Category Archives: Politics and Policy

The Balcony — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Barak and Bona Washingtonia are one of those couples who have grown apart over the years. Barak’s an army buddy of mine, a regular guy, and at least from my point of view he’s as great as he always was. Bona, who’s an old friend of Ilana’s used to be a lot of fun, too, but in recent years she’s drifted into this weird hypernationalist New-Agey Breslov stuff and it’s been a strain for Barak. More than a strain. The poor guy is having a real tough time, especially now that the kids are all out of the house.

So when he invited me and Ilana over for Friday night dinner, we felt a special duty to go, even though it was freezing outside and we really felt like staying in. It’s a mitzvah to make peace in the home, between husband and wife, and all the more so on Shabbat.

illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
Unfortunately, when Barak opened the door in answer to our knock, we could see immediately that things were not good. So much blood was rushing to his head that his normally olive complexion had gone dull and gray. He looked like he was about to punch a hole in the wall (something he was very good at back when we were in Nachal) and using every gram of will-power to keep himself from doing it. Ilana took one look and headed straight into the kitchen to help Bona.

“Hey, what’s eating you, ahi?” I said. “Here, let’s sit down. Don’t keep it in. Let it out. Lay it on me.”

He clenched his fists and hissed and covered his face with his hands and leaned back and looked at the ceiling and finally said, “I can’t believe she invited him!”

“What do you mean? Who?” I asked. “Hey, should I get you a drink of water? A beer?”

I could hear animated conversation in the kitchen. It didn’t sound like Bona was upset. In fact, she called out in her singsong voice: “We’ll just be a few minutes. We’re waiting for a very special guest!”

Barak took a big breath and finally got it out.

“Bibi!” he sizzled. Continue reading The Balcony — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Why Israel’s Crazy Electoral System Might Be Best Idea Ever

Haim Watzman


My piece praising Israel’s proportional electoral system is now up on the Forward’s website.


Jewish suffragettes scored a signal achievement in 1920, when the first nationwide elections were held in the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine. They received 600 votes.

Woman looking at election posters, 1949--Knesset website
Woman looking at election posters, 1949–Knesset website
This smattering of women — we may presume that nearly all of them were women — went to their polling places and chose, from among nearly two dozen others, the slip of paper designating the slate of the Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights. Six hundred votes constituted less than 1% of the Yishuv’s total population at the time. They equaled just 2% of the eligible voters in the Yishuv and less than 3% of the votes cast.
But those 600 votes entitled the women’s party to five of the 314 seats in the assembly. Two other members of the union were elected on the slates of other factions, and seven other women entered the Assembly of Representatives, as the Yishuv’s legislature was called, on the lists of the labor parties. Together these 14 women constituted a women’s rights caucus in this forerunner of Israel’s Knesset. Paradoxically, they had been elected provisionally, before women had in fact been officially granted the right to vote and to serve in elective office. The Yishuv’s religious and Haredi communities opposed women’s suffrage widely. Had these women not been a salient presence in the legislature, it is quite likely that those rights, finally granted formally five years later, would not have been recognized for many years thereafter.

The women’s party was able to gain representation thanks to the proportional electoral system instituted by the Yishuv leadership. … read the rest at the Forward

Not Just an Election Pretext: The Nation-State Law is Netanyahuism

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column at The American Prospect, explaining the political crisis over the nation-state law, went up a few hours before Benjamin Netanyahu announced new elections:

Israel’s government is on the edge of collapse. The prime minister and senior cabinet members are trading insults as if they are already campaigning against each other. OK, that’s fairly normal. Israeli coalitions are unstable partnerships of enemies. When they can’t compromise on an unavoidable issue—the budget, for instance, or peace talks—they threaten each other with going back to the voters. Sometimes threats become reality.

What’s abnormal is that for the past week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has seemed determined to scuttle his current coalition of the right and center over an entirely avoidable crisis: his desire to pass a law constitutionally defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jews. His centrist partners see the law, correctly, as an assault on democracy. The law will inflame tensions with the Arab minority, and damage Israel’s already poor international standing.

Why go to the trouble? Over three-quarters of Israel’s citizens are Jews, who quintessentially display their Jewishness by arguing constantly about what “Jewish” means. Public life is conducted in Hebrew; schools and offices shut for Passover and Rosh Hashanah. The crisis looks so unnecessary that pundits have suggested that it’s a pretext: Netanyahu has decided that he’ll do better in elections now than later, and believes that the nation-state law will allow him to run as the candidate of patriotism.

This Machiavellian explanation is too kind. The bill is Netanyahu-ist, and that’s what really is frightening. Continue reading Not Just an Election Pretext: The Nation-State Law is Netanyahuism

One City, Divided

Gershom Gorenberg

My cover story in the National Journal on Jerusalem is up:

On a midsummer afternoon, at the King George Street station in the center of downtown Jewish Jerusalem, I boarded one of the silver four-car trams of Jerusalem’s only light-rail line. The electric train swooshed east along Jaffa Road to the City Hall stop, just before the narrow, now-unmarked no-man’s-land that divided the city before 1967. The next stop was the Damascus Gate station, serving downtown Arab Jerusalem. From there the train headed north toward outlying Palestinian and Jewish neighborhoods.

Photo © Yasmin Gorenberg
Photo © Yasmin Gorenberg

It was a normal rush-hour trip—except that there were no Palestinians on the train. No father spoke Arabic to the son sitting next to him; no teenage girls chattered in Arabic about their purchases on Jaffa Road. The women who wore head scarves had them tied behind their necks, Orthodox Jewish style, not wrapped under their chins, Muslim style. No one got on or off at Damascus Gate. In the Palestinian neighborhood of Shuafat, a mourning banner with a huge picture of murdered Arab teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir hung from an apartment building facing the tracks. A sign on the ticket machine on the platform said it was out of order—as it has been since angry young residents smashed it during the violent protests that followed the murder of Abu Khdeir at the beginning of July. No one got off there or at Beit Hanina, the northernmost Palestinian neighborhood on the line.

The missing passengers weren’t participating in an organized boycott. They were simply afraid. Continue reading One City, Divided

It’s Not About Tunnels. So What Is the Gaza Conflict About?

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect. Since the article went up last night, Hamas rejected extending the ceasefire and resumed rocket fire less than one minute after it ended. Israel has resumed missile and artillery fire. Alas.

I.

At four o’clock after the war—which is to say, 4 p.m. Tuesday—a Hebrew news site carried a telegraphic bulletin: The head of the Israeli army’s Southern Command announced that residents of the area bordering Gaza could return to their homes and feel safe. The reassuring message was undercut by the bulletin that appeared on the same site one minute earlier: “IDF assessment: Hamas still has at least two to three tunnels reaching into Israel.”

At the end, if Gaza War of 2014 has ended, if the ceasefire holds, it was about tunnels—some as deep as forty meters (130 feet) below the surface, dug from inside the Gaza Strip and reaching hundreds of meters into Israel, into farming villages and to the edge of the town of Sderot —tunnels from which Hamas fighters could suddenly surface to attack civilians or soldiers. To be precise, this is how the war is most immediately remembered in Israel: as an offensive aimed at removing the subterranean threat. In the rubble of Gaza, where nearly 1,900 people were killed by Israeli fire, where 460,000 are homeless, the presumed purpose of the war will surely be remembered very differently.

Let’s return, though, to the Israeli perception: People remember backwards, viewing earlier events through the lens of later ones. The Israeli government’s announced goal in fighting since the ground invasion of Gaza on July 17 was finding and destroying attack tunnels. This, therefore, is remembered as an original purpose of the war. A friend, left of center politically, asked me the afternoon after the war why Israel had earlier accepted an Egyptian proposal for a ceasefire that was set to start before the ground invasion, since the government obviously knew it would need to invade Gaza to get rid of the tunnels.

But the crisis wasn’t about tunnels when it started. The Israeli government’s tactical goals shifted repeatedly. At no point, it appears, has Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a strategic political vision. Yet the story of the tunnels leads inevitably to the need for a political resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Continue reading It’s Not About Tunnels. So What Is the Gaza Conflict About?

This Is Your Brain On War

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect:

As I write, the livestream from Gaza of news about death continues. If I give a casualty count, it may be outdated before I finish typing it. It won’t include those Palestinians—civilians and Hamas fighters—who may be buried in rubble in the Sajaiya neighborhood of Gaza City, which the Israeli army has invaded in search of rockets and of tunnels leading into Israel. Nor will it include recent deaths of Israeli soldiers; the military often delays such announcements for hours. Collapsing under the weight of the Gaza reports is whatever initial support Israel had in the West as its cities came under rocket fire. The same reports have fed criticism of Hamas in the Arab world.

he war isn’t a hurricane; it didn’t happen by itself. Leaders on both sides made choices. In Israel, despite an unusual number of protests so early in a war, most of the public seems to think the government is doing the right thing, perhaps too timidly. I doubt anyone can judge public opinion accurately amid the chaos and fear in Gaza, but credible estimations are that support for the Hamas government rises in proportion to Israeli attacks.

Maybe just to keep my own sanity, I have to ask: How do leaders believe that such flawed decisions were the only reasonable choices? How can masses of people keep supporting those policies even as they prove disastrous? What’s wrong with our heads? By that I mean not just the heads of Israelis and Palestinians but of human beings, since I don’t have any cause to think that the sides in this conflict are being uniquely irrational. Continue reading This Is Your Brain On War

In the Jerusalem Mourning Tent For a Murdered Teen

 

Members of the family of Muhammad Abu-Khdeir receive Israeli visitors who came to share in their grief in the Palestinian neighborhood of Shuafat in Jerusalem. The poster in the background reads: "The Palestinian National Liberation Movement, Fatah, Jerusalem area, mourns for the righteous son of Jerusalem, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, murdered as a martyr..."
Members of the family of Muhammad Abu-Khdeir receive Israeli visitors who came to share in their grief in the Palestinian neighborhood of Shuafat in Jerusalem. (Photo © Gershom Gorenberg)

Gershom Gorenberg

My latest column is up at The American Prospect:

The air-raid silence sounded at three minutes to ten at night in Jerusalem. Two distant booms followed. Afterward, they seemed like an orchestral finale: abrupt, followed by silence, the only notes of a long day that were unmistakable in their meaning.

That afternoon, I’d gone with busloads of Israelis to Shuafat, a Palestinian neighborhood of East Jerusalem, to visit the family of Muhammad Abu-Khdeir. A huge mourners’ tent had been set up: The ceiling was made of blue tarps; one side was open to the street; the other three sides walled with tapestries and printed banners showing pictures of Muhammad. In the pictures, Muhammad looked very young for 16, his age last week when, on his way to Ramadan prayers, he was pulled into a car and doused with gasoline, murdered by immolation. The suspects, now in custody, their names still under a gag order, are six young Israelis from the Jerusalem area. The motives were revenge and hatred—call it national, or ethnic, or tribal.

Here’s the very brief timeline: On June 30, Israeli troops found the bodies of three Israeli teensEyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkelwho’d been kidnapped by Palestinian extremists while hitchhiking in the West Bank. The next afternoon, as their funerals were broadcast on national TV and radio, downtown West Jerusalem became a riot zone. Bands of angry Jews, most in their teens, virtually all male, chanted “Death to Arabs!” They tried to beat up Palestinian workers in the open market, and threw stones at cars, randomly, without any sign that they cared whether the driver was Jewish or Arab. Before dawn the next day, Abu-Khdeir was abducted and murdered. Continue reading In the Jerusalem Mourning Tent For a Murdered Teen

Pyromaniacs

In a region already in flames, a Palestinian terror attack and Netanyahu’s response could light another fire

My latest column is up at The American Prospect

Gershom Gorenberg

Life in Israel in recent months has been preternaturally tranquil, as long as you keep no more than a quarter of an ear on the news. Jerusalem cafés are packed. If you take a summer hike in the Galilee, nothing in the mountain breeze reminds you that a few dozen kilometers to the east is a failed state called Syria, where a war of all against all has driven nearly half the population from their homes, or that the realm of chaos extends all the way through Iraq.

For that matter, the land on the other side of Israel’s northern border is best described as Hezbollah territory, even if maps show a state called Lebanon there. Across the border in the south, the Sinai is a battleground between jihadist rebels and the Egyptian government. Jordan is still a functioning state—unless the fighting in Iraq and Syria spills over its borders. Feeling calm in Israel is like sipping lemonade in your living room while your neighborhood is in flames.

In truth, Israelis have actually had their ears entirely, obsessively on the news since the kidnapping of three teenage Israeli hitchhikers in the West Bank two weeks ago. The greeting, “Is there news?” means, “Have they been found? Are they alive? ” While the Shin Bet security service released the names of two suspects yesterday, which it identified as known members of the military wing of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic movement, neither they nor the victims have been located. What’s clear is that the both kidnapping itself and the Israeli government’s reaction threaten to bring the fire much closer to home. Continue reading Pyromaniacs

Palestinians Won PR Battle Over Pope’s Visit. Will It Matter?

Gershom Gorenberg

My apology to readers; I’ve been mostly absent from this blog while teaching for a semester at Columbia University. But I’m back, and here’s my latest piece from The American Prospect:

“The Vatican treats this as a pilgrimage. We consider it a pilgrimage it with political implications.” So a Palestinian official involved in negotiating the precise form of Pope Francis’s visit to the Holy Land told me yesterday. The comment, though, could as easily have come from an Israeli government source.

The pope’s two hosts agreed on this much and no more: His pilgrimage, so carefully choreographed that even the spontaneous moments were planned in advance, sparkled with symbolism. The battle was over determining what the symbolic journey would stand for. The Palestinians won: They largely succeeded in making Francis’s visit part of their campaign for statehood through international recognition. And yet, both the pope and the Palestinian strategy are subject to the same question: How much does symbolism really count for?

The Vatican itself—not the Israelis or Palestinians—initiated the visit, and in the Vatican’s narrative, it was a peace mission within an entirely Christian context: The pope came to meet Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and to commemorate the breakthrough religious summit 50 years ago in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople.

So this trip was, in theory, the Vatican’s show. The Holy See laid out the program it wanted, Israeli and Palestinian sources told me. But even when it drew up plans, it had to maneuver within the protocol each side expected for a head of state. Then it negotiated for months with the two governments on the details.  Pope Francis was the star, and made choices—but often between pieces of pre-written scripts.

The Palestinians won their first victory in March, when the Vatican announced the official itinerary. “The Holy Father will visit three countries: Jordan, the State of Palestine, and Israel,” it said. He’d fly by helicopter directly from Amman to Bethlehem, rather than arriving via Israel, and proceed immediately to a “courtesy meeting with the president of Palestine,” Mahmud Abbas.  The symbolic statement was this: The pope would not be visiting the occupied West Bank, certainly not Judea and Samaria (as Israel officially labels the territory), but independent Palestine. This, presumably, was the pope’s choice – but given Abbas’s ongoing diplomatic efforts for recognition of Palestinian statehood, the Vatican couldn’t evade a decision on whether to use that wording.

Read the rest here.

Frankly, Scarlett, You Should Give a Damn

Gershom Gorenberg

and my latest column is also up @theprospect:

Outside of being celebrities and having Jewish mothers, Benjamin Netanyahu and Scarlett Johansson aren’t usually thought of having a lot in common. But they’ve been displaying another shared quality of late: the ability to act clueless about the suddenly snowballing economic boycott of Israeli settlements.

To be fair, it’s a lot more likely that Netanyahu is the one putting on an act. Johansson sincerely appeared to have little idea about what she was getting into when she agreed to be the straw-sipping poster girl of SodaStream, the Israeli maker of home fizzy-drink devices that produces wares in the industrial park of a West Bank settlement. “I never intended on being the face of any social or political movement… or stance,” she said in a press statement responding to criticism of her role advertising the firm. This sounds painfully naïve: Nothing having to do with Israeli settlements in occupied territory comes packaged without a political stance, but Johansson may have noticed this only after the ink was dry on the contract. Politics isn’t her profession.

It is Netanyahu’s trade, though. So when he responded to a comment by John Kerry as if the secretary of state had personally threatened Israel with economic sanctions, either Netanyahu knew better or he should have. Continue reading Frankly, Scarlett, You Should Give a Damn

What Truman Got Wrong About a Jewish State

Gershom Gorenberg

My review of John Judis’s “Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict” is now online at The American Prospect:

On May 12, 1948, President Harry Truman convened a tense Oval Office meeting. In less than three days, Britain would leave Palestine, where civil war already raged between Jews and Arabs. Clark Clifford, Truman’s special counsel, argued the position of American Zionist organizations and Democratic politicians: The president should announce that he would recognize a Jewish state even before it was established. Secretary of State George Marshall was incensed. “I don’t even know why Clifford is here,” Marshall said. “He is a domestic advisor, and this is a foreign policy matter.”

Marshall was asking for an impossible division. Foreign policy and domestic politics can’t be kept apart in a democracy, nor should they be. But this incident, described in John Judis’s Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, shows that the question of whether U.S. policy toward Israel is captive to a special-interest group has existed even longer than Israel has. Continue reading What Truman Got Wrong About a Jewish State

Avigdor Lieberman Smiles at John Kerry. Be Suspicious

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect:

On Sunday morning it seemed that Israeli scientists, or perhaps John Kerry, had learned how to do personality transplants. The first operation was reserved for Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, heretofore the growling voice of unreconstructed Israeli ultra-nationalism.

“I want to express my true appreciation of the efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry, who works day and night … to bring an end to the conflict between us and the Palestinians,” Lieberman told a conference of Israeli ambassadors who were home from posts around the world. Kerry’s positions on a peace agreement, Lieberman added, were better than “any alternative proposal that Israel will receive from the international community.”

Two days earlier, Lieberman had met with Kerry and issued an upbeat statement declaring that the American-brokered negotiations “must continue.” Was this the same man who began his first term as foreign minister in 2009 by declaring that the previous round of U.S.-sponsored talks—the ones between former prime minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas—were over, dead, and that Israeli concessions would only bring “pressures and more war”? That declaration fit the Lieberman we knew before and set the tone for everything he said after. Had one magical conversation with Kerry transformed him?

Well, not completely, and probably very little at all. In the same conference this week with Israeli diplomats, the foreign minister said that his “basic condition” for supporting an agreement with the Palestinians was an “exchange of territory and population.” This is the Lieberman we know, and his demand is one that Kerry, much less the Palestinians, cannot accept.

There are two ways to understand Lieberman’s sudden change in tone toward peace talks. One reading is that Lieberman is in the first stages of becoming a recovered right-winger—a hawk who finally notices that the status quo of occupation can’t go on….

Read the rest here.