Wednesday, June 23, 2010


This is an email that I sent to some friends about my feelings during this visit to Israel:
I know I haven't written anything to people about Israel, other than a few Facebook updates (all they said was that I had arrived and have watched some soccer games - the World Cup is definitely the most important public event going on now). I guess I've been feeling a bit depressed about the situation here. It just seems like such a mess.

When I arrived the immediate issue was of a court case involving a Haredi community in the West Bank where they were accused of discriminating against Sephardi girls in admission to the local school (state-funded by the way). The Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the discrimination was illegal, and then took the further step to order the Haredi Ashkenazi parents who had taken their daughters out of the school (in protest of the order to integrate it) - to go to jail for two weeks, both mothers and fathers. That happened a week ago. Most of the fathers went to jail, but none of the mothers, and today the court ruled that most of the mothers won't have to go to jail. In reaction to the ruling, there were extraordinarily large Haredi demonstrations all over Israel, including one of 100,000 people in Jerusalem! (Fortunately, I was nowhere near it).

And then there's the whole business with the flotilla and its aftermath. Everything I've read in the Israeli press about the makeup of the Israeli inquiry commission suggests that it's a joke, that the government set up this commission simply to mollify the U.S. (which actually isn't working, since the U.S. is still calling for an international inquiry). Israel has now been forced to lighten the blockade on Gaza because of international pressure, which is obviously better for the people of Gaza but makes the Israeli government look weak, which it is. And more flotillas are on their way, from Lebanon and Iran. Who knows how the incompetent Israeli government will deal with them - not well, I imagine.

See these articles on the planned flotillas: Lebanon has just told Israel that it will be "fully responsible" if Israel attacks the boats that will be coming from there. Iran is also sending a boat to break the blockade.
Iran said Tuesday it would send a blockade-busting ship carrying aid and pro-Palestinian activists to Gaza, fueling concern in Israel, where commandos were training for another possible confrontation at sea.

Israel warned archenemy Iran to drop the plan. The Iranian announcement came days after Israel eased its three-year-old blockade of Gaza under international pressure following its deadly raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla last month.

"No one in their right mind can believe that a ship sent by the ayatollahs and their Revolutionary Guards has anything to do with humanitarian aid," said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor. "I don't think there is one single country in this region and beyond that would let such an ayatollah ship come near its coasts."

Security officials said the prospect of an Iranian boat headed for Gaza had Israel deeply worried, and that naval commandos were training for the possibility of taking on a vessel with a suicide bomber on board. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose operational details.
Maybe I'm just being negative, but it certainly seems to me that if there is an armed encounter with the Iranian ship, it could be the beginning of a war.
From here it seems that Iran, Hizbollah, and Hamas are just getting stronger politically (and militarily). Honestly, I think a war with one or all of them is inevitable - I don't know when or how it will begin, but I think there will soon be a pretty terrible war. I was hoping that my anxious feelings about war were just projections from far away, but the reality here is bad, and it doesn't seem to me that the current government has the wisdom to deal with a real war.

From here it also seems that Israel is getting more and more isolated politically, in part due to the stupid right-wing government which can't even manage not to antagonize the U.S. government (today the Jerusalem municipality just announced its plans to tear down 22 Palestinian homes in Silwan, which is just down the hill from the Dung Gate, and build an archaeological park there - the U.S. government immediately protested).

The right-wing government also seems to view the simple exercise of certain civil rights as anti-Israel (or maybe the exercise by certain people of those civil rights). I was watching the news last night, and one of the stories was about a conference at Ben Gurion University in the Negev held to deal with the legal problems of the Bedouin in the Negev - many of their villages are unrecognized by the state and therefore get no state services, including running water and electricity. The conference was intended to help people learn about the relevant laws and how to file court cases. The local prosecutor's office accused Ben Gurion of anti-state activity and threatened legal action against the university for doing something entirely legal!


  1. I very much sympathize with your pessimism. I say this even though I view the dispute quite differently than you do.

    I differ on things such as the flotilla. My view is that the Obama administration is way out of line and is mortally harming Israel. While Netanyahu is often his own worst enemy, he has nothing bad to answer for having to deal with an Obama administration that is more than likely using Israel to appease Arab hostility and not treating Israel as an ally or a friend.

    I do not understand how you think that Netayahu ought to respond to demands from the US that would make Hamas stronger by weakening the blockade - a blockade supported by Egypt, the PA and, until Obama came around, the US government (with both parties supporting it). I should add: any other president would have stood with the Israelis.

    Why make excuses for Obama? His policy, not Netanyahu's policy, is going to create a terrible war. His policy of never saying no to Arab or Muslim demands and harping on Israeli peccadilloes makes it seem to Israel's enemies that the country is vulnerable. And, in that part of the world, weakness is fatal because the nature of the politics governments and societies in that region is, at this point, moer or eliminationist in nature.

    When the war comes - and it will -, a lot of people will die unnecessarily. And, the blood will mostly be on Mr. Obama's hands. And, it is not likely to be another war as it was with Hezbollah or Hamas. Iran will be involved.

    I just do not understand your thinking at all.

  2. I think that you are overlooking the true incompetence of the current Israeli government. Obama isn't G.W. Bush - he doesn't support everything the Israeli government does, but that doesn't mean he doesn't support Israel. The Netanyahu government never seems to miss an opportunity to stick its finger in the eye of the U.S., and at the worst possible moment. I think if Netanyahu were as clever as he thinks he is, he would at least realize that it's necessary to be smarter with the U.S. administration.

  3. Rebecca,

    So far as I can discern, Obama is the least supportive of Israel of president of any American president in my lifetime.

    I think your understanding of Netanyahu is simply wrong. He has surmised correctly that Obama's strategy is to pick fights with the Israelis in order to make the Arabs think that America is a friend of the Arabs. Which is to say, Obama would be picking fights with Shimon Peres if he were Israel's PM.

    In each of the so-called fights, Netanyahu has had no choice that would make Obama happy. 1. Obama says that the blockade cannot be sustained. Why? 2. On East Jerusalem, Barak has said he would not do any different than Netanyahu. So, why is Netanyahu wrong to stand on principle over a neighborhood the Israelis are not going to cede?

    You are seriously misreading Obama. His sympathies are not with the Israelis. His view is that Israel is an annoyance that has to be endured because most Americans support Israel and much of the money for the Democrats comes from Jews - who have, as of late, stopped donating.

  4. No, if the Labor party were ascendant (or Kadima had formed the coalition instead of Likud), Peres or Barak would work much more easily with Obama. I think you're misreading both Obama and Netanyahu. Netanyahu doesn't want to do anything, as far as I can tell. All he does is try to placate his various constituencies in order to stay in power. Obama is interested in actually making peace. The problem is that very few other actors in the Middle East are actually interested in making peace, and those are the ones who have to want it. (See Tom Friedman's column in today's New York Times - I think he's absolutely correct, both about Afghanistan and about Israel/Palestine).

  5. Rebecca,

    In that you have noted Lee Smith's article, you should read his very important book, The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilization. It is truly a tour de force that, frankly, shows your point of view not only to be wrong but to be, to be blunt, untenable. If a tenth of what Mr. Smith writes is correct, then there is no remote possibility of peace for Israel and pretending that there inovlves a radically misunderstanding of Arab politics.

    That, of course, does not mean that the Israelis should annex or settle the territories it conquered or that it should abuse Arabs, etc., etc., but it does mean that political calculations cannot be made on your assumptions, which, if even a part of the basic thrust of his book is correct - and it is - cannot be true.

    Returning to our discussion and your point: I stated that Netanyahu is often his worst enemy. But, it has to be asked - and you really need to answer, if not for me, then for yourself - what sort of American president states out loud that a blockade designed, whether or not poorly, to undermine the most pernicious, Antisemitic and eliminationist party in the entire world from thriving, should be ended? Obama's position, I think, is so wrong and so immoral as say pretty definitively that he is not pro-Israel. I do not see how you can see his policy as remotely pro-Israel even if you think that Netayahu's implementation of the blockade is wrong. To me, this is a defining issue - a with the Israelis or against them.

    Which is to say, the point of the flotillas and Turkey's support of the flotillas is to allow Hamas a free hand. If the blockade is lifted, Hamas has a freer hand. How can you fail to understand that?

  6. "...what sort of American president states out loud that a blockade designed, whether or not poorly, to undermine the most pernicious, Antisemitic and eliminationist party in the entire world from thriving, should be ended?"

    Perhaps one that notes that Gaza has 1.5 million people, 44.7% are under the age of 14, and that collective punishment is, under Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, a war crime.

    Punishing Hamas is one thing. Punishing an entire population is a war crime.

    What the blockade has done is give Hamas vastly tighter economic control in Gaza than it would have without the blockade, due to the Hamas monopoly on the smuggling tunnels, and it has made Israel look pointlessly cruel and arbitrary by banning items such as "light bulbs, candles, matches, books, musical instruments, crayons, clothing, shoes, mattresses, sheets, blankets, pasta, tea, coffee, chocolate, nuts, shampoo and conditioner."

    What's the strategic significance of banning nutmeg, or coriander?

    It's difficult to defend this as affecting Hamas' military capability, rather than as collective punishment of the general population. More to the point, Israeli officials have openly stated many times that the goal is to make PA rule in the West Bank look more appealing than Hamas rule in Gaza by making Gaza as miserable as possible while Hamas rules.

    And if anyone wishes to argue that collective punishment of all Gazans is justified, setting aside my note that 44.7% of the population are under the age of 1, because Palestinians and Gazans mostly support Hamas, that isn't true, either:

  7. Mr. Farber,

    Blockades are legal under International law.

    Your argument that the blockade is unjustified because Hamas is unpopular makes no sense. Your evidence shows that the blockade was working. Or, have you forgotten that at one time Hamas was fairly popular in Gaza. Consider: the decline in Hamas' popularity coincides with the blockade.

    Your argument that preventing the importation of things like light bulbs and coriander serves no useful purposes is belied by the fact that Hamas, by your own admission, has become less popular. Moreover, the items you mention, while things people want, are not things that people need. I suggest you consult Aristotle - and understand his point clearly - on the significance of the distinction between what people need and what they want. It is a critical distinction to anyone serious about the issue of alleged collective punishment.

    I agree with you that the Israelis have said that they want the Gazans to see that rejecting Hamas is a good thing to do. That is a perfectly legal aim. No one is starving in Gaza. People have what they need albeit not what they want. And, allowing people to have what they need is a whole lot better than how most other countries enforce blockades.

  8. Mr. Shavit's solution as stated in this Haaretz article, his understanding of the International situation - and the fact that it is the withdraw of the West which is driving the problem, is one for you to consider. He writes:

    Things have never been worse. The superpower under whose patronage we shelter is becoming increasingly weak and increasingly distant. As a result of these two mutually amplifying processes the Middle East is becoming unstable. There is no one to stop Iran's rise or Turkey's growing extremism, or to provide security for the moderates in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Palestine. The states to the east fear the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, while those to the north are building up their forces in anticipation of a nuclear Iran. And a firestorm of hatred for Israel raging throughout the world. Israel's legitimacy as well as its deterrence are eroding.

    Not to recognize this is to be, frankly, blind.

  9. Which part of "collective punishment is, under Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, a war crime" do you disagree with?

    You can't claim that Israel is not engaging in collective punishment when you laud the alleged success of the collective punishment: "Your evidence shows that the blockade was working. Or, have you forgotten that at one time Hamas was fairly popular in Gaza. Consider: the decline in Hamas' popularity coincides with the blockade."

    "Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949.
    Article [Display Introduction] [Display Full text] [Display articles] [Display commentaries]
    Part III : Status and treatment of protected persons #Section I : Provisions common to the territories of the parties to the conflict and to occupied territories
    ARTICLE 33Database 'IHL - Treaties & Comments', View 'COMART'

    No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.
    Pillage is prohibited.
    Reprisals against protected persons and their property are prohibited."

    "Your argument that preventing the importation of things like light bulbs and coriander serves no useful purposes"

    My argument isn't as to how effective a collective punishment it is or not; my argument is that collective punishment is a war crime. Forbidding coriander has no military justification, and the only justification for a blockade is military: not to engage in collective punishment of a civilian population.

  10. Gary,

    Citing to me from the Geneva Convention does not suffice to determine whether the Israelis are engaged in collective punishment or legitimate self-defense. I think it is the latter and that what you are doing is confusing the right of self-defense with the brief set forth by Israel's many enemies.

  11. What do you think constitutes illegitimate collective punishment? What's your definition?

    And can you provide a cite to international law, or standard international usage, the supports a claim that this isn't an idiosyncratic personal usage intended solely for one case?


  12. "No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed."

    Is it your claim that the Gaza blockade has not done this?

    How, exactly, is it "legitimate self-defense" to ban nutmeg and margarine and endless similar items from children?

    And if it is, why did the Netanyahu government reverse itself on many of these items last week?