Thursday, May 31, 2007

Another British Boycott

Israeli universities are under attack
(Photo: Ben Gurion University, June 2006)

UPDATE: I highly recommend Judy's blog, Adloyada, for her coverage of the boycott. She predicted that a boycott motion would be passed, and has some background on the union personalities pro and contra the resolution. She also notes some of the obfuscatory statements by anti-boycott groups, who claim that the motion will be subjected to balloting by all members, hence preventing it from being adopted as policy. On the other hand, she argues that no respectable universities will actually implement such a boycott, and that we should all take a pill. Check out these links - you are unlikely to get this kind of scoop anywhere else.

On Wednesday, delegates at a congress of the University and College Union (UCU) in Britain passed a motion that calls for the circulation, among the trade union's branches, of a Palestinian appeal to impose an academic boycott on Israel. As far as I can tell from the union's rather opaque press release, the branches will eventually have to approve the boycott for it go into effect.

This appears to be the text of the resolution passed at the congress:
In3 Composite: Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions (University of Brighton, Grand Parade; University of East London, Docklands)

Congress notes that Israel's 40-year occupation has seriously damaged the fabric of Palestinian society through annexation, illegal settlement, collective punishment and restriction of movement.

Congress deplores the denial of educational rights for Palestinians by invasions, closures, checkpoints, curfews, and shootings and arrests of teachers, lecturers and students.

Congress condemns the complicity of Israeli academia in the occupation, which has provoked a call from Palestinian trade unions for a comprehensive and consistent international boycott of all Israeli academic institutions.

Congress believes that in these circumstances passivity or neutrality is unacceptable and criticism of Israel cannot be construed as anti-semitic.

Congress instructs the NEC to
  • circulate the full text of the Palestinian boycott call to all branches/LAs for information and discussion;
  • encourage members to consider the moral implications of existing and proposed links with Israeli academic institutions;
  • organise a UK-wide campus tour for Palestinian academic/educational trade unionists;
  • issue guidance to members on appropriate forms of action.
Clearly, something is rotten in the state of British academia for such a motion to have passed once again. I do not intend here to demonstrate why Israel should merit not be boycotted by British academics, as the onus really ought to be on those behind this vile measure to prove their case. Perhaps most galling is the obvious injustice of singling out Israel, among all the nations of the world, as the one target deserving of this kind. But the simplistic, one-sided, and self-exculpatory nature of this resolution is also striking.

The first two paragraphs pin all the blame for the hardships suffered by Palestinian civilians, including the "denial of educational rights," on Israel. This is a willful and immoral distortion of the truth. The shootings, closures, and curfews to which the bill refers do not take place in a vacuum; they are responses to acts of terror against Israeli civilians. One may argue about whether specific measures are justified or not, but this resolution assumes from the start that all of Israel's actions are illegitimate. In other words, according to the framers of this motion, Israel's attempts to protect and defend its citizens from murderous attacks - designed specifically to kill Israeli civilians - are a priori immoral. Surely, this is perverse and itself worthy of moral condemnation.

The third paragraph then goes on to make all of Israeli academia complicit in Israel's alleged crimes. This, of course, is charge on which the call for an academic boycott hangs. Many people have made counter-arguments to the effect that a significant number of Israeli academics actually oppose "the occupation." While this happens to be true, such a counter-argument concedes far too much to a position that ought to be resisted with outrage and moral fortitude, rather than feeble apologetics.

As I have suggested above, blanket condemnation of Israeli actions in the territories is itself morally suspect, as it enjoins the state from protecting its citizens. However, even more dubious is the charge that Israeli universities and colleges as a whole are complicit "in the occupation." Israeli universities do not determine government policy. Even if a professor in the department of molecular biology at Hebrew University reports to reserve duty at a checkpoint in the West Bank, that scholar's research and teaching are not complicit in oppression. I was flabbergasted to read the statements of a certain Michael Cushman from LSE, which were reprinted in the Guardian:

During the debate, which lasted well over an hour, Michael Cushman, from the London School of Economics, said: "Universities are to Israel what the springboks were to South Africa: the symbol of their national identity."

Israel wanted to claim it was a normal democratic state and universities were integral to that, Mr Cushman said. "[But] it is not a normal state. They are not normal universities.

"Senior academics move from universities into ministries and back again," he said.

"Regularly, lecturers take up their commissions in the Israeli Defence Force as reserve officers to go into the West Bank to dominate, control and shoot the population."

By Cushman's logic Israeli hospitals, synagogues, and elementary schools are also "complicit" in the occupation. Indeed, as the allusion to the South African rugby team (the Springboks), banned from competition in the 1980s and until 1995, makes clear, this is the logic of the UCU motion: Israel, just like apartheid South Africa, has no legitimacy. Its entire society is criminal. Hence, all of its institutions are somehow involved in that rather abstract entity of "the occupation." In other words, no citizen of Israel is immune from the collective punishment meted out by the UCU or other unions.

The single-minded ascription of all evil in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Israel - indeed, the projection of this evil onto Israeli citizens, whether civilians or combatants - makes one wonder about the preemptive self-defense clause in the last paragraph of the motion. Is there any other people in the world today that this British union would choose to punish in this manner?

The dream of political Zionism was to turn the Jews into a nation with a state like all other nations, not only in order to provide Jews with a haven from antisemitism, but also to end antisemitism tout court, precisely by "normalizing" the Jews. This project has clearly failed. Israel has become the Jew of the nations - on its punishment (or, preferably, destruction), in the minds of today's redeemers of the world, hangs the restoration of cosmic justice.

Interestingly, the following motion did not make it onto the agenda of the congress, because it was received after a March 21, 2007 deadline:
VV Supporting cooperation between the UCU, Palestine, and Israel (Kingston University)

Congress calls for an end to the 40-year Occupation of Palestinian territory, and supports a free and viable Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Preferring cooperation and rapprochement to hostility and exclusion, Congress believes that a boycott of Israeli academics would be counter-productive and harm voices for dialogue.

Reaffirming UCU's commitment to academic freedom and equality, Congress opposes punishing an entire academic sector for the actions of its country’s government – whether Israeli, Palestinian or any other nationality.

Congress resolves that that UCU support cooperative projects that bring together Israeli and Palestinian academia to work towards a peaceful settlement, and to work with Palestinian and Israeli Trade Unions to defend the right of Palestinian students and academics to study free from harassment or unfair restrictions.
I have seen no coverage of the boycott vote in the European press - if someone finds German, French, Italian, or Spanish reports on it, please post the links here. The New York Times has a slightly facetious article about the vote.

The American Jewish Committee is spearheading action against the boycott.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Labor Party Primaries

MK Ami Ayalon (Labor)

As many expected, the Labor Party primaries did not yield a clear winner in the first round. At the end of the day, with a 65% turnout among party members, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak received 34%, while upstart Ami Ayalon finished with 32% of the votes. Defense Minister and current party leader Amir Peretz came in third with 22% - a relatively high number considering all that has happened.

The run-off, which will take place in a month, pits Barak against Ayalon. Barak is the more experienced politician and the man with more funds to dispense, while Ayalon can claim the mantle of reform, with Avishai Braverman at his side. Both candidates have solid security credentials. Barak, who served in the Sayeret Matkal, is one of Israel's most decorated soldiers and a former chief of staff; Ayalon, who served in the Shayetet 13 naval commando unit, is a former commander of the navy and a retired director of the Shin Bet. While Barak might be vulnerable to critiques of his unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon as well as his reforms of the army (to which Hazbani alluded earlier), Ayalon lacks experience as a policy-maker.

Until the next round, we are in for a month of backroom deals by these candidates, as they jockey to enlist the support of Peretz's people and the supporters of the other candidates. Here, Barak is probably in a better position than Ayalon. While the latter seems to have won the votes of the kibbutzim and Tel Aviv members, Barak might have an easier time getting the Peretz camp to vote for him - despite his association with the moneyed elite. One thing that Barak has going for him is the fact that he has been very equivocal about leaving the Olmert government, whereas Ayalon has been very critical of the Prime Minister since the Winograd report. Most of the Labor Party members want to avoid elections. They want appointments and a role in the current government; and they are more likely to trust Barak to deliver them than the undiplomatic Ayalon.

Even if Ayalon wins, however, the Labor Party will probably remain in the Olmert government after all - unless of course something very dramatic happens. A whole month is a long time for things to remain as they are.

One matter that is confusing me at the moment is the portfolio most likely to be assigned to the eventual leader of the Labor Party. It seems that the Peretz supporters want the party to claim the Finance Ministry, to finally implement the social agenda on which Peretz ran in the first place. But Barak would surely prefer the Defense Ministry.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Gaza or Bust?

Bitkhonists stirring the Helba

Pressure is mounting among the type of "bitkhonists," mentioned previously by Jeha, for the army to pursue a more aggressive policy in the Gaza Strip. Moshe "Boogie" Ya'alon, the chief of staff who preceded Dan Halutz, last week called on Israel to launch a major ground invasion into the strip, in order to eliminate the rocket threat. Ya'alon, who still opposes the 2005 unilateral disengagement from Gaza, and who has been sharply critical of former chief of staff Dan Halutz's handling of the Lebanon war, argued that
The problem in Gaza will not solve itself and no one will solve it for us. It requires us to reach the terrorists and the areas in which they operate, and strike at the industry of terror. We did this during Operation Defensive Shield, and before that operation we were unsure about whether to proceed. Today, you must be blind not to realize the necessity of entering Gaza.
Defensive Shield (חומת מגן) was a massive military operation conducted by Israel in response to a month of suicide bombings, including the infamous attack at a hotel in Netanya, which killed 30 Israeli civilians, on the eve of Passover on March 27, 2002. Under Halutz's direction, the IDF mounted a major campaign in the West Bank, targeting Ramallah, Nablus, Betlehem, and, especially, Jenin. Ya'alon seems to be suggesting that the operation "finished" the suicide bombing squads. It is true that, as far as I can recall, Israel did not experience anything close to the level of violence that it faced in March 2002. But were the tactics of the duo of former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Chief of Staff Ya'alon throughout the al-Aqsa intifadah really the reason for eventual defeat of the suicide bombers? During their administration, it did not look that way at all.

Ze'ev Schiff, Ha'aretz's military correspondent, is
more cautious than Ya'alon. In a recent piece on the qassams and the situation in Gaza, he suggests that "A temporary incursion by the IDF deep into certain parts of the Gaza Strip is also a possibility." However, his assessment of the situation in Gaza is equally pessimistic, and he offers no diplomatic solutions at all, arguing pretty much for purely unilateral measures.

The thrust of the piece is that the Palestinians cannot be trusted to abide by agreements with Israel or any other state (the argument is in the title: "If that's how they act in Gaza"):
the Palestinians do not want to, or are not capable of, keeping agreements. They'll always find an excuse or a pretext, even if it ends up hurting them. Some say this happens because the Palestinians have no national entity. But Yasser Arafat had such an entity and controlled a majority of his organizations, and he continuously violated agreements (Ha'aretz ).
I am not entirely convinced that this is true (though I'm certainly leaning this way), and Schiff, too, believes that "Israel has no choice but to continue to seek agreements with the Palestinians." What measures then does Schiff think Israel should take? Rather vaguely, he speaks of "maintaining broader margins of security," which translates into isolating the West Bank from Gaza, to prevent the spread of qassams (as well as internecine fighting) there. This means that Israel must oppose the Dayton recommendations. He also insists that Israel must keep striking at the sources of qassam fire (before or after rockets are launched). In this respect, the logic is again very familiar from the Lebanon war:
Hamas and the other Palestinian organizations, which seek mainly to strike civilian targets in Israel, are now complaining about Palestinian civilians being harmed. Israel mustn't punish Palestinian civilians for the attacks on its communities, but it must return fire immediately to the sources of fire, even if civilians nearby are hurt. This is the most basic and natural right to defense. The fact that Russia was the first one to criticize Israel on this is utterly ridiculous.
And, according to Schiff, Hamas has scored a victory against Sderot and Israel as a whole, perhaps the same kind of "victory" claimed by Nasrallah's katyushas. The other big problem for Schiff is Egypt, which he accuses of turning a blind eye to weapons and cash smuggling into Gaza, and thereby of playing a "two-faced game in the war on terror."

I still think that a ground operation would be a huge mistake. Throughout the al-Aqsa intifadah, Mofaz and Ya'alon kept arguing for permission to carry out some decisive operation that would "wipe out" the terrorists. The same kind of logic led to the utterly fantastic war aims of eradicating Hizbullah that were articulated by Olmert, Peretz, and Halutz during the Lebanon war. We must resist the temptation of a "dramatic solution."

A combination of more subtle defensive as well as "surgical," small-scale measures offensive measures, not the mammoth campaigns like Operation Defensive Shield, have been the key to managing the conflict - i.e., to dramatically decreasing Israeli civilian as well as military casualties. Among these measures I include the security fence, checkpoints, and the diplomatic isolation of the Hamas government. The problem is that this strategy also precludes a dramatic negotiated solution of the type that so many of us keep yearning for.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Zara Succumbs to Jewish Fundamentalism

Or not.

I may be letting my paranoia roam a bit too freely, but it seems to me that the enlightened European press is desperately looking to uncover the threats posed by "religious fundamentalists" to secular culture. I do not mean to dismiss these enlightened fears entirely. But it puzzles me to see headlines, such as this one, in the Guardian: "Zara goes kosher after suit offends orthodox Jews." Apparently the Spanish clothing retailer Zara, a company especially beloved in Israel,
has apologised to ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel for selling men's suits that violate a religious prohibition against mixing wool and linen, a company spokesman confirmed today. It has withdrawn the offending garments from its racks (Guardian).
The article makes it appear as if this were another Danish cartoon controversy in the making - quick, duck before the haredim start throwing Shavuot cheese cakes at you. Shatnez (שעטנז) is the shorthand term used for the prohibition, in Jewish law, against wearing garments made of wool and linen blends. It is based on Leviticus 19:19 and Deuteronomy 22:11, both of which refer to shatnez but leave the meaning somewhat unclear - here is the latter verse:
לֹא תִלְבַּשׁ שַׁעַטְנֵז, צֶמֶר וּפִשְׁתִּים יַחְדָּו
Do not wear shatnez - wool and linen together.
According to the Rabbis (Talmud Yerushalmi Kila'yim 9:5), the word is an acronym for שוע, טווי, ונוז, meaning "carded, woven, worsted." The "etymology" given by the Sages is obviously homiletic and not the pshat (i.e., the plain meaning) of the verse. Be that as it may, for religious Jews, wearing garments that contain both linen and wool violates a commandment in the Torah and therefore something to be avoided like other transgressions. Hence, an association of "Shatnez Testers" exists in North America and of course in Israel, which examines clothing and informs people who care whether or not certain garments meet this standard. Approval from them can thus be compared to certifications of kashrut ("kosher-ness").

Obviously, religious Jews will not want to wear garments that do not have this kind of approval. Likewise, a company that sells a significant number of garments to people who happen to follow this commandment, would try to make sure that is clothes do not contain a linen-wool mixture. All this makes perfect sense.

I am confused about where the "offense" in the title of the article came from. I guess the short answer is that it emanated from some uninformed headline writer's mind (it's too bad that the byline cites a certain Dale Fuchs - but reporters rarely have control over headlines). The truth is that the shatnez Zara suit did not "offend" religious Jews. This is not a case of religious people imposing their allegedly ridiculous norms on an enlightened public.

By the way, I have to say that I'm not all that certain how "carding" and "worsting" is different from weaving. Maybe someone can enlighten me.

Zara is great, but many people prefer Castro

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Solidarity with the Palestinians

International media would have had a field day with this, if someone had found a similar quotation from an Israeli citizen (NYT):

Many residents of Tripoli welcomed the Lebanese Army into town, and onlookers clapped whenever tanks fired shells into the camp, bringing to surface longstanding tensions between Lebanese and Palestinians, who are blamed for setting off the civil war in 1975.

“This should have happened from the start,” said one man, who stood in a crowd of onlookers as the tanks fired into the camp. The crowd shouted, “God is great, and God Protect the army,” with each shell fired.

“We wish the government would destroy the whole camp and the rest of the camps,” said Ahmad al-Marooq, who stood with the crowd. “Nothing good comes out of the Palestinians.”

Thursday, May 17, 2007

"God Saved Us"

Sderot synagogue hit by a qassam. The photograph of R. Ovadia Yosef (right)
and the painting of the youthful Baba Sali [I think] (left) were unharmed (Photo: Ynet)

The photographs and the press reports from Sderot this week are eerily reminiscent of scenes from the north in last summer's war. Of course, the residents of the western Negev have been living with the qassam strikes since before the disengagement from Gaza. But the media spotlight is now back on Sderot, and the pressure on the government is mounting to "do something" about it.

On the airwaves and in the print media, the inhabitants of the Negev town seem unanimous that they have been abandoned by the politicians. I am not sure that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's visit assuaged their fears - some Sderot residents took this as an opportunity to lash out at Olmert as well as Defense Minister Amir Peretz, whose house in the city is apparently a target for the qassam crews.

Shortly after Olmert finished his tea with Peretz and left the town, a rocket struck a synagogue. This strike could very well have resulted in casualties; shortly before the qassam hit, community members had celebrated the dedication of a new Torah scroll. "God saved us," said one of the people on the scene. Ynet's coverage (Hebrew) gives voice to the anger and fear of Sderot residents. These are the words of Aryeh Cohen, who came to Peretz's house to "talk" to the PM:
ראש הממשלה פחדן, באת כמו גנב בלילה עם כל השומרים שלך. זו לא פרובוקציה מה שאני עושה, אני רוצה לדבר איתו. רק אתמול בלילה עברו מעלי טילים. אני רוצה לשמוע את ראש הממשלה נותן לי תשובות. כל הזמן אנחנו שומעים אותך ואתה לא מאפשר לנו להשמיע את קולנו. נכנס לבית של פרץ, פרץ גם עוד יותר פחדן ממך - גר בבית ממוגן ואנחנו - אין לנו מקלטים

The Prime Minister is a coward, you came like a thief in the night with all your guards. What I am doing is not a provocation, I want to talk to you. Only last night missiles passed over me. I want to hear the Prime Minister give me answers. We hear you all the time and you don't allow us to make our voices heard. He went into Peretz's house, Peretz is even more of a coward than you - he lives in a protected house - we don't have shelters.
The truth is that while the IDF may be able to reduce the rocket strikes to a certain degree with some of its current actions, qassams will continue landing on Sderot without a renewal of some kind of hudnah with Hamas. Even that, however, will only reduce the number of rockets, as the Islamic Jihad and wild Fath crews will continue their activities. As the latest eruption of internecine fighting in Gaza made all too clear, no one has a monopoly on violence in the Strip.

Aluf Benn lists four different alternatives, faulting Israel's leaders for not having learned from Winograd and ignoring "diplomatic" alternatives. The options he lists are:
  • Offering a cease-fire in the West Bank in exchange for a cessation of qassam firing
  • Allowing the U.S. to implement the "Dayton Plan" - i.e., training and arming forces loyal to Abu Mazen to fight the qassam crews and weapons smugglers
  • Engage in direct talks with Hamas and offer to lift the economic embargo against the PA in exchange for a long-term hudnah
  • Meet with Abu Mazen
The last of these is, of course, utterly useless, as Benn acknowledges - we can reject this one out of hand. The second option apparently has a lot of backers in the State Department. There are some who are insisting that Fatah forces are fighting quite well against Hamas. However, even if there is some truth to this (it seems to fly in the face of the evidence), a victory achieved by Israeli-backed units would be meaningless, as it would never have popular legitimacy. Given the political weakness of Abu Mazen, this seems like a waste of time and money.

The first and third options, which involve dealing with Hamas, seem more promising. However, these days it is not at all clear that Hamas can deliver the goods (i.e., no more qassams) any more effectively than Abbas. In any case, both of these scenarios would allow Hamas to build up its forces for a future confrontation; one has to weigh the costs very carefully.

Given that none of the "diplomatic" alternatives above are truly viable, it seems that Israel can only hope to reduce the rocket fire at this point by targeted air force and artillery strikes, and work on reinforcing buildings and bunkers in Sderot. This is pretty much in line with previous escalations in the south. Sooner or later, an errant Israeli artillery shell or air strike will hit a residential building in Gaza, kill a large number of Palestinian civilians, and occasion an international outcry, and put a stop to the operation. Then, things will return to the status quo ante of 10 instead of 30 qassams a day ... until the next round.

The worst thing Israel could do is to embark on a full-scale invasion of Gaza now. It will bring only marginal gains over air strikes, in terms of preventing qassam launches. Let's face it. There is no real solution to the problem of the rockets - at least not one that Israel by itself could achieve.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Qassam Front

Exodus to Be'er Sheva

As I said last week, it was only a matter of time before one of the qassam rockets among the barrage fired at the western Negev and the city of Sderot would occasion a more far-reaching response from the army. The direct hit on a Sderot apartment complex today broke the camel's back, though it remains to be seen just how "comprehensive" the military response will be. The air force's bombing of a Hamas "operations center" in Rafah, which killed 4 and wounded 20, combined with a resumption of "targeted killings" of Hamas leaders probably represent the limits of the "severe and harsh" measures promised by Olmert will take.

The increased qassam activity is taking place against the backdrop of renewed intra-Palestinian fighting between Hamas and Fatah, which has led to more than 40 deaths over the past four days. Perhaps partly in a bid to make some sort of appeal for Palestinian unity, Hamas is openly taking part in the qassam firing, which explains the increased activity on this front (50 rockets since Tuesday). Fatah militants are probably also participating to some extent, as they too seek to appeal to the street. But the residents of Gaza know how disingenuous this rhetoric is. The call for Palestinian unity against Israel and the qassam attacks obscure the serious tensions between the factions and criminal gangs in Gaza, and the lethal violence inter-factional violence enveloping the Strip.

It is amusing to watch As'ad AbuKhalil try to deny that we are in fact seeing the beginnings of a civil war in Gaza. It reminds me of his praise for the Iraqi "insurgency" and his pathetic efforts to manipulate the statistics from that theater - all in order to claim that these criminals are fighting "illegal occupation" rather than butchering innocent civilians.

This latest eruption in intra-Palestinian fighting should dispel any doubts about the viability of the Mecca accords (if anyone remembers it) as well as other cease fires. All of these cease fires are unlikely to last without the complete victory of one faction over another. The U.S. has been pressuring Israel to rush arms to Abu Mazen to support Fatah fighters and to ensure that Hamas does not score a complete rout over its opponents. I think that Olmert will continue resisting these calls - both for domestic political (one of the slogans of the right after the outbreak of the second intifadah, aimed at the Oslo process backers, was "you gave them rifles" - and they were right that these guns were indeed turned against Israeli soldiers and civilians ), as well as strategic reasons.

Even if Fatah were to acquire additional equipment, it is not at all clear that its failures in the field against Hamas are due to a material disadvantage. In any case, Fatah is unlikely to defeat Hamas militarily; certainly, such a victory bestowed upon it by American or Israeli backing would profoundly hurt its chances in the political sphere. It makes much more sense for Israel to step back and intervene with pinpoint operations against Hamas fighters and infrastructure (or Fatah militants) as it sees fit.

Meanwhile, Gaydamak has paid for 800 Sderot residents to be put up in hotels in Tel Aviv and Be'er Sheva. An exodus of sorts has gripped the town since the latest strike. In the Israeli media, photographs have been published of residents trying desperately to board Gaydamak's buses and flee the city.

Olmert has responded angrily (Hebrew) to this evacuation operation. It is clear that Gaydamak is amassing an arsenal of public support in pursuit of his political ambitions; in the meantime he is performing some very good deeds. The residents of Sderot have been let down again by the Israeli government. Nobody has previously discussed the deplorable "lethargy" exhibited by the country's politicians with regard to putting in place at least a preliminary defense system against the rockets. The public bomb shelters have only been opened now in Sderot.

Expect the qassam fire to continue increasing over the next few days, as Hamas and Fatah try to fight a two-front war - against each other and Israel. The biggest losers will of course be the residents of Gaza.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Tom Segev on the Jewish Lobby, Jimmy Carter, and Berkeley

"Ugly Fountain," Berkeley (May 2007)

In the question and answer session at a lecture that Jimmy Carter gave here in Berkeley on May 2, the moderator [thanks, Yaman] of the Q&A session mentioned a conversation that he had had with Tom Segev earlier that day. He quoted the Israeli journalist and historian as having told him that "it's a very healthy thing for friends of Israel not to feel as if they can't criticize the occupation."

Segev repeated these remarks during the question and answer session of his own lecture on May 8. In response to the question, "In this century, how much do you think the Israeli lobby in the U.S. has succeeded in influencing [indistinct], particularly the Republican right," which to me seemed like a total non sequitur given the subject of the lecture, Segev first asked for clarification of the term, and - unless I misinterpreted the exchange that followed - accepted the redefinition of "Israeli lobby" as "Jewish lobby," without flinching. He then said that
One relatively new development in American society is that for first time I hear an argument about that. This is a new subject [applause from the audience]. This is what I found interesting about Carter’s speech and his book. You have to rethink the meaning of friendship. You will no longer believe that friendship with Israel means supporting the Israeli government, but rather make a distinction between the government and the country. This tendency to reformulate what it means to be friends with Israel is very interesting and encouraging.
As you can see, Segev did not really engage the question. Maybe he didn't understand it or perhaps he simply chose to ignore its ugly tone. In either case, I am stunned by the indifference to American Jewish concerns and debates that his non-response betrayed. I am not in principle about what Segev said here; I am simply amazed that he failed to connect this question to some of the ugly tendencies that we saw in the wake of the Mearsheimer and Walt article as well as the Jimmy Carter book. This kind of myopia and lack of interest in the concerns of American Jewry are, however, quite typical of people on the Israeli left.

The next question was equally astounding: "What do you propose Israel do with Jerusalem, in light of Carter’s speech?"

Segev's response: "I don't think there is anything that we need to do in light of Carter's speech." He then went on to share his own impressions of Carter's book and the man himself:
Carter doesn’t really say much. What he says in his book, is that if Israelis and Palestinians are nice to each other there will be no war. The story is very complicated. Jerusalem has been a problem without a solution for 3,000 years. It may remain a problem like this. The challenge is managing this problem. Barak was once caught reading a book on “300 solutions to the problem of Jerusalem.” If a problem has that many "solutions," this might mean that there is no real solution. I was struck by how a former president of the United States could come up with a plan ... that the best thing you can say about it is that it is so naïve. It is only one of many other plans. I actually had a chance to tell him that – this is one of the great Berkeley moments that I was thinking of earlier. I was introduced to him, and I told him this.
For Segev, one of the other highlights of spending the semester at Berkeley was the "absolutely thrilling experience" of teaching his seminar on "1967." He said that it was clear to him that he was meeting some of America's brightest students, who were extremely passionate about what they believed should happen to Israel, "even though most of them know almost nothing about the country." He also spoke fondly of his meetings with Salim Tamari from Birzeit University, a visiting professor in Berkeley's Department of History, whose lecture was the subject of an earlier post.

Another view of the I-House

Assorted Other Remarks

Segev on differences between his generation and young Israelis today:
The main difference between us and the younger generation is that the latter no longer believes in peace. The geopolitical situation has changed. The conflict has become deeper, more violent, more difficult to solve. My generation, including the Israeli peace movement, deserves very little praise. The new generation is a more realistic generation, less idealistic. They don’t believe in grand solutions but in conflict management. Peace may not be attained in the foreseeable future. But perhaps this generation will manage conflict in a more rational manner – this is the most optimistic thought I can share with you.
Segev on the conflict between memory and historiography:
Everything that happened in the region since the 6-day war has occurred in its shadow. This puts 1967 somewhere between history and memory. There is always someone in the audience who tells me, “why do you even bother going to the archives, I can tell you all about the war.” Of course, a soldier in a tank never knows anything about the general picture of the war. I would not be able to convince him that anything was different from how he remembers it. Documents will always be trumped by memory. 1967, furthermore, is not quite easy to document.
On sources:
Israel has a relatively liberal policy on opening archives. But there are some things that we just don’t know. We don’t know if Israel in 1967 already had an atomic bomb. This makes a big difference – did any cabinet minister know? Did it play a role? Much of Israel’s foreign policy was conducted by the Mossad, which doesn’t open its archives. Much of what was done in the territories was conducted by the Shin Bet, which also doesn’t open its archives.
Fortunately, Israeli officials have the commendable habit of taking home documents and not bringing them back. Much of the more significant information comes from records that are “private papers.” An important factor in the success of Israeli historians is their ability to talk to widows of important politicians. I spent many days in the kitchen of Miri Eshkol ...
In response to the question, "Is there any truth to the rumor about plans to trade villages inhabited by Israeli Arabs in Israel proper for settlements in the W. Bank?"
This is an idea that even voicing it should be made illegal. These people are Israeli citizens, they enjoy every right, and they have no wish to be anything else. If you want an indication of how far Israel has come from its original values that it once cherished - it’s possible to say things today that a few years ago no one would have dared to say. Everything is in the open today. I think this is a very dangerous idea. Fortunately very few Israeli Jews and Arabs would go for it.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Tom Segev on 1967

Berkeley's International House, May 2007

The distinguished journalist and historian Tom Segev has been at Berkeley for the past semester as a Diller Family Israeli Visiting Professor, where he has been teaching a seminar on "The Six-Day War, 40 Years Later," and a course about "Reporting on the Middle East."

Yesterday, Segev gave a public lecture on "1967: Israel's Longest Year" at Berkeley's International House. The talk offered a preview of his latest book, 1967: Israel, the War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East,* which will appear in English translation at the end of this month. (Another advertised title for the lecture was "Israel's Longest War").

The effects of the Six-Day War can hardly be underestimated. As Segev remarked, "those of you who follow the news will not be surprised to hear that 1967 is not over yet."

Segev's previous books include one of my favorite works of history, The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust,** and several other stellar contributions to the historiography on the yishuv, Zionism, and the state of Israel, such as One Palestine Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate,*** and 1949: The First Israelis.****

The question is - what does Segev add to the history of the Six-Day War? After all, as Segev acknowledged, the "events that led to the 6-day-war have been widely researched and analyzed."

According to Segev, one particular dimension of the war has been ignored hitherto. The 1967 war was "an international Cold War story, an Arab-Israeli story, and a Palestinian story." But, more than anything else, the Six-Day War was an Israeli story. That is, to understand why the war broke out we really need "deep knowledge of the Israelis themselves – not just the diplomatic record."

Segev's greatest strength is his ability as a narrator. His successful books combine probing archival research and sharp, often unsettling analysis, with a great journalist's eye for revealing anecdotes and the masterful storytelling practiced by the best prose stylists. In his lecture, Segev revealed a taste of some of these skills, as he sketched out the atmosphere of Israel in the 1960s, when the country "was emerging as one of the more impressive success stories of the 20th century." According to Segev,
Most Israelis had good reason to be proud of their country and confident of its future. Two million Jewish refugees had been taken in. The economy was booming. There was also a culture boom. The efforts to build a nation around a common national identity had advanced greatly. Israeli high school students reached first place in an international mathematics competition. Shmuel Yosef Agnon received a Nobel Prize for Literature.
In short, in the early 1960s, "Israelis had good reason to believe that their children would live better lives." Then, suddenly, in the one-and-a-half years before the 1967 Six-Day War, all this optimism stopped abruptly. Depression spread across the country. Drawing on press reports and more than 500 letters, many sent by Israelis to their friends and relatives abroad, Segev evokes a world in which citizens' hopes for the future seemed to have vanished overnight.

In 1966, for the first time since 1953, more Jews emigrated from the country than immigrated to it. The years of 12% annual growth gave way to economic depression. And dark jokes circulated about signs at airport asking the "last person leaving the country [to] please turn off the lights."

The Zionist dream appeared to be crumbling for many of the country's citizens. An ordinary politician, Levi Eshkol, had replaced the heroic David Ben Gurion as prime minister. Outside of the political sphere, Israeli society was losing its Ashkenazi character, "which worried no small number," as Jews from Middle Eastern countries began asserting themselves in the public sphere, eventually overtaking the Ashkenazi population in numbers.

Into all this stepped Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, who moved his troops to Israel's border, and menaced the country's citizens with incendiary speeches. "It is no wonder," Segev argued,
that many Israelis truly believed that Egypt was about to destroy their country, literally to exterminate Israel. That frequently-used term clearly evoked the Holocaust.
The apocalyptic mood of the country is perhaps best represented by the documented reports of municipal rabbis sanctifying football fields to be used as mass burial grounds for hundreds of thousands people, who were expected to die within hours of the war breaking out. This "genuine Holocaust panic," Segev believes, made war with Egypt inevitable in 1967. In June of that year, Israeli society "was very weak - too weak not to strike at Egypt."

The situation changed completely after Israel's devastating attack on the grounded Egyptian air force, and its subsequent victory over the Egyptian army in Sinai. What happened next - the wars against Jordan and Syria, Segev claims, "expressed a surge of power and messianic passion." More importantly - and this is surely the heart of his message - these conquests contradicted Israel's national interest, not just as it it was perceived in subsequent decades but also as it was imagined immediately before the war.

Segev's evidence for this claim consists of the notes from a January 1967 meeting between the heads of the Mossad, foreign office, and army intelligence branch. "What happened at that meeting," he quipped, "was a rare occurrence. They came together and they thought." The question that they were thinking about was whether Israel should invade East Jerusalem and the West Bank, given a number of scenarios such as the Jordanian King Hussein's death, a Palestinian uprising, or an Iraqi invasion of Jordan. The conclusion on which all of them agreed, and which they presented in a common paper, was that it was not in Israel's interest to take the West Bank because of the Palestinian population there.

In the euphoria of the victory against Egypt - perceived as a moment of messianic redemption - strategic considerations, Segev argues, suddenly went out the window. We have been living with the consequences ever since.

Next post - some of the questions Segev received and his answers, including his dressing-down of Jimmy Carter, as well his take on Berkeley and its students (positive and also funny).

* 2005. 1967: ‏ ‏והארץ שינתה את פניה
**1991. המיליון השביעי :הישראלים והשואה
ימי הכלניות : ארץ ישראל בתקופת המנדט
1999 ***
1949: הישראלים הראשונים 1984. ****

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

No Confidence in No-Confidence

Olmert plans to ride it out

The government passed its first post-Winograd and post-demonstrations challenge with flying colors. In three no-confidence votes held in the Knesset, 60-62 MKs voted against the no-confidence motion and 26-28 in favor. Nine MKs abstained in all the votes. The opposition as a whole has 42 seats, while the government commands 78. A large number of MKs did not attend the vote, including several figures from the Labor Party. But overall, Labor legislators voted with the government.

A telephone poll commissioned by the staff of Ehud Barak, who is currently not in the government but is hoping to enter through the backdoor of the Labor primaries (May 28), showed that most Labor central committee members (they elect the leader of the party) oppose early elections. This is good politics. Elections now will bring the Likud to power. Holding on helps both Kadima and the Labor Party.

Given that Labor has quite a bit to lose from early elections, does the party still have leverage over Olmert - i.e., can it threaten to pull out of the coalition unless certain conditions are met? It all depends on the ability of Labor to convince Olmert that he has more to lose from elections than it does.

To outflank the threat from his left, Olmert has been making overtures to the Likud on the right - offering Netanyahu the defense ministry in exchange for a promise to stay loyal until the end of next year, thus giving Kadima a chance to recover and perhaps to neutralize the Likud. Bibi has rejected this offer, but who knows what backroom negotiations are currently taking place. Netanyahu knows that he can replace Olmert if the government falls and elections are called.

Despite Netanyahu's hardline stance against Olmert and his previous statements in public, it is possible that the prime minister will try to assemble a right-wing coalition of
Kadima (29) + Likud (12) + Shas (12) + Yisrael Beitenu (11) + Pensioners (7) + United Torah Judaism (6) = 77,
which is just one seat less than the current coalition.

But the prospect of sitting in the same government as the Likud might be enough to provoke a second go at a palace coup by Livni, Peres, and Dalia Itzik. There is still a chance that Olmert will succumb to pressure from inside Kadima and allow the formation of a new government with Peres at the helm - but certainly not before the Labor primaries, and probably not until after the Winograd committee releases its final report in the summer. There is, finally, the possibility that the criminal investigation into some of Olmert's dealings will yield some fruit.

The consternation expressed by government sources about U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice's canceled visit (she was set to come on May 15) can mean one of two things. Either, Rice realized that the proposed list of benchmarks for the PA and Israel are completely unrealistic, and that there is therefore nothing to talk about; or, this is a no-confidence vote in the Olmert government.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Off the Radar: Qassamim on Sderot

Be'er Sheva, not Sderot

UPDATE (Monday night): The IDF has presented its current list of options for responding to the qassam firing. It looks like more of the same: 1) creating a buffer zone, 2) escalating the retaliation ("exacting a steep price on the Palestinians), 3) renewing assassinations of terrorist leaders, 4) improving technology for detecting smuggling tunnels, 5) strengthening intelligence. Olmert and Livni have so far resisted calls for an escalation. DISCUSS.

I am currently listening to an interview with Hana Ben-Ya'ish, the 65-year-old resident of the house that suffered a direct hit from a qassam rocket earlier today, on the radio. The house is located in downtown Sderot, very close to a kindergarten. By some miracle, she explained, the only part of the house left undamaged was her bedroom.

In the past week, there has been a significant increase in the qassam fire. On Sunday, a rocket hit a gas station near the city, injuring one employee. The residents of Sderot, it was clear from the interview with Ben-Ya'ish, are feeling completely abandoned. Even this latest attack is unlikely to generate a great deal of attention. People outside of Sderot and the other communities in qassam-range have grown used to the news. It has become routine for rockets to fall in Israeli towns.

The people of Sderot, meanwhile, are in despair at the lack of attention. "We are not a live fence for the state, we are not cannon fodder, and we are not geese going to the slaughter," Ben-Ya'ish told the host. Although there has been some progress on fortifying schools and community centers, there is no adequate solution to the qassam problem as of yet. Ben-Ya'ish complained that she has had enough of the offers of free vacation to Eilat - "I arrived here in April 1956, and I don't intend to leave." She asked repeatedly for a "safe room," which many of the buildings in the city apparently lack.

It is only a matter of time before a qassam kills a Sderot resident again. When that happens, it will be hard for Minister of Defense Amir Peretz, who lives in Sderot, and the prime minister to ignore the public pressure for a more wide-ranging military response. The plans for an extended military operation in Gaza are ready. Olmert has so far resisted the calls for such an action. It is not at all clear how successful it would be, but the pressure is mounting. Responsibility for the latest rocket attacks was claimed by the Islamic Jihad. It comes in the wake of an American list of confidence-building measures that proposed a plan by which the PA would crack down on the rocket launches. The proposals, which alarmed the Israeli government (they included calls to remove a number of roadblocks deemed essential for security reasons) and which the Hamas government has firmly rejected seems to suffer from a deficit of realism, although it sounded great on paper.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Student Strike to Shut Down Tel Aviv University

Tel Aviv University

Leaders of the student union will close down Tel Aviv University beginning on Monday morning. They have chained the gates shut, and will not let anyone enter the campus. For the past week, students throughout the country have been demonstrating against tuition increases.

As far as I understand Education Minister Yuli Tamir (Labor), a former professor, has made an offer to the students that would see a 3% decrease in their tuition. However, the students are now holding out with the demand that changes in tuition ought to be arrived at through negotiations between students and the government rather than being imposed on them. The ministry of education is refusing to acquiesce to these demands (Ha'aretz, English).

The escalation in the students' tactics follows a threat by "Vera" (וועדת ראשי האויניברסיטאות, the Committee of the Heads of the Universities) that students taking part in strikes and not attending classes will lose the semester. Vera has since withdrawn this ultimatum, but strikes are going ahead anyway (Ynet). Student leaders interviewed on national radio said that they wanted to demonstrate the unity of the entire student body (Gala"tz, Monday 7:30 am Israel Time).

Nehemia Strasler, in a recent Ha'aretz piece, "The students should also pay," criticizes the opposition of the student union leadership to the original reforms proposed by the Shohat Committee, which would have seen an increase in tuition fees. Tuition fees currently pay for 16% of the universities' budgets, while the "evil and miserly state funds 70 percent of it" (Strasler), and private donations cover the remaining 14%.

Strasler seems to be especially angry about the rhetoric used by the student union leadership:
(...) all of these logical arguments make no impression on the student leaders. Itay Sonschein, chairman of the National Students Union and the leader of the strike, has disproportionate revolutionary zeal. He sees the Shochat Committee (which is comprised of the top experts in the field) as a destructive capitalist plot. As far as he is concerned, everything is justified for the sake of dismantling the committee, chalking up a victory and proceeding up the trajectory of party politics - and to hell with what is good for academia and the economy.
There is a sense among quite a few people in the country that Israel is moving inexorably toward "Americanization" and that the "weaker sectors" are bearing a disproportionate burden. I am not an economist, but Israel's social and economic problems are serious enough to merit more attention than they have been receiving over the past decade. It's unfortunate, however, that at a time like this student leaders are playing "revolutions" in order to fulfill their juvenile fantasies and ambitions.

New Policy on Comments

The quality of the comments sections has become so disgraceful that I am instituting a new policy by fiat. Really, I should delete almost every one of the comments in the last post. After repeated requests and complaints by various readers, I will be eliminating any comment that does not contribute to meaningful dialogue (as defined by the contributors to this blog) from now on.

We have had a number of very good exchanges on here; my hope is that these will continue. But it is obvious that our laissez faire policy has led to a very serious deterioration in the discourse of the comments section. It's embarrassing to look at this stuff, especially when you compare it to the civilized and interesting exchanges taking place on some of our friends' sites. Look at the discussion on Jeha's blog for example, or the comments to Lisa's latest post.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Jimmy Carter at Berkeley

Berkeley students lining up to see President Carter (May 2, 2007)

If you put 1,500 college students in a room and make them listen to 30 minutes of canned analysis followed by some valedictory banalities from a failed ex-president, they will still give the man a standing ovation. After all, many of them waited in line for two hours to get tickets.

The funny thing is that those who have been involved in "the struggle" for years (well, semesters) probably left the room wondering about the future of the resistance ... with "friends" like him. First, President Carter denied that Israeli policies in the West Bank were racist. Then, he explained that he never claimed that "events and conditions in Israel" constitute apartheid. Why then does his book carry the subtitle Peace not Apartheid? As As'ad AbuKhalil has said, it is clear that while
Jimmy Carter gave his new book a strong title ... he lacks the courage to defend it. He always waffles when he is asked to explain it.
Instead, Carter admitted that he chose the title to provoke and to get people to pay attention. If he made an argument to the effect that Israel engages in a policy of apartheid in the West Bank, I missed it. In lieu of such an argument, he told the audience that he simply "can't think of any word that describes the situation more accurately."

I have heard many people invoke "apartheid" when describing Israel's policies in the territories. On my walk to campus, I pass by signs urging me to "boycott apartheid Israel" every day. It is also true that the term is thrown about with abandon by some on the Israeli far left. But I have never heard a rigorous argument for this, especially not one that actually makes reference to the situation in South Africa. I don't find these comparisons any more convincing than I find the equation of Israeli policies with Nazism.

Aside from the apartheid question, there isn't a whole lot to get excited about. Carter's vision of peace sounded suspiciously close to the one articulated by the Zionist left for years. In Carter's view, the Palestinian refugees should not be allowed to return to Israel proper but would be compensated by an international fund; half of the Israeli settlements should be annexed to Israel as part of a territorial exchange with the Palestinians; and guaranteeing Israel's security from terrorism is as important as the creation of a stable and prosperous Palestine alongside it.

On top of that, Carter spent the first ten minutes of his speech sucking up to the Zionists. First, he highlighted his efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry, including his interventions to help neo-liberal and hawkish refuseniks like Natan Sharansky. Then, Carter spoke proudly of his role in prohibiting U.S. companies from cooperating with the Arab League boycott of Israel by engaging in "secondary boycotts." He also talked about his role in setting up the commission that planned the construction of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Time and again, he invoked the visions of "justice and righteousness" in the Hebrew scriptures and in the Jewish tradition; he sounded almost like Michael Lerner.


Surely, some audience members must have wondered, Carter would say something about the Zionist conspiracy to control the American discourse on Palestine. He did, sort of, but first he emphasized that he had "never believed that Jews control the media," and that "the overwhelming support for Israel comes from American Christians like [him]." Interestingly enough, a murmur went through the crowd when Carter began his sentence about "major news organizations," as if in anticipation of some lethal blow; it died down quickly as he finished the next clause.

Representing something else

According to Carter, the "powerful influence of AIPAC" constitutes only an "additional factor." And there is nothing wrong with the lobby, "which is exercising its legitimate right to pursue the goal of defending the most conservative governments of Israel."

To top it all off, Carter kept saying such nice things about ordinary Israelis, shifting the blame solely onto "the leaders of Israel, AIPAC, and most of the vocal leaders of American Jewry." Indeed, among the latter - the rabbis - Carter claimed, there were many who, in private conversation, told him that "given the American climate, it was almost impossible for them to criticize Israel."

President Carter began his talk with the claim that few people have had as many opportunities to get to know the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as he has. I am sure that Carter has done some very valuable work in the region, especially as an elections monitor (no sarcasm intended here). But I was a bit perturbed by the state of his knowledge at some points of the talk - though this was usually marginal to the argument.

For example, Carter referred twice to the "three [sic] Israeli soldiers that the Palestinians are holding." He advocated that Israel swap these for "9,800 Palestinian prisoners" held by the country. Did Carter's people never brief him on the fact that Hizbullah, not Palestinian militants, is holding two of these soldiers?

Carter was very sanguine about the prospects for peace in the region. In his view - which certainly does not lack adherents - "the growth of Islamic extremism is directly related to the continuing bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians." He even felt it necessary to add that it is "foolish to say otherwise." Muslim animosity for the West is mostly "because of the Palestinians' plight." The notion that Iraqis will stop killing each other and that al-Qaeda will throw in the towel as soon as the Israelis leave the West Bank is ridiculous and dangerous (for Americans). It will be disproved as soon as some idiot actually tries to turn it into policy.

The former president is equally optimistic about the future of Palestine, after "the occupation" - that great metaphysical evil - has been scourged. Given the reports coming daily out of Gaza, I have to admit that I almost laughed out loud (I wasn't the only one) when Carter remarked that "the Palestinians, in their own area, have almost perfect democracy." Don't expect to find a lot of reporting on this in the Western media, but see Avi Issacharoff's article on the democratic situation in Gaza right now.

Finally, I was a little confused by the answer Carter gave to a question from the audience on what the U.S. should do about Darfur. Carter explained that he had met Bashir; "he's a devout Muslim, which is part of the cause of the war between the north and south." Was Carter really confused about the location of Darfur and the causes of the genocide there?

Thursday, May 03, 2007

What's going to happen next?

Chameleon holding on for dear life
(Hebrew University, Har ha-tsofim, January 2006)

It's really too bad that none of us were on the ground in Tel Aviv, taking part in and observing the demonstration - we would have gotten a much better sense of the atmosphere. Nevertheless, in response to Ariel's query, I'll put some of my speculation out there.

First, I think that the government will hold on for another month at least.

There is a no-confidence vote scheduled for Monday. I don't think it will garner a majority, despite some of the Labor MKs who will vote against the government. But in another month, the Labor Party will have its primaries, and Peretz will definitely be kicked out.

If Livni resigns, Olmert will replace her with Peres or Sheetrit. If she doesn't resign, however, it will be difficult for Olmert to fire her, as this could upset the coalition (esp. the Labor party). He will definitely have to wait until after the no-confidence vote.

Bibi, as I've said several times before, is in an excellent position. Some people might confuse the Rabin Square protests with anti-war demonstrations; they weren't. People are upset that Israel didn't score a more decisive victory. Most of those who came to demand Olmert's resignation believe that the war was justified but poorly executed. A lot of these people are centrists, but given a choice today, they would probably choose Bibi even over Livni, and certainly over Olmert. However, some of them might warm to Barak or Ayalon too. The key factors for people now are experience in leading the country and a security background.

I think Kadima is there to stay. I don't foresee Livni going over to the Labor Party, and she won't go back to the Likud either. She doesn't have enough followers to start her own movement. The next contest for the party leadership is between her and Sheetrit.

Anyway, I'm not very good with predictions, and I have a sense that we are still in for some big surprises over the next few days. Maybe the coalition will be expanded. Maybe Livni will find her way to the top after all. And maybe, due to a combination of people not showing up to vote and a higher-than-expected anti-Olmert vote among Labor and Kadima, the no-confidence motion will actually pass.

ADDENDUM (Friday): Even if the Labor Party were to leave the coalition, it might be possible for Olmert to stay in power by pulling United Torah Judaism into the coalition. It would be a very slim majority but enough, I think.

Meir Shalev: "Olmert, you're fired"

Meir Shalev's Roman Rusi (1988)

The protest in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square has drawn more than 100,000 demonstrators. Organizers made a deliberate decision not to allow current Knesset members to speak. It looks like they were able to bring together activists from across the political spectrum (see Ynet, Ha'aretz, Ha'aretz English).

Attendees included the novelist Meir Shalev (b. 1948), famous for his depiction of a Jezreel Valley moshav from the time of the pioneers to the 1980s in the novel רומן רוסי [lit. "Russian Novel," but the English title is The Blue Mountain], who called on the prime minister to resign and accused the government of having "wasted the lives of soldiers and civilians" (Ynet).

The size of this demonstration may not force Olmert to step down, but it might embolden Knesset members opposed to him firing Tsipi Livni. Contrary to what I anticipated, the orange camp did not dominate the protest.There are clearly enough people from across Israeli society who want Olmert and co. to take responsibility.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

On the Face

Orange might be back in style. Photo: Anti-disengagement poster
in Jerusalem, December 2005. The Hebrew caption reads, "Again expulsion?"

It looks as if Tsipi Livni has taken a horrible dive. The situation is truly "on the face." How did she let Olmert play her like this? It is remarkable to watch Israel's own "slippery eel" (this is actually what the Koreans call UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon) holding and holding on.

Only two other Kadima MKs joined Livni's "revolt" - the head of the coalition, Avigdor Yitzhaki, and the backbencher, Marina Solodkin. Minister of Internal Security Avi Dichter (Kadima) shed a few crocodile tears and remarked that it would be a shame if Livni were sacked from the foreign ministry.

Of course, Shimon Peres (Kadima) still knows how to pick a winner; he is coveting Livni's post for himself, and who knows, maybe he'll even want to succeed Olmert as Kadima's candidate in the next election, which he would lose like nearly every other election he has run in. For what it's worth though, President Jimmy Carter gave Peres a ringing endorsement at a Berkeley lecture earlier today. He couldn't remember Livni's name, but he said that she might be the other politician, beside Peres, whom he would like to see as the next Israeli PM.

The other Olmert apparatchik thinking about the future is Minister of Housing and Construction, Meir Sheetrit, who will surely be rewarded with a promotion for his loyalty. Sheetrit has already announced his plans to run for the head of the party in future Kadima primaries. Meanwhile, Olmert is mulling over what he should do to Livni. It's hard to see her staying in her current post, not after publicly calling on Olmert to resign, but stranger things have happened- I give her a 20% chance. Livni has been keeping a low profile for so long, it's truly bizarre that Olmert seems to have found an opportunity to purge her like this; especially the day after the release of a report that basically handed him a sword to fall into, while singling out Livni for praise.

We live in interesting times. But this story is not over. While Amir Peretz, too, believes that he can stay in power, he faces far more determined opposition from his own Labor party, with plenty of disgruntled people in the Ami Ayalon camp, and a few looking to former PM Ehud Barak. Plus, Olmert may feel that if he wants to stay in power, he should sack or move Peretz to shore up his right flank. Who knows what forces that might set in motion?

Finally, we have good old 'am yisro'el, the people that all these clowns are supposed to be representing. This עם קשה עורף [stiff-necked people] might have a few tricks up its sleeves too, though it is equally likely that most Israelis are too disillusioned to care, especially when the prime minister has shown such contempt for public opinion.

The question is how broad of a coalition the demonstrations planned for Thursday can draw to protest against the government. I have a feeling that the protest will be a sea of orange. The settlers and the religious Zionist youth are extremely organized and committed to this kind of activism. They also have a score to settle with Olmert, the man who helped Sharon take them out of Gaza and threatened to force them into making 'aliyah from Judea and Samaria to the State of Israel. But if the blues don't show up, then it will be easy for Olmert and his loyalists to dismiss the demonstration as a sectarian affair, not representative of the Israeli public at large. It would also make Labor MKs more reluctant about leaving the government and going into new elections. But perhaps the reservists, the bereaved parents, Meretz, the students, and Uzi Dayan will be able to turn this into a more representative coalition.

Staying Put?

Can Livni do it? (Photo: Modified from Wikicommons)

It looks like Olmert might be serious about staying put. If the Prime Minister refuses to resign, Peretz will have little reason to leave his post either. Both leaders face significant opposition from their own parties, but that in itself is not enough to compel them to leave. The same thing apparently goes for their dismal public approval ratings. Even if the planned demonstrations in Tel Aviv turn out to draw a large number of protesters (not a given at all), Olmert and Peretz might not yield.

Tsipi Livni, it seems, is still hoping that she will be able to seize the reins from the Prime Minister via a "musical chairs" rearrangement of the cabinet and coalition. Livni would take the premiership, while Labor MK Ami Ayalon would replace Peretz in the defence ministry. But Olmert knows that if he doesn't resign and is forced out by a no-confidence vote, Livni and Ayalon will face first internal primaries and then elections. Two former prime ministers, Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) and Ehud Barak (Labor), both security heavyweights, will surely attempt a comeback, and who can predict whether Livni will end up on top?

Everyone knows the poll numbers, but incumbent MKs will be watching public protests closely. A massive demonstration could convince the MKs of the governing coalition to abandon a sinking ship. Failing that, those MKs on the fence might decide that the Israeli public has as little interest in new elections as they do.

Knesset factions in the governing coalition:

Kadima: 29
Labor: 19
Shas: 12
Yisrael Beitenu: 11
Pensioners: 7
Total: 78


Likud: 12
National Union - NRP: 9
United Torah Judaism: 6
Meretz: 5
Ra'am-Ta'al: 4
Balad: 3
Hadash: 3
Total: 42

Passage of a no-confidence motion requires a simple majority. Assuming that the entire opposition is united behind such a motion, they would still need 19 votes from the coalition. Will enough members of the government vote to imperil their seats in the Knesset and/or their ministerial portfolios?

In Labor, there is widespread dissatisfaction with Peretz, and a feeling that continuing to stay in this government will hurt the party. Many MKs would vote against the government.

Shas will consult its spiritual authorities; they will be very careful in their decision. The party will vote as as a bloc - more likely for the government than against.

Yisrael Beitenu's Avigdor Liberman has been very quiet. He was, needless to say, entirely untouched by the Winograd report and remains a clean candidate. He can bide his time but might gain even more seats in the elections. Decision will depend on a careful reading of the Russian electorate.

The Pensioners will lose in a future election, as people are more likely to vote for established parties given the sense of insecurity. They will support the government, unless they decide to make some kind of moral stand.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Taking Responsibility

Llamas not taking responsibility for Lebanon War
(Southern Israel, Summer 2006)

In some cultures, people assume responsibility even for the mistakes of their most distant subordinates, not to mention their own errors. In Israel today, even single-digit approval ratings, imminent criminal proceedings, and a scathing report by an independent commission are apparently insufficient. Or maybe not.

It appears as if the show might be winding down at least for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Minister of Defense Amir Peretz. Both of these men seem to have had an interminable supply of tricks up their sleeves until now. One should not count them out yet. Olmert went on a counter-offensive against his Kadima rival, Foreign Minister Tsipi Livni, on Tuesday. Peretz claimed that the Winograd report had actually demonstrated his merit. But the photographs of Olmert that appeared in the media earlier on Tuesday, in the morning after the release of the Winograd Committee's interim report, showed a man who looked utterly demoralized, and very tired.

In January of this year, I told the Head Heeb that I did not believe that Olmert's resignation was imminent then; I also disagreed with his prediction of a "palace coup" (my description) from inside his party. I am not sure who turned out to be right.

One of the scenarios outlined by Jonathan involved Olmert resigning and being replaced by Tsipi Livni, without new elections having to be called. However, according to some reports the Foreign Minister is apparently getting ready to tender her resignation; others indicate that she will merely demand that Olmert step down.

If Livni, who seems to have been one of the few members of the government who received favorable mention in the Winograd report, leaves, she will probably be followed by a number of other Kadima MKs.

There is no point in making further predictions, as news reports are pouring in.

It might be worth looking at the list of MKs (English version) and ministers to determine how the numbers stack up between those who would be interested in new elections and those who would prefer the status quo. For reference on various scenarios, such as the resignation of the Prime Minister, and the formation of a new government, consult the Basic Law on the Government (Hebrew).