Sanity and Reason: A few words about Our Dear Friend and Mentor, Rabbi Michael Cook

It is with great sadness that I pass on the news of the death of Rabbi Michael Cook, a dear friend, teacher, mentor, and one of the founders of We Are For Israel.

Michael used to joke with me that when I was at Hebrew Union College that he didn’t “know how wise I was.” Not really what you want to hear from someone who graded your papers! I never was sure quite how to take that, but I think that he meant that once we started communicating frequently, generally about Israel, HUC-JIR, GUCI, and the Reform movement, that we became pretty close and he came to appreciate my thoughts.

Michael’s class was my favorite when I was at HUC. I loved how he used reason to analyze the texts. Michael’s ability to reason through a situation, to see the impact of systems and the implications of minute details in a text or in a real life situation, always piqued my interest. Over the years. I have taught Michael’s understanding of Christian Scriptures no few times, and helped to bring him in to teach to multiple groups to which I belonged.

Because I turned more to pulpit work, learning to be a better pulpit rabbi and concentrating less on my prior academic interests, I didn’t really interact with Michael for much of my time at HUC or for the first few years of my rabbinate. But then we began communicating again in 2008, when his book came out, and in in 2009 and 2010 as we defended the Cincinnati campus and as we formed We Are For Israel arguing for a “Centrist and Realistic” resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we communicated nearly every day, often multiple times a day.

Michael was one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met and also one of the limited number of truly courageous ones, speaking out about what he believed to be correct, even when it was unpopular with his friends and colleagues and when he knew there would be personal cost. He was an inspiration to me and a strong advocate for Israel.

I always enjoyed seeing him at Goldman Union Camp Institute in the summer and several times came early to camp to spend just an hour or two with him before he and Judy, another amazing Rabbi and good friend with whom I have had the pleasure of working at GUCI over the years, headed home.

Michael was a man of short physical stature, but an immense presence. He had a radio announcer’s voice and whenever I think of his teaching, I hear his words in that surprisingly deep voice, rising at the end expressing incredulity, drawing in your attention.

Rabbi Michael Cook leaves a tremendous legacy of teaching, of sanity and reason, of profound attention paid to the issues about which he was concerned, of friendship and mentorship, and of courage in the face of peer pressure.

He was an inspiration.

Michael Cook will be dearly missed.

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A Changing Middle East

The Middle East that Joe Biden will confront when he becomes the 46th president of the United States of America is not the same place that it was when he assumed the post of vice president in Barack Obama’s administration back in January 2009.

The so-called Arab Spring that Obama hoped would bring democracy to the Middle East turned out to be a disappointment. Elections in Egypt led to the Muslim Brotherhood taking power under the leadership of Mohamed Morsi in 2012, but just a year later he was ousted by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in a coup d’état.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action implemented in 2016, which was intended to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, has to all intents and purposes failed, and Iran has since rolled back its compliance with the deal’s operational limits.

Any prospect of a two-state solution bringing the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel to an end is further away than ever. Gaza and the West Bank are in effect two separate and independent political entities. The Palestinians have never been prepared to forego the right of return for the descendants of refugees of the 1948 war, and no Palestinian leader had the courage to agree to the offers made by former Israeli prime ministers Rabin, Barak and Olmert.

The political reality in Israel has also changed. The Labor party, which back in the days of Yitzhak Rabin held 44 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, would be unlikely to pass the threshold were elections to be held today.

Every opinion poll has demonstrated that Israel’s next government, just like the previous one, will be center-right in its political orientation making the prospect of a two-state solution, even were that to be on the cards, increasingly unlikely.

On a more optimistic note, a delegation from the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain took part in a Chanukah candle-lighting ceremony at the Western Wall this week. That would have been unthinkable even six months ago, but things are changing. And they are changing fast.

During Trump’s presidency, with all of its problems, diplomatic relations were established with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. Oman may well be next in line, and an historic meeting took place at the end of November between Israel’s prime minister and Saudi Arabia’s crown prince sending a strong signal to allies and enemies alike that the two countries remain deeply committed to containing their common enemy, Iran.

Israel is no longer an isolated Jewish State in the Middle East surrounded by enemies. It enjoys diplomatic relations with a growing number of Arab Muslim states, who have put the Palestinian conflict on the back burner as they line up to address the threat posed by a nuclear Iran.

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Peace or No-Peace That is the Question

If you said that Israel would only be able to make peace with its Arab neighbors after it agreed to a resolution with the Palestinians, it is sort of problematic to argue now that Israel was always at peace with its Arab neighbors, so that you can argue that the agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are not peace agreements.

Admittedly, it may be more accurate to describe the Israel-UAE and Bahrain agreements as Open Declarations of Peace. One could argue whether these came about because of efforts by this administration, the efforts of PM Netanyahu, the efforts of the governments of the UAE and Bahrain, or are simply the result of changing dynamics in the region, including a completely unreliable US foreign policy that may shift wildly every few years that has made it clear that Israel is a necessary stable strategic partner in the region, especially for those concerned about the influence of Iran and Turkey.

If you begin with the assumption that Arabs and Israel were in a state of hostility, best defined by the “No, No, No” of Khartoum (No peace. No recognition. No negotiations.) in response to the possibility of peace and you add in that during the Obama Administration, Sec. State Kerry said of the assumption among some Israeli leaders that Israel could make peace with the Arabs before making peace with the Palestinians, “No! No! No! No!” (he was asked this question, outlined this possibility, and gave that response), then it is clear that these agreements are radical departures from what was assumed a few years ago by the Sec. State and could be considered peace agreements. If you add in the fact that the Arab nations themselves are calling them “Peace” agreements, it would also seem reasonable to call them peace agreements.

Trying to argue that they’re simply economic or military agreements is a denial of the history of the region and the history of the Jewish and Arab peoples, and likely is more the result of concern about where credit for the achievement may be given than over the importance of the achievement.

Whether and how these agreements might help lead to a peace between Israel and the Palestinians is a separate issue. Some will argue that these agreements remove an incentive from Israel to negotiate, making those negotiations more difficult. Others will argue that the involvement of these Arab nations will help the process, long stagnated, move in a positive direction. I think the response here is that “time will tell,” but it’s fairly clear that the status quo of maintaining a state of belligerence between the Arab nations and Israel in order to promote negotiations wasn’t getting the job done, nor helping anyone. Maybe this will.

For the first time in a very long time, there is some optimism in the region that real peace is possible. To see so many people attacking all of this out of hatred of the President and Prime Minister is sad to see. Like them or not, these agreements are very positive developments for the region, for Israel specifically, and for real hopes that a lasting peace spanning the entire region may be possible.

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Normalization with the UAE

Normalization in diplomatic parlance means the process of creating normal diplomatic relations between countries. This generally means moving from a standard where the assumed relationship is one of belligerence to one in which the assumption is peaceful, often mutually beneficial, interaction.

I have spoken and written extensively over the past decade about how misguided American outreach to Turkey and attempts to work with Iran in relation to the JCPOA made it essential for the Saudis, the UAE, and Bahrain to work with Israel. In fact, you could add not only Egypt to that group, but Sudan as well. Inconsistent American foreign policy in regard to Iran, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen has strengthened that need.

While the military-strategic side of the normalization calculus has clearly shifted in favor for these Arab nations, the technological and economic side has shifted even further in that direction with Israel assuming the role of not only regional technological powerhouse, but of being an international one. If you care about technological development in 2020, you want to be on Israel’s side.

On the other hand, the alternatives have proven not only unreliable, but dangerous. The countries in the region in which Iran or Turkey have significant influence are all aflame and/or in some state of financial disaster: Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Libya… Meanwhile, UAE and Israel can work together on a host of issues. Tourism alone will be big and, in fact, if the Palestinians can get their act together, Emirati tourism to the West Bank could bring enormous benefits.

The real problem faced by the Palestinian Authority leadership here is that the benefits of this new relationship could so positively benefit the economy of the West Bank as to nullify any possible opposition to growing the relationship, much less any real willingness to oppose it. Those who are truly opposing this agreement are fairly radical.

We now have another new barometer to judge sanity in relation to Middle East politics. People who supported the Israel-United Arab Emirates normalization agreement represent a relatively sane political center ranging across about 80-90% of the political spectrum and including the majority of supporters and opponents of the administrations in the United States and Israel.

Opponents of the deal itself include the leaders of Turkey and Iran, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and PA President Abbas, and the settler movement leadership in Israel, which is threatening to dismantle the coalition, because of an indefinite suspension in the policy of annexation.

If you’re wondering, the Meretz party in Israel, representing the far left of the political spectrum in Israel was supportive of the deal, seeing it as returning to a path toward a two state resolution and agreeing with its past argument that Israel would find willing Arab partners, if it did so.

Consider just how radical someone would be to oppose a formal peace agreement between Israel and Arab nations in favor of forcing them to maintain a state of belligerence indefinitely in order to help Palestinian negotiations by harming Israelis and most Arabs.

This agreement is not only exciting in the possibilities for the future that it brings for Israel and the UAE, but in the expectation that it is but the first such agreement of several to come.

Yesterday, Emeratis were tweeting pictures of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with excitement about visiting. Israelis are looking forward to flying Emirates Air from Tel Aviv to Dubai.

We live in a changing world.

 

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On Annexation

The Israeli government would like to “annex” “settlements” in which Israeli citizens reside in Judea and Samaria, terms recognizing the connection of Jews to the territories, also known as the West Bank (of the Jordan River), which seems to imply that the territories should be part of Jordan.

Some people envision these terms to imply Israel making a radical change and deciding that territory which otherwise would be a necessary part of a Palestinian state will be seized by Israel, who will then place Israeli settlements in the territory and displace Palestinians. They may be right depending on which territories would actually be annexed and what happens after they are.

Others believe that what is proposed is simply to allow residents of areas that will almost certainly remain under Israeli control going forward, regardless of any peace agreement, to access the Israeli civilian justice system instead of the military one, among other administrative changes, while not holding the well-being of tens of thousands of Israelis hostage to Palestinian decisions regarding peace agreements. They may also be right.

Still others promote annexation as a way to advance toward a time when Israel controls all of what was pledged to the Israelites by God in the Torah. Annexation of the territories by the Jewish state for them is God’s will. Annexation would indeed advance this goal as well.

Finally, some see this as naked politics that will have little to no real impact of life for Israelis or Palestinians on the ground, but which will aid the Prime Minister in appeasing members of his coalition, while potentially doing serious and completely unnecessary harm to Israel’s growing and important relations with the Arab world. Guess what? They’re probably also right.

Of course, there’s also the possibility [likelihood] that this is simply to try to take advantage of the last months of President Trump’s term with polls showing a possible landslide for his opponent, Joe Biden, one who would not support anything close to the policies that PM Netanyahu is advancing, hoping that the United States will support a unilateral Israeli decision now, that it has always opposed before and almost certainly will going forward.

The US might well even change its policy position after a new administration takes office. Further, a new administration may react harshly to actions taken now to exploit what may be the last months of a Trump administration. Any Democratic administration and other Republican administrations have and will likely continue to hold policy positions in opposition to unilateral Israeli actions in regard to items related to prospects for a future peace agreement.

Of all of these things, only the last one, that the timing for getting US support for any form of annexation is limited, is really a reason to try to move forward now and that must be taken against the number of significant reasons to reconsider. Additionally, there may be a way to address the issue of access to non-military courts without “annexation.”

One other not insignificant issue of concern, at least for those of us advocating for Israel in the United States, is that this policy decision will do unnecessary harm to bipartisan support for Israel at a time when there is great tension between critics and strong supporters for Israel among those interested in finding a reasonable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian and broader Israeli-Arab conflicts.

All  this said, advancing annexation now, especially without US support in advance of any efforts, then seems to be a very bad idea, whose negatives far outweigh its positives.

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“Deal of the Century” – Dead on Arrival

It is hardly surprising that President Trump’s “Deal of the Century” is seen by the Palestinians as being dead on arrival. It is so far removed from anything they could have possibly wished for. But, then, they weren’t involved in its formulation.

Just as the Temple Mount and the Western Wall are important religious symbols for Jews, Haram esh-Sharif, or the Al Aqsa Compound as the Temple Mount is called by Muslims, is a  holy site for them.

While it is true that Jordan is entrusted with administering the Muslim holy sites through the agency of the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, it is Israel that ultimately exercises sovereignty over the area. From a Palestinian perspective that is a non-starter.

The Israel/Palestinian conflict is not primarily a battle over real estate, but a religious war in which conquest and control of the Holyland have been cardinal features throughout the ages. 

One has only to walk down Sultan Suleiman Street adjacent to the Damascus Gate into the Old City to realize that, even though more than fifty years have passed since Jerusalem was “re-united” following the Six Day War, many Palestinians have yet to come to terms with that reality. The signs on all of the stores are either in Arabic or English and there is hardly a word of Hebrew to be seen.

But it is more than that. Just take a look at the territory being offered to the Palestinians. This is a deal that couldn’t possibly appeal to them.

The blue area, which only comprises approximately 75% of the West Bank and which is pockmarked with Israeli settlements and effectively divided into blocs, is hardly an attractive option.

However, the Palestinians have only themselves to blame. There were so many attempts to reach a settlement with them, but they declined every initiative and refused to respond positively to each opportunity to reach a compromise. Now they have only been left with the scraps.

As one person put it sarcastically, “We tried for so many years to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians. It would now appear that we can do so without them!”

The timing of the unwrapping of the “Deal of the Century” is hardly coincidental. President Trump is facing impeachment proceedings and Prime Minister Netanyahu has been charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Elections are around the corner. Trump needs to appeal to his Christian evangelicals while Netanyahu needs the votes of the settlers.

While this may all be good in terms of their short-term political interests, it will do nothing in respect of bringing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict to a conclusion on the assumption that that is even possible. The Palestinians will continue to feel that they have been robbed of their land, while Israelis will continue to live with neighbours intent upon their destruction.

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A Peace Ultimatum

The Trump Administration revealed its “Peace Plan” today. No one thinks that it will welcomed by the Palestinians who have already called it “Dead on Arrival” and refuse even to speak with the President. The plan is really more of an attempt to alter the dynamic of the discussions. At the start of the Oslo Peace Process, there were two entirely different sets of premises for negotiations.

The Israelis wanted to create a state for Palestinians that removed the vast majority of Arabs who were hostile to Israel’s existence living in territories occupied since 1967 from living under Israeli rule. The assumption was that not only would it be bad for Israel to be forced to continue to govern millions of hostile people, but that there would be a growing demographic threat and Israel could potentially cease to be a Jewish state. The goal was to create something that had not previously existed, a state for the Palestinians separate from the state created for the Jews, that would allow Israelis and Palestinians each to live in peace and prosperity with an agreed upon end to hostilities. Negotiations were seen as a process to achieve a lasting peace between the peoples.

The Palestinian side, on the other hand, operated with the understanding that Palestinians were entitled to all of the territory controlled by Jordan prior to 1967, including all of the Old City of Jerusalem, it’s center, north, east, and south, and this was often presented as a temporary compromise to the fact that they were truly entitled to all of British Mandatory Palestine. They argued for the creation of a state for the Palestinians and for the return of “refugees” to Israel proper that would have essentially turned Israel into another Palestinian state. Negotiations were seen as a way to first win the 1967 war and then 1948 war by other means. When negotiations failed, Palestinians would turn to international institutions hoping for the imposition on Israel of this result.

You need no more information than the above to  understand why negotiations have failed, but there is much more. Not only did the Palestinians reject and not even deign to counter the 2000 agreement, but they launched an intifada of which they then lost control. Once Hamas took over Gaza, the situation was largely unrecoverable. Hamas’ demonstrated use of mass rocket fire against Israel significantly increased the potential risk of harm to Israel of a Hamas takeover in the West Bank. The Arab Spring with the Muslim Brotherhood takeover of Egypt followed by the coup that brought al Sissi to power in Egypt and the entrenchment of the Israeli center and right with the total collapse of the Israeli left in Israeli politics moved the dynamic far away from what it was in the 1990s. With American regional policy changes during the Obama Administration and the Trump Administration, Arab nations came to no longer trust that America would side with them and have become strategic allies of Israel with a strong Israel as indispensable.

Palestinian intransigence in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is now seen as an Arab problem and Sunni Arab support has weakened significantly. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Oman were represented at the reveal of the Trump plan. Saudi Arabia assuredly involved as well.

In 2019, the Palestinian Arabs are in four major territories involved in the conflict: Gaza, the Northern West Bank (Samaria), the Southern West Bank (Judah), and Israel. Gaza is ruled by Hamas which is hostile to both the Palestinian Authority and Israel. The Northern West Bank is economically prosperous and is dominated and controlled by the Palestinian Authority. The Southern West Bank is less prosperous and has more support for Hamas than the north, but is under the control of the PA. Palestinian Arabs in Israel are Israelis, increasingly content living under Israeli rule, though they may not agree with the policies of its leadership, and while still supportive of an independent Palestinian state, they are less likely to jeopardize what they have to achieve one.

It is unlikely that Gaza will be functionally reconnected with the Palestinian Authority any time soon. If Hamas is disarmed, who would replace it and how? How would Hamas be disarmed in the first place? One, perhaps likely, possible concession from the start may well be that the Palestinian Authority will deal with Israel without including Gaza and Hamas at all in negotiations. That may even have been the intent of stating that Hamas would have to be disarmed. The inclusion of Hamas or attempting to negotiate for Gaza as if Hamas doesn’t control it are both ways to undermine negotiations from the start.

Regarding Jerusalem, Israel is in complete control. While it may be possible to separate certain parts of the city, there is no driving need to do so on the part of the Israelis. At this point, the questions are of what the Palestinians could control in Jerusalem and how to make that happen rather than what they would like to control. The Old City and Holy Basin are out of the question at this point because securing them if they were not completely under Israeli control would be impossible and the consequences for failure dire.

There is simply no possibility of even joint control of the Jordanian border. Neither Israel, nor Jordan would trust anyone but Israel to control it and the consequences of any major failure there would be catastrophic and might even lead to war.

Palestinian control of the Temple Mount itself is no longer guaranteed. Not only is Jordan interested in maintaining control, but Turkey is trying to assert itself as a potential governor of the site based on its role during the Ottoman Empire. And more, problematically for all three of them, the Saudis are making a strong argument that they should oversee Al Aqsa, just as they oversee the sites in Saudi Arabia. With the Saudis as a growing ally of Israel and with all three of  the others offering Israel problems, this is far from a remote possibility, if the Palestinians do not agree to a resolution with Israel in the near term.

Finally, the Palestinians are a recognized observer state that officially controls territory. The Israelis need not recognize any dissolution of the Palestinian Authority, need not reclaim the territory granted it, nor would they be obligated to accept any of its citizens as their own. The dissolution of the Palestinian Authority would simply result in chaos and violence within those territories and harm to its citizens. It will not change that dynamic. Accepting Observer State status painted the Palestinians into a corner. One cannot unmake a state by one’s own choice. The Palestinians are and will be then stuck in an interim semi-state, if they don’t move forward.

The new framework being put forward would allow the Palestinians to negotiate for more territory and the creation of a contiguous territory in the West Bank, it would give them the opportunity for a greatly improved economy, and it would allow for the conflict to finally be settled with the Palestinians granted full state status. It is better than the status quo and is far better than what could be the status quo a decade or two down the road.

The purpose here seems to be to force negotiations and concessions. It’s clear that nothing can move forward including Gaza, if Hamas is in charge. Maybe the process moves forward without including Gaza. The Palestinians currently have a capital in Ramallah. Would Abu Dis not be better? Think improvement over the status quo rather than meeting longtime goals.

This framework recognizes that Israel has won. The war is over. Now it is time to move forward and if that opportunity is not taken, what the Palestinians currently have may well be what they are left with for the foreseeable future, the possibilities for improvement ever weakening with time. What was delivered today was not really a peace plan, but a peace ultimatum. Act now, or suffer the consequences of time and the changes that failure will bring. So far, they have been pretty bad for the Palestinians and that is likely to worsen.

For a description of what a realistic resolution might look like, please see my article on a Current Reasonable Resolution to the Conflict, which changes with the changing circumstances and was updated in 2019. The President’s peace plan aligns well with it.

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Inconvenient Truth about The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Watch as our good friend, Professor Harold Kasimow from Grinnell College and Holocaust survivor, is disrespected by a member of the virulent anti-Israel student group, Students for Justice in Palestine, for not agreeing to the ridiculous notion that the Holocaust is equivalent to the situation of the Palestinians and that Israel should never have been reborn. Unfortunately, this is the kind of hate that is displayed on many college campuses today against Jews and supporters of Israel.

It isn’t just that it is a false equivalence with the Holocaust. It is also that the narrative offered by SJP of the conflict is false from the start. The conflict did NOT begin 71 years ago and it did not begin with Jews victorious at all. The modern conflict began at the end of World War I with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Palestinian Arabs sought help from the British to limit Jewish immigration into the land and to allow them to protest, increasingly violently and increasingly using terrorism, the existing Jewish presence in the land. The British, who had looked favorably on the creation of a Jewish state in 1917, increasingly desired the support of the Arabs, competing with the Nazis for that support right through World War II, and were loathe to promote even Jewish defense, much less security and control of the land.

The Jews in the land faced constant terrorism, raids, and mob violence at the hands of the Arab population, including things like the Hebron Massacre of 1929, in which the entire Jewish community of the city was attacked, killed, and expelled, while conducting no similar violent actions anywhere in the land through the 1920s and early 1930s.

During the late 1930s, the Irgun did carry out attacks against the British Army and local Arabs during the Arab revolt, which was essentially a civil war in response to Jewish immigration which peaked in the 1930s and changing power dynamics. After World War II, outbreaks of violence on both the Jewish and Arab sides was increasingly common with the Irgun conducting operations primarily against the British.

It is convenient for Palestinians to make it appear that the conflict began in 1948 because it makes them appear to be victims rather than as failed ethnic cleansers, which they along with other Arab nations attempted on multiple occasions, and people whose leader, Haj Amin al-Husseini, worked with the Nazis to recruit and train Muslim allies during the war in the hopes that the Nazis would bring “The Final Solution” to British Mandate Palestine should they defeat the Allies. Fortunately, they lost the war.

This is so obviously a problematic truth and would also obviously lead to normal people to side with the Jews against them, that they have created a deliberately misleading narrative that begins post-WWII and portrays Jews, who were fleeing refugees seeking safety not only from Europe but also from Arab lands, some of which expelled them, as if they were colonizers, which they were not.

We can debate modern Israeli settlement policy, but we cannot ignore truths that are simply inconvenient to the Palestinian victimhood narrative about the creation of Israel and the history of the modern conflict. It is true that it may be helpful for Jews to understand the pain felt by Palestinians at the loss of the conflict and for Palestinians to understand the impact of the Holocaust on Jews, but these are not entirely equatable events.

In this case, we have Palestinian Arabs whose people’s attempts at ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Jews failed prior to World War II, failed again in 1967, failed again in 1973, and continue to fail diplomatically, attempting to portray, Harold Kasimow, a survivor of ethnic cleansing and genocide by their people’s allies during World War II, the Nazis, as instead a supporter of such actions against them! It does not get more offensive, nor factually wrong.

Israel was able to be established because Palestinian Arabs and their allies failed to succeed in the ethnic cleansing and genocide that they were attempting and had been attempting since the 1920s. Now, we can begin to discuss what the resolution of that ongoing conflict might be.

A note for Presidential candidates, it will not begin with the disarming of the Jews and weakening their ability to defend themselves.

Posted in Antisemitism, Boycott, Boycott of Israel, Divestment, Gaza, J Street, Peace Negotiations, Pressuring Israel | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Harm Avoided, Harm Done

It’s been a difficult week for those of us who care about a strong relationship between the United States and Israel. The relationship has historically been much more one between the US Congress and Israel than one between any US President and Israel. Additionally, it has always been Israel, not Israel’s Prime Minister, with whom the relationship has been made.

There are good things and bad things about strong relations between individual Prime Ministers and US Presidents. Certainly, it is advantageous to Israel to be able to more readily express policy needs and to expect a positive response. Among the bad things for Israel in dealing with any President is that US Presidents can do tremendous harm to Israel, often just by not helping, much less by doing harmful things such as holding back a veto at the UN Security Council or negotiating an agreement in the region that helps make Israel’s enemies stronger. When the President says in Israel’s direction, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Israel is put in a difficult situation.

This President, in the relationship that he has with the Israeli Prime Minister, tweeting that it would show “great weakness” for Israel to admit Reps. Omar and Tlaib is such a request.

When it was originally suggested to me that Israel would ban Reps. Omar and Tlaib from coming to Israel, my response was “There is no way that Israel would refuse entry to members of the US Congress, period!” I was reassured when Ambassador Dermer, shortly thereafter, echoed that response.

When the Israeli Knesset passed its anti-BDS advocate entry bill a couple of years ago, I thought it was a bad bill, one that would be entirely subjective and would be unevenly enforced. Yet, I thought that no matter how that bill might relate to members of the US Congress, the Israeli government would be strategic enough in its thinking, especially about the long-term US Israel relationship to not apply it to members of the US Congress.

First, there is the obvious reality that Members of Congress approve funding that Israel receives. While it is not true that Members need to visit countries and sites that receive funding in order to conduct their appropriate oversight (clearly that doesn’t happen in relation to other countries and programs that receive foreign aid), it is at best unseemly to prohibit members from coming.

Second, arguments that Israel unduly restricts the freedom of movement and access of Palestinians are prominent in their arguments against Israel. Why take an action that gives fuel to that argument?

Third, it would be expected that the Democratic Party would react badly to having two of  its members excluded, even with some justification, and that the Party’s leaders would have to do damage control. Some members of the Party would undoubtedly call for diplomatic retaliation and arguments against strong support for Israel would receive increased support as Democrats rally the wagons around Reps. Omar and Tlaib.

Fourth, something potentially positive for PM Netanyahu in his own elections, but negative in the eyes of many American Jews on the political left, such a decision would appear to align more closely President Trump with Israel’s leadership.

But we cannot stop there because the situation doesn’t stop there. Reps. Omar and Tlaib submitted an itinerary for their visit to “Palestine,” with no mention of Israel that was organized by Miftah, an organization known for promoting Antisemitism, not just criticism of Israel. See this article by David French about Miftah. The two are known advocates both for the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement against Israel and for a one state solution, essentially wiping Israel off of the map and replacing it with an “Israel-Palestine” which would end the Jewish character of the state, end the idea of Israel as a Jewish homeland, and end Israel as a place of refuge for Jews. There is no question that the intentions of the two Members of Congress in that regard is hostile to the government of Israel.

On their trip, we almost certainly would have seen the two promoting the worst stories they could find of oppression and suffering, while promoting nothing that could possibly be construed as positive. They would cry and smile, filled, no doubt, with real emotions to normal concerns and joys as well as doing so in relation to planned and staged PR opportunities. They would come to Israel to exploit and harm Israel, every bit as much as to advocate for Palestinians.

Most of us, who advocate for Israel, including many Israeli leaders, argued that,with all of this understood, Israel is strong enough to deal with a few days of nastiness and PR events. It could handle Rep. Tlaib celebrating with her family in Beit Hanina, while sharing their difficulties with the world, and Rep. Omar talking with Ethiopian Jews about racism. Israel does face challenges. It isn’t perfect. Many of us in the Israel advocacy community would hope for changes ourselves.

That Reps. Omar and Tlaib might well present these challenges in ways that would increase hatred of Israel and could well lead to increased Antisemitism against Jews worldwide is a real concern. There is little doubt in that regard that Israel’s rejection of those opportunities and whatever backlash it may face over denying their entry is better than more elderly Chasidic men being attacked in New York, more attacks against Jewish facilities in Europe, and violent protests breaking out in Israel or terrorism against it. Israel has real concerns about fallout from such a trip as well as fallout from preventing it.

Israel does have moral and ethical reasons to actively prevent activities that could result in those things and one could argue that in particular with the track record of Representatives Omar and Tlaib in regard to their statements and actions related to Israel and Jews. No few today are relieved that our debate is limited to arguing about the rejection of  visas and not about something worse.

  • Among the things that we are concerned about is that this rejection by Israel of Representatives Omar and Tlaib’s itinerary will result in their embrace and an unwillingness to explicitly and strongly challenge their positions in regard to Israel by leaders in the Democratic Party.
  • What we’re worried about is that this embrace and failure to publicly criticize them will go a long way to aiding the President in presenting the two Members of Congress as “the face of the Party,” not in regard to its racial and ethnic diversity, but in regard to its hostility to general American support for Israel and to a lack of hostility to Antisemitism.
  • We’re concerned about people painting Israel as “Anti-Muslim” which is both untrue and could lead to Antisemitism. We don’t want to see people like the former Vice Presidential Candidate for the Democratic Party, Sen. Tim Kaine, among others calling this a “Muslim Ban” so as to call upon the hatred among progressives for the President while applying it inappropriately to Israel.
  • We’re concerned that the response among progressives will be to lurch toward the positions of the British Labour Party which allowed Antisemitism to flourish in its ranks, positions which promoted criticism of Israel, embraced its critics, and largely ignored for many years even overt Antisemitism.

The appropriate response to Israel’s ban of Reps. Omar and Tlaib is to BOTH decry their positions and intent in relation to Israel and to challenge Israel’s unwillingness to tolerate hearing even harsh criticisms from Members of Congress, who indeed should, as representatives of Israel’s closest ally, be granted appropriate privileges and tolerance based upon that relationship. There is no situation in which an Anti-BDS bill should have made no exception for diplomatic needs at the direction of the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. The law should not be seen as taking the decision out of their hands.

It is said that we see the true character of someone when their inhibitions are gone. The greatest harm done by this decision by Israel is that it has revealed that beneath the cordiality often offered in both directions, for too many, there is a great deal of contempt.

Some harm was avoided. Some harm was done.

Let us hope that those who truly believe in a strong relationship between our nations will be able to repair and rebuild from the damage that has been done. It’s possible that we’ll only need to wait until after the upcoming Israeli elections for that to begin.

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Current Reasonable Resolution to the Conflict 2019

INTRODUCTION: This article is a currently updated assessment of possibilities for a resolution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians taking into account broader Jewish-Arab conflicts. As relevant events occur, this article will be updated to account for them.

Regional political changes over the past decade have seemingly lessened or even removed pressure from Israel to pursue a “two-state” solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the near future. While it may be true that there is now less pressure on Israel to make concessions in regard to the conflict, the primary impetus for the entire process remains in place, a desire to maintain Israel as a state providing security for the Jewish people in a broader Jewish cultural environment, while allowing those Palestinian Arabs who live in areas that are in territories that were under the control of Jordan or Egypt after 1948, to have the opportunity to live in a state of some kind of their own.

I specifically do not cite a “two-state” solution at this point, because there is neither a reasonable argument made that Gaza will necessarily have the same government as the rest of the Palestinian people, nor is it certain, or even necessarily possible, for either entity to have what would be considered traditional sovereignty, including full border control. Arguments about a “two-state” solution are often full of assumptions that are not reasonable in 2019.

RECENT CHANGES:

The recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel by the United States, expressly leaving Jerusalem’s exact boundaries as a part of negotiations, does not truly alter the situation at all, nor have any UN or UNSC resolutions affected the situation, though weakening overall support for anti-Israel resolutions in the UN General Assembly may increase pressure on the Palestinians to compromise going forward. There are limited possible paths to a resolution that provides security and prosperity for Israel as a whole with safe and secure access to major Jewish holy sites in Jerusalem specifically.

The recognition of the Golan as part of Israel by the United States is also unlikely to affect the broader situation. For security reasons alone, prior to the Syrian Civil War, it would have been very problematic to consider returning the Golan Heights to Syria. Following the Syrian Civil War and with the increased presence of Hezballah and Iranian forces in Syria and Iraq, there is no reasonable argument to be made that Israel could risk returning the Golan Heights to Syrian control under any circumstances in the foreseeable future. US recognition was essentially the recognition that the discussion of that had realistically ended.

By the early 1990s, most Israelis realized that some form of separation between the Israeli and Palestinian populations was essential for the future well-being of Israel. Furthermore, it was understood that the most reasonable way to accomplish that goal was to promote the creation of some sort of Palestinian state. This has not changed. A significant majority of Israelis continue to hold this general view, but some specifics have changed

Most Israelis now believe that more stringent security measures must be put in place today than would have been considered essential in the year 2000, 2007, or even 2010. Events in Gaza since the year 2000 and events in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Iran since 2009, along with changes in the way terrorism is conducted, have dramatically changed the security requirements that Israel will require on the Jordanian border and for ongoing security requirements within the West Bank.

Most people now believe that Gaza and the West Bank will likely remain separate political entities to a significant extent going forward. The leadership of Gaza, Hamas, has been in a heated military conflict with Egypt for over a decade that in recent months has lessened somewhat but remains tense. In recent times, there has been little response among Fatah supporters when Hamas or Islamic Jihad have engaged Israel in Gaza. There is no assumption that the two sides should be supportive of one another.

Meanwhile Hamas would have to be removed from power before Egypt’s anti-Muslim Brotherhood government substantially improves relations with Gaza. In the meantime, claims of authority over Gaza by the Palestinian Authority are not based in the PA’s ability to govern there, but instead out of the belief that the West Bank and Gaza are remnants of a larger entity, Palestine, that should remain connected.

This narrative has necessitated solutions to the conflict for the Palestinians that do not prioritize the needs of the people of the West Bank as opposed to Gaza and at the same time result in harsh policies by the Palestinian Authority against the population of Gaza, such as shutting off their electricitydenying medical care, or cutting off funding generally. Realistically, we are now in a situation in which possibilities for improvement in Israeli relations with the Palestinians should be separated into two different sets of relations: Israel-Palestinian Authority and Israel-Gaza.

In regard to an achievable solution on the whole, however, what I originally proposed in 2014 largely remains what I would propose today. Some things that I suggested at that point in time might be necessary, now are unquestionably so.

A REASONABLE RESOLUTION:

The reality continues to be that what is possible for Israel to concede in regard to resolutions of the conflict is not enough for the Palestinian side to prioritize reaching an agreement over and above continuing to fight; and what is demanded by the Palestinian side is seen as more harmful by Israeli leaders than continuing to face violence and anti-Israel activism.

Israel’s improved relations with the Sunni Nationalist powers and the BRIC nations, Brazil, Russia, India, and China (I left out South Africa on purpose), have resulted both in an improved likelihood in achieving a good solution for Israel and in a reduced need to try to do so.

This all said, the idea that there is an obvious solution to the conflict with generally agreed upon parameters that could be easily achieved misrepresents the reality. Here are five major issues:

  1. There is no solution that addresses the realities of Jerusalem that can please both sides and many possible solutions would result in nightmare scenarios for the future.
  2. While the “Right of Return” of Palestinian refugees to homes in Israel is almost certainly not a viable possibility, no alternative is likely to be politically, much less religiously, acceptable to Palestinians.
  3. There may have been discussions about “territorial swaps based on the 1967 lines,” but there are numerous problems that are obfuscated by that simple summation.
  4. Movement of people between Gaza and the West Bank may be necessary for Palestinian unity, but it is a security nightmare for both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and more recently for Egypt and Jordan.
  5. Finally, Israeli control over the Jordanian border seems to be mandatory for the foreseeable future in order to meet the security concerns for Israel, Jordan, and a future Palestinian state in any form.

Let’s start by looking at the last of the five. International forces have all failed miserably to halt sectarian violence. Suggestions that any international force could step in and prevent Islamic militants from moving into the West Bank and causing problems for both the Palestinian Authority and Israel are laughable. International forces in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Sinai, Sudan and other places in the region have proven incompetent in maintaining security, preventing rearming of militant groups, or even in preventing major wars and genocides. This means that any agreement will necessarily have Israeli troops on the Jordanian border for a long time into the future and it will be unreasonable to set any final date by which that would be forced to end.

Movement between the northern and southern West Bank could be easily ensured, even if direct access between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea was maintained. However, with the level of militancy in Gaza at present, traffic between the two Palestinian territories will need to be closely monitored. There is no way that people could simply be allowed to travel through Israeli territory on their way to and from Gaza at this point. Remember that Egypt has regularly sealed off its own border with Gaza because of threats coming from Gaza and that Israel has fought multiple wars with militant groups based in Gaza. There are ways to substantially increase economic cooperation between the territories, but because of the weaponry available in Gaza, all shipments to Gaza and even from Gaza will need to be closely monitored for years going forward from a peace agreement. There are no easy resolutions to the situation in Gaza and many involve significant risk.

Because there are a significant number of Hamas supporters in the Southern West Bank, the Palestinians themselves have concerns about Hamas supporters living in the southern West Bank bringing their militancy to the north. This is an internal Palestinian issue, but requires ongoing security support for the Palestinian Authority itself, so that it can maintain control in the West Bank.

Regarding the Jordanian border, it is the case that Israeli control over the Jordanian border enables less stringent controls on the Israeli-West Bank border. Without Jordanian border control, more stringent security would need to be put in place on the internal border in light of terrorist threats. That in turn would severely harm economic interaction between the two nations and do grave harm to tourism within Palestinian areas, as it does now when border security is increased.

This certainly impacts the question of the nature of a “Palestinian State” that does not control its borders. Add to this that the Palestinian entity would also not control its water supply and would need to also be provided energy and you end up with a situation in which a Palestinian State would be dependent upon Israel for numerous essential things, from water and energy to business and tourism in addition to security.

It would reasonable to argue that the proper national status for such an entity is at best something similar to that of the Vatican in Italy. Interestingly, both the Vatican and the Palestinian Authority have Observer State status in the UN.

The Palestinians need enough territory and the proper kind of territory to form a viable state. The realistic idea at hand in the negotiations is not that the Palestinians are entitled to all of what was Jordanian occupied territory 1948-1967. The latter concept is an impediment to negotiations, for among other reasons, because it violates the most basic concept of the negotiations, that Israel must have secure borders after a peace agreement. Without them, future violence is ensured and any agreement that the two sides reach will not be worth the paper on which it is written. The 1967 lines were far from secure.

The Separation Barrier, with some possible exceptions, runs along the path that provides the necessary security against terrorism that Israel requires. Thus it is the current route of the Separation Barrier, not the 1967 lines, that is the most viable basis for negotiations. There are opportunities for that path to be altered during negotiations and some Israeli settlements may end up on the Palestinian side following such negotiations.

It is certainly the case that new settlements and outposts constructed on the Palestinian side of the barrier create new impediments to making any solution work for the Israelis, because it increases the cost of what would have to be yielded in a final status agreement.

The idea of “territorial swaps” itself is problematic because it specifically implies two falsehoods. First, it implies that the Palestinians have a right to negotiate from a position that they never held, namely authoritative control over the West Bank, and that their claim to that much land, much less all of that specific land, is superior to Israel’s claim to it. While there may be public sentiment to that effect across much of the world, it is a legal fiction. Control of the land is an obviously essential characteristic of any valid claim to it. Legal control passed from the Ottomans to the British to Jordan to Israel with each in turn applying its control over the laws and population of the territory, demonstrating control.

Moreover, the concept of “territorial swaps” would involve trading one piece of land for another. Would the Palestinians really consider land near Gaza or abutting the southern West Bank as equivalent to neighborhoods around Jerusalem or in the Galilee? Of course not. The presentation of this concept as a simple basis for negotiations is then flawed.

The Right of Return would seem to be the easiest of the problems to overcome. There is no way that Israel can bring in hundreds of thousands, much less several million, Palestinians and maintain the character of Israel as a Jewish state. Neither can Israel bring in hundreds of thousands of people hostile to its existence and not face civil war and strife.

Reasonable alternatives to the Right of Return include restitution, but any financial settlement for properties would likely be far less than actual value today and would certainly not be preferable in many cases to ownership of the land. By way of comparison, Holocaust survivors have received millions of dollars in restitution for losses which at the time of the restitution agreement were worth well into the tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars.

Those who see the conflict as an Arab-Jewish one, rather than an Israeli-Palestinian one, might well insist that restitution be paid by Arab nations to the Jews whose properties they seized. They argue that the net result would be that Arab nations would be required to pay out more in restitution to the Jews than the Jewish state would to the Arabs.

Finally, there is no resolution to the situation of Jerusalem that will please both sides and there are few solutions that will maintain the security of the city, its economic and civic viability, and access to its archaeological and holy sites for people of all faiths. Jews will be able to securely access the Old City of Jerusalem with its holy sites only if they remain under Israeli sovereignty.

Furthermore, there is no way to maintain security in the area of the holy basin specifically, the area centered on the Temple Mount, unless Israel controls the entire basin from the top of the hill of the Mount of Olives to the west. Neither is it possible for Silwan, to the south of the Temple Mount, to be under Palestinian control for the same reason. I would argue that the entirety of City-of-David-connected Silwan should be a nationally controlled archaeological park and a major tourist site, instead of being, as it is now, a privately enterprise, owned by the City of David Foundation, which has admittedly done a reasonable job overseeing one of the best tourist sites in Israel. The area between the northern access to the Temple mount and Hebrew University on Mount Scopus also must realistically remain under Israeli sovereignty or Hebrew University will be cut off from the rest of Jerusalem.

One could argue, and many do, that the neighborhood of Isawiya, northeast of Mount Scopus, could be put under Palestinian sovereignty along with areas to the southeast of Silwan such as Abu Dis. The area known as E1, between the large Jerusalem suburb of Malei Adumim and Mount Scopus, also abuts Abu Dis and is an obvious connector between the southern and the northern West Bank.

E1 is an area that would make sense to be included in the territory of each side, but to place it on either side of a barrier would create a major problem. If it is on the Palestinian side, Malei Adumim becomes an island, surrounded by Palestinian territory. No Israeli government could allow this. If E1 remains Israeli, someone traveling from Bethlehem to Ramallah through Abu Dis and Anata would have to travel at least ten additional miles to do so, going around Malei Adumim unless a road were constructed that allowed for travelers to cross from south to north through E1. Such a road or tunnel would become essential in such a scenario. Meanwhile, northern Jerusalem’s near suburbs like Ramat Shlomo are certain to remain on the Israeli side in any reasonable peace agreement.

What is holding up the possibility of any agreement in the near future is not willingness on the part of Israel to make concessions, but a willingness on the part of the Palestinian side to admit the reality of what I discussed above. This means that no amount of pressure brought on Israel by European nations or the United States can realistically do anything to advance the peace process. The only effect of such pressure is harm to Israel. In order to advance the peace process, America and European nations, as well as Arab nations, need to help the Palestinian side reach an understanding of a reasonable resolution that is viable. Things like recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital are steps in this direction.

Admittedly, once the Palestinians are in a position to agree to the necessary compromises, the make-up of the Israeli governing coalition will become more important in moving forward. With a final status agreement possible, the Israeli left would be much more willing to make necessary concessions to work with the Center Right of the political spectrum in order to help it become a reality and the Israeli electorate could well shift support to parties who would more strongly pursue an agreement.

I have often referred to this solution as a “2 1/2 state solution” with Israel and Gaza as completely separate political entities and the West Bank as a semi-separate entity within the security control of Israel. I believe that it is time to think outside of the box and that those who continue to insist on full independence and full border control for the Palestinians in the West Bank are actually doing grave harm and putting off the prospects of peace.

For the most part, Israel has already accepted a significant majority of what it can and must concede for peace. The question is simply, “Will the Palestinian side choose to accept what is reasonably possible at the negotiating table if it is offered?” The answer to that depends on which is more painful, accepting a peace they don’t like or continuing to fight a battle that cannot be won and at the cost of suffering and death in every generation.

At this point, efforts to improve the economic prospects of Palestinians in both areas, to increase the amount of territory under Palestinian Authority control in the West Bank, and to promote economic and strategic interaction and diplomatic normalization between Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Arab nations are the most likely efforts to bear fruit, while benefiting all involved.

The reasons to go this route are manifold. Long term peace requires long term coexistence and cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. Establishing that effectively going forward is vital to developing an environment conducive to negotiating the political aspects necessary to resolve the conflict. A number of additional issues affect possibilities for Gaza, many of which are not related to issues under Israel’s control, but to promote any sort of lasting peace there almost certainly requires that a well-established and stable peace between Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank precede it.

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