Sunday, April 29, 2007

Israeli Arabs not a Strategic Threat to the State of Israel

Street scene in Akko (Acre), January 2006

The 'Azmi Bishara affair has unleashed a fury of discussion about Israel's Arab population and its relation to the state, among Jewish and Arab citizens of the country. There is no doubt that this latest eruption is linked to the trauma of last summer's war with Hizbullah, which still lingers and manifests itself in a sense of profound malaise and depression. Few Israeli Jews will forget the declarations by some Israeli Arabs interviewed on television, who declared their support for Hizbullah, even as Israeli Arab children were killed in katyusha attacks and the entire north of the country cowered in bunkers and "safe rooms."

The inability of the Israeli army to stop the rocket barrages fired at the country's civilian population was rightly perceived as a major failure that left many wondering what had gone wrong. It also set up perfect conditions for the scapegoating of ethnic minorities. Indeed, the counter-charge leveled at the state by Bishara has been that Israel is looking to pin the blame for the defeat on the Arabs - a rather fanciful and demagogic move by the now-exiled former MK. The truth is that the Israeli political echelon, public, and media did not blame Israeli Arabs for the katyusha attacks. However, more than half a year after the end of the war, suspicions toward Israel's Arab citizens surely have reached a high. Some the key post-war markers that have paved the way to this state of affairs include the release of the 'Future Vision" report, the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as a minister in Olmert's government, and the various announcements by Shin Bet and government officials about the alleged dangers to the state posed by certain Israeli Arab organizations and leaders. The Shin Bet has since denied that Yuval Diskin made the remarks, to the effect that "Israeli Arabs constitute a strategic threat to the state" attributed to him. Nevertheless, long-standing fears that Israel's Arab citizens are a "fifth column" are likely to become increasingly respectable in Israeli public discourse - unless political leaders and intellectuals from the center and moderate right wing join the left in opposing these tendencies.

What could it possibly mean for Israeli Arabs to be a "strategic threat" to the state? This strikes me as an extremely serious and dangerous accusation to level at a whole group of the country's citizens. Those who make such charges are unlikely to elaborate on them, precisely because they would collapse if they became subject to serious discussion. Iranian nuclear weapons, Hizbullah's katyushas, and Syrian tanks and missiles, to name just a few examples, are strategic threats to the country. What all of those have in common is that a) they have the ability to cause significant harm first to Israel's citizens, and, as a result, to the country's economy, and ultimately to the viability of the state in its current borders, and b) they require the state to project military and political power beyond its boundaries. The same applies to Palestinian qassams and suicide bombers. The force used to combat these strategic threats, while subject to the constraints of international law, is not limited by the restrictions that apply to the use of force inside a liberal democratic state. The only way in which Israel's (diverse) Arab population could meet these conditions would be if the country's Arab citizens would en masse assist in a Syrian invasion, Hizbullah rocket barrages, or Palestinian suicide bombings. Clearly, contemplating such a scenario today is insane.

Yes, one might imagine individual Israeli Arabs transporting suicide bombers or spotting for Hizbullah - the former has indeed happened. But Jewish Israelis have also been convicted of assisting Palestinian terrorists. More importantly, preventing or prosecuting such acts does not require the use of force beyond the limits allowed by liberal democracy. Rather, they require focused police work that deals specifically with individual perpetrators.

So what are those who invoke the "strategic threat" posed by Israeli Arabs talking about? More often than not, those on the far right who employ these terms are most concerned not about real damage to the state and its citizens but about some change to their ideals on which the state ought to be based. In particular, there are fears that Israeli Arabs will demand some change to the Jewish character of the state - i.e., its overwhelmingly Jewish symbols and institutions, as well as such basic tenets of contemporary Zionism as the Law of Return, which guarantees citizenship to all Jews and their descendants wishing to immigrate to Israel. Those on the right are not the only ones who are concerned about changes to the culture and underlying vision of the country; indeed, there is nothing wrong with such concerns per se. It is an altogether different matter, however, to label those who advocate - within the confines of the country's laws - binationalism, autonomy, consociationalism, or whatever else, a "strategic threat." As soon as we start calling someone a strategic threat, we remove that person's or group's right to the protections offered to all citizens of the state in a liberal democracy.

At the heart of Carl Schmitt's critique of liberalism was his skepticism about parliamentary democracies' adherence to their many rules and procedures. In Die geistesgeschichtliche Lage des heutigen Parlamentarismus ([The Intellectual Historical Situation of Contemporary Parliamentarianism], 1923), often misleadingly translated as The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, Schmitt argued that crucial decisions about such issues as the security of the state, even in liberal democracies, do not result from deliberations in parliament but from the work of small cabinets and committees or from a head of state's executive powers. The implication, for Schmitt, was that in moments of crisis, a dictator acting in the "general will" (à la Rousseau) not only had more legitimacy (i.e., was more democratic) than a parliamentary democracy, but also that parliaments were incapable of dealing with crises that touched on the existence of the state.

I'm not conceding anything to Schmitt at this point, but it should be obvious to all concerned that such issues as the symbols of the state, the desirability of a written constitution, and even the Law of Return for Jews from the diaspora, can actually be dealt with much more effectively by a liberal democracy than by any other measures. These kinds of challenges will inevitably involve compromise. They require the formulation of comprehensive solutions that can satisfy many different interested parties. My point: these are the kinds of things that democracies are very good at; let's give democracy a chance.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Wonderful Country Goes Down with a Nuclear Bang

The hugely popular Israeli satirical news show, ארץ נהדרת ("Eretz Nehederet" or "It's a Wonderful Country"), ended with a bang tonight. Eretz Nehederet was in its third season, and is watched by Israelis of all ages. The show usually pokes fun at whatever news items or personalities had headlined that week, but today viewers had something special in store.

Bumbling Prime Minister Ehud Olmert accidentally fires a missile at Iran, which he promptly blames on the equally disliked Defense Minister Amir Peretz. This of course leads to retaliation, and the show counts down the 59 minutes Israel has until an Iranian nuclear bomb is dropped on the country. The whole slew of characters is brought out: Hezbollah's Nasrallah, who expresses regret at losing his favourite enemy; Arkadi Gaydamak, who offers a space in his bunker for the sake of social justice; the disgraced President Moshe Katsav, who tries to claim it; and Uri Geller, the British-Israeli magician who attempts to stop time.

Very disappointing and insulting once again was the character of Condoleezza Rice. Throughout the show, she has been presented as a finger-snapping, hand-clapping, head-bobbing, street-slanging stereotype. The character is so far from the real thing and so irrelevant to the actual person and her doings that instead of political satire, it's simply racism [relevant footage starts at 2:22].

Since the show ended with a nuclear holocaust, it's unclear whether there will be a fourth season.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Sorry Guys, You're not Colonialists After All

This Israeli-born llama is also not a colonialist

The Follow-Up Committee for the Arabs in Israel has issued a correction to the Hebrew version of its "Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel" report that was first published in December 2006. A mistake in the translation from the Arabic original, members of the committee said, made the report appear "too extreme" (Ynet).

The mistake appears in a section on "The Palestinian Arabs in Israel and their Relation to the State of Israel." According to the committee's chairman, Shawqi Khatib, the Hebrew version uses the word "colonialist," where the authoritative Arabic-language report referred to "settlement." The mistake arose because an earlier draft of the report, written by Dr. As'ad Ghanem, had employed the former term, "ist'imaar" (colonialism استعمار). After opposition from the majority of the committee, that word was changed to "istitaan" (settlement- استيطان). However, someone forgot to revise the Hebrew translation to reflect this change [for the reference to "istitaan", see p. 9 of the in the Arabic version of the "Future Vision"].

The timing of this announcement is surely not accidental. It is possible that the error was only discovered recently, but the 'Azmi Bishara affair has surely alarmed some of the members of the committee further. For many Jewish Israelis, the description of Israel as a "colonialist" entity implies a belief that it ought to disappear - just like the French and British colonies in the Middle East did after WWII.

Here is the full paragraph from the Hebrew version of the report:
ישראל היא תולדה של פעולה קולוניאליסטית אותה יזמו האליטות היהודיות-ציוניות באירופה ובמערב. היא הוקמה בסיוע מדינות קולוניאליסטיות, והתחזקה בצל התעצמות ההגירה היהודית לפלסטין לאור תוצאות מלחמת העולם השנייה והשואה. לאחר תקומתה בשנת 1948 המשיכה ישראל בהנהגת מדיניות הנגזרת מראייתה את עצמה כנציגות המערב במזרח התיכון, והמשיכה להתעמת עם סביבתה באופן מתמיד וברמות שונות. כן המשיכה ליישם מדיניות קולוניאליסטית פנימית נגד אזרחיה הערבים הפלסטינים.
[Israel is the product of colonialist activity initiated by the Jewish-Zionist elites in Europe and in the West. It was established with the aid of colonialist states and was strengthened by the increase in Jewish immigration to Palestine as a result of the outcome of the Second World War and the Sho'ah. After its establishment in 1948, Israel continued to lead a policy derived from a view of itself as a representative of the West in the Middle East, and continued to clash with its environment in a constant manner and at different levels. Moreover, [Israel] continued to implement a colonialist policy domestically against its Arab Palestinian citizens.]
Here is the official English translation. Note how it diverges from the Hebrew text above:
Israel is the outcome of a settlement process initiated by the Zionist–Jewish elite in Europe and the west and realized by Colonial countries contributing to it and by promoting Jewish immigration to Palestine, in light of the results the Second World War and the Holocaust. After the creation of the States in 1948, Israel continued to use policies derived from its vision as an extension of the west in the Middle East and continued conflicting with its neighbors. Israel also continued executing internal colonial policies against its Palestinian Arab citizens [emphasis added].

John adds:

The following is a list of source documents:
1) The Arabic version of the Future Vision Report
2) The English Revised version
3) The original English version - I don't know how long this will be up, but apparently, the webmasters at the Musaawa center forgot to prohibit access to their Reports Directory
4) The Hebrew version of the Future Vision report

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A Sad Story

Bush and Cheney are digging in ahead of a Senate vote on the Iraq bill that the President has vowed to veto. It's been a crummy week in Iraq. Here's a little vignette that the WaPo just published about some American soldiers, an abandoned spaghetti factory, and a body in a septic tank. This is the reality there. Respect the dignity of reality, people!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Campus Battleground

The heroes of Bill Jersey's TV documentary, Campus Battleground, presented at a special preview screening by Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive earlier today, are a diverse group of more or less likable college students, who have found themselves on opposite sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or, rather, that miniature version of it being conducted on America's university campuses.

As one might expect, this is not a film about the conflict itself, but about a different set of struggles altogether - struggles that appear to the protagonists and the filmmakers to be no less momentous than the real wars being waged in the Middle East. This other battle, however, is one with which far more Americans are likely to identify: it is the struggle of the sensitive and articulate American youth for a stable identity and a sense of belonging.

So we meet Khadija, an Iraqi-American student at Columbia University, who recalls waking up to her Muslim and Arab identity when she was 13 years old, on September 11, 2001. In the spring of 2006, when the documentary was filmed, she is active in the Arab Students Organization, which has invited Norman Finkelstein to speak, and identifies generally with the pro-Palestine cause on campus. Khadija complains about Alan Dershowitz, who supposedly ripped up a protester's poster at his lecture (earlier, the film shows him asking an audience member for a sign that reads "Dershowitz hearts torture," and tearing the back of it in half, calling it "bullshit"). "If Finkelstein had done that," an MC activist who raps about Palestinians being uprooted like olive trees tells her, "it would have been all over the news." Khadija then complains about being invited to dialogue groups, even though, as she affirms, "I don't hate anyone." And she doesn't. Despite her activism, she says that she sometimes wishes everyone could just "take a chill pill" about the conflict, since "none of us live in Israel or Palestine, except for those who go back in the summer."

As the movie makes clear, much of the passion invested in the campus battles "against the occupation," "for Israel/Palestine," and "against terrorism," is dedicated to a project much closer to home: the self.

Many of our heroes change in different ways. They claim that they start to understand the other, they grow, and they undergo conversion experiences. For example, in a surprising twist at the end of the movie, we find that Khadija, until now dressed in jeans and a tight top, has decided to embrace hijab (the principle of modesty - i.e., to wear a headscarf), because "this is what God commanded us to do." We follow her as she goes to worship at a New York mosque, and listen to her tell us that she is "doing what [she] always wanted to do but did not have the strength to."

In Berkeley, the other campus featured in the film, we meet Avi Criden, whom I know only from short encounters in the gym (thanks for the spot, brother). In his mid-20s, Avi is the only Israeli student in a class on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict taught by Professor Beshara Doumani of Berkeley's history department. In one of the first discussion sections, he explains that he wants to know whether people on the other side still have hope, because he feels that in Israeli society, after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin z"l and especially after the outbreak of the second intifadah, there is very little.

We also see a photograph of Avi in his IDF uniform, and we hear him describing the difficulties of managing a checkpoint - "you have an NCO spitting in your face on the one hand, and then a pregnant woman who needs to go through but who could be a suicide bomber [this drew laughter from the audience]." Meanwhile, we watch a lesson by Doumani about the "'security fence,' as the Israelis call it, or 'the wall,' as the Palestinians refer to it." Doumani, born in Saudi Arabia and the son of a Palestinian refugee, is as courteous and kind to Avi as he is to all of his students (no surprise, of course) - in contrast, one of the Jewish students at Columbia featured in the film, complains bitterly about a particular professor's abuse of students based on their ethnicity.

Bari Weiss, the eldest daughter of two Jewish community leaders who says about herself that she "talks a lot," is Khadija's counterpart at Columbia. Passionate about social justice as well as Israel, she is seen organizing a protest at the Finkelstein lecture, as part of which students raise signs affirming that "Finkelstein hearts Hezbollah" - signs later copied by the anti-Dershowitz protesters, it seems. Weiss complains bitterly about the fact that before any discussion takes place with pro-Palestinian students, she has to go through endless ideological declarations - that she is on the left with regard to social issues, that she does not agree with all aspects of Israeli policy, that she wants a two-state solution, etc. But by the end of the film, she talks glowingly about the dialogue group in which she has become involved.

Meanwhile, Avi Criden, in his final presentation, outlines a curriculum that he would implement in Israeli schools - challenging nationalist mythologies and presenting the history of the Palestinians alongside that of the Jewish inhabitants of Israel. One of his classmates remarks, with barely disguised self-satisfaction at this successful conversion, that "this would turn Israeli culture upside-down." To this, Avi, somewhat taken aback, responds that "there are many very good things about Israeli society."

In Berkeley, we also meet the affable Yaman Salahi, manning a Sproul Plaza booth on Yom Ha'atsma'ut, Israeli Independence Day (which was today), that commemorates the Arab towns and villages destroyed in 1948. Yaman, whose family fled political persecution in Syria, also tells of a religious journey that he underwent alongside his political activism. He explains that until he came to Berkeley, he considered himself an agnostic or an atheist. On campus, we see him at a Muslim service, in a prayer room looking out at the Campanile, the university's famous clock tower. But toward the end of the documentary, in the wake of the Muhammad cartoon riots, he expresses his disgust about the manipulation of religion for political means. Yaman also complains about the use of the Palestinian issue by various autocratic regimes in the region to stifle dissent.

Yaman's partner in crime, who is seen only briefly in the film, is Ehud Appel. The two run a web site devoted to the shenanigans of a clownish agent provocateur named Lee Kaplan. But Ehud, no doubt passionate about human rights and justice, is also a great case study in the real theme of this documentary. In the movie, we encounter Ehud dressed up as an Israeli soldier, holding a huge cardboard gun, and manning a mock-checkpoint at Sather Gate. "If you were a Palestinian, you would not be able to go through," he informs one young woman, shortly before trying, in vain, to stop a grinning, keffiyeh-clad man from bulldozing through.

One cannot help observing how much fun Ehud is having with this shocking performance - which lashes out against the perceived pressures of an American Jewish community seeking to impose its quasi-mythological narrative on young Jews. He has, no doubt, been called a self-hating Jew many times over his career as an anti-occupation activist. But he believes that he is on the side of justice, and cooler than everyone else (certainly, the latter is partly true).

Itamar Haritan in front of the PFA

The other character study in the film is Itamar Haritan, an Israeli ex-pat involved with the Israeli Action Committee at Berkeley. Easily one of the most eloquent voices in the documentary, Itamar later has an off-camera meeting with Yaman, at Berkeley's International House. The two get along splendidly, of course, and greet each other after the film screening. In the question-and-answer session that follows the documentary, Itamar raises some subtle criticism of the film and the reality depicted in it:
I'm very tired of talking about the conflict only in terms of my identity. There are far more important economic, social, and political issues that need to be dealt with, and what this film leaves me feeling is that the battleground is not on campus. Discussing one's identity doesn't do anything but make us feel good about ourselves.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Three Times Chased Away

MK Zehava Gal-On (Photo: Knesset)

The Haifa Cinematheque recently featured an excellent documentary, שלוש פעמים מגורשת, or Three Times Chased Away. The film followed Hitaam, a young woman originally from Gaza, in her quest to reunite with her children. Her abusive husband, an Israeli from the largest Bedouin town of Rahat, had divorced her behind her back in a shaaria court and chased her out of their home.

The screening of the gripping film was followed by a question-and-answer session with the director, Ebtisam Maraanah. The director told of her difficulties in getting the police to take seriously the death threats she herself had received. The police, Ebtisam relayed to the audience, simply told her to leave Tel Aviv and return to her village, where she would be safer. The police also refused to give Hitaam, the subject of the documentary, adequate protection. At this point, Ebtisam phoned Knesset member Zehava Gal-On from the Meretz party. With Gal-On's intervention, the police finally stepped in and put the ex-husband in jail - after he had beaten and stabbed Hitaam, and sworn to kill the director of the documentary. It's a good thing some politicians answer the phone in the middle of the night, Ebtisam commented.

Israeli citizens have grown increasingly weary of the endless scandals involving politicians and public officials. Rape, bribery, corruption, and incompetence is all Israelis hear about their politicians these days. Therefore, it is refreshing to hear about a politician like Zehava Gal-On who takes her role seriously: to serve the public and try to make the country a better place for all its inhabitants. Perhaps her engagement will shake Israeli society out of the resignation and disgust with which it has come to regard politics.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

More "Israeli Racism"

I could not help posting up this article published in Haaretz today. Would an "inherently racist apartheid state" grant special subsidies to a minority group?

"Gov't to encourage Bedouin women, ultra-Orthodox men, to work"

The cabinet is expected to approve during its meeting Sunday a string of benefits and incentives aimed at encouraging Bedouin women and ultra-Orthodox men, two groups that tend to abstain from working, to join the workforce.

The incentives include subsidized transportation between Bedouin villages and residents' work places, at a sum of up to NIS 3,000 per person. The government will allot NIS 15 million to the implementation of this program.

Studies conducted by government bodies concluded that Bedouin women refrain from seeking employment due to transportation and accessibility problems. Central Bureau of Statistics data shows that the percentage of Arab women within the workforce is 8 percent, as opposed to 67 percent of Jewish women.

The government's program will also subsidize 20 percent of the salaries of Bedouin women, as well as ultra-Orthodox men, and thus will make them more attractive to employers. According to the proposal, the government will subsidize parts of the salaries of these workers at work places where at least four Bedouin women, or ultra-Orthodox men are employed, as opposed to the subsidy currently given to places where at least 15 are employed.

Until now, these benefits have been offered only to potential employers in the production industry. The new proposal adds employers in the tourism and services industries to those eligible for benefits in exchange for hiring members of the groups in question.

The proposal was initiated by Minister for the Development of the Negev and Galilee Shimon Peres and Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor Eli Yishai under the "Strategic Plan for the Development of the Negev."
I have my doubts about whether droves of Bedouin women from the Negev will really go out and join the labour force - it's not easy taking care of 7+ kids and living in a deeply conservative society - but I believe that this is a step in the right direction.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Yom ha-Shoah

Emmanuel Ringelblum ז"ל

Today, Jews in Israel and in the diaspora commemorate the millions who were murdered by the Nazis and their allies in the Second World War. In the United States, many synagogues and Jewish community centers will hold remembrance ceremonies and lectures tonight. In Israel, an official commemoration ceremony is held at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial. At 10 am on Monday, a siren sounded for two minutes, and people stood silently to mark the day.

Yom ha-Shoah is usually observed on the 27th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan. Because that day fell on a Sunday this year, which means that the day of mourning would have begun Saturday night just before the conclusion of the Sabbath (in Jewish tradition, a day begins on the evening before), the observance was pushed to Nisan 28, 5767 (April 16, 2007).

If you want to take this opportunity to learn something about the Shoah, Yad Vashem has a new online exhibit on Emmanuel Ringelblum's "Oneg Shabbat" or, in Ashkenazi pronunciation, "Oyneg Shabbos" [lit., "pleasure of the Sabbath"] archive in the Warsaw Ghetto. Ringelblum (1900-1944) was a young Polish-Jewish historian, who devoted his time in the ghetto to systematically recording the trials, tribulations, and occasional triumphs of everyday life under the most cruel circumstances. He directed a large team of contributors, who secretly gathered material for the archive, and successfully hid most of its contents in milk canisters and metal crates, which were recovered after the war, in 1946.

A page from Ringelblum's diary. The first 1942 entry, from January 8-26, begins:
January 1942. The conditions for the refugees are simply unbearable. Because of the shortage of coals, they are freezing to death.
The title of the exhibit is "Let the world read and know," an excerpt from a longer statement by an Oneg Shabbat activist that appears in the archives:
It must all be committed with not a single word omitted. And when the time comes - as it surely will - let the world read and know what the murderers have done
The photographs are from Emmanuel Ringelblum, Ktavim fun Geto, Volume 1: Togbukh fun Varshever Geto, 1942-1939 (Warsaw, 1961). Thank you, Judy, for this gift.

I recently received a link to a very moving recording obtained by NPR from the Smithsonian. Taped by a British reporter in April 1945 at Bergen-Belsen, shortly after its liberation, it preserves for posterity the voices of Jewish camp survivors singing "Hatikvah," which later became the anthem of the State of Israel. Note that they are singing an earlier version, which has slightly different lyrics in the second stanza. Thank you, Ms Dessen.

In the English Wikipedia entry on Yom ha-Shoah, you can read the following gem:
Most of the Jewish community consider the day a Jewish religious holiday. Non-Zionist Orthodox Jews do not, instead remembering the victims on days that were already days of mourning before the Holocaust, such as Tisha b'Av in the summer, and the Tenth of Tevet, in the winter. It deliberately ignores other victims of the Holocaust such as Gay people, Gypsies, the Mentally Ill, the Disabled or Easter Europeans sent to the Gas Chambers.
It's amazing to me how even the commemoration of the Shoah can be turned into an attack on the Jewish people, along the old canard that the Jews are misanthropes who care only about their own suffering. I'm not going to get into how misleading and tendentious the second sentence is.

Yad Vashem Council Chair Tommy Lapid, a former Israeli parliamentarian and minister, said that
even after the Holocaust we witnessed genocide in Biafra, Cambodia, Rwanda, and we must cry out against the genocide currently being committed in Darfur in Sudan.
MK Ahmed Tibi (Ra'am-Ta'al) called the Holocaust "the greatest crime in the history of humanity," and condemned those who deny the Shoah (Ha'aretz).

Cross-posted from Genats-Lehayim.

Monday, April 09, 2007

'Azmi Bishara's Big Announcement

MK 'Azmi Bishara (Photo: Knesset)

For the past two days, Israeli news reports have been awash with rumours about the intentions of controversial Knesset member and former Balad party-leader, 'Azmi Bishara. One of the most prolific and prominent Arabs in Israel, Bishara is a life-long opponent of the idea of Israel as a Jewish state. His numerous supporters in the West have praised his "unflinching moral stand [for] non-racial democracy" and like to wax poetic about his alleged commitment to "democratic equal rights." More sober-minded observers tend to to note his repeated visits to Damascus and his public statements of support for the human-rights violating al-Asad dynasty. To me, Bishara embodies all the contradictions of Israeli Arab nationalism. Bisharah is a staunch opponent of Zionism, the political expression of Jewish self-determination, yet he is an ardent champion of Palestinian independence, preferably in all of “historic Palestine”. He is also a member of the Israeli legislature with a respectable profile on the Knesset website and a good salary and government benefits, but he has never missed a chance to publicly voice his support for Israel’s enemies, whether in Beirut, Damascus, or Ramallah.

The biggest question in my mind about Bisharah has always been how such an ideologically committed individual nevertheless deigned to become a Knesset member. The only explanation I could muster for why Bishara would choose to run for office in a state whose existence he opposes was that he believed that the interests of his constituency – Israel’s Arabs – exceeded the importance of his ideological beliefs. The news reports of the past days have caused me to completely re-examine this assumption.

On April 6, 2007, the Israeli-Arab, Nazareth-published newspaper al-Sinnara first reported that Bishara would soon be announcing his intention to resign from political office in ‘Amman, Jordan. The article was quickly picked up by Ha’aretz’s Yoav Stern and re-published in the Hebrew news media. The initial news reports were immediately denied by Jamal Zahalqe, Balad’s second-in-command. Following its initial scoop, al-Sinnara’s website published a second article on April 9, 2007, in which it glowed that a “high-ranking source” had confirmed that Bishara would be tendering his resignation on Tuesday (April 10, 2007). According to al-Sinnara’s latest:

ويذكر ان بشارة كان قد ترك البلاد قبل اسبوعين، وعاد يوم الخميس لعدة ساعات للمشاركة في عرس بالناصرة لكنه عاد الى الخارج صباح الجمعة برفقة عضوي الكنيست جمال زحالقة وواصل طه وهناك قرر ارسال كتاب الاستقالة وتقديمه للكنيست بواسطة احد زملاءه.
هذا وسيعلن بشارة عن استقالته في فضائية "الجزيرة" كما سيصدر حزبه نشرة خاصة حول الموضوع.

It will be recalled that Bishara had left the country [Israel] two weeks ago and returned on Thursday [April 5, 2007] for several hours to participate in a wedding in Nazareth, but that he then returned abroad on Friday morning, accompanied by two Knesset members, Jamal Zahalqe and Wasil Taha. There, he decided to send his resignation letter and to submit it to the Knesset through one of his colleages.

[In addition,] Bishara will announce his resignation on the satellite television station “Al Jazeera” according to a special release published about the issue by his party.

These reports, notwithstanding Zahalqe’s initial denials, leave no doubt about the significance of the events likely to unfold in the coming days. Debka’s rumour-mongers have already jumped to the conclusion that Bishara has "fled" Israel together with his family and does not intend to return. According to Debka, Bishara’s flight is linked to “one of the most serious security-related affairs ever exposed by the Israeli security services, including the Shin Beth.” Debka warns, ominously, that it cannot reveal more at this stage, but goes on to imply that the Israeli security services have exposed a serious plot against the state, and that this is the reason why several Arab rights organizations have stepped up their fight against the Shin Beth in the legal and international arenas.

Even though Debka is notorious for its inaccurate predictions, I do believe that something has been cooking in Balad and that a gag order, imposed by the Israeli police, has probably been in effect. I was also impressed by a reference in Debka to several pieces written in Balad’s mouthpiece, "Fasl al-Maqal" last week. In one of these pieces, Zahalqe apparently called on Bishara to recognize that his main achievements have not been as a parliamentarian in Israel, but rather, on the international stage. Could Zahalqe have been trying to distance his party, Balad, from a man that he knew would soon be "defecting"? Or was this a preventive damage control measure aimed at shoring up Bishara’s "legacy" as an international representative of the Palestinian people and to deflect any damage his "flight" may do to his legacy with the Israeli Arabs?

My guess is that Bishara intends to announce on Tuesday, March 10, 2007, that he has decided to retire from Israeli politics and to sever his links to Israel. Part of me thinks that he may decide to become the ‘Arafat of the Israeli Arabs and to lead them into an Intifada from abroad. On the other hand, Bishara might just announce that he has accepted a lucrative job as a commentator at al-Jazeera, complete with Qatari citizenship. Time will tell.

An article by Yoav Stern and others published today, April 10, 2007, in Ha'aretz basically confirms that there is a publication ban on the Bashara Affair:

בשארה, הצפוי כנראה להודיע על התפטרותו מהכנסת בנסיבות שלא ניתן כעת לפרסמן, שוהה בחו"ל זה כשבועיים

"Bashara, who is expected to announce his resignation from the Knesset due to reasons that cannot be published at this time, is presently abroad."

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Shalit Deal

Cpl. Gilad Shalit

There has been quite a bit of speculation recently about the prospects of a deal that would see the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit, who has been held by Palestinian militants since he was captured in a June 25, 2006 cross-border raid. On Friday, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas claimed that the Israeli soldier would soon be returned. He cited progress in talks between the Israelis, Egyptian mediators, and the Palestinians. Apparently, the sides agree on the numbers of Palestinian security prisoners who would be exchanged for Shalit.

There may very well be some grounds for hope. There are even discussions underway in the Knesset, which would allow the release of Palestinian prisoners "with blood on their hands." But I can't help noting that all this talks sounds rather familiar.

The Palestinians and the Egyptians have made many announcements about "breakthroughs" in negotiations. I remember when people were talking about a release before Yom Kippur, or before the end of Ramadan. Nothing happened.

A loyal reader of this blog asked me whether Abbas's announcement had anything to do with Nancy Pelosi's Damascus trip or with the release of the British sailors. It is true that Pelosi has shown some interest in the fate of Shalit, as well as Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, the reservists captured by Hizbullah, who may well be dead already (see this video of her in Jerusalem). Apparently, she keeps pictures of the three captives in her office. I happen to like Pelosi, but I think that her visit was farcical at best. With regard to Shalit in particular, Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is completely worthless. The fact is that none of the Palestinian leaders - not Abbas, not Dahlan, not Meshal, and definitely not Haniyah - are really in control of the people who are holding Shalit in Gaza right now.

Those holding the 19-year-old soldier are most likely members of the large Dagmoush clan, coverage of which has slowly seeped into the news over the past month. This powerful crime family was previously allied with Hamas, but it is clearly flexing its muscles and not willing to take orders from the political commanders. Its vendettas and its ruthlessness make the family a loose cannon that no one in Gaza is willing or able to control. The same group also appears to be holding BBC reporter Alan Johnston. The tactics they are using, especially the targeting of foreign journalist and UN personnel (an under-reported story) are more reminiscent of those employed by Iraqi terrorists than the Palestinians groups in Gaza over the past 5 years.

This complex background perhaps explains Abbas's comments to the effect that Shalit's release shouldn't be linked to that of the Palestinian prisoners, since "One thing does not depend on the other." Suffice to say, a deal for Shalit looks anything but imminent in light of this state of affairs. Indeed, the ability of the various Palestinian faction to enforce deals of any sort - always a liability in negotiations with them - is looking worse than ever.

Palestinian civilians are suffering daily from the anarchy in the Strip. In most of the fighting between Fatah and Hamas, the Islamic movement has come out on top. This has caused some to wonder whether it might not make more sense to rely on Hamas to deliver the goods. But the Shalit situation demonstrates that Hamas, too, is unable to control the forces unleashed by decades of glorifying armed struggle, a proliferation of weapons, widespread criminal activity supported by the political echelon, and years of occupation and attacks which undermined traditional leaders and norms. Add to that the penetration of al-Qaeda-type elements and fighters radicalized further in Iraq, and you have a mix that will plague the Palestinians for many decades to come.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Another Attack in Montreal

The entrance to the Ben Weider JCC two days after the incident - there is no visible damage to the sidewalk

On Tuesday night, at around 11 pm, a small homemade bomb was detonated in front of the Ben Weider Jewish Community Centre, the "Jewish Y" in Snowdon, Montreal (CBC). There were no injuries. The gym and complex are currently closed due to Passover, so the disruption will hopefully be minimal. Our Montreal correspondents, who live only five minutes down the block, report that part of the sidewalk in front of the building was blackened by the blast.

It is not yet known whether this was indeed an anti-Jewish attack, but I think it is fairly likely that it was. The Ben Weider Centre is about 3 minutes walking from the Cummings Centre for senior citizens, which was defaced with antisemitic graffiti last December (see our coverage). That graffiti appears to have been the work of Russian nationalist antisemites (Canadian Jewish News), perhaps from the neighborhood. The area is home to large number of synagogues, day schools, yeshivot, and other communal institutions, such as the Saidye Bronfman theater, the Jewish Federation, and the Jewish Public Library. As a former member of the gym and resident of the area, I am surprised how something like this could happen there.

Montreal's Jewish population numbers around 92,000. Overall, there is still a trend of Jewish emigration out of Montreal. Many of the emigrants leave for Toronto, home to Canada's largest Jewish community. In Snowdon, Jews of different religious persuasions and backgrounds (from Yiddish-speaking hasidim to francophone North African Jews to recent Russian-Jewish immigrants) live alongside growing Filipino and Tamil populations, many of whom use the library as well as the gym. An attack on the Y is thus not just an attack on the large Jewish population of Snowdon (as well as those Montrealers who come from other parts of the city); it also threatens the many non-Jewish residents of the area who use its services.

Iranians Humiliated?

Ahmadinejad releases Brits
(Photo: Iranian TV screenshot)

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad today announced that his country would release the 15 British sailors and marines that his country captured nearly two weeks ago. He made the surprise announcement at a press conference. It was apparently preceded by one of his infamous tirades, in which he harangued Britain for bringing the case up before the Security Council and complained about the invasion of Iraq.

Even if Ahmadinejad dressed it up as a "present" from the Iranian to the British people, I wonder how many Iranians will be convinced that the abduction was a smart move. There should be no doubt that Ahmadinejad and other Iranian officials who supported this operation have suffered a humiliating defeat. On this matter, I could not disagree more with Zvi Bar'el, who sees the whole episode as a victory for Iran. According to the Ha'aretz writer, the British reliance on diplomatic means
will now be used by Iran as proof that even powers such as the U.S. and Britain are limited in their ability to use force when it comes to a minor border incident - and that the threat Iran poses is precisely in initiating local incidents that are not sufficiently important to lead to war.
I see no evidence for this. If this is what the Iranians have concluded, they will continue to make serious miscalculations. At the end of the day, the whole operation was for naught; I cannot see the slightest tangible gain that Iran might have derived from it.

True, the Guardian reports "speculation that the release was prompted in part by an agreement to let an Iranian representative meet five Iranians detained by US forces in Irbil, northern Iraq, in January." However, even if the Iranians obtained the rights to visit their diplomats or intelligence agents, no one is going to confirm this. Especially after the announcements by President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair that there would be "no quid pro quo," it will be difficult for the Iranians to point to any sort of favorable outcome. The British have repeatedly presented their GPS evidence to the Iranians and to international bodies; in the court of international opinion, the U.K.'s insistence that its troops were "well inside Iraqi waters" is likely to prevail.

Some might argue that at least the Iranians demonstrated their abilities to cause trouble for coalition forces. I would respond, however, that the British will be much more careful from now in all their patrols. They are unlikely to allow their troops to be captured again without some resistance. As for Iranian meddling in Basra and elsewhere in Iraq, it continues to harm coalition and Iraqi forces. But all this was clear before the Revolutionary Guards brushed up on their Piracy 101 skills. The statement by one British crew member, who thanked Ahmadinejad for his "forgiveness" will be seen by the world for what it is - Byzantine manipulation by a weak regime desperate to cover up its silly miscalculation.

In retrospect, it appears that the British did the right thing. By staying calm but not backing down on their core positions (at least not in public), they called Iran's bluff. When I heard about the release of the British troops, I wondered if the case might be instructive for other abduction scenarios - such as the one that sparked the Second Lebanon War. But I think that this is not the type of lesson we can draw from this particular incident. The kind of poker game that the British and Iranians were playing relies on the rules of the international system that regulates interactions between states.

Matters change dramatically when states are confronted with non-state actors. As much as I would criticize the nature of Israel's military response to the abductions of its soldiers, first by a Palestinian faction in the south and then by Hizbullah in the north - a response which ultimately proved ineffective - I don't think Israel could have obtained the kind of outcome that the British achieved. Neither the Palestinian factions nor Hizbullah respond to the threats of international sanctions. Their interests cannot be easily damaged, except by direct military confrontation. And even then, the options are very limited and likely to prove unsuccessful.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Fire at Monsey Synagogue Likely Not Arson

NK members facing their opponents in Monsey in January (photo:

An air of suspicion still surrounds reports of a synagogue fire in Monsey, New York on Sunday evening, the eve of Passover, despite initial police reports that appear to rule out arson. The synagogue, Bais Yehuda, is home to members of Neturei Karta, the anti-Zionist hassidic sect now famous for sending a delegation to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's conference on the historicity of the Holocaust. These suspicions were not entirely unfounded given the expressions of rage, the ostracism and harassment that the incident provoked. Just take a look at the comments on Yeshiva World News' post to get a sense of how vitriolic this issue has become in religious communities.