Sunday, 7 April 2013

Israeli Elections Come and Go, But Israel Remains an Outlaw State

PREDICTIONS THAT Israel’s Jan. 22 elections would result in a sweeping victory for the religious right turned out to be wrong—but not very. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s far-right Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu coalition won 31 seats, down from 42 in the outgoing Knesset, and Yesh Atid (There is a Future), the secular party led by charismatic media commentator Yair Lapid, came in second with 19 seats. Yesh Atid’s surprise victory over the religious nationalist Jewish Home party of Naftali Bennett, with its 12 seats, put brakes on Bennett’s meteoric rise to prominence. But the two far-right religious parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, won 18 seats, only 1 less than Yesh Atid.

After trying for weeks without success to persuade Yesh Atid and Jewish Home to join Likud in a coalition government, Netanyahu reached out to Tzipi Livni, whose centrist Hatnua (The Movement) party won 6 seats. Livni will serve as justice minister and also lead peace negotiations with the Palestinians. She is known to favor the two-state solution, but it is not clear on what terms. As foreign minister and chief negotiator under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert—whose government unleashed Operation Cast Lead on Gaza in 2008-09—she failed to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. Sima Kadmon, a columnist for Yediot Ahronot, predicted she would be a “fig leaf” in Netanyahu’s government.

What the final vote count chiefly revealed is that Israeli society is deeply divided between secular and religious factions. An equally significant, though less prominent, split exists between the rich and the poor. Consequently, television commentator Emanuel Rosen predicted, “This is a government that will not be able to make decisions on anything—on the peace process, on equal sharing of the burden, or on budgetary matters.”

Another observer, Rabbi Shmuel Jakobovits, took note of the worries expressed by the secular community at the growing number of ultra-Orthodox Israelis, and said, “The underlying issue is that there’s an ideological contest over the soul of the state of Israel and the Jewish people.” The ultra-Orthodox known as Haredim now make up nearly 10 percent of the population—compared to 20 percent of Arab citizens of Israel—and get disproportionately high subsidies for housing and religious schools. Many of the men and all of the women are entitled to exemption from the draft.

Lapid has vowed to end such special privileges and promote social justice for those Israelis left behind. The economy is booming—with Israel doing far better than the U.S. in terms of economic growth—exports are approaching $18 billion, and the budget deficit is less than 1 percent of GDP. Unlike the deeply indebted U.S., which nevertheless hands out $4 billion-plus to Israel every year, Israel is a net creditor to the rest of the world.

The darker side to this picture is that unemployment in Israel is at 8.3 percent, and the poverty rate is higher than in most Western countries. According to Sever Plocker, an Israeli economics writer for Yediot Ahronot, nearly a quarter of the population is poor, including a third of all Israeli children. The income of the poorest Israelis is lower than it was six years ago, and in Arab sectors child poverty is more than 50 percent. The New York Times reported last year that “a handful of families” controls 30 percent of Israel’s wealth.
The issue of how to end Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine was as absent from Israel’s election campaign as it was from the U.S. presidential race. Lapid indicated only that there would be minimal change in Israel’s hard-line policies and its defiance of international law. “I don’t think the Arabs want peace,” he said a few days before the election, and made it clear he would not join in a coalition with the Knesset’s three Arab parties (see article p. 16).

He opposes any division of Jerusalem and would keep intact the huge illegal settlement blocs that divide the West Bank in half. Like Netanyahu, Lapid claims to be all for a return to negotiations, which on the terms Israel has laid down would be the equivalent of asking a hold-up victim to negotiate with the gunman who stole his wallet, his clothes, and his shoes, and is willing to consider returning the tie. The far-right Bennett has pledged to do everything in his power to assure there will never be a Palestinian state.

Israel’s violations of international law were spelled out a week after the election when a U.N. fact-finding mission, headed by Christine Chanet of France, again called on Israel to dismantle all of its West Bank settlements, saying they were in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention and the Palestinians’ right to self-determination. Unity Dow, a member of the commission from Botswana, accused Israel of “violence and intimidation against the Palestinians” with the aim of driving them off their land.

Israel is also the first nation to withhold cooperation with the U.N. Human Rights Council, which reviews the human rights policies of 193 member nations every four years. Israel said the review is “a political tool” for those who want to “bash and demonize” Israel. Critics say Israel’s decision puts in jeopardy the entire review process, which has targeted nations such as Zimbabwe, Iran and Sudan and defends the rights of gays, lesbians and women.

The panel estimated the settler population in the occupied territories as 520,000, and said it was growing faster than the population in Israel. Israel’s finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, reported last fall that the government had doubled the budget for new settlements but “in a low-key way because we didn’t want parties in Israel and abroad to thwart the move.” Should Palestine go before the International Criminal Court, the U.N. panel said, Israel could be charged with “gross violations of human rights law and serious violations of international law.”

The Obama administration gave its well-worn response that the panel’s findings did not “advance the cause of peace” and would slow efforts to resolve the issues between the two sides—as if those issues were more complicated than Israel’s continued theft of Palestinian land and its imprisonment of three million Palestinians behind walls and checkpoints.

Israel also feels free to violate international law at will. Israeli warplanes struck deep inside Syria in late January and heavily bombed a research center that was being used to improve Syria’s air defense system. The multiple attacks reportedly targeted anti-aircraft equipment as well as facilities for research in biological and chemical weapons.

Israel claimed the Russian-made anti-aircraft equipment was intended for shipment to Hezbollah, which was formed in Lebanon in 1982 in response to Israel’s invasion and occupation of Lebanon. Hezbollah is now a member of the Lebanese government and is recognized as a political party by the European Union, despite being branded as terrorist by Israel and the U.S. Israeli officials claim the missiles in the hands of Hezbollah would limit Israel’s freedom to carry out its reconnaissance flights over Lebanon—flights that illegally violate sovereign Lebanese air space.

Military analysts said the Russian-made equipment was too sophisticated for Hezbollah to use, and suggested that the air strike was a signal to Tehran that Israel would conduct a similar attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities if Iran came near to achieving weapons capability. Despite warnings from abroad that such an attack could have disastrous consequences, Netanyahu continues to issue threats. On Feb. 3 he called for a national unity government whose “supreme mission” would be stopping Iran from arming itself with nuclear weapons.

On the same day, Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, reiterated Tehran’s offer to hold direct talks on the nuclear issue with the U.S., and agreed to a meeting between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany on Feb. 26. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad offered last October to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent if the Western powers would supply Iran with that grade of fuel and lift the sanctions, but they refused, instead demanding that Iran ship its stockpiles of enriched uranium out of the country and reveal all of its weapons technology. They would receive in return spare airplane parts and a “gradual” lifting of sanctions.

Although renewed negotiations are scheduled, a harsher set of sanctions by the U.S. and its allies went into force on Feb. 5, forbidding purchasers of Iran’s oil from sending money to Iran and requiring Iran to engage in barter for needed imports. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei angrily reacted to the increased sanctions by rejecting the idea of one-on-one negotiations with the U.S. “The U.S. is pointing a gun at us,” he charged. “The Iranian nation will not be intimidated by these actions.”

In a Jan. 30 column in the San Francisco Chronicle by William Luers and Thomas R. Pickering, the two former ambassadors made a strong plea for the West to recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium for civilian purposes and argued that if economic pressure increases no matter what Iran does, its leaders will have no incentive to make concessions.

Contrary to Israel’s claims that Iran is building a nuclear weapon, The New York Times reported on Feb. 13 that Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium is of far lower purity than is needed to make weapons, and some of that uranium has been converted into fuel for a research reactor. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said, “All weapons of mass destruction and nuclear arms need to be destroyed.”
Tom Koenigs, a member of the German parliament, points out that the nation George W. Bush called part of “the axis of evil” has opposed the Taliban from the beginning and taken in more than three million Afghan refugees. He argues that constructive involvement of Iran is key to finding a solution in both Afghanistan and Syria. “By not talking with Iran, the Western community is gambling away its influence over a key actor in the Middle East,” he says.

Many observers hope that Obama’s new security team of Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will result in a more conciliatory U.S. approach to Iran. But both appointees are chained by the ankle to a U.S. policy—strictly enforced by Congress—that precludes any agreement that recognizes Iran’s right to enrich uranium even for peaceful purposes as long as Netanyahu and his colleagues regard Iran as an “existential threat” to Israel.

Congress maintains a similar lock on U.S. policy toward the Palestinians on behalf of Israel, and it is almost exclusively punitive. Among Kerry’s first official acts was to call Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to assure him that Obama is “very interested in the peace process,” and promising to press Congress to restore the $500 million in aid it has withheld from the financially strapped Palestinian Authority. He could give no assurance that Congress would agree.

Congress’ obsessive allegiance to Israel was vividly demonstrated during the confirmation hearings of Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense. Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee largely ignored such issues as the size of the military budget and troop reductions in Afghanistan, and instead bullied him about his loyalty to Israel. Esther Riley, a member of Northern California Friends of Sabeel, confessed she was confused. “I watched the Senate Armed Services Committee grill Chuck Hagel on his suitability to be secretary of defense,” she said—“but for what country? I couldn’t tell whether it was for the United States or Israel.”

Like the hapless defendants in the 1930s Soviet show trials, Hagel buckled under the verbal hammering. He apologized for having said that Congress was “intimidated” by the Israel lobby, even while his hearings were demonstrating such intimidation. As a Republican senator in 2007 Hagel had said, “When people have no hope, when they have despair, little else matters. This is not about terrorists not liking freedom—tell that to the Palestinians who have been chained down for many years.” Hagel apologized for that statement, too.
The fact that as a senator Hagel consistently voted in support of Israel did not deter Republican senators from blocking his nomination until after a 10-day recess. Despite such delaying tactics, the fact remains that no one qualified to be secretary of defense can help but be aware that Israel tightly controls all movement of people and goods in the West Bank and Gaza, and observes no laws when it comes to seizing Palestinian land and water.

Palestinian students encounter so many obstacles when they try to go to school that the Human Sciences Research Council calls the situation “a denial of the right to education.” Israel’s restrictions on movement can even prove fatal. Twenty children were killed in February when their school bus crashed on one of the dangerous back roads West Bank Palestinians are required to use instead of main highways.

The Israel-firsters who dominate Congress seemingly are unmoved by such incidents or by the daily suffering caused by Israel’s occupation. The bombing of Gaza’s one power station in 2006 and during Operation Cast Lead, combined with the severe shortage of fuel caused by Israel’s six-year blockade, have left the people of Gaza without power for six to eight hours a day. Because Gazans often use candles to provide light, house fires are a constant hazard. It took only one candle to engulf the home of Hazem Dhair and his wife in flames on Jan. 31, killing the couple and their four children, ages 3 months to 7 years.

Rawan Yaghi, a student in Gaza, has described on her Web site what it feels like to live with F-16s constantly flying overhead. They regularly stage ear-splitting mock raids, and often actual raids that within minutes reduce homes and buildings to rubble. Two recent attacks aimed at assassinating militants instead killed 11 small children and their parents. “After a number of days of incessant explosions and making sure you’re still alive every five minutes,” she writes, “you start cursing Israel, the United States government, your political leaders and everyone participating in the daily act of terrorizing you.”

Obama plans to visit Israel and the West Bank in March in what Kerry said would be a “listening” trip. But since he will not bring solid proposals he is prepared to enforce, there is little hope for progress.The Palestinians for their part cannot negotiate successfully unless Hamas and the Fatah party can unite to speak for all Palestinians. Israel has done its best to prevent this from happening, sabotaging the effort at unity again in early February by jailing the Hamas official in charge of reconciliation talks.

As Israel’s closest ally, the U.S. inevitably shares in the resentment that Israeli actions arouse.That resentment encourages the rise of militant groups, not all of them connected to al-Qaeda, and attempts by the U.S. to eliminate them with drone strikes in turn help the militants recruit more members. John Kerry at his confirmation hearings spoke of the need to make sure that “American foreign policy is not defined by drones and deployments alone.”

There’s an equally urgent need to make sure American policy is no longer defined by the dictates of the Israel lobby and its supplicants in Congress.

Rachelle Marshall is a free-lance editor living in Mill Valley, CA. A member of Jewish Voice for Peace, she writes frequently on the Middle East.

An Act of Lawlessness Recalled

THE mysterious inmate of Israel’s maximum-security Ayalon prison known as Prisoner X, who was found hanged in his cell three years ago, was identified by a Kuwaiti newspaper in mid-February as one of the 26 Mossad operatives involved in the assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel room on Jan. 19, 2010. The newspaper Al Jarida identified the prisoner as Ben Zygier, an Australian immigrant to Israel who had worked for Mossad for 10 years. According to Israeli and Australian news reports, Zygier was not directly involved in the murder of al-Mabhouh but was involved in Mossad’s use of foreign passports in that and similar operations. The reports said also that he had set up a Mossad front company in Europe that sold electronics to Iran. They did not say for what purpose.
Zygier was about to disclose details of the passport fraud to Australian authorities when the Israelis kidnapped him from his place of refuge and imprisoned him on charges of treason. When Israeli opposition lawmakers, the media and civil liberties groups demanded more information, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu defended the secrecy with double­speak: “We are not like other countries,” he said. “We are an exemplary democracy. However, we are more threatened and face more challenges.” The question of how Zygier had been able to commit suicide in a cell that was constantly under surveillance remained unanswered. —R.M.

No comments: