Sunday, 9 October 2016

Netanyahu, don’t sell your soul to the Devil!

It is not often that I find myself criticising Israel’s policies.  Not that I agree with everything her governments (left, right or centre) did and do; it’s just that, given the amount of outrageously unfair, obsessively singular and often hate-laden ‘criticism’ directed at the Jewish state, I find Israel more deserving of my support and muzzle my occasional disapproval.  One may admit to failings in one’s own family; but the time to focus on such flaws is not when that family is harassed by hostile strangers with dark intentions.

Yet, even having said all that, the current – off-the-record, but widely-publicised – ‘rapprochement’ between the Jewish state and ‘certain Sunni Arab powers’ makes me uneasy to the point where I feel a need to trigger some debate around it within the Israeli society.

I know that many of my readers will, at this point, raise a quizzical eyebrow: how can a – however unofficial – warm-up in Israel’s relations with the Arab world be anything but a positive development?  Indeed, most people see it as both an achievement and a source of hope.  In his recent address to the ‘United’ National General Assembly, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu implied precisely that:
“… I have to tell you this: for the first time in my lifetime, many other states in the region recognize that Israel is not their enemy.  They recognize that Israel is their ally.  Our common enemies are Iran and ISIS.  Our common goals are security, prosperity and peace.  I believe that in the years ahead we will work together to achieve these goals, work together openly.”
Israel’s eagerness to finally embrace (and be embraced by) her neighbours, even after such a long and bitter conflict, brings credit to its people and its leaders.  Yet both people and leaders need to temper their enthusiasm a notch.

Let us first remember who these neighbours really are; we are not talking, unfortunately, about a reconciliation with the Arab nation; nor, regretfully, about a newly-reached understanding with its democratic representatives.  We are talking about ‘rapprochement’ with a bunch of dictatorial regimes that only represent themselves.  Prominent among them are the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies.  The unofficial leaders of that disreputable pack are the ‘royal’ family of Saudi Arabia – a country rivaling ‘Islamic’ Iran both in medieval practices and in its export of religious intolerance and terrorism.  Why, just the other day, I was reading – avidly – about the beginning of a revolt by Saudi women, who are finally trying to shed their Untermensch status.  The Saudi regime beheads people in the public square, applies amputations and beatings as ‘legal’ punishments, treats foreign workers like slaves – all while plundering and squandering away immense natural resources belonging to their people.  Is this really the kind of ‘ally’ that Israel wants?

Dira Square in the Saudi capital Riyadh. Known locally as "Chop-chop square",
it is the location of public beheadings. 151 people have been executed in 2015
and more than 100 in the first half of 2016. 

Yes, I understand that the ‘Islamic’ regime of Iran threatens both Israel (on several fronts) and the Sunni powers; I get that Western ‘leaders’ are increasingly unable to tell the difference between their arses and their elbows; and I realise that out-of-control, berserk Islamism casts its shadow over the entire region – and beyond.  Yes, I can see an argument that Israel should seek alliances with whoever opposes those immediate dangers – even with the Devil himself.  ‘The enemy of my enemy,’ and all that.  Netanyahu is hardly the first leader to choose ‘the lesser evil’.  Didn’t Roosevelt and Churchill ally themselves with Stalin in order to defeat Hitler?

And, of course, Israel would not be the first democratic country to pursue an ‘alliance’ with detestable dictatorial regimes in the Arab world.  After all, when Saudi and Emirati forces bomb targets in Yemen, they do so using weaponry systems purchased largely from the United States and UK.

But all this proves is that much of the West has lost its way and is wallowing in a foul- smelling concoction of moral relativism and hypocritical moralism.  Why should Israel follow them, rather than – as a true ‘light unto the nations’ – set a better example?

Not a woman in sight -- and no protest, either!

I’m not naïve, believe me.  I understand that often (too often!) it is common interests, not common values, that motivate alliances.  I am not necessarily averse to a bit of ‘real politik’; it’s short sighted politicking I have a problem with.

Even if Netanyahu (like so many democratic leaders) is willing to conquer his disgust, silence his conscience, cover his nose and get in bed with the Saudis – it is unclear what exactly would Israel stand to gain from this very distasteful mating.  Assume, for instance, that things come to a head and Israel needs to attack Iran’s nuclear sites – to prevent the mullahs, in extremis, from getting The Bomb.  How will the Saudi and Emirati ‘allies’ help?  Will Israel mount a ‘joint operation’ with the Saudis?  Very unlikely.  Will the Saudi Royal Airforce (equipped with British warplanes) help Israel in her next war with Hizb’ullah or Hamas?  Yeah, right!

While any putative benefits are doubtful, potential downsides loom large.  Let’s say it bluntly: those hideous dictatorial regimes aren’t going to be around forever.  They may hold on for a while, sure; but they are on the wrong side of history.  Using Middle Eastern tactics, Western weaponry and oil revenues, they might be able to alternately bully and bribe their population for a while – even for a decade or two.  But no lumpenproletariat, however bullied, bribed or indoctrinated, has remained acquiescent forever.  The Middle East is filled to the brim with frustration, simmering in the hearts of two hundred million young Arabs: unemployed, hopeless, maltreated and humiliated.  It is only a matter of time until their anger bursts forth, sweeping away the tyrants – whether ‘secular’ despots or Islamist chieftains – who have robbed them of their future and their dignity.  And when that happens, will Israel want to be perceived as an ‘ally’ of those despicable tyrants?  Or will she want to be found in opposition to them – and hence in a better position to immediately join forces with her natural allies, the forces of modernity?

I understand the temptation.  But those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.  Haven’t we been here before?

In the mid-1950s, besieged by relentless Arab enmity, Israel (under the prime-ministership of David Ben-Gurion) allied itself with Britain and France against Egypt.  The Jewish state wanted freedom of navigation and trade through the Suez Canal – but for the two Western powers this was a last gasp of imperial ambitions.  Ultimately, Israel gained nothing – except a tarnished reputation – from that misjudgement.  In hindsight, it was a mistake for the Jewish state (itself freshly liberated from the British ‘Mandate’) to cooperate with the forces of colonialism – even against a common enemy.

In the mid-1970s, the same keen desire to break the circle of Arab enmity and boycott compelled Israeli leaders to maintain close diplomatic and trade relations with Apartheid South Africa.  Both the late Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin have been involved in those relations – one can imagine the two Jewish leaders had to pinch their nostrils tight to shut off the stench of racism while pursuing that kind of ‘real politik’.  True, at the time most of the democratic world was happily doing business with that racist regime: Israel’s trade with South Africa ($200 million in 1986) was dwarfed by that of USA ($3.4 billion), Japan ($2.9 billion), Germany ($2.8 billion) and UK ($2.6 billion); the Arab world was selling it oil worth circa $2 billion annually.  Be it as it may, ultimately Israel gained very little from its relationship with South Africa at the time; but the perception of ‘friendliness’ between the two is still being used to try and delegitimise the Jewish state.

In late 1970s and early 1980s (mainly under Prime Minister Menachem Begin), Israel forged an alliance with Lebanese Christians (in particular Maronite leaders).  The motivation was similar: both parties perceived a common enemy in the Palestinian terrorist organisations acting on and from Lebanese territory.  From a military point of view, the Maronite militias provided Israel with scant assistance during the war that eventually broke out; but they were to perpetrate the famous Sabra and Shatila massacres, which were again exploited to tarnish Israel’s reputation.

In summary, every time Israel has chosen unsavoury ‘allies’ in the name of some misconceived ‘real-politik’, she has ended up gaining little and instead paying a heavy price in damage to her public image.  Promoters of ‘rapprochement’ with Arab despotic regimes – beware!

But there are also positive lessons that can be learned from the past.  In late 1970s, under Prime Minister Begin, Israel offered asylum to 360 Vietnamese ‘boat people’ – refugees fleeing for their lives from the Communist takeover of their country.  Israel granted them citizenship, full rights and government-subsidized apartments.

In 1993, at the height of the Yugoslavian civil war, Israel (then under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin) offered asylum – and permanent residency – to circa 100 Bosnian Muslims.  They were initially hosted by the kibbutz movement, but Arab Israelis soon became involved in helping them.

Syrian children

Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Israel has been helping thousands of Syrian Arabs – with no regard to faith or political opinion – by offering them free medical treatment.  But here is something else that she can do: offer asylum to – say – 500 Syrian children.  And, just so there is no doubt as to Israel’s purely humanitarian intentions, why not entrust them to the care of Israeli families of the same faith as the children – be they Muslim, Christian or Druze?  That – not cuddling up to hateful dictators – is the type of ‘rapprochement’ I would whole-heartedly support.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Non-final ‘solutions’

It’s been already quite a few years since I last sat in a university study room, trying to get my head around complex case studies.  But I remember well a conversation I had with a French colleague.  We had done some work together and, in-lieu of a relaxing break (oh, the irony!) we started to debate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  My colleague was very critical of Israel – everything was the Jewish state’s fault.  Most of all, he opined, Israel was ‘stealing land’ and undermining the ‘two-state solution’.  Negotiations, he said, were just a ruse, a stalling device.  “Why not just give the Palestinians their state and be done with it?” he demanded; “we should force you to do it!”  “Well, it’s not that simple…” I attempted to explain.  “It’s very simple”, he interrupted, with more than a hint of impatience in his voice.  He pulled a block of paper, grabbed a pencil and, with a few quick and decisive lines, sketched the map of Mandatory Palestine ‘from the River to the Sea’.  “That’s the map”, he pronounced, stabbing the roughly sketched elongated pentagon.  Then, with another assertive motion, he drew a horizontal line across the pentagon’s narrow waist, from west to east.  It originated somewhere in the Mediterranean and, I figured, ran through both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, before crossing the Jordan River.  “That’s it”, he declared, satisfied – and stabbed each half of the now divided pentagon, first the top half, then the bottom one.  “Now you guys take this bit and the Palestinians take the other bit.  I don’t give a s**t if you like it or not, you people have got to learn to get along with each other.  That’s it, problem solved!”  He was not joking – he was dead serious.  He spoke with the hauteur of a Louis XIV: he was ‘the state’ (or the ‘international community’); he must have felt like a new Charles de Gaulle, annoyed at having to deal with those pesky Algerians.

The 'Middle East Quartet' met in New York to promote a 'roadmap' for Israel and Palestine.
(photo from a previous meeting in Munich, Germany)

I was reminded of that discussion recently, when French politicians hosted a ‘summit’ aimed at re-starting ‘the Middle East Peace Process’ (which, despite the name, does not deal at all with the Middle East – as in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Egypt or Libya – but only with Israel and the Palestinians).  According to The Guardian,
“The participants [which did not include any Israelis or Palestinians] called on the two sides to genuinely commit to the two-state solution.”
More recently, the Middle East Quartet (which, likewise, isn’t really about the Middle East, but only about Israel and the Palestinians) has met in New York and issued a statement.  Among other things, they say that
“The Quartet principals [i.e. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, United States Secretary of State John Kerry and European Union High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Federica Mogherini] were joined by the Foreign Ministers of Egypt and France during the second part of the meeting to brief on their work to support Middle East peace.  All agreed on the importance of close and continuing coordination of all efforts to achieve the common goal of the two-State solution.”
As usual, the bulk of the opprobrium was directed at the Jewish state:
“The Quartet emphasized its strong opposition to ongoing settlement activity, which is an obstacle to peace, and expressed its grave concern that the acceleration of settlement construction and expansion in Area C and East Jerusalem, including the retroactive ‘legalization’ of existing units, and the continued high rate of demolitions of Palestinian structures, are steadily eroding the viability of the two-State solution.”
I was still ruminating on the French (from Louis VII to Napoleon, from George-Picot to President Hollande) meddling 3,000 miles away from Paris, when a friend e-mailed me.  She is a kind-hearted Jewish lady, who cares deeply for both Israelis and Palestinians and would like nothing better than to see those two populations living in peace, on either side of a secure border.  Yet all that talk about the ‘two-state solution’ was clearly getting on her nerves:
“I have always felt uncomfortable with the trope ‘two state solution’ in relation to Israel and the Palestinians.  It isn’t the two state bit which bothers me – it is this idea of a ‘solution’.  To start with, the word has a stark finality about it and this comes with dreadful connotations for Jews, with Hitler combining it with the word ‘final’.  He wanted to obliterate Jews – how did we come to rehabilitate this word when working towards peace with those who have also wanted to obliterate us? 
But there are other reasons to reject the word.  It is such an ahistorical concept.  When in history has there ever been ‘a solution’ to anything?  The moving hand of history weaves complex and varying stories; they change and evolve continuously – each ‘solution’ is but the beginning of a new ‘problem’.  Try putting History and Solution into Google and the fourth, fifth and sixth entries are about exterminating the Jews.  And the first three?  One is about therapy, the second about showing how one solves a mathematical problem and the third refers to an alternative history novel, in which the Axis wins the Second World War.”
My friend’s words got me thinking.  And, as always, I wanted to understand: why is it that the word ‘solution’ is so used and abused in the West?  How come that it is most frequently employed when discussing the Middle East?  And how come that, when discussing the Middle East, Westerners appear not just to desire ‘a solution’, but often to know what the solution should be – only to be suddenly possessed of a desire to impose it upon the people in question?

There’s nothing new in all this, I’m afraid.  The very term ‘Middle East’ is a quintessentially Euro-centric concept: it’s only ‘East’, of course, when seen from Europe, from ‘the West’.  The Middle East is very much ‘Middle West’ when seen from Japan, India or China.  As for America… well, it depends which way one’s looking; but under President Obama, America is looking Europe’s way.
What’s in a name?  There’s nothing new in the West’s desire to – ahem! – civilise the East (i.e., provide ‘solutions’ for the poor hapless ‘natives’).  And – interestingly – it has always been entwined with another, just-as-keen aspiration: that of relieving those same natives of various natural resources that they couldn’t possibly have a use for, themselves.  In past centuries, it was gold and spices.  Nowadays it is oil and gas.  Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose!

In 1920, the Western ‘solution’ was to divide the Middle Eastern spoils of war among the victors – the French and British colonial Empires.  The Arab, predominantly Muslim inhabitants of those former Ottoman lands did not think of themselves as residents of separate countries.  True: influenced by contemporary Western ideas, a small minority of intellectuals among them (including, for obvious reasons, a high proportion of Christians) wanted an Arab nation state; as for the vast majority, they showed no signs of wanting to be anything but loyal citizens of the Ottoman Empire-cum-Caliphate.

But the wishes of brown-skinned, primitive natives were of little concern to the new imperial masters.  They had their own economic and political interests – which demanded that the Middle East be partitioned in chunks, along arbitrary borders.

A list of those artificial ‘countries’ reads conspicuously similar to the ‘menu’ of perennial Middle Eastern conflicts.

The League of Nations awarded Mandates for 'Mesopotamia' and 'Palestine' to Britain
 and for 'Syria' and 'Lebanon' to France. 

There was Mesopotamia, a descriptive name invented by ancient Greeks and meaning ‘Land between the rivers’.  That was all Greek to the local inhabitants, who reverted – as soon as they possibly could – to the 7th century Arabic name ‘Iraq’, cousin of the Biblical ‘Erekh’ and grandson of the Sumerian ‘Land of the City of Uk’ (Ur Uk).

Map of Bilad Al-Sham (the Land of the Semites, translated these days as Greater Syria) was a province of the early Islamic Caliphate, before being incorporated in the Ottoman Empire. The province was subdivided into military districts called 'ajnad' (singular 'jund'), of which Jund Filastin (Palestine) was one. Jund Dimashq (the district of Damascus) was the largest and included most of present day Lebanon, Jordan and the southern half of present-day Syria. The Ottomans later changed the organisation repeatedly, redrawing and renaming the provinces. And so did the Western powers after World War I. 

There was, then, Syria – another name that the West inherited from the ancient Greeks, who simply mispronounced the old name Aššūrāyu (Assyria).  After the 7th century Arab Conquest, the province became known in Arabic as Bilad Al-Sham – the Land of the Semites; an apt name, given that its inhabitants spoke Semitic languages, Aramaic and Hebrew.  ‘Sham’, by the way (and not ‘Syria’) is the origin of the second ‘S’ in ‘ISIS’.  Bilad Al-Sham included not just what is currently known (in theory, at least) as the Syrian Arab Republic, but also present-day Lebanon and ‘Palestine’ (another Greek name derived from the Philistines, Hellenic colonists who – sometime in the 12th century BCE – had established a handful of cities on the Mediterranean shore).

Around the 12th century BCE, proto-Hellenic 'Sea People' settled on the shores
 of the Mediterranean (see the red patch on the map). They were called Philistines.
Which is why the ancient Greeks called the area Palestine.
The name stuck especially in the West, which inherited the classic Graeco-Roman culture.

Although earmarked for revival as the old-new Jewish homeland, ‘Palestine’ was partitioned by its British rulers, with the Jordan River becoming a border and its Eastern bank (the lion’s share of the land) fashioned into a ‘royal’ fief for Britain’s local collaborators – the Hashimite clan, which was in the process of being ousted from its native Mecca by a rival clan, the Saudites.  The newly established kingdom was ‘christened’ (ahem!) ‘Transjordan’ – literally ‘Beyond the Jordan [River]’.  Needless to say, that had nothing to do with the will (or lack thereof) of local inhabitants: the land was only ‘Beyond the Jordan [River]’ when viewed from London!

Although part of the League of Nations Mandate of Palestine,
the area east of the Jordan River was detached, prohibited for Jewish habitation
 and made into the Emirate (later Kingdom) of Transjordan.

To complete the ‘menu’, let me add Egypt (at the time a British ‘Protectorate’), Yemen (another British ‘Protectorate’), Somalia and Libya (Italian colonies)…

Not everything is the West’s fault, of course – there’s plenty of guilt to go around.  What the previous (Ottoman) rulers bequeathed the new ones was fairly rotten eggs; the Western colonial powers did a good job at cracking them; and the local ‘kings’ and ‘lifetime presidents’ proceeded to vigorously scramble those ‘eggs’ – hence the rather appalling mess we see today.

Drawn by Western colonial powers, the Middle Eastern borders are being erased.
(Caricature by Dan Nott)

But we live in the 21st century.  And much too little has changed in the approach of some Western politicians – in the almost 100 years that passed since those initial ‘solutions’.

They still bring to the Middle East their quintessentially Euro-centric conceptions of ‘peoples’ or ‘nations’.  In 1920, those were predicated on ‘race’ or ethnicity; these politically-correct, ‘multi-cultural’ days, they centre on the legal concept of ‘citizenship’ or ‘nationality’.  But Middle Easterners have never been divided in ‘races’; and why would anyone care about citizenship of states which – on top of having been invented by foreigners – afford little protection and much oppression?
Clan and tribe are strong elements of identity in the Middle East.  Beyond those, many define that identity along religious and linguistic lines.  The word that best translates the Western concept of people/nation in Arabic is أمة (pronounced ‘umma’).  It derives from the word ‘umm’ (meaning ‘mother’) and is often used in its Qur’anic sense: the ‘Nation’ or ‘Community’ of Islam.  Apart from religion, it is easy to feel a sense of common affiliation with people who speak the same language – or at least who are able to communicate intelligibly using a common idiom, such as literary Arabic.
‘Multicultural’, ‘enlightened’ Westerners may have a hard time coming to terms with this reality.  But unless they do, unless they shed the arrogance of ‘civilising’ the Middle East to their one-and-only understanding of humanity, they have only more blood and tears to contribute.

Take, for instance, the ‘Palestine problem’.  Leaving aside the Western name and the fact that ‘Palestine from the River to the Sea’ is a Western invention, some Westerners have now decided that there are two peoples/nations in that country – and hence there should be a two-state solution; other Westerners want to turn the country into a multicultural heaven in which everyone lives with equal rights ever after – hence a one-state solution.  Note how both ‘solutions’ juggle Euro-centric notions (in italics) and are predicated on the concept of people/nation with its changeable but always Euro-centric meanings: indeed, the ‘two-state solution’ uses the traditional understanding of the term ‘nation’, while the ‘one-state solution’ adopts a more recent meaning, one which a certain Western audience has come to regard as ‘progressive’, ‘modern’ or politically-correct.

As usual, the last thing those Westerners care about is the opinion of the ‘two peoples/nations’ in question.  In fact, they have convinced themselves that both sides in the conflict think and behave like Westerners; that their aspirations are Western aspirations.

Western concepts (whether 1920-style or ‘progressive’) may indeed sound familiar and reasonable to Israeli ears.  After all, the ancient Israelites may have originated as a super-tribal faith community, but centuries of dwelling as isolated islands of otherness have forged for the Jews an identity more similar to Western-style nationhood.

As for the ‘Palestinians’, however, who is to say?  Westerners have decided that Palestinian Arabs are ‘a people’ – mostly because Westerners are familiar and comfortable with that concept.  Make no mistake: I have no problem with Palestinian Arabs declaring themselves a people – if that’s how they feel and that’s what they wish.  But it is a ‘Palestinian’ decision – not an Israeli or Western one.  And the ‘Palestinians’ have yet to speak their collective mind on the matter.

Of course, there is the PLO, whose leaders must have ‘affirmed’ their peoplehood a zillion times.  But who do those ‘leaders’ represent?  Leaving aside the fact that they lost the only Palestinian elections that could (even superficially) be characterised as ‘free’; leaving aside the fact that they would lose the next ones, if they allowed them to happen; leaving aside all that, the half a million salaried PLO ‘apparatchiks’ and stipended ‘supporters’ are little more than mercenaries; their ‘political opinion’ is based on the bank account, not inner sense of identity.  As for Hamas (which won those ‘free’ elections), they are much more concerned with faith and much less with ‘nationhood’ in the Western sense of the word.

So what do ‘the Palestinians’ really want?  With no freedoms, no plebiscite and an oppressive, taboo-enforcing society, it is really hard to say.  The best we can do, perhaps, is to look at opinion polls.  Granted, those too are often politicised and are generally problematic in the absence of freedom; still, I believe it is useful to look at the latest (June-August 2016) ‘Joint Palestinian-Israeli Opinion Poll’.  It contains some (however mild) criticism of both the PLO/Palestinian Authority and of Hamas – which makes it perhaps a bit more credible in my eyes.

The poll was conducted in Israel by the (strongly left-leaning) Israel Democracy Institute and by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) in the West Bank and Gaza.  The European Union supplied the funding, while the German outfit Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung provided ‘partnership and support’.

Predictably, one of the questions was:
“Do you support or oppose the solution based on the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, known as the two-state solution?”
Circa 51% of the 1,270-strong Palestinian sample and circa 59% of the similarly sized Israeli sample expressed support for ‘the two-state solution’.  This is ‘the result’ that the poll authors and the Western funders promoted: a majority of Palestinians and Israelis still support the two-state solution.  But, of course, some would say, the two sides have divergent understanding of the term: Israeli politicians usually say ‘two states for two peoples’, meaning a Jewish-majority state and a Palestinian Arab-majority state; Palestinian leaders, on the other hand, never say ‘for two peoples’ – their ‘two states’ are an 100% Arab ‘Palestine’ and an ‘Israel’ populated by Jews and Palestinian Arabs endowed with equal rights – including the ‘right of return’ for the PLO-estimated 7 million Palestinian refugees.

This time, however, the pollsters asked the question again, using a more precise wording:
“Mutual recognition of Palestine and Israel as the homelands of their respective peoples.  The agreement will mark the end of conflict, the Palestinian state will fight terror against Israelis, and no further claims will be made by either side.  Support or oppose?”
When presented with this version of the question, support among Palestinians dropped to just 40%; 57% declared their opposition to the idea.  Among Israelis, support grew to 68%, with just 24% opposed.

In other words, only a minority of Palestinian Arabs support the ‘two-state solution’ – as understood by Westerners.  Interestingly, that minority dropped to just 20%, when an additional condition was added: that the Palestinian state be devoid of “major/heavy weapons”.  Even the putative deployment in Palestine of “a multinational force” only succeeded in raising the support among Palestinians to 36%.

But then the pollsters did something really interesting: this time they addressed only those who answered ‘opposed’ to the ‘Mutual recognition, etc.’ question and offered them additional incentives to change their mind to ‘support’.

A ‘bribe’ of $30 to $50 billion “to help in settling those refugees wishing to live in the Palestinian state and compensating them” persuaded 31% of the ‘opposed’ Palestinians to change their mind and ‘support’.  Perhaps surprisingly to some (but certainly not to me), the biggest change of mind occurred in Gaza (41%, compared to just 25% in the West Bank).  Gaza, of course, is home to considerably more ‘refugees’, who are likely to benefit personally from the financial windfall.  By the way, that same windfall to the Palestinians (combined no doubt with the idea of settling the refugees in Palestine, not in Israel) persuaded 37% of ‘opposed’ Israelis to swing to ‘support’.

But financial incentives are tricky.  No doubt, they would be welcome; but what happens after they have been paid?  Even more pertinently, what happens when much of the expected windfall is siphoned off by the PLO kleptocracy, while a lot is wasted through the corruption and incompetence of a ‘civil service’ populated by cronies?  What happens when the windfall fails to fulfill those great expectations?

Non-financial (or not-directly-financial) incentives are more interesting.

When offered membership of the European Union for ‘Palestine’, 32% of the Palestinian nay-sayers changed their tune to ‘support’ the proposed two-state deal.

The offer of a confederation with Jordan persuaded 29% of those ‘opposed’ to change their mind to ‘support’.

Now, that’s interesting.  Both joining the European Union and establishing a confederation with Jordan would involve a certain limitation of sovereignty, in comparison to an utterly independent, self-standing state.  With that in mind, perhaps, only 12% of Israelis opposed to the deal changed their mind when offered EU membership.  Yet rather than being put off, the yearning-for-independence Palestinians interpreted those offers as strong incentives.  In fact, within the constraints of the poll’s statistical significance, they reacted much in the same way to the direct financial incentive, to the offer of EU membership and to the idea of a confederation with Jordan.  Now, I can understand that EU membership may hold the attraction of freedom, good governance, rule of law and an indirect, but perhaps more tangible financial windfall.  But none of the above applies to a confederation with the Hashimite Kingdom of Jordan!

This may be surprising to those Westerners who only listen to themselves.  But it is hardly new.  West Bank ‘Palestinians’ have been ‘united’ with East Bank ‘Jordanians’ between 1948 and 1967 – and no ‘intifada’ took place.  They had representatives in the ‘Jordanian’ Parliament, ministers in the ‘Jordanian’ government and carried ‘Jordanian’ passports; in fact they carried them until 1988, when their ‘Jordanian’ nationality was unilaterally (and illegally) rescinded by the Hashimite king.  According to another opinion poll (run by An-Najah University and published in May 2016), 42.3% of Palestinians support the confederation project while 39.3% oppose it.

We do not know what ‘Jordanians’ think of such idea; opinion polls in that country are viewed as ‘a bridge too far’.  But, for whatever that’s worth, former Jordanian Prime Minister Abdelsalam al-Majali, announced (speaking in the West bank city of Nablus) that he personally supported a confederation.  That’s hardly evidence of popular support, of course; but in Jordan’s tightly controlled political environment, such ‘personal’ statements are inconceivable without the monarch’s blessing.

What, then, does all this mean in terms of that beloved Western ‘solution’?  Not much, perhaps.  There are no ‘solutions’ in the Middle East, only processes.  Processes that most Westerners do not understand.  Including the self-described ‘experts’, none of whom managed to predict – or even correctly interpret – a ‘Spring’ that (so far) killed 500,000 people and displaced ten million.

Let us not mince words: the Middle East is still the playground of Western politicians with neo-colonialist instincts.  As ever – they lack any deep understanding of ‘Eastern’ (especially Middle Eastern) issues.  As ever – they try to advance their own interests, with no regard for the unimportant desires and aspirations of ‘the natives’.  As ever – they envisage 'solutions' that involve drawing lines on a map.  As ever – they attempt to allay their own conscience (and dupe their constituencies), by wrapping a mantle of noble intentions around their rather base mindset.  Deep in their hearts, these white neo-colonialists despise what they see as uncivilised, swarthy natives, forever incapable of getting along with each other.  Like adults witnessing a fight among children, they patronisingly command those 'natives' to 'just shake hands and be friends'.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and
EU High Representative Federica Mogherini congratulate each other
in New York. They have finally set the Middle East right! 

In truth, neo-colonialist Westerners have little empathy with Israeli Jews or with Palestinian Arabs – and even less interest in understanding the conflict between them; what they’re really after is a 'solution' to their own worries – one that would provide: a) uninterrupted flow of oil and b) good-old docile 'Gastarbeiter,' rather than vindictive Islamists.

There’s only one short sentence that the Middle East owes these Westerners – and that’s ‘Mind your own business!’

Sunday, 4 September 2016

The Israeli Civil War

According to an old Israeli anecdote, Charles de Gaulle once complained to David Ben-Gurion, over a glass of (kosher) cognac: ‘Although I am Monsieur le Président, I have to deal with the Prime Minister, and he’s such a potz! You are sooo lucky, Davíd: your Président is just a figurehead; as the Prime Minister, you have all the power…’  ‘Oh, you have no idea!’ said Ben-Gurion with much chagrin.  ‘You see, I have to deal with Jews in Israel.  That’s currently two and a half million aspiring Prime Ministers and each thinks he can do a better job than I do…’

There are now almost 7 million aspiring Prime Ministers in Israel and about the same number in the Diaspora.  And while every Jew thinks s/he can be Prime Minister, some act as if they already are.

Those who closely follow Israeli politics should be familiar with the phenomenon of high-level retired security and military personnel (sometimes even still-serving high-level security/military personnel!) making controversial public statements on political issues.  Such statements, often quoted out of context and sometimes creatively ‘interpreted’, invariably cause embarrassment to the country’s political leadership.

The case of the so-called ‘Gatekeepers’ (former chiefs of the ‘Shin-Bet’ Internal Security Service who went public with their own analyses of the situation – mostly critical of Israel’s political leaders) is very well-known – not in the least because they are often cited, both by Israel’s sworn enemies and by various ‘concerned friends’.

What contributes to this situation is the fact that, in Israel, retired security and military ‘celebrities’ very often aspire to (and quite often achieve) top political positions.  Out of the six ‘Gatekeepers’, four have been involved in politics after retirement; a fifth (Yuval Diskin) flirted with politics for a couple of years, before deciding to remain just a commentator – at least for the time being; the sixth ‘Gatekeeper’ (Avraham Shalom) is the only one who could never enter politics: he had to resign from the Service, after allegedly ordering the summary execution of two captured Palestinian terrorists – and thus becoming a political ‘hot potato’.

Given Israel’s fully proportional election system, anyone aspiring to climb the ladder in politics must achieve national (rather than local) recognition.  This is particularly important for security chiefs who – until not so long ago – operated mostly in the shadows, away from the public eye.  And the sure-fire way to quickly achieve national (and also international) recognition is… to make controversial statements, of the kind that garner media attention and stir the interest of an already jaded public, one that is bombarded with ‘news’ umpteen times a day.  Combine that with the Israeli/Jewish penchant for wild exaggeration and bombastic communication (traits that anyone familiar with the country and its people is well aware of) and you’ve got an explosive mixture – at least from a media point of view; a perpetual generator of cheap journalistic ‘scoops’.

The latest such scoop concerns one Tamir Pardo, former head of the Mossad (Israel’s Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations).  His potential political ambitions are, for the moment at least, unclear.  But it’s very early in the day: Mr. Pardo retired from the Institute only in June 2016.

A public speech Pardo made a few days ago contained some controversial remarks.  Controversial enough, it seems, to attract the attention of Israeli media and – as always – of various interested parties outside Israel.

The Iranian Press-TV, for instance, stated with some glee:
“Israel heads toward civil war: Ex-spy boss”
The ‘forever-worried-over-Israeli-policies’ US Jewish organisation J-Street lamented:
“Mossad chief Tamir Pardo said that the biggest threat to Israel’s security is the conflict with the Palestinians and not Iran’s nuclear program.”
So what did Tamir Pardo actually say?

In an article entitled ‘Ex Mossad chief: Israel's biggest threat is potential civil war, not Iran’ the Jerusalem Post quoted Pardo as stating:
“There is no outside existential threat to Israel, the only real existential threat is internal division […] Internal division can lead us to civil war – we are already on a path toward that.  If a society crosses a certain line in its division and hatred, it is a real possibility to see a phenomenon like a civil war.”
The Times of Israel’s report, entitled Israel ‘at risk of civil war,’ says ex-Mossad chief, boasted the following quote:
“The internal threat must worry us more than the external threat […] If a divided society goes beyond a certain point, you can end up, in extreme circumstances, with phenomena like civil war.  To my regret, the distance [until we reach that point] is shrinking. I fear that we are going in that direction”
On the face of it, the two quotes are similar; though even ‘on the face of it’, one needs to ask why they are not identical.  Words are important; especially words uttered by a former Head of Mossad on such grave political matters.  Words printed between quote marks in a serious newspaper are supposed to represent accurate records of what has been said – untainted by journalistic interpretation.  How difficult can it be to produce an accurate transcript and translation?

But if we drill down beyond ‘on the face of it’, the two quotes show important differences not just in wording, but in substance, too.

According to the Jerusalem Post, Pardo said that there is no worrying external threat to Israel.  But according to Times of Israel, he implied the opposite: there is such an external threat, though it is not quite as worrying as the internal one.

The Jerusalem Post has Pardo talking not just about ‘division’ in the Israeli society, but also about ‘hatred’ – a rather more loaded term that does not appear in the Times quotation.  The Times also has Pardo qualifying that civil war can happen “in extreme circumstances”.  The Post’s quote contains no such qualification and has a graver, more urgent tone.

I won’t trouble you, dear reader, with a comprehensive analysis.  Suffice to say that all major Israeli media outlets (Israel HaYom, Ynet, Ha’aretz, etc.) covered the same speech; all included quotes from it.  Yet no two quotes are identical; and some differences are quite substantial.

And that’s just the quotes – before we deal with their selection and interpretation.  (And it seems that, the more ‘liberal’ the newspaper, the more liberal the interpretation, too.  Pun intended.)

The words “civil war” exert an undeniable fascination; but, while jumping on that juicy bone Pardo threw them, some of the distinguished members of the press appear to have a problem comprehending (and reproducing for the benefit of the readers) the overall message of that speech.

Ynet reports that, talking about divisions in the Israeli society, Pardo has also said:
"We live in a world dealing with a serious problem of distrust between the citizens and their governments.  Take, for example, the referendum in Britain several months ago.  After all, if you look into how many among the population truly understand the ramifications of leaving the EU, you won't even reach one percent.  The same applies to the primary elections in the US.  We need to be careful not to end up in a similar situation."
None of the other outlets I researched have reproduced this part of the speech.  And yet, if indeed this is what Pardo said, that’s extremely important context.  It changes the meaning of the whole thing, because Pardo appears to say that social divisions in Britain and USA are worse than in Israel.  The passage thus becomes less a criticism of a terrible, unique Israeli problem and more an advance warning to avoid “end[ing] up in a similar situation".

Other passages from Pardo’s speech appear to support such reading:
"At the end of the day, there is more that unites us than divides us, but there are those within Israeli society who prefer to emphasize what divides rather than what unites us.  I can't put a finger on one group or leader; (this phenomenon) exists among all sectors in the country. […] A state is a combination of unity and individuality.  We each have our own unique characteristics, but we also have things that unite us.  Some want to apply their unique characteristics to the entire society—and they fail."
This reads more like a very reasonable plea for unity and less like the hysterical diagnosis of some unique, incurable social pandemics.

The Israeli society is divided, no doubt about it; so is every other democratic society.  In Israel, there are Arabs and Jews, left and right, religious and secular, rich and poor, Ashkenazi and Mizrachi…  Some of these social fault lines are arguably unique to Israel; but so is the social glue that binds the country together.

Israel has fought excruciating wars, heard blood-curdling threats, suffered acts of infernal terrorism, withstood international isolation, experienced deep economic crises, absorbed massive rocket bombardments and took risky steps towards peace with existential enemies.  Claiming national interest, Israeli governments have – at least twice so far – forcibly evicted their own citizens from houses legally acquired.  Trials like these would stretch the social fabric of any nation; yet the patchy Israeli quilt was not torn asunder – not even close!

Meanwhile, real civil wars rage in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Somalia… Military coups are staged… no, not in ‘militaristic’ Israel, but in Egypt and Turkey.  And similar cataclysms are waiting to happen pretty much everywhere else in the Middle East, where dictators hold on to power (and hold together crumbling societies) by the skin of their teeth.  With all her undeniable challenges, Israel is the one oasis of stability in arguably the world’s bloodiest region.  I'm sure Tamir Pardo – when not speaking in front of journalists – would agree!

Not that things are peachy outside the Middle East: even the oh-so-civilised, oh-so-progressive Europe is facing fearsome challenges: the continent’s loudly-professed ‘liberal’ ideals fail when tested in the fire of mass immigration; extreme-left and extreme-right movements spring up like mushrooms; deemed ‘things of the past,’ ethnic divisions return with a vengeance; and ‘ever-closer union’ is now ever the butt of jokes and sarcasm.

In the UK, in France, USA and elsewhere, multicultural populations turn out to be not very cultured; while multiracial societies are more than a bit racist.

There are in the world those loudly boasting of ‘progressive steps’ to drown out the clunking noise of chains; in Israel, some are doing the exact opposite: trying to shroud bright achievements in shrill criticism.

Of course, no one can (or should) stop politicians, generals and mere people in the street from expressing their opinion; I just wish that they’d express it with a tad less bombastic hyperbole.  But then, these guys are all Jews, you see; they belong to that people of 14 million Prime Ministers – always self-critical, forever tormented by self-doubt and argumentative to a fault.  After all, what is the Talmud, if not a collection of arguments among Jews?

The media is wrong, you see: that guy who spoke of ‘civil war’ wasn’t Tamir Pardo, former head of the Mossad, but Tamir Pardo – aspiring Prime Minister.  He was just being Jewish.

So, despite what he and other ‘Gatekeepers’ may or may not have said, let me advise the Iranian mullahs in charge of Press TV: don’t hold your breath; to our concerned friends at J-Street I say ‘worry not.’  Israel isn’t collapsing into civil war anytime soon!

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Burkini Ban, Burkina Faso & Israel

Mao Zedong decreed that everybody should dress the same in China. 
I don’t like burqas; just as I did not like the choke-collar suits of Maoist China, the black garb of Charedi Jews or the tophats City bankers wore until not that long ago.

I don’t like them, mostly because I feel that people should not be regimented.  Wearing a uniform is loss of freedom, just like being in the army or in prison.  Plus, people wearing that kind of garb seem to be yearning to go backwards – to 7thcentury Arabia or to 17th century Poland – rather than forwards.

In recent weeks, several municipalities in France have decreed a ‘burkini ban’ – meaning that women using public beaches are fined if they wear that ‘Islamised’ type of costume.  Even more recently, a French ‘administrative court’ – whatever that is – has banned the ban.  Yet, apparently, the story is not over yet: some of the mayors involved (and quite a few national politicians who jumped on the bandwagon) have vowed to overturn the suspension that suspended the ban that banned the burkini… you know how it goes!

Even some burqa-inspired garb looks
trendy when Italians design it! 
Well, I may not like burqas (or indeed burkinis); but the idea of a ban is wrong, stupid and – perhaps worst of all – a populist distraction from the real issues.

It’s wrong because, just as people should not be told what clothes to wear, they shouldn’t be told what not to wear.  It is even more wrong because one particular distinctive garb was singled out and banned.  Yes, I know there are ‘reasons’ – there always are; but no: there are no excuses for double standards.  Or, rather, there are only dishonest excuses.

The burkini ban is stupid, because it completely lacks purpose.  What exactly is it supposed to achieve?  Will it prevent the radicalisation of young Muslims?  How exactly?  Which of France’s recent terrorist attacks would have been prevented, had the burkini bans been in place?

Finally – and worst of all – the burkini ban is a populist distraction.  This trifle of an ‘issue’ deflects attention from the very real and grave concerns: the radicalisation of young Muslims, the religious extremism which begets intolerance and terrorism.

The ban is not just a golden opening for political demagogues – of every tinge – to burnish their credentials; it’s also a cop out for everybody: an excellent excuse to duck the real challenges, while furiously debating a marginal issue.  What a superb opportunity for doing nothing – with great determination!

Even worse – the motivations are, let’s face it, obviously racist.  Granted, there was no obligation for the French state to open its borders and its population registry to a wide variety of people – including some who have not exactly been raised up in the spirit of  ‘liberté, egalité, fraternité’.  But once they did let them in, once they recognised them as French citizens, they can’t tell them what they are allowed to wear, now can they?

‘Special laws’ for one category of people?  Haven’t we seen that before, somewhere?  A bylaw is still a law.  And singling out one particular category of French citizens deserves just one name: no, it’s not ‘love of nudity’ – it’s ‘naked racism’!

Nor am I particularly surprised: in the latest elections for the European Parliament, the far-right Front National won a third of the votes.  And those European Elections took place in 2014, before the latest bout of jihadist terrorism that hit France.  (Contrary to popular belief, the fully proportional European Parliament elections are the best indicator of people’s real political opinions, which are masked by plurality election systems based on geographic constituencies.)

So much for the far-right.  There is, of course, quite a bit of far-left racism in France (and elsewhere in Europe).  In the process of crowning them as ‘oppressed’ and hence in perpetual need of their rights being ‘defended’ by Good (Marxist) Samaritans, the far-left denies Muslims their God-given agency; it infantilises them.  When it comes to Muslims, far-rightists demand a higher standard than for anyone else; far-leftists set the standards lower than for anyone else.  Both positions are racist because both deny Muslims their status as equal members of the human race – with the same rights and obligations everyone else has.

Prefers not to wear hijab (but wouldn’t be fined if she did):
Noura Abu-Shanab, an Arab Israeli and captain
of the women football team Hapoel Petah Tikva. 
Sure, France has seen quite a bit of Islamist terrorism; but Israel has seen more.  Circa 7.5% of French citizens are Muslims; the proportion is roughly 3 times larger in Israel.  And yet, in Israel not even the far-right tries to control how Muslims dress.

If you are a Muslim in Israel, you are entitled to have your personal status matters (such as marriage and divorce) adjudicated according to Shari’a – the Islamic law.  The qadis (traditional Islamic judges) receive their salaries from the state budget, as do the dayanim – their Judaic counterparts; and the Jewish State will apply the decision of the Shari’a court just as it does with that of a Beth Din – the traditional Rabbinical court.  French Muslims can only dream of that level of freedom and consideration.

An Israeli beach: the way to heaven is a matter of opinion...
And yet, it is the French government that, every year, is paying a lot of money to far-left Israeli organisations dedicated to inspecting ‘human rights’ in Israel.  That money, it turns out, would be put to much better use, were it invested in France.  There is, it seems obvious, a lot to be done to root out extremism and racism from the French society – both Muslims and non-Muslims.  Perhaps Israel – a good friend of that troubled country – should weigh in to prop up the increasingly shaky French democracy?  Lest it becomes more like – say – Burkina Faso?

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Breaking the Silent?

It’s December 2015 and, as I have done for the past 4 years, I attend the Limmud Conference, this time in Birmingham, UK.  It brings together circa 3,000 people (mostly British, but also American, Israeli and French Jews, and even a few non-Jews), who want to learn about Jewishness, Judaism, Zionism and humanism in general.

I am one of circa 100 people who came to listen to a representative from Breaking the Silence (BtS) – a group of former Israeli soldiers who claim that the IDF systematically and deliberately commits a whole series of wrongful acts, ranging from unethical behaviour to war crimes.

I am a very unusual member of that audience: I have served in the IDF, including (extensively) in the West Bank during two Intifadas.  I am, therefore, able to critically dissect the BtS narrative, gauging how it stacks up against my direct, personal experience.  The rest of the audience is made up, mostly, of British Jews.  Very few of them (if any) have served in the army – any army; they never had to take a weapon in their hands; they’ve never been in Gaza or the West Bank – let alone in Iraq or Afghanistan.  For most of them, this talk by Breaking the Silence is the first time they ever listened to a former Israeli soldier.  Or to any former soldier.

And that particular former soldier is telling them things that make them very uncomfortable: Israeli troops, he implies, systematically burst into peaceful, random Palestinian homes – for no reason other than to oppress; they destroy property for the sake of destruction; they beat people up; they even shoot innocent Palestinians for no good reason.  The IDF this guy describes is not an army conscripted to defend the country; it’s a pogrom mob.

The highlight of the BtS presentation is a short video.  In it, a soldier in IDF uniform and gear is shown beating Palestinian men at a military checkpoint. He even boasts and philosophises about it, attempting to justify his acts.

Stunned, the audience draws its collective breath.  This time, it’s not just a narrative, but a video.  No longer can they deny that things like these truly happened – not even to themselves; it’s all there, straight from the horse’s mouth.

No, the Breaking the Silence chap isn’t lying – that beating did indeed take place. He isn’t technically lying but – I’d strongly suggest – he is engaging in deceit.  Because this video has not been recorded by Breaking the Silence, but by… the IDF’s own Education Corps. There is no ‘silence’ to break: the deed hasn’t been covered up; this video has actually been used by the IDF for training purposes – to teach other soldiers how not to behave. As for the offending soldier in the video, he has been apprehended, tried and sent to prison for his wrongdoing.

In fairness, the BtS guy did mention those facts. But he did so quickly and in passing, after showing the video and not before. And I wonder: how many people, in that stunned, shocked audience, have picked up those rather key details?

During the short Q & A session that followed, I challenge the BtS guy: did his unit really burst into random Palestinian homes, with no reason?  No, his unit didn’t – but other units did.  Did he see those ‘other units’ with his own eyes?  No, he didn’t – but he heard about it…  I want to keep on challenging him, but the ‘fixer’ (a British Jew from a well-known ‘pro-Israel’ – ahem! – organisation) intervenes to shut me up: they have to move on, other people also want a chance to ask…  I have apparently asked the wrong questions; questions that might ‘spoil the effect’ from the ‘pro-Israel’ fixer’s point of view.

I’ve been reminded of all that recently, when I was offered – by the virtual television channel J-TV – a chance to debate with a Breaking the Silence spokesman, a chap called Avner Gvaryahu.  (The short video of that debate can be viewed here or here).

Avner Gvaryahu speaking on J-TV

Fair disclosure: I despise Breaking the Silence.  It’s not that they hold opinions that are very different from mine; frankly [sigh], a lot of people hold opinions very different from mine!  Much as I disagree with them, these BtS chaps are entitled to their opinion; they are even entitled to promote those opinions and try to persuade others.  But the way they go about it is, in my view, thoroughly anti-democratic and intellectually dishonest.

‘The only narrative in town’

Upon reaching the J-TV studio, I learn – to my huge surprise – that the BtS spokesman has refused to be interviewed concurrently with me.  I say ‘huge surprise’ because Avner Gvaryahu does not know me from Adam!  Yet not confronting this unknown individual (me!) is so important to him that he carefully ascertains with the producer that he’d be speaking unopposed – before assenting to be interviewed.  So, rather than a debate, the video had to take the odd format of two separate interviews: first Avner will have his say; only when they’ll finish with him will I be allowed to react.  But why?  I am not a notorious terrorist (or even a not-so-notorious one!)  I do not incite to violence and strife.  Why not share the stage with me?

Well, it turns out (regretfully) that this isn’t about me at all – as mentioned I am not that famous.  It’s just that speaking unopposed and largely unchallenged is what Breaking the Silence activists like to do outside Israel.  And if, by chance, someone like me happens to be in the audience, then that someone is quickly silenced.  Only Breaking the Silence is allowed to… well, break the silence!  It’s the old ‘freedom of speech for me, not for you’.

On some level, it’s understandable: as I mentioned in the interview, Gvaryahu’s own comrades, those who served with him in the same unit,accuse him of lying.  They did so not anonymously, but openly.  And this may be an unpleasant experience, were it to happen face-to-face.

Breaking Israel’s arm

On their website, Breaking the Silence define the group’s aim as
“to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories.”
To a naïve foreigner, this might sound logical.  To an Israeli, it sounds a bit weird.  After all, most Israelis – men and women – have served in the army.  And pretty much everybody who did, has at some point (during their regular service – 3 years for boys, 2 for girls – and/or during their annual reserve duty) served in the ‘Occupied Territories’.  They have manned checkpoints, stood guard in sensitive places, patrolled the area and confronted violent riots.  That is, trust me, a lot of ‘reality‘ and plenty of ‘exposure’.  What can Breaking the Silence add to that?

Still, there is nothing wrong with “expos[ing] the Israeli public” to any kind of “reality”.  The only problem is… that’s not what BtS does at all!

Unless one believes that, in order to “expose the Israeli public to the reality”, BtS activists have to travel to Sydney and Cape Town, to Berlin, Brussels and San Diego.  Because that is where the group is most active – abroad.  BtS activists have become true globetrotters: in the past three years or so, they have delivered many dozens of presentations, speeches and interviews not just in North America and Europe, but in places as remote as Australia and South Africa.  Even the BtS ‘guided’ tours of Hebron and East Jerusalem target as a rule foreign visitors, not Israelis.  Hopefully, Avner Gdalyahu still uses Hebrew in conversations with his family and friends; as for his ‘silence’, it is almost always broken in English!

Globetrotters: map of Breaking the Silence international activities (not including interviews, newspaper articles, tours of the West Bank, etc.), September 2012- June 2015. No lecture in Greenland yet, but watch this space! 

Let me be clear: much as I disagree with their narrative, I would find nothing wrong with BtS promoting it in Israel; after all, trying to persuade one’s countrymen is what democracy is all about.  Most Israelis see control over parts of West Bank not as ‘good’ in itself, but as ‘the lesser evil’.  So, if BtS has found a way to relinquish that control without critically endangering the Jewish state (a way that has somehow escaped everybody else’s scrutiny), then they are very welcome to suggest it.  But, as mentioned, that’s not what they are doing.

Avner Gvaryahu was – to put it mildly – liberal with the truth during the interview, when he tried to present BtS overseas activities as ‘occasional’ or ‘opportunistic’:
“I’m here [in the US] to pursue my Master’s [degree], that’s what brought me here.  Breaking the Silence does not have an office in New York  […]  But what we try to do when we have an opportunity like this when I’m here in the States or when we have a representative visiting the UK, for example, then we always try to reach out to communities we believe are crucial for this discourse…”
I do not know who pays for Avner’s academic studies; I do know that he is listed on the group’s website as the Breaking the Silence ‘Diaspora Programming Coordinator U.S.A’.  As for the BtS representative I heard at the Limmud Conference back in December, he wasn’t just “visiting the UK” to do some Christmas shopping!

Unfortunately, their activity abroad reveals the group’s ‘mission statement’ as a naked lie: Breaking the Silence strives not “to expose the Israeli public to the reality”, but to indoctrinate foreigners who know little about that reality.  BtS works “to expose the Israeli public” alright; only not “to the reality”, but to external pressure.  Their chosen tool is not persuasion, but anti-democratic coercion.
In passing, let me remark that, from Breaking the Silence’ point of view, the recourse to external coercion is an admission of failure.  Those who command compelling arguments have no need to twist arms.  Having miserably failed to persuade Israelis – i.e. those who actually serve in the IDF and know the situation on the ground – BtS is now attempting to bully them, by raising the spectre of ‘diplomatic’ and undiplomatic external pressure.

Breaking the deafening noise

One does not need to read as far as the ‘mission statement’ to find deceit.  It is actually blatant even in the group’s name.  Which insidiously suggests that there’s some kind of (imposed, conspiratorial or just ignorant) ‘silence’ around the issue of ‘occupation’; or around IDF ethics.

Is there really a ‘silence’ that needs to be ‘broken’ by some courageous activists endowed with superior moral backbone?  To test that hypothesis, I have performed the following simple experiment: in a Google search box, I have typed the Hebrew words “הכיבוש הישראלי” (“the Israeli occupation”) within quote marks.  Then I hit ‘Enter’.  Wonders of technology: the search took all of 0.32 seconds to return no less than 52,900 hits.  That’s a rather roaring ‘silence’!  And I’m not talking about obscure publications, either: among the top results I noticed articles published on Walla (one of Israel’s top Internet portals) and Ynet (a popular news portal owned by a group that also operates one of Israel’s leading printed newspapers).

As for IDF ethics, just Google “אלאור אזריה” (El’or ‘Azaria, the name of the IDF soldier who shot dead an already wounded and apparently incapacitated Palestinian terrorist).  I did; this time, Google returned… 571,000 hits in just under a second!

But that’s in Israel.  What about global coverage?  Is the world silent about ‘the Occupation’?  A search for the terms BBC, Israel and “West Bank” took 0.36 seconds to return 519,000 hits.  I confess I did not read them all; but the top pages contained links to BBC news items referring to Israel’s occupation of the ‘Palestinian territory’.  By the way, changing the search terms to BBC, Turkey and “North Cyprus” produced only 24,000 hits…

There is no ‘silence’.  It’s a lie.  What BtS wants to ‘break’ is not a non-existent ‘silence’, but those very audible opinions they disagree with.

Breaking the truth

More on Breaking the Silence’ tenuous relationship with the truth:

Part and parcel of the group’s narrative is the systematic attempt to suggest (subliminally at least) that that narrative is dominant, that it is general, typical or prevailing.  As usual, I’ll start from the group’s own website.  It states:
“Breaking the Silence is an organization of veteran combatants who have served in the Israeli military since the start of the Second Intifada […]
Soldiers who serve in the Territories witness and participate in military actions which change them immensely.  Cases of abuse towards Palestinians, looting, and destruction of property have been the norm for years, but are still explained as extreme and unique cases.  Our testimonies portray a different, and much grimmer picture in which deterioration of moral standards finds expression in the character of orders and the rules of engagement, and are justified in the name of Israel’s security. While this reality is known to Israeli soldiers and commanders, Israeli society continues to turn a blind eye, and to deny that what is done in its name.  Discharged soldiers returning to civilian life discover the gap between the reality they encountered in the Territories, and the silence about this reality they encounter at home. In order to become civilians again, soldiers are forced to ignore what they have seen and done. We strive to make heard the voices of these soldiers, pushing Israeli society to face the reality whose creation it has enabled.”
Note the loose language: BtS appears to speak generally in the name of[s]oldiers who serve in the Territories”, rather than in their own name – a small number of “veteran combatants” (indeed, a negligible minority, considering the IDF headcount)!  In other words – Sancta Chutzpah!! – they presume to speak also in my name (I have served in an IDF fighter unit for many years – as a regular soldier and reservist; may I call myself a “veteran combatant”?).

Note also the attempt to draw a boundary (drive a wedge?) between“Israeli soldiers and commanders” on one hand and “Israeli society” on the other.  But, as I mentioned already, the majority of the “Israeli society” has served in the army; and most have served, at some point at least, in “the Territories”.  How, exactly, is that large majority “forced to ignore what they have seen and done”??

In a democracy, minority opinions are legitimate; but pretending to represent the majority view is simply dishonest.  Nor is that dishonesty deployed unknowingly – it’s deliberate.  Since the group’s most rewarding targets are people who know little about IDF and “the Israeli society”, part of the BtS tactic is to cast as large a shadow as possible.  Hence the term “veteran combatants”, rather than just ‘former soldiers’; hence the refusal to be interviewed together with other “veteran combatants”; and hence the pretence of speaking on behalf of a majority oppressed by some sort of ‘societal’ conspiracy.

‘National crimes’

But such dishonesty – however fundamental – is just the tip of a very large iceberg.  It would take months and tonnes of ink to unravel the entire web of dangerous lies smuggled in among innocuous truths, the character-murdering innuendo, the subliminal rather than obvious deceit.  I’m afraid that my donors, foreign or not (I have none) aren’t paying for all that time and ink.  But let me at least point out a couple of the more insidious lies.

One of the most morally reprehensible parts of the group’s ‘method’ is the sweeping generalisation.  It starts with an unverifiable ‘testimony’; it always ends with that one very shaky ‘data point’ being not just ‘enriched’ beyond recognition, but also declared – evidence be damned – as ‘the way Israel behaves’.

In October 2013, Iran’s Press TV channel broadcast a video starring Avner Gvaryahu.  Press TV’s running commentary explained:
“Avner Gvaryahu, leader of a group called Breaking the Silence, was invited to the United Nations to speak about war crimes he had participated in and witnessed as an Israeli soldier.”
The video than shows Gvaryahu stating, in front of the UN audience:
“When I was a soldier in the West Bank in 2004-2007, the orders we got… any encounters with Palestinians holding a weapon… we shoot to kill.  You can go and seek through our testimonies at different times and in different years… it was someone holding a weapon… sometimes it was enough for someone in a balcony to hold a binocular, or cell phone… or standing on a rooftop…”
Firstly, note the ‘smooth transition’ from the ‘personal testimony’ (“the orders we got…”) to generalised hearsay (“at different times and in different years…”).  Few people listening to Avner’s words would have picked up that subtle shift.  Yet there is a huge difference in the ‘quality of testimony’ between the two.  As there is, of course, morally speaking, between shooting “Palestinians holding a weapon” and those “hold[ing] a binocular, or cell phone… or standing on a rooftop”.

In passing, let me mention that even the ‘personal’ part of that testimony sounds very much like a lie: in my circa 20 years of regular and reserve service (including during the intifadas) I have never heard such an order.  Quite the opposite: we were instructed in IDF’s Open Fire Standard Operating Procedure – the gist of it is that live fire is permitted only when in real and immediate danger to life and limb.  I remember that SOP well – it was drummed into us every time we went out on duty.

Avner Gvaryahu is not the only ‘silence breaker’ who uses sweeping generalisation.  Let me give you another example.

I have already referred to the case of IDF soldier El’or Azaria.  On March 24, 2016, in Hebron on the West Bank, two Palestinian men attacked and stabbed an Israeli soldier.  Both attackers were shot by other troops; one of them apparently survived, though seriously wounded.  Azaria arrived at the scene three minutes later, along with other soldiers present in the area.  He proceeded to shoot the surviving Palestinian attacker, who was lying on the ground, and killed him.  This scene (though not the preceding attack) was captured on camera by a Palestinian working for the BtS ‘sister organisation’ B’tselem – and the group promptly publicised it as yet another example of ‘Israeli crimes’.

Within ten minutes of the shooting, however, the ranking IDF officer on the scene had questioned Azaria and had reported the incident up the chain of command.  Even before B’tselem’s video had been published, a decision was made to open a Military Police investigation.  Azaria was soon indicted for manslaughter and is currently being tried in a military court.  He pleaded ‘not guilty’ and claimed that the wounded attacker had suddenly moved, causing him to suspect that he might either detonate a suicide vest, or reach for the knife.

The incident has caused a great deal of public debate in Israel, with politicians and even high-ranking officers weighing in.  Opinions are divided – in the sense that some tend to believe Azaria’s version of events, while others believe he is lying.  What nobody actually claims is that it is permissible to shoot even a terrorist, once he is ‘hors de combat’.

Whether Azaria is guilty of manslaughter or not boils down to whether he had reason to believe the attacker was still a threat – and that’s a matter for the court to establish.  But a couple of facts are not disputed:
  • Nobody ordered Azaria to open fire; he made the decision himself and acted before anyone could stop him.
  • There was no attempt to cover up the deed – it was reported according to procedure.

But the facts above were not enough to stop Breaking the Silence Executive Director Yuli Novak from turning the incident into an indictment not of El’or Azaria – but of the entire IDF, plus Israel’s political leadership and the Israeli society as a whole.  The kind of en-masse accusation that can never be debated in court; the kind of collective indictment which, had it been uttered by an Israeli against Palestinians, would have been called ‘racist’ by Yuli Novak herself – first and foremost.

From BtS to BDS: placing “all of Israeli society” in the dock

No doubt in order to “expose the Israeli public to the reality of occupation”, Ms. Novak (who, I can assure you, speaks excellent Hebrew) has proffered that all-encompassing accusation in an article she published in English, on a far-left portal.

There, she perorates:
“Azaria exposes, in his testimony, the untruthfulness in that Pavlovian reaction, and in his line of defense, he hits back. No, he accuses: ‘you are willful hypocrites, because this is far from an unusual occurrence. This is what we do there. This is how you have taught me to act. The violence, the light finger on the trigger, the disregard for human life, the use of force and the oppression – that is the policy, that is the worldview held by you and me, that is the reality being upheld over there in the West Bank. So if I am tried in court, you all are culpable.’In this sense, Azaria joins those soldiers who have broken their silence. He places a mirror before us, the public, and lets us see our real face, the true face of the occupation. And in this respect he is correct: not only he should face trial, everyone should. We all should. All those who support the occupation, the hatred, the violence, the racism, and the settlements; not to mention all those who believe the occupation must be ended yet divert their gaze from the destruction it wreaks upon Israeli society.”
Note how the alleged testimony of one soldier indicted for manslaughter – and hence, in all likelihood, willing to say anything it takes to avoid conviction – is leveraged to lift a huge crimson brush and paint with it not just his hundreds of thousands of colleagues, but an entire people.  The act of one soldier who (at worst) has unlawfully killed an attempted killer is elevated to the level of horrendous ‘national crime’.

Incidentally, note also the secondary quotation marks (from “you are willful hypocrites…” to “you all are culpable”); those quote marks are there in the original.  Most reasonable people seeing quotation marks will conclude that this is exactly that: a quote, i.e. an exact rendition of Azaria’s words.  But, although I have spent a couple of hours researching, I can find no other source quoting that passage.  Nor is such argument consistent with Azaria’s line of defence, which – as mentioned – is actually based on his perception of threat from the wounded attacker.  I twitted BtS to enquire whether that was an exact quote – but received no reply.

I did find, however, the Hebrew version of the article, published on the popular portal Walla about a fortnight before the English version.  Interestingly, the Hebrew article omitted the quote marks.  Why were they added in English?  Did El’or Azaria actually say the words Ms Novak attributes to him?  Or is this not a quote at all, but rather Yuli Novak’s interpretation of his testimony, words she puts in Azaria’s mouth to help her make her point?  If the latter, then that would constitute yet another attempt at deceit.  Perhaps Ms. Novak would care to elucidate the mystery, by providing the source of her quote?

BtS Executive Director Yuli Novak:
IDF is "a bunch of people who blindly, uncaringly... Who just want to conquer..."

Lies, damn lies and testimonies

But what about the elephant in the room – you’ll ask?  What about the ‘soldiers’ testimonies’ that BtS collects and publishes?  Everything else notwithstanding, do they not point to a problem?

Well, I’ve read those testimonies.  I mean, I’ve read the actual text, not just the sensationalist titles, which often bear little resemblance to the story.  What I read in those anonymous ‘testimonies’ is a lot of hearsay, a lot of innuendo, posturing, bluster, plenty of (generalised, of course) accusations of ‘criminal thinking’, ‘criminal speaking’ and ‘criminal attitude’, but few instances of actual, severe misconduct.  Occasionally – very occasionally! – one finds an instance which (if true!) actually would constitute a crime and would deserve severe punishment.  Of course, one finds things like that (and worse, much worse) in every army.  Which doesn’t mean that they should be tolerated in IDF; and we wouldn’t – given a chance to investigate them.  But of course, that chance is denied when anonymous ‘testimonies’ are used only to denigrate en-masse, rather than scrutinise and correct.

The BtS database includes a total of 590 ‘testimonies’, covering 17 years: from 1997 to 2014.  The current IDF headcount is circa 620,000 (175,000 regular troops and 445,000 reservists).  Tens of thousands of young men and women join the army every year, while others leave and become ‘ex-soldiers’.  Even assuming that all testimonies are genuine (which one has to take on trust, as BtS refuses to produce any verifiable evidence), 590 is a minuscule sample.  But is it even a random (let alone representative) sample?

To figure that out, one should ask: why are all testimonies negative?  Why do they all (100% of them, as far as I can see) paint a negative – and only negative – picture?  How likely is it that hundreds of thousands of people – conscripted from all walks of life, from widely dissimilar social strata, encompassing a broad spectrum of ideological and political views, etc., had nothing positive to say about how they and their colleagues behaved in the army?  How likely is it that they all seem to agree with Breaking the Silence?  Let me tell you: extremely unlikely!  Look at the huge spectrum of opinions one finds in the Israeli media and in the country’s political discourse.  Look at the number of political parties.  Finally, look at Israelis’ voting patterns.

So how come that all the testimonies Breaking the Silence publishes appear to support Breaking the Silence views?  Let me put it bluntly: it looks like the ‘testimonies’ (if indeed they are real!) are cherry-picked.  It looks like they are carefully selected.  Were the BtS ‘interviewees’ pre-selected?  How?  By which criteria?  Are ‘testimonies’ post-selected?  How and why?

In the recent J-TV interview, Avner Gvaryahu appears to claim  there's no foul-play:
“It’s silly to think that we have to… err… get specific kind of testimony in order to do our work – we just have to listen to the soldiers…”
Well, I’m an ex-soldier, just like the BtS interviewees allegedly are.  May I testify?  Will BtS ‘listen’ to me, will it publish my testimony?  Or is mine the ‘wrong type’ of testimony, i.e. not the type their donors are willing to pay for?

I’m afraid that Avner’s version is contradicted by several testimonies by former soldiers who were approached by BtS.  For instance, that of Josh Levitan (I have selected this testimony because the UK-born Josh delivered it in English).  Mr. Levitan, who has served during the latest conflagration in Gaza (2014), remembers how he was later approached by a Breaking the Silence activist:
“He wanted to hear that I’ve done something wrong, or maybe there was something that I’ve seen or done, or been part of – that I wasn’t happy about… you know, something that I feel like I shouldn’t have done and perhaps the reason I’ve done it, maybe not because of… through my own choice, maybe I feel I was forced into, something that I didn’t choose to do.”
Josh felt that he was being tricked into saying something he did not actually mean, which is why he ends his video with a warning to other soldiers that might fall victim to BtS tactics.

Nevertheless, ex-soldier Joshua Levitan was interviewed by Breaking the Silence.  He testified that he did nothing wrong – nor was he ordered to.  But if you look for Josh’s testimony among the 590 that BtS has published (including in their latest report entitled ‘This is how we fought in Gaza’)… well, you’re looking in vain.  Breaking the Silence has obviously decided that Josh’s testimony told the ‘wrong story’ – so they did not include it in the report.  How many other such testimonies were discarded because they did not fit the ‘desired narrative’?  This is not honest research, but (at best) cherry-picking data points that support a pre-determined conclusion.  Unsurprising: the five (government-funded) ‘Non-Governmental Organisations’ that paid BtS big money for this report are all ultra-critical of Israel.  Had the research led to the conclusion that the vast majority of IDF soldiers agree with Josh – this would have been the last report they ordered from BtS.

Listen to [which] soldiers?

But let us come back to Avner Gvaryahu’s J-TV interview.  He went on to claim:
“… And if you guys, back in the UK, or my government back in Israel would just listen to the soldiers… we believe we could move forward…”
Sounds grand – but it’s just cheap demagoguery.

In Israel, soldiers (and most of us are or have been soldiers) put their life on the line every time they don the IDF uniform.  They deserve to be heard.  The problem is, Avner’s words are just more deceit aimed at creating the impression that most soldiers agree with him.  We don’t.  If we did, he wouldn’t have to travel abroad to find naïve supporters.

Why would a government (most of whose members have themselves been soldiers) “listen to [a fringe minority of ex-]soldiers”, rather than to the will of the electorate – as governments are supposed to do in parliamentary democracies?

And why would “you guys, back in the UK […] listen to [a tiny minority of ‘specially selected’ former] soldiers”, rather than to the majority of Israelis – who also happen to be ex-soldiers?

Do “listen to the soldiers”, by all means! Just don’t ignore us. Our story may be less newsworthy – you won’t read it in The Guardian.  We are less visible: not paid to ‘break the silence’, we have to earn our bread ‘by the sweat of our brow’.  We are the silent majority; don’t let them break us!