Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Shtachim-for-Shtichim Shtick

In the aftermath of Ariel Sharon’s recent warm reception at the United Nations, Binyamin Netanyahu accused him of “trading shtachim for shtichim” – literally, giving up territories for (red) carpets. This accusation – despite the semi-clever Hebrew wordplay – is nothing new. Since the beginnings of Israeli negotiations with the Palestinians a decade ago, opposition right-wingers have accused Israeli governments of giving away valuable “real” assets in return for nothing more than intangibles – handshakes, fleeting approval, and so on. Israeli governments have consistently defended their agreements with the Palestinians as successful “business deals”; when Netanyahu himself was Prime Minister, he lost no opportunity to trumpet his supposed insistence on genuine reciprocity: “If they give, they’ll get.” In reality, this entire line of discourse represents a misunderstanding of our situation at best; and, in my opinion, is nothing more than a grand deception of the Israeli public.

Value for Value?

The image of Israel’s various deals with the Palestinians peddled to the public has been that of a value-for-value exchange: Israel gives up certain assets, in return for other assets it will receive from the Palestinians or their supporters. According to this paradigm, Israel and the Palestinians both gain from the exchange, since the assets Israel cedes to the Palestinians (territories, economic concessions, and so on) benefit the Palestinians more than they cost Israel, while the benefits to Israel (peace, legitimacy, and so on) cost the Palestinians less than they benefit Israel. (Or, looking at it another way, Israel needs peace more than land, and the Palestinians need land more than they need the continuation of conflict.) Understood in this way, traditional Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking – e.g. the Oslo Accords – satisfies the prime test for a sensible deal: “In a successful negotiation, everyone wins.”

In essence, then, the traditional view is that Israel and the Palestinians are negotiating a real-estate sale: we are the seller, and the Palestinians are the buyer. According to this view, Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank constitutes an undeserved gift to the Palestinians – we’ve given up one of our most desired assets, and gotten nothing in return except for some warm fuzzies from the international community, and nothing at all from the Palestinians themselves. This way of looking at the Disengagement, and at Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in general, is comprehensible, simple, sensible – and dead wrong.

Do We Covet Our Neighbor’s Assets?

In a normal real-estate transaction, the seller exchanges a property (a house, for example) for a sum of money. Since money is exchangeable for all sorts of good stuff, we assume that if he receives enough of it, the seller will walk away happy. Israeli-Palestinian negotiations aren’t quite so simple, however; to understand what’s really going on, we need to look more closely at what each side wants, and what each side brings to the table.

What does Israel actually want from the Palestinians? From our standpoint, they actually have remarkably few assets. They have no available land to trade; to the extent that they (lacking sovereignty) can be said to possess any territory, their territory is thoroughly populated by Palestinians. They don’t really have anything else material that we want. Basically, I can think of only two things we want from the Palestinians:

  1. Stop killing us. Despite what you may have heard, we really don’t enjoy being victims of terrorism.

  2. Stop making us the bad guys. We don’t need to be seen as the world’s greatest angels, but we’re thoroughly sick of being seen – by you, by the rest of the world, and even by ourselves – as oppressors, occupiers, bullies, and so on. (Hint: If you’d stop trying to kill us, we could go easy on the other stuff.)
This boils down to a simple proposition, one that I believe to be the fundamental basis of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking (such as it is): “You get out of our face, and we’ll get out of your face.” Of course, the Israeli Left hides this proposition, burying it in a cocoon of convoluted documents and committees of the intelligent-but-powerless. It wouldn’t do, after all, to admit that “peace” for Israel and the Palestinians is really a code-word for mutual avoidance and loathing! The far-Right, which likes things to be very succinct, has substituted their own abbreviated version of my proposition: “Get out.” But most of us have never read the Oslo Accords (I’ve tried, I really have tried); and being the kind-hearted, enlightened souls we are, very few of us would agree with the “transfer” maniacs – at least not when we’re sober. So I believe that my version fairly represents the hopes and aspirations of mainstream Israelis. (“Mainstream Israelis”, of course, refers to those who more or less agree with me. Other writers have different, incorrect definitions of “mainstream”: people who agree with them.)

So all we’re really looking for is a change in Palestinian behavior, which would enable us to change our behavior in turn, and justify our giving up control of some or all of the Territories. But there’s a problem here. How is a Palestinian behavioral change to be measured and evaluated? If we exchange Territory X for Behavioral Promise Y, how can we be sure that the Palestinians will fulfill their promise? How long do they have to behave nicely for us to be satisfied? What if they promise to abandon terrorism, but a few people don’t get the message?

In reality, of course, we’ve learned that Palestinian promises of good behavior (at least as we understand them) count for very little. We tend to put this down to bad faith on the Palestinian side, and I have no doubt that this plays a significant part. (After all, when Mahmoud Abbas signs the Road Map and then refuses to make any effort to disarm Hamas, what can we say other than that, at best, he has a little reading problem?) But I suspect that even if our Palestinian negotiating partners really wanted to fulfill their promises to us, they wouldn’t be able to do so; and even if they managed to do so for a while, they wouldn’t be able to do so permanently. The problem is that nobody among the Palestinians can commit the entire Palestinian public to conduct itself in a manner acceptable to Israel, and make the commitment stick. There is no monopoly of armed force among the Palestinians, and in fact the “moderates” among them – that is, the people who are willing to sign agreements with us, whether they intend to keep them or not – are among the weaker forces in Palestinian society.

It’s also worth noting that from the Palestinian leadership’s standpoint, the things we offer – territory, trade, and so on – are not necessarily as attractive as we think they are. Yes, ordinary Palestinians suffer at Israeli roadblocks, suffer from poverty, suffer from unemployment; but the terror organizations thrive on exactly these factors. The most dynamic and powerful forces in Palestinian society are all creatures of the Occupation; and these forces are in no hurry to rid Palestinian society of the grievances that keep them strong and vibrant.

So What’s to Negotiate?

If Palestinian commitments to Israel are not reliable – and with all the good will in the world, I can’t think of any reason to believe that they are, or will be any time soon – then there isn’t any obvious point in negotiating with even the most moderate of the “moderates” in order to obtain such commitments. No matter what concessions we make, our real expectations of the Palestinians (at least for now) are zilch. So we might as well admit that the whole notion of “value for value” in negotiating with the Palestinians is chimerical.

Lacking any real possibility of a value-for-value negotiation with the Palestinians, Israel is left with three broad options regarding the Occupied Territories:

  • Do nothing (as the Right prefers) on the assumption that time is somehow on our side;

  • Negotiate anyway (a.k.a. the “let’s pretend” game);

  • Do something unilateral, as Israel just did in Gaza and the northern West Bank.

From Madrid to Taba, Israeli governments chose to play the “let’s pretend” game; now, rather suddenly, momentum appears to be shifting towards the unilateral approach. No Israeli government since the early 1990’s has seriously adopted the first approach; despite all the criticism of other governments’ “giveaways”, each new Prime Minister has found himself doing something to reduce the extent of Israel’s occupation of the Territories.

If the Palestinians have nothing real to offer us – that is, if our choice in dealing with them is between unilateral withdrawals disguised as exchanges and unilateral withdrawals not disguised as exchanges – why not just stay put? Thereby hangs another post!

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Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Dubious Victories and a Sad Anniversary

And so, another day has arrived (well, actually, it’s more than half over already) in Israel. Ariel Sharon has won a marginal victory in the Likud Central Committee, keeping party primaries from being brought forward from next April to this November. I can’t say I’m thrilled with his success – at best, it seems like a Band-Aid when the patient needs surgery, and at worst it could condemn us to a year with a place-holder government unable to make any real decisions. Of course, this could be a good thing: maybe after the Disengagement, we need some time to lay back and see how things play out before confronting yet more big changes.

What frightens me, though, is that if something doesn’t happen, we’ll wind up with another Likud victory next November (or whenever the Labor ministers get tired of their Volvos), and another government hamstrung by the “Likud rebels”. Something has to change, or Israel will continue to be handicapped by the schizophrenia of its ruling party.

*     *     *

Today is a significant, if sad, anniversary. Five years ago, Sergeant David Biri was killed by a roadside bomb at the Netzarim Junction in the Gaza Strip; this attack marked the beginning of the “al-Aqsa Intifada”. I had hoped that today would be the first day of the post-Intifada period; but my optimism was at least a little premature.

At times like this, it’s foolish but probably inevitable to try to keep score. Who “won” the Intifada? The first answer that comes to mind is that both sides lost; but I’m not sure that it’s really true. Of course, everything depends on how one defines victory and defeat in a low-intensity conflict: it’s not like a conventional war, where one side surrenders and the other side dictates terms. Still, though, we can look at the political, social, and economic gains and losses of each side, and perhaps come up with at least a subjective answer.

In economic terms, both sides clearly lost – compared with what would have happened had the Intifada not occurred, and even more so compared with the possible economic benefits of Israeli-Palestinian peace. At the same time, it’s difficult to measure exactly how much the Intifada cost Israel; its damage occurred at the same time as a global economic slump and a sharp high-tech “bust”. In absolute terms, Israel paid a higher price than the Palestinians; but this is deceptive, as Israel’s economy is so much larger and healthier than the Palestinians’ that there is no real way to compare the relative impact of the Intifada on the two societies. Lacking any way to determine which side’s economy ultimately suffered more, I’ll declare this aspect of the conflict a tie.

Territorially, it’s tempting to say that the Palestinians won. After all, Israel has left the Gaza Strip and part of the northern West Bank, and by building the Separation Fence (which I prefer to call the Arafat Line, if anyone cares) we’ve given a pretty good indication that we’re ultimately going to leave most of the West Bank as well. On the other hand, we should keep in mind that the offer Ehud Barak made at Camp David would have given the Palestinians at least as much as they’ve gained from the Intifada (assuming that the Fence represents Israel’s ultimate border with Palestine – an assumption that is unlikely to be completely true) at a much lower price. I can’t think of any territorial gain that the Palestinians have achieved that wouldn’t have come to them much more easily had they not started the Intifada, or had they ended it much sooner. Israel, on the other hand, has gotten American recognition that at least some settlements east of the Green Line will ultimately become part of “Israel proper”, with no mention of a “land swap” to compensate the Palestinians for the loss of this territory. In this sense, Israel has at least potentially come out ahead, compared with what was being negotiated at Camp David and Taba. Putting all of this together, I’ll declare another approximate tie, although my personal inclination would be to give Israel a slight edge in this category.

Had the Palestinians ended the Intifada a short time after it started – anything from a few months to two years or so – they would have been the clear victors in the public-relations category. In the early days of the conflict, the overwhelming majority of the fatalities were on the Palestinian side, and Israel’s responses to Palestinian rioting were draconian and inept. Over time, though, Israel began to do a better job of protecting its citizens without killing quite so many innocent (and semi-innocent) Palestinians; and the Palestinians seemed to become more and more addicted to terrorism as the primary expression of their version of nationalism. The Disengagement appears to have given Israel a significant public-relations boost, and the Palestinians don’t seem to have any real idea what to do about the new post-Disengagement reality other than to make feeble claims that the Gaza Strip is still, despite all appearances, “occupied”. I’ll declare yet another tie here; but considering the Palestinians’ advantages in this category and our governments’ perennial inability to understand how things look to the non-Israeli world, this is one area where the Palestinians’ failure to win has to hurt.

It’s hard to measure the social aspects of this conflict, since (as in economics) the two societies are very different. Israeli society managed to hold together even during the worst terrorism the Palestinians were able to dish out; according to reports, Yasser Arafat and at least some of his cronies thought we’d fall apart at the seams. Palestinian society also seems to have survived, more or less; things are pretty chaotic there, but they weren’t so wonderful beforehand. Some will claim that the Disengagement has “created a rift in the Israeli nation” – and thus, perhaps, that Israel has voluntarily and needlessly lost in the social category – but I would counter that whatever rift exists now already existed before the Disengagement, and was going to become painfully obvious whenever Israel began rationalizing its borders. In my view, the cause of the rift – if the rift really exists – was the establishment of settlements without any real effort to form a national consensus on which areas should be settled and why. The bottom line? Another tie, more or less.

My last category (after Economics, Territory, Public Relations, and Society) is Political Thinking. The Palestinians today do not appear to have changed very much in their understanding of their relationship with Israel, the need for compromises, the role of terrorism in their national movement, or anything else. (Caveat: I don’t speak or read Arabic, so I’m unable to judge these things based on my own observations.) Palestinian society, at least as judged from outside, seems once more to have wasted a great educational opportunity.

Israel, on the other hand, has undergone (or perhaps is in the midst of) a quiet but profound revolution in its thinking. For years, we thought that the only way to get out of the occupation business was to reach a settlement with the Palestinians, trading land for peace – or, more realistically, land for a peace settlement. This made us a hostage to the Palestinian leadership: as long as they refused to come to terms with us, we were stuck in the position of Occupier while they enjoyed playing the Victim of Oppression role and avoided the tedious responsibilities of statehood. But after a few years of the Intifada, some of Israel’s leaders (and, apparently, a lot of Israeli citizens) came to the realization that there is no point in negotiating with the Palestinians (at least for the present) or in maintaining the status quo. Accordingly, Israel has now effectively declared its independence from Palestine: we reserve the right to leave territories we decide aren’t all that important to us, whether there is a Palestinian partner ready to write us a receipt or not. And, with Israel the Occupier exiting, the Palestinians are left on stage without a script; Palestinian nationalism doesn’t seem to be ready or eager to assume the rights and duties of statehood. So in this category – and thus in the conflict as a whole – I’ll give Israel a clear victory. By granting ourselves the right to act unilaterally, we’ve gained new freedom, begun to repair our international image, and thrown the Palestinian national movement into disarray.

So we’ve won the Intifada. How nice.

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New “Traffic Exchange” Feature - Feedback Requested!

Yesterday I signed up for Bravenet’s “Traffic Exchange” program. This will evidently show other participants’ websites to you in pop-up (or “pop-under”) windows when you leave my site; you’ll see at most one such site per day. If you have pop-ups blocked, you won’t see any change.

If you do see pop-ups, please let me know (A) what sites you were directed to, and (B) if you find this feature annoying, beneficial, or whatever. If it’s showing people irrelevant sites and creating annoyance, I’ll remove this page from the program and you’ll be bothered no more.

Please post your experiences as comments on this post. Thanks – and if the new feature is irritating, I do apologize!

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Saturday, September 24, 2005

A Look Back at the Week Ahead

I’ve been accused of verbosity. When anyone asks me for writing advice (which is seldom) I always say: “Read Hemingway. Write like that.” But my own stuff never seems to come out like Hemingway, no matter how hard I try; I’ve never mastered the art of the sound-bite, or its written equivalent. (OK, I can write short sentences when I really try; but I just can’t keep the semicolons, dashes, and parentheses from creeping in while I’m not watching. See?) This time, though, I actually have some shortish things to say.

This next week – like so many weeks in our happy little corner of the world – promises to be an interesting one. Just in the next couple of days, three things are scheduled to happen (or to fail to happen): things that I think are rather significant in their different ways. It so happens that I’ve previously written about all three.

  1. On Sunday, the government is expected to propose an amendment to the Compensation for Victims of Hostile Acts Law – the law that provides compensation to Israelis killed in wars and in terror attacks. In the aftermath of the two recent “Jewish” terror attacks – and in particular after the Shfaram attack, in which the victims were Israeli Arabs – we discovered that this law doesn’t take into account the possibility that terrorism against Israelis might be carried out by individuals or organizations that don’t consider themselves enemies of the State of Israel. The new version of the law will reportedly include incidents like the Shfaram attack as “hostile acts” for which compensation will be paid. This change will be most welcome – and this is one of the few times when I can’t find anything bad to say about the way our government has handled something. Not only will this change fix an obvious injustice; it will also prevent serious damage to Israel’s stature as an opponent of terrorism worldwide.

  2. On Monday, the Likud Central Committee is scheduled to vote on the date of primaries to select the party’s candidates in the next election. This vote has been turned into something of a vote of confidence in Ariel Sharon, with former Finance Minister (and former Prime Minister) Binyamin Netanyahu leading the charge against Sharon. This vote worries me. It worries me not because I’m afraid Sharon may lose, but because I’m afraid the Central Committee may knuckle under and he may win – and because I favor the policy path he has chosen, I believe it's best for Israel if the Likud splits up. Sadly, the Likud is all too likely to choose power over principle, and thus stay with Ariel Sharon as their leader rather than follow Netanyahu onto the Opposition benches; the annoying part is that many of Sharon’s opponents in the Likud can pretty much be counted on to rediscover their principles after the elections, and make it very difficult for him to get anything done. Let’s all send thoughts of strength, then, to the leaders of the Likud: Stand up for your ideology, keep your powder dry, and devil take the hindmost! Kick the big guy out (so I can vote for him without voting for you)!

  3. Hamas just managed to kill nineteen Palestinians, including a number of their own “activists”, at a Gaza rally; dozens more were wounded. Hamas blamed Israel for the explosion, but the Palestinian Authority has held Hamas itself responsible. Israel – which normally takes credit for airborne attacks – has denied any involvement in this incident, and the denial has the ring of truth: Israel has never attacked a rally in this way, and had no particular reason to carry out a spectacular attack against Hamas at that time.

    This incident prompts two observations: First, it would appear that I was wrong when I designated Monday, 26 September, as the last day of the "al-Aqsa Intifada". I did leave myself a little wiggle room for “unforeseen events”; they happened, and I hadn’t foreseen them. This is the problem with being considered (even if only by yourself and close friends) an “expert” on anything: you get something more or less right about the recent past, and it gets awfully hard to resist predicting the future. The second “Intifada” will be with us, it appears, for a while longer; and the people planning the “Third Intifada” will just have to wait their turn.

    The second observation is about Hamas itself: Hamas has gained much of its popularity because of its image as the clean, honest, effective organization that actually cared about the well-being of ordinary Palestinians. (I’m not saying that Hamas really does care; but medical clinics and nursery schools go a long way in a society whose official apparatus fails to provide these services, while its leaders live in mansions.) Will incidents like this one, in which Hamas callously disregarded safety precautions, killed dozens of innocents, and then refused to take responsibility for its negligence, weaken Hamas’ appeal to the Palestinian public? I really have no idea; but it seems likely to me that Hamas’ halo will, sooner or later, start looking tarnished. It would be nice, of course, if this happened before Hamas became the ruling party of Palestine; but given my record as a prophet – a record that would have had me stoned to death a few short millennia ago – I won’t venture a prediction.

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Thursday, September 22, 2005

New Profile Pic!

Sadly, this is more or less what I really look like. And the pose pretty much represents my real life as well - sitting at a computer, trying to read (or write) something, while being forced to amuse some small, furry carnivore with fangs and sharp claws.
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Sunday, September 18, 2005

Alfei Menashe, the Fence, and I

The Separation Fence and I did not enjoy an instant romance. When I heard how much money was to be spent building the thing, my first reaction was to imagine how many more Israeli lives would be saved if we put the same money into traffic safety – after all, even in the worst years of the “al-Aqsa Intifada”, more than twice as many Israelis were killed in traffic as were killed by terrorists (this year, the ratio will probably be five-or-more to one). And I’ve never been comfortable with strategies that rely on static defenses; the Separation Fence immediately brought to mind the Great Wall of China, the Maginot Line, and our own Bar Lev Line, none of which was terribly successful. (To be honest, the Great Wall did work pretty well – for a while.) Barrier defenses like these lead to a garrison mentality, a kind of passive wait-for-the-suckers-to-try-getting-over-that-wall attitude that is antithetical to the IDF’s traditional doctrine of mobility and “forward defense”. (The lack of instant adoration was apparently mutual, by the way: the Fence has consistently ignored me since the day we met. That’s typical of my love life.)

But, as sometimes happens in arranged marriages, things have warmed up a bit over time. The Fence, after all, does seem to be working – at least in the places where it exists in reality and not just on paper. OK, one walking bomb did get through – but that was because he’d paid off an Israeli criminal to smuggle him through a checkpoint. (It’s worth noting, perhaps, that the Great Wall worked until the barbarians bribed a Chinese garrison commander to let them through – plus ça change and all that.) And while the Fence hasn’t exactly smiled at me yet… well… OK, OK, it’s still completely ignoring me. But I live in hope.

Now it appears that the current route of the Fence in my own neighborhood – I live in Alfei Menashe, a.k.a. Qalqilia Illit (“Upper Qalqilia” for those of you who won’t get the joke even in translation) – is going to be changed. The current Fence route encompasses several Palestinian villages inside an Israeli “bubble”, and cuts off their 1,200-or-so inhabitants from schools, medical clinics, and pretty much everything else except for a portion of their olive groves, a few goats and donkeys, and some jobs in Alfei Menashe itself. (The Fence also cut Qalqilia off from its principal suburb, Habla; after residents complained, Israel built an elaborate underpass to permit traffic between the two towns.) Israel’s Supreme Court ruled last Thursday that the government must examine alternatives to the current route that will impose less hardship on the residents of these villages – presumably meaning that the “bubble” will shrink to be closer to the boundaries of Alfei Menashe itself. It’s also likely that the new Fence route will involve abandoning the current access road and building a new one running south of Habla, joining “Israel proper” between the border villages of Matan and Nirit, and connecting directly to Route 6, the newish superhighway that connects nowhere-in-particular at the fringes of the Negev with nowhere-in-particular in Israel’s not-quite-North. The new picture might look something like the border proposed in Yossi Belin’s Geneva Accord.

Dangling Partition: Fencing a Nonexistent Border

The whole concept of the Separation Fence has been controversial from the beginning – and not only because of its route. With all the current arguments about exactly where the Fence should and should not go, we easily forget that there is a much more fundamental disagreement about whether Israel should have an effective border or not. When the Fence was first proposed (by center-Left politicians like Haim Ramon), it was intended to run along the Green Line between Israel and the West Bank. Many Palestinians protested vigorously against this idea, as did Israeli right-wingers. Neither of these groups was willing to countenance an effective border between Israel and something else – call it Palestine, call it not-Israel – within the area west of the Jordan River. Those who are willing to live with such a border constitute the broad center among Israelis and Palestinians alike: people who believe that we need to partition the available territory between two peoples. Exactly where such a border should go is, of course, hugely contentious; but at least the various “partitionists” are speaking roughly the same language, and agree in principle (whether they realize it or not) that they are talking about a two-state resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, wherein each side would recognize the validity of the state on the other side of the border.

When public pressure to build the Fence grew (encouraged by a long string of deadly Palestinian terror attacks against Israeli civilians), Ariel Sharon faced a dilemma: How could he give the Israeli public the security benefits of an effective border without paying the political price of creating such a border? Clearly, a fence built along the Green Line wouldn’t do; that would mean effectively conceding all the territory of the West Bank to the Palestinians before final-status negotiations had even begun, and would deny protection to all Israeli settlers. (We must remember here that the Green Line has never been a political border; it was merely the armistice line after fighting was brought to a halt in 1949. The armistice agreements that formalized the end to active fighting explicitly state that neither side recognizes the Green Line as a political border, and that neither side abandons its territorial claims across the Green Line. This is why Israel never fenced the Green Line in the past – even in the days before the Six Day War, when it served as the de-facto border with Jordan.)

A “maximalist” fence wouldn’t work either: a fence enclosing the vast majority of Israeli settlements would either be impossibly long and squiggly (and thus even more expensive to build and hard to patrol) or else would include so many Palestinians on the Israeli side that it would be useless as well as politically untenable. (There’s no point, after all, in building a fence to keep your enemies out if you place it so your enemies are already inside.) Just as we couldn’t afford to build a fence that would concede the entire West Bank, the United States wasn’t going to be too happy with our building a fence that would effectively annex a large proportion of the West Bank.

A Brilliantly Inept Solution

The solution was a classic and under-appreciated stroke of pure Israeliness: build the Fence along a route so bizarre that nobody would ever take it seriously as a final border between Israel and Palestine. Leave room for some settlements to expand even if they don’t want to expand. Leave some eminently viable settlements out. Incorporate some Palestinian villages inside the Fence, for no obvious reason. Make it clear that the Fence is only a security measure, even though its route in many places clearly wasn’t chosen purely on grounds of security. And at all costs, don’t explain anything.

As a result of this strategy, we have a Fence that indeed saves lives, creates fertile ground for litigation, and preserves the eventual jobs of final-status negotiators on both sides. Aberrations like the over-large Alfei Menashe “bubble” give us a sterling opportunity to rectify them – an opportunity that would never have existed had we avoided them in the first place. And since nobody gave any coherent reasons for the routing of the Fence in the first place, nobody is made to look dishonest when the government later finds that it is able to pick a better route after all.

This strategy – the apparent complete avoidance of rational planning – is, as I said, a master-stroke. It’s impossible to tell whether it was all worked out in advance as the best approach to providing security to Israeli civilians without pre-empting eventual negotiations over a real border; or whether the Fence route was in fact a product of pure incompetence and negligence. In fact, after living in Israel for eight years, I’m not even sure if the two explanations are mutually contradictory.
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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Great Gaza Strip Synagogue Wimp-Out

This is the way the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip ended: not with a bang but a wimp-out. After all the politicking; after all the fortitude; after all the heartbreak; after all the planning; after all the skilled execution; after all the ineptitude, or at least after some of it – we’ve finally left the Gaza Strip. But we choked at the last hurdle: We left our synagogue buildings standing in the care of the Palestinians, who manifestly didn’t want them and refused to take responsibility for them. Now, having shirked our last responsibility in the Strip, we are already expressing righteous indignation at the fate of these buildings – the empty husks of our religion – which the Palestinian authorities are promptly reducing to piles of rubble. We should have had the guts – not to mention the basic politeness – to do the job ourselves. Why is it that politicians who were willing – correctly, in my view – to force families from their homes, to abandon policies that had been entrenched for two generations, even to risk their precious careers, in order to get us out of the Gaza Strip – couldn’t muster the courage to knock down a few more empty buildings? Senior rabbis had already given their approval to the demolitions; the decision had already been approved by the Cabinet and defended before the High Court of Justice; all our leaders had to do was hunker down, keep quiet, and let the thing happen. But then, prompted by the entreaties of yet more rabbis, our Cabinet got cold feet and reversed itself; so we’ve gotten out of the Strip a day or two sooner than we might have, but much less cleanly than we could have. Holy Concrete I am not an authority on Jewish religious law (a.k.a. “halakha”) – so my opinions in this regard have no special weight. However, the fact that halakhic experts had already ruled that the demolitions could take place corresponds with my own understanding of the principles involved. Further, it’s very hard for me to believe that the rabbis who later came down against the demolitions had all discovered some new set of commandments of which other, equally distinguished rabbis had been unaware. The fact is that the anti-demolition rabbis are, to a man, anti-Disengagement rabbis. Their “halakhic” ruling against demolishing the former synagogues in the Gaza Strip was based on politics, not on religion – although there may be legitimate arguments in favor of letting the Palestinians do the actual demolition work, rather than have Jews demolish synagogues. What, after all, were the Palestinians supposed to do with the former synagogues other than demolish them? If the buildings were to be preserved as empty shells as some Israelis demanded, they would have served as a sort of permanent symbolic occupation: Yes, we’ve taken our citizens and soldiers out of the Gaza Strip, but we still have our “mark” on your territory and you can’t remove it. The Palestinian reaction to this idea was about the same as my reaction to Fluffy the Tomcat when he sprays in our house: This is my territory! Get your furry butt out of here! (OK, I haven’t noticed the Palestinians accusing Israelis of having furry butts; in fact, it’s pretty much the only thing they haven’t accused us of – yet.) By putting the Palestinian government (what there is of it) in charge of preserving these buildings, we would have added yet another cause of alienation between Palestinian rulers and their populace, and further strengthened Hamas and the other Palestinian rejectionist groups. If we had graciously permitted the Palestinians to use the former synagogues as something other than permanent, empty monuments to Israeli occupation, we would have presented them with an obvious time bomb. What would happen the first time one of these buildings was converted into a mosque? How about the third time a former synagogue was taken over by Hamas to be used as a nursery school, medical clinic, or arms warehouse? By maintaining a formal or informal veto over the uses to which the former synagogues were put, we would preserve their significance as symbols of ongoing domination just as if we had forced the Palestinians to keep the buildings empty. Our Options, Their Options Clearly, any course of events that left the former Gaza Strip synagogues standing was going to be humiliating and disastrous for the Palestinian government; and there is no question in my mind that the goal of those who opposed their demolition was precisely that. By retaining control – or even “moral” authority – over these buildings, Israel would make it crystal clear to the Palestinians that their government was impotent and their independence illusory; and Israelis who had never reconciled themselves to the Disengagement would happily retain their delusion that Israel still had an active claim on the Gaza Strip. For those of us who think getting out of the Gaza Strip “for real” was a good idea, preserving the former synagogues was never an acceptable option. What other choices were available? As I see it, there were three options open to Israel, and we chose the worst of them. First, we could have held to our government’s initial decision and demolished the former synagogues ourselves. Second, had we decided that having Jews demolish synagogues was forbidden (or, at least, politically fraught), we could have either requested that the Palestinians demolish the buildings on our behalf, or else explicitly given them carte blanche to demolish them or use them as they saw fit. (This is basically what we did with public buildings in the Gaza Strip settlements other than synagogues.) Third, we could simply leave the buildings in place, so that the Palestinians could do what they wanted with them – but without the carte blanche of the second option. This way we – our politicians, that is – dodged all responsibility for the former synagogues, while retaining the “right” to criticize whatever the Palestinians did other than preserving them as a permanent monument to the joys of living under military occupation. Given our government’s abdication of its responsibility to determine the fate of the former synagogues, the Palestinians’ decision was pretty much a no-brainer: Either they accepted our not-really-a-demand that the synagogue buildings be preserved, with the consequences I’ve outlined above; or else they interpreted our leaving the decision to them as an implicit permission to demolish the buildings, after which we would complain a bit but quickly move on to the next act. The Fallout Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, evidently the leading proponent of Israel’s synagogue wimp-out, offered this justification of the Cabinet’s non-decision: “The decision was made out of our will not to destroy them… We knew that the Palestinians would respond to the decision. However, the rabbis decided it would be better that the synagogues be destroyed at the hands of Palestinians than at the hands of the IDF.” If this was really his thinking (or the rabbis’, since apparently he decided to let them do his thinking for him), why didn’t he go ahead and give the Palestinians explicit permission to demolish the former synagogues? If “we knew” what the Palestinians would do and did nothing to prevent it, why not be honest and let the world know that this was our decision as well as theirs? On the other hand, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom cut the Palestinians no slack: “The Palestinians failed in their first task when they did not protect the synagogues left standing in the settlements of Gush Katif. The arson of this morning [which preceded the demolitions] is a barbaric act of people with no respect for holy places.” This was a cheap shot: After leaving the Palestinians no acceptable option other than demolishing these former synagogues, presenting them with no sanctioned alternative uses for the buildings, and not even granting them the convenience of blaming some neutral outside party like UNESCO (which, in theory, could have designated the buildings as something worthy of preservation), it’s hardly fair to call them “barbaric” for simply having some shreds of self-respect and (on the part of the Palestinian government) self-preservation. (It’s also debatable whether a synagogue building with no worshippers, no historical significance, no holy books, and no other remaining religious artifacts is properly considered a “holy place”.) Of course, the ability to take cheap shots like this was exactly what our Cabinet wimps wanted; now they can make tough anti-Palestinian declarations to improve their standing with voters and party power-brokers, even though the Palestinians did nothing more in this case than react rationally to Israeli decisions – including the Disengagement itself, which Shalom and his associates did nothing substantive to prevent. In short, by refusing to take responsibility for demolishing the former Gaza Strip synagogues and then carping at the Palestinians for doing what we should have done ourselves, the majority of our Cabinet have proven themselves to be nothing more than spineless, slimy, insincere political opportunists. This is a relief; for a second there, I was worried that they might actually believe the stuff they were saying.
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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Intifada 101 - Preparing for the Aftermath

As one of the world’s few practicing intifadologists, I bear a heavy responsibility. It’s up to me and my colleagues to decide on such things as what phases the Intifada has gone through, and what learned jargon we will use to designate various aspects of the conflict. This is truly an awesome burden, but – for the sake of maintaining an atmosphere of arid objectivity despite our seemingly permanent crisis – it’s one I’m willing to bear.

One of my great accomplishments (or it would have been a great accomplishment if anyone had paid attention) was to designate the correct opening date of Intifada II as 27 September 2000, two days before Ariel Sharon’s famous stroll on Temple Mount. As Palestinian violence had already broken out beforehand, Sharon’s visit – while still seismologically significant – cannot be blamed for the Intifada’s outbreak. (For more detail on this, see An Engineered Tragedy.)

Now, I am faced with a task almost as important, and much more difficult: I must determine when the Intifada will end, or – if it’s already over – when it ended. This is particularly tricky, as conflicts like this don’t end with a surrender or a peace treaty; they tend to taper off until people gradually notice that the conflict is no longer at the forefront of their attention. They don’t even end with peace – at least not in our fascinating little corner of the world – but rather in a return to a sort of low sullen simmer of quasi-normality punctuated by occasional violence. Intifada I ended like this; but since Gulf War I broke out conveniently as that intifada was dying out, the onset of the war – or, more properly, the American entry into the war – is conveniently chosen as marking the end of the intifada. This time, the timing is all wrong: Gulf War II broke out while Intifada II was still going strong, and Intifada II seems to be on its last legs while Gulf War II shows no sign of letting up. Accordingly, I’ve decided – and you’re reading it here for the first time, anywhere! – that barring unforeseen events over the next three weeks or so, the last day of Intifada II will be 26 September 2005 – making the conflict last precisely five years. This is, of course, purely arbitrary; but it makes as much sense as any other date one might choose, as there is no non-arbitrary way of selecting a final date for a conflict that is never really resolved. And I’ve noticed over the last month or two that various Palestinian politicians, terror-group bigwigs, and other luminaries have been threatening that if Israel didn’t do just what they wanted, a Third Intifada would surely break out. If we intifadologists don’t declare Intifada II over before Intifada III begins, we will have a confusing mess on our hands. This would be unacceptable; it’s our job, after all, to ensure that we have only clearly-delineated and well-categorized messes on our hands.

A Post-Intifada Lexicon

In addition to determining the official finish of Intifada II, I am faced (along with my esteemed colleagues) with the challenge of creating appropriate terminology for the post-Intifada-II era. It is theoretically possible, of course, that actual peace will break out. Given the realities on the ground, including last night’s fatal Gaza City “work accident” in which five people were killed – probably not while preparing wedding fireworks – we can safely dismiss this possibility. (The word “safely” here refers, of course, to intellectual rather than mere physical safety.) We are left, then, with several more-or-less realistic aprèsfada scenarii – each with its appropriate designation:

  • Palestinians may escalate their level of violence, with their anger turned primarily inwards rather than towards Israel. Such an intrafada may already be underway in the Gaza Strip, as Palestinians protest joblessness, corruption, and so on.

  • People on both sides may enjoy a period of relative calm before the next flare-up. Such an entrefada could last until it becomes clear that Intifada III, while not yet underway, is clearly approaching. This next phase, the antefada, could last anywhere from a week to several months. (The previous antefada lasted from the end of the failed Camp David II summit through 26 September 2000.)

  • The situation could settle into a state of not-quite-calm, not-quite-open-conflict: an infrafada, during which most Palestinians would go about their normal business until a spectacular terror attack occurred either here or overseas – whereupon we would see an outbreak of schahidenfreude before things calmed down again. (Infrafada, by the way, becomes easier to pronounce with repetition. The feeling of accomplishment is well worth the effort.)

  • Palestinians in the Gaza Strip (perhaps along with some of their less-thoroughly-occupied compatriots in parts of the West Bank) may decide that they really preferred to live under Israeli occupation after all, and launch a round of intense contra-nationalist protest – an antifada – to bring the IDF back into their lives. The fact that something appears to be exceedingly unlikely to happen doesn’t mean that we don’t need to have a technical term for it.

I suggest that you practice using this new vocabulary; when whatever happens next happens and the appropriate neologism trips learnedly off your tongue, you’ll thank me for it.
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Sunday, September 04, 2005

Settler as Saint

Rant time!

Am I the only Israeli who’s getting sick of hearing about how wonderful the Gaza Strip settlers were? I have no problem thinking of them as nice people, good Israelis, good Zionists, or whatever; but the extent to which they're being portrayed as heroic, pioneering agricultural miracle-workers is frankly nauseating.

Both before and since the Disengagement, we have been told that the settler-farmers “made the desert bloom”, created substantial export earnings for Israel, and so on. We have also been told how they had created thousands of jobs for Gaza Strip Palestinians who worked in the settlers’ greenhouses, with the implication that the Palestinians should have loved the settlers as much as we’ve been told we should love them. Strangely – or not – the anti-Disengagement types never seem to put these two sets of facts together.

“Making the Desert Bloom”

Let’s look for a bit at what “making the desert bloom” is all about. What do you need to be a miracle-working Gaza Strip vegetable farmer? First, there’s land. The Gaza Strip settlers were allocated land at advantageous prices – certainly at prices lower than they would have paid for equivalent land inside the Green Line. Then there’s capital – money to pay for greenhouses, irrigation systems, and so on. The Gaza Strip settlers appear to have had no problem with this – after all, they constituted an outpost of a comparatively wealthy society. Next, sunlight. No problem there – sunlight is one of the Middle East’s most plentiful natural resources. Water? The settlers were connected to the Israeli water system; they drew some water from the Gaza Strip’s section of the Coastal Aquifer, but also got about half of their water piped in from “Israel proper”. Like other Israeli farmers, they got their water at a subsidized price; I don’t know whether they paid less than farmers inside the Green Line pay, but they certainly paid less than Israeli domestic customers do.

What’s left? Expertise and labor. The settlers obviously knew (or learned) what they were doing; given that Israel has a great deal of agricultural sophistication, this is hardly surprising. But while there is every reason to believe that those former Gaza Strip farmers who wish to set up shop inside the Green Line will succeed in their endeavors, there is no reason to believe that their knowledge and competence are anything beyond what is usual among their non-settler peers. And “miracles” aside, it’s hard for me to believe that Palestinian farmers, given equal access to water and financing (and maybe some additional training), couldn’t be just as successful as the settler farmers were – after all, Palestinians were already doing most of the hands-on work.

Labor presents some interesting issues. The Gaza settlers’ farms were rather labor-intensive operations, employing thousands of Palestinian laborers. According to newspaper reports, these laborers were paid something like one third of the Israeli minimum wage – call it roughly 50 shekels per day (with no paid vacation or sick days), compared to about 150 shekels per day inside Israel. Some of the farmers claimed to pay more than that; to be very generous, let’s say that the average was 75 shekels per day. This means that for each worker employed, the farmer was saving 75 shekels (NIS 150 – NIS 75) per day, times 250 working days per year, for a total of 18,750 shekels (the equivalent of about $4200). If we multiply this by 4000 workers, we come up with a total savings of some $16.8 million per year in labor costs – and remember, this is using very conservative assumptions.

Of course, compared to normal Palestinian wages in the Gaza Strip, the wages paid by the settlers were pretty good – even if we take the lower value of 50 shekels per day. On the other hand, the settlers were legally obligated to pay the Israeli minimum wage; even though this law has never been adequately enforced across the Green Line, it does apply. Let’s call this one a draw: the farmers certainly got their labor at a much cheaper price than they would have paid inside the Green Line, but I find it hard to blame them for doing so if the salaries they paid were fair by local standards.


What’s the bottom line? The Gaza Strip settler-farmers were not mythical heroic pioneers, achieving miracles by the sweat of their brow and the power of their faith. They were smart businessmen making a good profit out of heavy subsidies. I don’t think there’s anything especially wrong with this – I’m a good capitalist, despite my overdraft – but I find it very hard to think of people like this as saintly pioneers.

I have no problem with the Gaza Strip settlers – really, I don’t. They took advantage of a profitable situation, as businessmen are supposed to do. What bugs me is that I’m not being allowed to think of them as ordinary, hard-working, opportunistic-but-basically-honest businessmen; I’m constantly being told that I must think of them as the best farmers, the best Zionists, the best Jews, and now the most victimized people on the planet. This attitude, I think – and it’s one that substantially predates the Disengagement – is the Achilles’ heel of the settler movement. Just as many Israelis dislike and distrust the “left-wing elite” because they (more or less correctly) perceive Yossi Beilin and his ilk as snobby elitists who think they know better than everyone else, a lot of us are learning to dislike those on the messianic Right who seem to feel they have a monopoly on virtue, patriotism, and now on suffering as well. If the settler movement wants to avoid (or minimize) Disengagement II, they had better stop feeling so superior – or at least learn to keep their feelings to themselves.

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Thursday, September 01, 2005

Time for a New Law: Compensation for "Jewish" Terror Attacks

In the aftermath of the Shfaram attack, it has emerged that Israel’s law for the compensation of terror victims and their survivors does not cover attacks carried out by Jewish terrorists. Because perpetrators such as Eden Natan Zada are not considered “hostile to the State of Israel’s existence”, the Families of Soldiers Who Fell in Battle Law (reparations and rehabilitation), drafted in 1950, doesn’t apply to their victims. Our government initially decided to provide the victims and bereaved in Shfaram with lump-sum payments “beyond the letter of the law”, which are supposed to be roughly equal in value to the monthly payments the compensation law would have mandated – presumably based on some form of net-present-value calculation. Now there is talk of amending the law itself.

The current law is obviously obsolete, deficient on (at least) three counts: Two of them are rather obvious breaches of “natural justice”, while the third involves the definition of terrorism, and – as the law stands – is very harmful to Israel’s political standing as a nation victimized by terrorists supposedly “resisting occupation”.

“Natural Justice”

The first problem with the Families of Soldiers Law is that its provisions provide an unacceptably uneven and arbitrary level of coverage. If the intent of the law is to compensate victims and their relatives for death and injury due to political violence – a category that includes both conventional warfare and terrorism – then it should cover all political violence, since all political violence here can be reasonably understood to be a consequence of Israel’s situation as a Jewish state attempting to survive in hostile surroundings. It makes no sense to differentiate between terror attacks carried out by forces hostile to Israel’s existence and terror attacks carried out in order to frustrate an Israeli government policy, as the Shfaram and Shilo attacks were; all these attacks are part of the same conflict, the victims are equally innocent, and the dead are equally dead. Further, since victims of “Jewish” terror attacks are more likely to be Arabs than are other Israeli terror victims, the law as currently drafted may give the impression that the life of an Israeli Arab is “cheaper” than the life of an Israeli Jew. Even the appearance of such racism in Israeli law harms our internal cohesion as well as our international standing.

Secondly, to the extent that terror attacks reflect a failure of the Israeli government to provide effective security to its citizens, this failure is just as great in the case of “Jewish” terror attacks as it is in “ordinary” attacks. If we view compensation payments as a sort of fine levied by the Israeli government (or, if you prefer, by Israeli society) on itself, then the penalty should be the same whoever carried out the terror attack. Even if these payments are not technically a penalty, this is inevitably how they are perceived by the public, both here and abroad; and if the law exempts the state from paying compensation to victims of a “Jewish” terror attack, then the message conveyed is that such attacks – and such failures to provide security – are in some way considered “acceptable”.

Subverting the Definition of Terrorism

The third deficiency in the existing law is the impression it gives that Israel defines terrorism in political terms – that attacks by organizations opposed to Israel’s existence are defined as “terrorism”, while politically-motivated attacks carried out by those who (at least nominally) support Israel are treated as some sort of “ordinary” crime. This sort of inconsistency is a seductive trap: in our pursuit of moral comfort (“Jewish terrorists? No such thing! We don’t do things like that!”) we give our adversaries every excuse to exonerate those who carry out terror attacks against us.

If terrorism is to be fought effectively, it must first be objectively defined. (SeeTerrorism: No Prohibition Without Definition, by Dr. Boaz Ganor.) The best definition I’m aware of is as follows:

Terrorism is politically-motivated violence carried out by sub-state groups or individuals, aimed at civilian targets.

Key to this definition is its absence of value judgments regarding the merits of the terrorist’s political cause: someone who attacks civilians for political purposes is a terrorist, even if I agree with his politics. Only by adopting such an objective definition of terrorism and applying it rigorously can we expect terror attacks to be universally condemned – since otherwise, there will always be someone to say, “Your ‘terrorist’ is my freedom fighter.” As a favorite target of terrorists and of apologists for terrorists, Israel should be at the forefront of the effort to promote, adopt, and apply this definition of terrorism. If, instead, our approach to Jewish terrorism is to minimize, find excuses, split hairs, offer psychological diagnoses of the perpetrator, blame the victims, and otherwise tap-dance around the issue, then we've seriously damaged our cause.

Israel’s political leaders were quite correct in their initial response to the Shfaram incident: they unequivocally condemned it as a vicious terror attack. Now they must follow up on the issue, and amend the Families of Soldiers Law to encompass all acts of terror against Israeli citizens.
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