Friday, November 21, 2008

Arab peace initiative, Israel's underworld, NRP's demise, Tower of Babel

Writings for week of November 16 - November 21

Power & Politics: On Obama - What, me worry?
With roughly two months to go before Barack Obama becomes the 44th president of the United States, there are worrying signals that US-Israel relations may be in for a bumpy ride. Some on the Jewish Right are already saying, "I told you so."

Take the report in London's Sunday Times which implied that Obama would vigorously back the Saudi-sponsored Arab League peace plan that calls for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 armistice lines - this according to anonymous sources "close to America's president-elect."

Reporters Uzi Mahnaimi in Tel Aviv and Sarah Baxter in Washington asserted that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, along with President Shimon Peres, back the Saudi initiative. I must have been off the day our foreign minister and president announced their "backing." My impression is that Peres thinks elements of the plan are positive - which they are.

Next, Mahnaimi and Baxter tell us the plan would give Israel "effective veto" power to prevent millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants from overwhelming Israel proper. This assertion is backed up by... nothing.

Finally, the paper quotes Obama as saying, privately, that it would be "crazy" for Israel to refuse the Saudi deal. The source? An anonymous "senior Obama adviser."

THEN THERE are the fears involving the relative influence of people who have offered Obama advice. Take the case of Joe Cirincione, president of Ploughshares. He's a nuclear disarmament advocate who thinks that "Israel has less need of nuclear weapons now than at any time in its history..."

Cirincione, as I understand it, would put both Israel's presumed nuclear arsenal and Iran's arsenal-in-the making on the negotiating table. He'd aim at disarming both states to create a nuclear-free Middle East. Cirincione really does know a lot about nuclear weapons, but clearly doesn't have a clue on how to read the mullahs.

Add to the mix a post-election report from the Institute for Science and International Security, an outfit partly funded by Cirincione's Ploughshares, and headed by David Albright. They've just issued a report calling on the incoming Obama administration to press Israel to join a still-in-the-planning-stage Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty. Theoretically, if the pact was ratified and Israel was forced to accept it, the Jewish state could be prevented from producing plutonium for nuclear weapons. Albright also wants Obama to pressure Israel, Egypt and Iran to join the Nuclear Test Ban treaty.

And of course the ubiquitous Hamas "moderate" Ahmed Youseff is always available to muddy the waters. Lately, he's told anyone who will listen that he's in secret e-mail contact with people who say they are close to Obama. Ergo, Obama is "negotiating" with Hamas.

BETWEEN now and January 20 you can expect a slew of such agenda-driven "news" stories put out by journalists and think-tankers and regurgitated by pundits and bloggers. Everyone wants to influence events, catch the ear of the new president and promote themselves as someone Obama listens to. And those who opposed Obama want to say, "I told you so."

We'll know soon enough who Obama really takes advice from when it comes to foreign policy and national security. So far, what we know is that he's turned almost exclusively to former members of the Clinton administration for his transition team. His most significant appointment so far is that of Rahm Emanuel. The adviser who almost never leaves his side is David Axelrod. So don't insult my intelligence by asking me to believe that Obama is some kind of enemy of the Jews.

There were folks who said Obama is a clandestine Muslim or closeted commie. So we'll soon be seeing either prayer rugs thrown down in the Oval Office or a photo of Marx up on the wall next to George Washington's - or those who made such claims will be seen as foolhardy.

I am hoping the men and women he appoints to work on Middle East issues will not include those who would "save Israel from itself" - the kind who still have their heads in the clouds. But surely Obama is too pragmatic a politician to surround himself with people who have a long track record of proffering bad advice.

YET IF he appoints people who think Israel is partly to blame for the failure of the "peace process," that's still not the end of the world.

The reason I am keeping my powder dry is that even a cursory look back at American policy toward Israel shows that it has been consistent across administrations. Since 1967, on territory-for-peace, settlements and aid, US policy has remained unswerving.

Every single US president from Lyndon B. Johnson to George W. Bush has wanted Israel to exchange territory for peace. If Obama demands we give up all the territory captured in the 1967 Six Day War, that indeed would be a dangerous and radical departure from standing US policy. That would be embracing Mahmoud Abbas's uncompromising position. That would be very bad.

But every administration has opposed Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria, though many have shown signs of understanding that the biggest obstacle to peace is that even "moderates" among the Palestinians are unrealistic and intransigent in their demands. And anyway, they would be powerless to implement a deal that centrist Israel could live with. The fanatics, meanwhile, oppose any agreement and it is they who control half the Palestinian polity.

Of course I worry that Obama may be bad for Israel. But will he be worse than Richard Nixon, who allowed Israel to slowly bleed during the 1973 War so that Henry Kissinger could start from a more advantageous bargaining position? Worse than Gerald Ford, whose "evenhanded" policy toward Israel led him to entirely "reassess" US-Israel relations?

Will Obama be worse than Jimmy Carter, who viscerally despised Menachem Begin and was instrumental in undermining early prospects for Palestinian autonomy in Judea and Samaria?

What of Ronald Reagan? Think Bitberg, the AWACS to Saudi Arabia and the US decision to open up a diplomatic dialogue with Yasser Arafat's PLO in 1988 - on the preposterous premise that the PLO chief had genuinely accepted Israel's right to exist.

Will Obama be worse than George Bush Sr., whose secretary of state, James (f-ck the Jews) Baker, gave out the White House switchboard number during 1990 Congressional testimony, telling Israel: "When you're serious about peace, call us."

Worse than old Bill Clinton, who helped engineer Oslo, which begot the second intifada and 1,000 Israeli dead?

Will Obama be worse than George W. Bush who was the first president to explicitly make the creation of a Palestinian state US policy? As if Palestinian society is now ready for the responsibilities of statehood. Who exhausted the US in Iraq on a wild-goose chase while the Taliban and the real al-Qaida re-grouped in Afghanistan? Bogged down in Iraq, America has no stomach to confront Iran.

SO PLEASE excuse me if I don't get all bent out of shape - at least not before he even takes office - at the prospect that Barack Obama will give Israel a hard time.

One other thing: no US president can reasonably be expected to be more "pro-Israel" than Israel itself. If our next government can't build an internal consensus on where our borders should be, on what Israel's red lines are, on which settlements we keep and which we would give up for real peace - that's our problem.

Don't get me wrong. I am not saying Obama won't give us some tough innings. What I am saying is that we'd play a better game if we knew what we wanted and pulled together.

And Obama might then hear what we're saying - instead of a cacophony of conflicting voices.


Yes to 'salam'

The Muslim and Arab world - presumably excluding Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah - have just made an unprecedented overture to the people of Israel. By coincidence, it comes just as al-Qaida reached out to the American people with their reaction to the election of Barack Obama.

In al-Qaida's insipid stab at winning friends and influencing people, Ayman al-Zawahiri surfaces in a Web video to denounce the president-elect as a hypocrite and an abeed al-beit - or "house Negro."

Osama bin-Laden's deputy, who is seen only in a still photo and whose message is read by a narrator, says that despite the election of an African American "born to a Muslim father," the US doesn't genuinely have a "new face."

The video unfavorably contrasts Obama with black Muslim icon Malcolm X. As archival footage presents Malcolm championing black chauvinism and warning that, "The house negro is always looking out for his master," Obama is pictured wearing a white kippa at the Western Wall with Zawahiri accusing him of praying "the prayer of the Jews."

He speaks directly to Obama, betraying al-Qaida's trepidation at the prospect that the incoming president will reach out to Iran, pull out of Iraq, and focus US military efforts in Afghanistan. He implicitly addresses America's black Muslims, cautioning them against moderation. He tries to scare Americans into opposing Obama's plan to commit more US troops in Afghanistan. He also wants them to pressure their government to halt attacks on the tribal regions along the border with Pakistan.

Altogether, pathetic and unconvincing.

IN CONTRAST, the Arab world's effort to appeal directly to the Israeli people is welcome and arguably constructive.

The PA purchased space in this and other Israeli newspapers (see page 11) seeking support for the 2002 Saudi-inspired Arab League peace initiative. The ad also ran, in Arabic, in several Palestinian papers.

Let's admit that we find ourselves tantalized by an offer from 57 Muslim and Arab countries to establish full diplomatic and "normal" relations in return for an Israel pullback to the 1949 Armistice Lines. It certainly beats the last offer we got - from Khartoum in August 1967 - "No peace, no negotiation and no recognition."

Whoever drafted this dull advertisement isn't going to win any copywriting awards. But even Madison Avenue couldn't sell what is, at the end of the day, a bad "product."

The initiative is being offered on a "take it or leave it" basis when it should be presented as a starting point for negotiations. Most Israelis want a land-for-peace formula based on the "1967-plus" formula enshrined in President George W. Bush's 2004 letter to prime minister Ariel Sharon.

The ad touts as its cornerstone General Assembly Resolution 194 of 1948, which was drafted when there were, maybe, 700,000 Palestinian Arab refugees. Today the UN figures there are 4.6 million.

The archaic GA Res. 194 wanted "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace [to] be permitted to do so." But if implemented all these years later, 194 would be Israel's demographic death-knell.

Plainly, the only viable solution is for the Arab refugees to be resettled in the Arab world and in a Palestinian state that is created alongside Israel - not in Israel itself.

The resolution is so antiquated that it calls for the protection of holy places in Nazareth. And far from calling for east Jerusalem to be the the capital of a Palestinian state, it says Jerusalem and Bethlehem "should be accorded special and separate treatment from the rest of Palestine and should be placed under effective United Nations control."

Equally troubling, neither the ad nor the Saudi plan itself acknowledge the inalienable right of the Jewish people to a national homeland within agreed borders.

So Israelis - across the political spectrum - will find the Arab Peace Initiative deficient.

Still, most of us, though disappointed that an offer which falls so short of Israel's minimal needs comes so late, will find themselves agreeing with President Shimon Peres: This is an overture worth exploring.

After so much bloodshed and suffering on both sides, we implore the Arab and Muslim world: Let us not make propaganda. Let us not wait another 60 years. Let us make peace.


Men of no honor

It's easy to get caught up in the romance and mystique associated with organized crime. Misfits and sociopaths are somehow transformed into glamorous characters when their names are tied to the underworld.

For the past three days, the country has been mesmerized by Ya'acov Alperon, the crime boss who was blown-up in his rental car on a busy Tel Aviv boulevard. This happened 30 minutes after he left a courthouse where proceedings over his son Dror's indictment for blackmail had just concluded.

Israel's main television channels have devoted most of their nightly news broadcasts to the murder. Anchors, reporters and studio guests have combed over every detail of the killing. There were archival scenes of Alperon joking with reporters; with one of his brothers at a Likud central committee meeting; scenes from the attempted killings of another brother, and one of Ya'acov professing that he was retired from the mob. Then it was back to shots of the crime scene - a wrecked car, a bloodied Alperon slumped head-first from the passenger side into the gutter.

The morning tabloids have devoted much of their news pages to the murder. Would there be an underworld war? Why did police fail to protect Alperon? And more to the point, would ordinary citizens be jeopardized in gangland violence? At least two passers-by were wounded in the Alperon hit.

The press was there in force on Tuesday at the Kfar Nachman cemetery in Ra'anana as hundreds of family members - biological as well as criminal - came to pay their final respects. His widow cried that she had been left to raise seven orphans, one of whom declared that the killer "won't have a grave, because I'll cut off his arms, his head, his legs."

PURELY BY coincidence, that night, a local cable station screened (for the umpteenth time) the 1972 Godfather movie with its own dramatic funeral scene in which Sal Tessio betrays Michael Corleone to the Barzini family.

Unlike the pedestrian Israeli hoodlums, the fictitious mafia dons created by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola were mostly men of honor. When their soldiers killed each other, they made sure not to harm innocent "civilians."

Israeli mobsters don't walk in the footsteps of Don Corleone, Pete Clemenza or Tom Hagen. They have no honor, no decency.

In June, Yoram Hacham, the lawyer for crime figure Asi Abutbul, was blown up in his car in Tel Aviv. In August, Marguerita Lautin was murdered while she sat with her husband and children on a Bat Yam beach.

And hours after Alperon's burial, a bomb was discovered outside the police station - and next to a kindergarten - in Ramle, where investigators were trying to solve the killing.

On the bright side, many of the established families are disintegrating either because their chieftains have been wiped out in intramural killings or because of pressure from law-enforcement. Younger family members are known more for their brawn than their brains. Which explains why Israeli prisons are already holding some 500 inmates with ties to organized crime.

For the time being, the Alperons fight the Kedoshims for control of the Herzliya marina; the Ohanas over gambling in Kfar Saba; the Abergils over the recycling industry, and the Abutbuls over the seamier side of Netanya.

THE TRUTH is, organized crime has been a blight for decades. Back in 1977 a crusading young MK named Ehud Olmert made the headlines by probing the underworld. Even then the cars of criminal kingpins were being blown up, there were fears that the police had been infiltrated by the mafia, and a committee charged with looking into the "crisis" blamed disrespect for the law and a developing subculture of criminality.

Israelis have gone from debating whether there is organized crime to practically glorifying it.

Of course we in the media need to report on the killing of a mafia boss in broad daylight on a busy street. But can't we do it in a way that doesn't make heroes of thugs?

Society's message must be that those who join the underworld are to be shunned, shamed and marginalized - not vicariously celebrated.


The spirit is gone

Religious Zionists have officially admitted that they are too polarized - over politics, theology and personality - to share one home. That, more than anything else, explains the demise of the National Religious Party yesterday, age 52. Sad, really, when you consider the movement's illustrious history.

In the 1800s, religious Zionists disputed the ultra-Orthodox stance that it was blasphemous, until God sent the messiah, to promote a return to Eretz Israel and the reestablishment of a Jewish state.

With the Zionist movement dominated largely by agnostics, religious Zionists also worked against the tide to inject tradition into the cause. Rabbi Samuel Mohilever convinced Hibbat Zion, in 1893, to establish a bureau aimed at Orthodox Jews to be known by its Hebrew acronym "Mizrahi," or merkaz ruhani - the spiritual center.

In 1902, Rabbi Jacob Reines, one of Mohilever's disciples, took the name Mizrahi when he helped reconstitute the religious Zionist movement. Their mantra was coined by Rabbi Meir Berlin - later Bar-Ilan: "The Land of Israel for the people of Israel according to the Torah of Israel. (It was at Bar-Ilan University that the NRP met to dissolve.)

Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, the chief rabbi of Palestine, gave religious Zionism his spiritual imprimatur, making the case that settling the land was a precursor to the Redemption.

RELIGIOUS Zionists went on to have a profound influence on the overall enterprise. The Sabbath, not Sunday, became Israel's day of rest; no state functions would be held on Shabbat or religious holidays, nor would there be public transportation. The dietary restrictions of kashrut would be adhered to in the IDF.

Most significantly, marriage, divorce, even burial, would fall under the purview of Orthodox rabbinic authorities. For decades, an NRP-dominated Rabbinate steered Israel's "established church." Today, that role is held by non-Zionist haredim.

Mizrahi created a worldwide network of educational and charitable organizations. It sponsored the Bnei Akiva youth movement (for boys and girls). It fostered moshavim and kibbutzim that settled the Beit She'an Valley, Gush Etzion and the northern Negev. National-religious schools became a vital stream in public education. These accomplishments allowed the national-religious to have influence disproportionate to their numbers.

In the 1949 Knesset elections all the Orthodox parties (Zionist and non-Zionist) ran as a united slate, garnering 12 percent of the vote. Such unity would be unimaginable today as Orthodoxy has splintered along theocratic, ethnic, personal and political lines. In 1956, Mizrahi's heyday, the NRP was born. Mizrahi/NRP was part of every government coalition from 1948 until 1992. Between 1956 and 1981 it generally captured about a dozen Knesset seats.

THE 1967 Six Day War was a turning point for the NRP. Though it had a theocratic agenda, it was otherwise a centrist party. And its leader, Yosef Burg, was a perennial fixture in a succession of Labor governments.

In the wake of Israel's stunning victory, NRP's young guard created Gush Emunim to settle liberated Judea, Samaria and Gaza. Over time, the party's paramount mission became supporting the settlement enterprise.

In 1977, the NRP brought down Yitzhak Rabin's (first) government on the pretext that the IDF had accepted delivery of several F-15s on the Sabbath. After new elections, the NRP became a pillar in the Likud governments of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir.

But the party suffered a major blow in 1981, when Sephardi members broke away to form the haredi-oriented Shas Party. From then on the NRP picked up mostly four to five Knesset seats. In 2006 it merged with the National Union (soon also to be defunct) and together the largely Orthodox grouping won nine seats.

In the 2009 elections, parties to the right of Likud hope to create a new alignment intended to attract, among others, voters who formerly supported the NRP.

We would like to remember the NRP in its idealized form - as a bastion of modern Orthodoxy, a bridge between religious and secular, for its inclusion of women in leadership positions, for the bipartisan civic-minded legislation its MKs ushered into law, and for representing Israelis concerned with Jewish education.

It is dismaying that the dwindling constituency that was once animated by these issues is now left politically homeless.


Tower of Babel

Pity the Hamas leadership as it tries to fathom how Israel will respond to the organization's repeated violations of the cease-fire.

Who should they listen to? Shaul Mofaz says the IDF needs to assassinate them; Rafi Eitan refers to them as monsters who should be destroyed. Eli Yishai says that anyone who has faith in a truce with them is behaving like an ostrich. Vice Premier Haim Ramon allows that government "policy" toward Hamas is causing profound damage.

The enemy must be befuddled.

Should they listen to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who said Sunday that he's "waiting" for the IDF to brief him on his options. Or to the IDF which asked Monday, "What options does the prime minister mean? He's had a menu of choices on his desk for weeks."

Perhaps they should listen to Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni when she tells visiting British Foreign Minister David Miliband that "When Israel's citizens are attacked - Israel must respond." But what sort of response? Hamas must be wondering.

Perhaps they should only pay attention to Defense Minister Ehud Barak. He's let it be known that the longer large-scale military action can be put off, the better. "Hotheadedness is not a replacement for policy," said Israel's chief strategist.

Further confounding matters, early yesterday Barak announced that the crossing points from Israel into Gaza, which routinely funnel food and fuel, would remain closed because Hamas was still shooting. In the afternoon, despite continued fire, Israel allowed in 30 trucks laden with enough supplies to keep the UN's food distribution network in business for a week.

"Those wily Jews," Hamas leaders must be saying to themselves, "never showing their true intentions - saying one thing, doing another."

TROUBLE is the bluster and contradictory pronouncements emanating from Israel's top echelon haven't been made to confuse the enemy - they are sadly indicative of our disarray.

When Israel agreed to the cease-fire, our leaders implicitly accepted - though they may have been in denial - that Hamas would continue to sneak-in weapons and material via the Philadelphi Corridor. The will of the Palestinians to smuggle is stronger than the will (and ability) of the Egyptians to stop them. What little leverage Israel had in its efforts to free Gilad Schalit was lost.

Now, nothing is more disheartening to Israel's citizenry than to witness such disunity when the country is under attack.

And it is the country that's been attacked. Sderot Mayor David Buskila reminds Israelis that Ashkelon, Sderot and the Negev are part of sovereign Israel.

The violent and destabilizing consequences of Hamas's control of Gaza continue to bedevil. This newspaper has argued that Israel cannot tolerate an Islamist state dedicated to its destruction anywhere between the Mediterranean and Jordan.

Naturally, before a large scale military operation can be embarked upon, the Cabinet must decide on its goals. For now, the IDF is pursuing a holding action; interdicting "ticking bomb" tunnels; preventing the enemy from laying explosives along the border, and taking out rocket-launching teams caught in the act.

ISRAELI DECISION makers have few palatable options in trying to stop Hamas aggression.

And yet it is they who need to choose.

Israel could try using artillery against the sources of enemy fire. But government lawyers warn this might be illegal under international law since Hamas often shoots from densely populated areas. Curiously, Hamas's legal department has not cautioned its military wing against using residential neighborhoods in Gaza to attack Israeli civilians.

Israel could systematically eliminate the enemy's political and military command. Though a new leadership cadre would eventually take their places, we might at least buy ourselves a respite.

Re-conquering Gaza and reconstituting the civil administration is not something most Israelis favor. Another idea being bandied about is for the IDF to retake Gaza, oust Hamas and turn the Strip over to a pan-Arab peace-keeping force which would reinstall the Palestinian Authority. For now, this scenario is as unrealistic as it is unappealing.

It may well be unreasonable to expect this caretaker government to solve the Gaza conundrum. It is not unreasonable to ask ministers who will not cooperate in the security cabinet to stop babbling away in public.

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