was the concept that undergirded Ehrenreich’s story. I questioned that because, to me, regularly throwing stones at other people is not unarmed resistance. Stone-throwers may be at a disadvantage when faced with guns and tanks, but they can still inflict harm and still commit acts of violence.
Palestinian protestors clash with Israeli security forces in the West Bank village of Burin on February 25, 2013, while thousands of angry mourners attended the funeral of a man who the Palestinians say was tortured to death in an Israeli jail, as masked militants vowed to take revenge. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP / Getty Images)
If the villagers of Nabi Saleh were able to stand up to the Israeli occupation without arms, and if Palestinians across the West Bank were to do the same, I believe that they would change the conversation entirely, and shame both Israeli and Palestinian leaders into a real negotiated settlement. But that’s not what is happening.
Evidently what really galled Gharib, though, was the way I questioned Ehrenreich’s credibility because of a strongly anti-Zionist opinion piece he published a few years ago. Gharib said I should say why. I thought that was obvious.
President Barack Obama doesn’t arrive in Ramallah until Thursday, but Palestinians are already taking to the streets to demonstrate against his visit. Today’s protest was organized by a group known as Palestinians for Dignity. It was meant to reject Obama’s visit to the West Bank and demonstrate against the return to negotiations.
In a press release, they wrote:
On one hand, it would be naïve to presume US policy towards Israel has changed since Obama took office. On the other hand, it is hypocritical and disingenuous that the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) disregards the role the Obama administration played in blocking its membership request in 2011 at the Security Council and its vote against the resolution at the General Assembly in 2012.
Palestinians demonstrate against the upcoming visit of U.S. President Barack Obama on March 19, 2013 in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (Abbas Momani / AFP / Getty Images)
Although the original call focused on the United States’ rejection of Palestinian statehood, those who came to Al-Manara Square on Tuesday afternoon seemed more concerned with U.S. military aid to Israel—which, at $3.1 billion per year, is by far the largest beneficiary of both military and economic aid. Many protesters had signs that played on President Obama’s “Hope and Change” slogan, with “NO” scrawled in red letters over the familiar campaign type face, and a smiling President Obama holding a rifle against the backdrop of a military tank.
Jennifer Rubin, like many on her side of the political map, seems to have not yet gotten the memo that building and maintaining alternate realities, while a pleasant enough hobby, is not necessarily useful in the non-entertainment professions. I say this because in Rubin World, the President of the United States is apparently going to Israel to make up for a single paragraph in a speech he delivered four years ago, in which he (ill-advisedly, I agree) made it sound as if Israel was established because of the Holocaust.
Joshua Roberts/Getty Images
Never mind that the paragraph in question echoed exactly and precisely the rhetoric of both official Israel and the American Jewish establishment. In Rubin World, the Cairo event was “the speech that set off four years of ill feelings and mistrust.” It’s remarkable that Obama could do all that hard work all by himself.
The fact that the Israeli government has consistently greeted the arrival of American officials with renewed settlement expansion, for instance, has nothing to do with it. Neither does the fact that even during the supposed ten-month construction freeze, Israel didn’t actually stop the construction. This is because in Rubin World, the settlement project is not (as it is in Reality) an abrogation of international law and previous Israeli commitments to the United States (among other parties)—it is, merely, “building.” Rubin also writes that settlements have “never an impediment to peace talks under prior administrations,” rather creating the impression that the peace talks in question are to be held with the U.S., and not, in fact, the people on whose land Israel has been building all these years.
What are the odds? This thought constantly reverberated in my head during my flight back to Israel several weeks ago. Out of all the passengers, it was I who found myself seated next to one of the most prominent leaders of the BDS movement—the campaign that I have been strategizing and writing against over the past few years at the Reut Institute. Symbolically, she was connecting in Toronto, originally flying from San Francisco—two places that we at Reut described as hubs of delegitimization.
I recognized her instantly. She regularly lobbies for boycotting Israel all around the world. Her organization frequently bashes Reut, claiming that we are an "extreme organization" and implying falsely that we call for physical violence against "delegitimizers." I decided, nonetheless, that this would be an outstanding opportunity to learn more, and so I introduced myself.
Jack Guez / AFP-Getty Images
It did not start out very well, and her first reaction was to look for a free seat to move to. Later, we started a conversation that was much more vocal than I would have liked. She had obviously mastered the content of the Reut documents, and often quoted her least favorite parts (in particular, the "delegitimize the delegitimizers" tactic that we introduced). Soon enough, however, we did begin to engage in an open conversation, and thus I will not reveal her identity or her organizational affiliation.
Matthew Kalman broke the story of physicist Stephen Hawking’s boycott of Israel. Then Cambridge University tried to falsely deny it.