Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The war - week 3

Dear all,

Thank you for your notes of support. I am sorry that I can't reply to everyone individually.

For the latest news about what is really taking place -- please go to the Jerusalem Post homepage:


Wed: What a democracy owes itself

There is something unpalatable about banning political parties. During the coldest days of the Cold War, American voters were never deprived of the chance to vote for Gus Hall and his Soviet-funded Communist Party USA. In Germany, voters can today opt for the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party. The British National Party, whose mission is to secure a future for "indigenous" white people, is there for UK voters.

In contrast, authoritarian countries show little compunction about banning. Saudi Arabia bars the Green Party; Sudan and Cuba outlaw all parties. And Syria allows opposition parties that accept the "vanguard role" of the ruling Ba'ath Party.

On Monday, the Knesset Central Elections Committee, comprising 25 politicians and one jurist, disqualified Balad and the United Arab List from running in the February 10 elections. The consensus was that both support terrorism, incitement and reject Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. Arab critics retorted that the decision proved Israel is "racist" and "fascist."

The High Court of Justice, which overruled an effort to disqualify Balad prior to the 2006 elections, will make the final call. The attorney-general's office is on record as determining that there is not enough evidence to disqualify either party.

But overturning the ban this time may be harder. The Knesset recently passed a new law based on clause 7A of the Basic Law: The Knesset, which outlaws candidates who deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state; engage in incitement, or support violence against Israel by an enemy state or terror organization. The amended legislation adds that anyone who illegally visited an enemy state in the past seven years can be banned.

The Supreme Court has yet to rule on challenges to the amended law.

DEMOCRACIES are not obligated to commit suicide. Spain, for instance, bans the political party affiliated with the terror group ETA. Similarly, US law makes it illegal for an organization that abets the use of violence against the government to seek office.

The case for banning Balad seems fairly plain. While it's off-putting to hear MK Jamal Zahalka say, "We are not Zionists and we will never be," the reason for keeping his party out of the Knesset is that it refuses to dissociate from its former leader Azmi Bishara - with whom Zahalka proudly consults - who fled to Syria after the Second Lebanon War, fearing arrest as a Hizbullah agent.

The case against Tibi's UAL party is not clear-cut. He is perhaps the most intellectually formidable of the Arab anti-Zionists, has a disarming personality, and calibrates his actions to stay just within the law. He won't declare unequivocally that he opposes terrorism, merely "militarization of the intifada."

At a 2007 Fatah rally in Ramallah, Tibi urged continued struggle against Israel "until all of the Palestinian land is freed." Yasser Arafat's former consigliere tells Palestinians that Israel wants to "eliminate" them "en route to the elimination of the ideas of Palestinian freedom and liberty."

Tibi says he does not oppose the state - just its policies. And he too declares that Arab citizens "will never accept Zionism..." He will not, he says, stop visiting enemy states.

Paradoxically, the disappearance of Balad and UAL from the Knesset might allow the emergence of Arab parties that actually cared about building the kinds of parliamentary alliances that can get things done for the Arab sector.

Israel's proportional representation system allowed the UAL and Balad to gain six seats in the current Knesset. The tragic dynamic is that the more radical the party, the more support it garners from the Arab public. It doesn't help matters that the major parties give Arab voters little incentive to shun the extremists.

In a world where 21 states define themselves as "Arab," and 56 proudly identify as Islamic, we do have a problem with Knesset members who begrudge Jewish self-determination within the rubric of a democratic Israel that respects minority rights.

The Likud's Bennie Begin cautions that Israeli society must be "very, very, careful" about outlawing factions or disenfranchising constituencies in wartime. To that we would add: But neither should our polity shy away from making tough decisions to protect the system from those who would destabilize it.

Tuesday: Egypt at the crossroads
(With Sarah Honig)

For a myriad reasons it suits those who mold international public opinion to minimize the intrinsic importance of Egypt's contiguity to the Gaza Strip. Not only does Egypt border Gaza, it even ruled it for most of the time between 1948 and 1967. This geographic reality could well become the source of Gaza's salvation just as, in recent years, it became the source of its misfortune. Egypt's role is pivotal.

Hamas propagandists like to portray Gaza as "one big prison" totally blockaded by Israel. Yet, as any map shows, Gaza isn't fully encircled by Israel. Its southern end, the Philadelphi Corridor, borders Egyptian Sinai.

This outlet could, assuming prudence and good will, become Gaza's lifeline. Or it could continue to serve as a gateway for the importation of death - which is what it became during years of assiduous weapons smuggling by Hamas.

There can be no lasting stability between Israel and Gaza unless the Philadelphi Corridor is plugged up to prevent gun-running and transformed, instead, into a conduit for improving Gazans' living standards. This necessitates a vigilant presence.

The buildup of Gaza's rocket arsenal since 2005 illustrates what happens when so vital a passage is abandoned to the supervision of a disinclined Cairo and international observers with no clout. It is this state of affairs that allowed Hamas commanders to travel freely in and out of Gaza for training in Iran.

While IDF deployment along the Corridor offers the best way to stop Hamas smuggling in weapons, terrorists and illicit cash, it is not our first preference. Such a deployment would be diplomatically and militarily problematic. The international community does not want to see Israel carve out a buffer zone there, and holding that thin sliver of territory would leave our soldiers highly vulnerable.

The best way - militarily, diplomatically and politically - to secure this crucial bit of real estate is from the Egyptian, not the Gazan side.

WERE Egyptian goodwill unadulterated and its commitment to getting the job done unstinting, sealing Philadelphi would still be a tall order.

Alas, Egypt has not over-extended itself. Its failure to keep Gaza from becoming a combustible repository of Hamas weaponry isn't merely the result, as Cairo claims, of not having enough personnel on the border because the Israel-Egypt peace treaty caps their allowable number.

In reality, Hamas's ability to connect Gaza and Sinai via hundreds of tunnels has better explanations: the failure to check rampant lawlessness among Sinai Beduin tribes; sclerotic Egyptian decision-making, which deprives officials on the spot of authority; and the failure to adequately recompense those charged with securing the border, leaving them susceptible to bakshish.

But the best explanation is that Hosni Mubarak's regime failed to make the cessation of smuggling its own priority. While on the one hand, it didn't want Hamas to grow ever stronger, it didn't, on the other hand, want to be seen as collaborating with Jerusalem against Hamas. Trying to have it both ways has now come back to bite the regime. It inadvertently helped create the explosive situation that forced Israel into Operation Cast Lead.

Egypt is in a bind. Its own national interest isn't far from Israel's, yet it dare not inflame its domestic Islamist opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, which is closely tied to Hamas. It is understandably loath to allow a free flow of Gazans - who might have Brotherhood or Iranian ties and stir up more unrest inside Egypt.

Keeping the current situation on a low flame may strike Egypt as the least distasteful of a poor menu of choices. Yet it is a recipe for further bloodshed. If the Philadelphi Corridor isn't permanently secured, another - worse - round of warfare is inevitable. It would leave Hamas approaching Hizbullah in strength and posing an even greater risk of destabilization within Egypt.

Egypt stands at a fateful crossroads. It must, finally, overcome its inhibitions vis-a-vis its own Islamists and take real action to stop arms trafficking. Alternatively, it must allow an empowered multi-national military presence on its soil to do the job.

Either way, Egypt ought to desire the most effective supervisory mechanism, one it can oversee and coordinate, thereby cementing its status as regional leader.

Monday:Israel goes it alone

The world must be wondering, 17 days into Operation Cast Lead, why it is taking so long for Jerusalem to cave into pressure for a cease-fire in Gaza. From the UN Security Council, that renowned bastion of international probity, and the constellation of Muslim, Arab and non-aligned states to our unwavering European allies, the international community - and much of the media - wants Israel to stop fighting.

We Israelis can hear these erstwhile friends in Europe and the media saying: "Everybody is wrong, and you alone are right?"

They continue: "Yes, Israel has a right to self-defense - but must your IDF kill innocent civilians and destroy buildings in the process? Can't your tanks avoid harming them? Your failure to fight a war that is televised live, 24/7, without spilling blood has enraged the Arab street. We don't want this fury turned against our interests in the Middle East."

That's why London's Telegraph could withdraw its "support."

"There comes a point beyond which an operation of this sort becomes… morally unjustifiable," it said. "The humanitarian crisis in Gaza is so severe that a cease-fire is essential, irrespective of whether Israel feels it has achieved its military objectives."

By this logic, Britain should have thrown in the towel in its war against Germany by September 18, 1939 - 17 days into WWII. Instead, Winston Churchill fought on for five long years at an awful - but morally justifiable - cost in Allied and enemy civilian lives.

The New York Times, likewise, sympathizes with Israel's predicament but worries that trying to wrest Gaza from Hamas's grip will complicate the efforts of the incoming Obama administration to broker peace.

Yet the reality is precisely the opposite: Unless Hamas is defanged, the prospect that relative moderates among the Palestinians, led by Mahmoud Abbas, will be emboldened to strike a deal with Israel is - nil.

The reaction of Israel's European allies in particular has been instructive. Having abandoned Israel as it defends itself against a transparently fanatical Hamas - and after Israel unilaterally uprooted its settlements and pulled its soldiers out of Gaza in 2005 - Israel will be mindful of how much their support is worth when the time comes to "take risks for peace" in the West Bank.

SPEAKING AT the Sunday cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made Israelis feel proud when he summed up the justice of the struggle and denounced the world's callous reaction: "For three weeks now… Israel has been making an impressive military effort in the Gaza Strip in order to change the security situation in the south of the country. For many years we've shown restraint. We reined in our reactions. We gritted our teeth and absorbed barrage after barrage.

"No country in the world - not even those who preach morality at us - would have shown similar patience and self-control. At the end of the day, the... obligation to defend our citizens - after we issued many warnings - led us to the unavoidable decision [that we had] to defend our [people], whose lives had become intolerable.

"We knew in advance that this struggle would be neither easy nor simple. We did not delude ourselves that what seemed natural, clear and self-evident for any other country would be similarly accepted when the State of Israel is involved. But this did not, and does not hinder our determination to defend our citizens.

"We have never agreed that anyone should decide in our place if we are allowed to strike at those who bomb our kindergartens and schools; nor will ever agree to it...

"Israel is nearing its goal [of changing] the security situation in the south so that our citizens can experience security and stability in the long term. We must not, at the last minute, squander what has been achieved in this unprecedented national effort that has restored a spirit of unity to our nation.

"The Israeli public, especially the residents of the south, have the patience and willingness needed. So does the Israeli government."

Amen to that.

Israel would have preferred to act with the support of those who claim to back our right to self-defense. In a cynical world, Israel must press ahead without it.

The above editorial generated the following NYT piece

Israelis United on War as Censure Rises Abroad

Published: Tuesday, January 13, 2009

JERUSALEM — To Israel’s critics abroad, the picture could not be clearer: Israel’s war in Gaza is a wildly disproportionate response to the rockets of Hamas, causing untold human suffering and bombing an already isolated and impoverished population into the Stone Age, and it must be stopped.

Yet here in Israel very few, at least among the Jewish population, see it that way.

Since Israeli warplanes opened the assault on Gaza 17 days ago, about 900 Palestinians have been reported killed, many of them civilians. Red Cross workers were denied access to scores of dead and wounded Gazans, and a civilian crowd near a United Nations school was hit, with at least 40 people killed.

But voices of dissent in this country have been rare. And while tens of thousands have poured into the streets of world capitals demonstrating against the Israeli military operation, antiwar rallies here have struggled to draw 1,000 participants. The Peace Now organization has received many messages from supporters telling it to stay out of the streets on this one.

As the editorial page of The Jerusalem Post put it on Monday, the world must be wondering, do Israelis really believe that everybody is wrong and they alone are right?

The answer is yes.

“It is very frustrating for us not to be understood,” remarked Yoel Esteron, editor of a daily business newspaper called Calcalist. “Almost 100 percent of Israelis feel that the world is hypocritical. Where was the world when our cities were rocketed for eight years and our soldier was kidnapped? Why should we care about the world’s view now?”

Israel, which is sometimes a fractured, bickering society, has turned in the past couple of weeks into a paradigm of unity and mutual support. Flags are flying high. Celebrities are visiting schoolchildren in at-risk areas, soldiers are praising the equipment and camaraderie of their army units, and neighbors are worried about families whose fathers are on reserve duty. Ask people anywhere how they feel about the army’s barring journalists from entering Gaza and the response is: let the army do its job.

Israelis deeply believe, rightly or wrongly, that their military works harder than most to spare civilians, holding their fire in many more cases than using it.

Because Hamas booby-traps schools, apartment buildings and the zoo, and its fighters hide among civilians, it is Hamas that is viewed here as responsible for the civilian toll. Hamas is committed to Israel’s destruction and gets help and inspiration from Iran, so that what looks to the world like a disproportionate war of choice is seen by many here as an obligatory war for existence.

“This is a just war and we don’t feel guilty when civilians we don’t intend to hurt get hurt, because we feel Hamas uses these civilians as human shields,” said Elliot Jager, editorial page editor of The Jerusalem Post, who happened to answer his phone for an interview while in Ashkelon, an Israeli city about 10 miles from Gaza, standing in front of a house that had been hit two hours earlier by a Hamas rocket.

“We do feel bad about it, but we don’t feel guilty,” Mr. Jager added. “The most ethical moral imperative is for Israel to prevail in this conflict over an immoral Islamist philosophy. It is a zero sum conflict. That is what is not understood outside this country.”

It is true that there are voices of concern here that the war may be outliving its value. Worries over the risk to Israeli troops and over even steeper civilian casualties as the ground war escalates have produced calls to declare victory and pull out.

For many of the 1.4 million Israelis who are Arabs, the war has produced a very different feeling, a mix of anger and despair. The largest demonstration against the war so far, with some 6,000 participants, was organized by an Arab political party. But that is still distinctly a minority view. Polls have shown nearly 90 percent support for the war thus far, and street interviews confirm that Israelis not only favor it but do so quite strongly. The country’s leaders, while seeking an arrangement to stop Hamas’s ability to rearm, do not want a face-saving agreement. They want one that works, or else they want to continue the war until Hamas has lost either its rockets or its will to fire them.

Boaz Gaon, a playwright and peace activist, said he found it deeply depressing how the Israeli public had embraced the military’s arguments in explaining the deaths of civilians. But he was livid at Hamas, both for what it had done to its own people and civilians in the south, and for its impact on the Israeli left.

“Hamas has pushed Israeli thinking back 30 years,” he said. “It has killed the peace camp.”

Moshe Halbertal, a left-leaning professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University, helped write the army’s ethics code. He said he knew from personal experience how much laborious discussion went into deciding when it was acceptable to shoot at a legitimate target if civilians were nearby, adding that there had been several events in this war in which he suspected that the wrong decision had been made.

For example, Israel killed a top Hamas ideologue, Nizar Rayyan, during the first week of the war and at the same time killed his four wives and at least nine of his children. Looking back at it, Mr. Halbertal disapproves, assuming that the decision was made consciously, even if Mr. Rayyan purposely hid among his family to protect himself, as it appears he did. Yet almost no one here publicly questioned the decision to drop a bomb on his house and kill civilians; all the sentiment in Israel was how satisfying and just it was to kill a man whose ideology and activity had been so virulent and destructive.

But Mr. Halbertal takes quite seriously the threat that Hamas poses to Israel’s existence, and that issue affects him in his judgments of the war.

“Rockets from Hamas could eventually reach all of Israel,” he said. “This is not a fantasy. It is a real problem. So there is a gap between actual images on the screen and the geopolitical situation.

“You have Al Jazeera standing at Shifa Hospital and the wounded are coming in,” he continued, referring to an Arab news outlet. “So you have this great Goliath crushing these poor people, and they are perceived as victims. But from the Israeli perspective, Hamas and Hezbollah are really the spearhead of a whole larger threat that is invisible. Israelis feel like the tiny David faced with an immense Muslim Goliath. The question is: who is the David here?”

The war, of course, is portrayed differently here and abroad. What Israelis see on the front pages of their newspapers and on their evening broadcasts is not what the rest of the world is reading and seeing. Israeli news focuses on Israeli suffering — the continuing rocket attacks on Israel, the wounded Israeli soldiers with pictures from Gaza coming later. On a day last week when the foreign news media focused on Red Cross allegations of possible war crimes, Israeli news outlets played down the story.

But the Israeli news media are not so much determining the national agenda as reflecting it. Even the left and what was long called the peace camp consider this conflict almost entirely the responsibility of Hamas, and thus a moral and just struggle.

“By this stage in the first and second Lebanon wars, there were much larger street demonstrations, vigils and op-ed pieces,” said Janet Aviad, a former sociologist and peace activist. “But in this case, the entire Israeli public is angry at the immoral behavior of Hamas.”

The writer A.B. Yehoshua, who opposes Israel’s occupation and promotes a Palestinian state, has been trying to explain the war to foreigners.

“ ‘Imagine,’ I tell a French reporter, ‘that every two days a missile falls in the Champs-Élysées and only the glass windows of the shops break and five people suffer from shock,’ ” Mr. Yehoshua told a reporter from Yediot Aharonot, a Tel Aviv newspaper. “ ‘What would you say? Wouldn’t you be angry? Wouldn’t you send missiles at Belgium if it were responsible for missiles on your grand boulevard?’ ”

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