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….
She laughed and shook her head as she unrolled the clingy plastic from around her slug-shaped sandwich. Down below, raucous teenagers gamboled in a spring that seemed to be the source of the river along which she and her companions had hiked all morning. She laughed at how easy it had been not to think about it, how well her plan had gone. Her companions were no longer visible ahead. Soon they’d wonder about her and send someone back in search. In the meantime, she’d have something to eat.
The rains had not yet come, yet the Tzipori River had flowed gently but surely along its terraced channel as they walked beside it that morning. At one point it bowed and nearly circled a low hill on which a tiny village perched. Children played in a schoolyard. The leader had given the village a name that she could no longer remember. Further on was an old millhouse that you could now rent out for weddings and bar mitzvahs. There the trail had crossed the river (all of three meters wide) and she had followed the others over half-submerged stones. The water, which the leader said was partly sewage, washed over her boots. Last to cross, she had probed the riverbed with her poles to steady herself. She thought of turning back but did not.
She hadn’t hiked seriously since her teenage scout years, which were three decades past by now. Back then, at tough spots, like the river crossing, the boys were always ready and eager to help. Some were very serious about it, as if pulling her up a boulder or guiding her over a narrow spot in a path above a canyon was the very reason that they had been placed on this earth. Others had laughed at her fears, in a big-brotherly way (she was the oldest in her family, and had always wanted a big brother). In this group, today, the others were obliging but cool.
As soon as they got the chance, the refugees from Darfur and other parts of Sudan and from Eritrea walked out of the guarded camp in the Negev desert and marched north in bitter winter weather toward Jerusalem. There they stood Tuesday afternoon, on an icy sidewalk facing the Knesset, holding up brown cardboard signs with handwritten slogans, chanting in eerily subdued voices halfway between determination and desperation, until they were arrested, manhandled onto buses and sent back to the desert.
This is the condensed version of the refugees’ dramatic three-day protest this week. It is also a condensed version of their lives: They are people—young men, almost all—who made the dangerous decision to leave their countries because staying was even more dangerous. They headed north into Egypt, then crossed the Sinai desert into Israel, hoping for freedom and safety, and were imprisoned as “infiltrators.” But the end of the protest this week is not the end of story. The battle continues—not just between the refugees and immigration authorities, but also between Israeli human rights advocates and a government with contempt for constitutional restraints. Continue reading Is This Freedom Road?→
Ilana elbowed me and eyed the couple sitting to our left in the Hirsch Theater. Shaken out of the reverie brought on by the Tarshiha Orchestra’s rendition of Um Kulthum’s hit song “Raq al-Habib,” “The Servitude of Love,” I followed her gaze. The woman to my left was tapping out a text message on her Android as she whispered to her husband, who had a large knitted blue-and-white kipah on his head.
“Hadas,” she said, apparently in response to his question.
“Did you tell her?” he asked.
“Doing it right now,” she nodded.
I caught her eye and put a finger to my lips. I also pointed to the phone, as if to say that the glow was distracting me. She shrugged and muttered “Almost done.”
“Did she say anything about Ya’akov? Why he didn’t come home?”
The young woman who was standing in for the late great Egyptian chanteuse finished the song with a flourish and the audience cheered. Nasim Dawkar, the concert master and conductor, called another member of the chorus up to the solo microphone to sing another song composed by Muhammad al-Qasabgi, to whose works the night’s concert was dedicated. The woman at the mike, plump and heavily made up, launched into an Um Kulthum favorite, “Inta ‘Omri,” “You are My Life.” Ilana smiled and mouthed the words silently—it’s a song her mother used to sing to her and which Ilana sang to our own children.
To explain Benjamin Netanyahu’s frenzied reaction to the Geneva agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, let me begin with the stack of brown cardboard boxes under my wife’s desk.
Each of the five cartons contains a gas mask and related paraphernalia for a member of my family to use in the event of a chemical-weapons attack. They were delivered last January, as part of the gradual government effort to prepare every household in Israel for a rain of Syrian missiles. I suppose that having “defense kits” in the house could be macabre, but what we usually notice is that they’re a nuisance: another thing on which to bang your toe in an overstuffed city flat.
What’s more, they’re apparently an obsolete nuisance. A couple of weeks ago, the usual nameless military sources told the local media that the Defense Ministry would recommend ending production of gas masks for civilians. According to the leaks, intelligence assessments said that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was successfully reducing Syria’s poison-gas arsenal. In other words, the U.S.-Russia agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons is working, and one result is a significant improvement in Israeli security.
The American ambassador wearily removed a cleaning cloth from the black case he’d placed on the prime minister’s desk. He shook it open, gazed sadly at the dust that danced in the beam of the ceiling light, puffed on his lenses, and rubbed the cloth over them. Holding his glasses up to the light, considered the flexible frames that had cost him an arm and a leg, and saw that they were still smudged. But at this point he no longer cared. Perhaps, he thought, Israel’s leader was better viewed blurrily. The prime minister seemed to be shouting in a deep, throaty voice.
“Come on everybody, clap your hands!” the blurry premier seemed to be saying. “Are you lookin’ good?”
The ambassador tried to collect his thoughts. He knew he did not look good at all, and this did not seem to be the prime minister’s voice.
He felt two strong hands grab his and pull him out of his chair. “We’re gonna do the twist and it goes like this!” the voice explained.
“Weren’t we talking about American aid?” he mumbled as the body before him gyrated like a dervish with an inner ear infection.
The legitimacy index of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has just taken another plunge. That is, the state rabbinate has reduced the number of rabbis from outside its own bureaucracy whom it considers legitimate, and the number of people whom it trusts as being legitimately Jewish.
And, in the process, the Chief Rabbinate has shown yet again that there is no legitimate reason for its own existence.
The latest development: As reported in the New York Jewish Week, the Chief Rabbinate rejected a letter from prominent American Orthodox rabbi Avi Weiss affirming that two U.S. Jews wanting to marry in Israel are indeed Jewish and single. In the past, the rabbinate accepted Weiss’s letters. No longer. Speaking to the Jewish Week’s Michele Chabin, Weiss said the rabbinate’s reduced-trust policy affected “many rabbis”—by which he surely meant Orthodox rabbis, since the Chief Rabbinate already treated letters from non-Orthodox clergy as paper rendered worthless by the ink on it.
Weiss also speculated that he’d personally been blackballed because of “politics,” meaning his role in pushing for a more religiously liberal form of Orthodoxy. (Among other things, Weiss had the beautiful chutzpah to ordain Orthodox women.) It’s also possible that Weiss just doesn’t appear on a Chief Rabbinate whitelist of rabbis deemed sufficiently terrified of accidentally certifying a non-Jew as Jewish. Continue reading The Chief Rabbinate Proves Judaism Would Be Better Off without It→
The old clock on the café counter inside ticked at least five times before the men began to laugh. At first it was just Nissim, whose trinket shop was just up the hill on Strauss Street, on the border of Mea Shearim. He guffawed as if he didn’t really want to, as if guffawing were the last thing he should be doing at this moment, when they were about to set out for a battle in which many of them were sure to die. But he couldn’t help himself, and when Shlomo joined in with a real belly laugh, coming straight from his very prominent belly, Nissim felt free to enjoy himself. Then Meir joined in, his thumbs pressing out against the straps of the threadbare paratrooper’s pigeon vest that he had been incongruously issued to carry his ammunition in. Arthur, the lost American with the mustache, banged his rifle against the Ta’amon’s display window so hard that Feibel looked up from his newspaper, wiped his hands on his apron, and shuffled out to yell at them.
When the laughter died down and Feibel had gone back to spreading out used teabags to dry, Nissim ventured to ask Pini whether any of it was actually true. Pini shot him a condescending glance and Nissim mumbled, “Well, the stories you hear about Paris!”
My latest column at The American Prospect debunks new and old arguments that a one-state solution will work because nationalism is dead:
From the balconies above the narrow stone-paved streets of Girona hung gold-and-red striped flags. A blue triangle and white star adorned most of them, transforming the banner of the autonomous region of Catalonia into the standard of Catalonian independence. Here and there a legend emblazoned a flag: Catalunya, Nou Estat D’Europa—”Catalonia, A New State in Europe.”
I’d taken the train north from Barcelona to see Salvador Dali’s personal museum in Figueres and then explore Girona’s medieval old city. I was on vacation from the Middle East. But a political writer’s time off can so easily become a busman’s holiday. I looked at the flags and thought of the arguments about how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio, about political scientist Ian Lustick’s very recent New York Timesessay despairing of a two-state outcome, and about the furies that the late Tony Judt released almost precisely 10 years ago when he came out for a one-state solution. Nationalism was passé, the great historian of modern Europe wrote; nation-states had been replaced by “pluralist states which have long since become multiethnic and multicultural… as any visitor to London or Paris or Geneva will know.”
My recent piece at The Daily Beast brings new evidence that the government presented a deceptive cover story to the Supreme Court about the building of Road 443.
I arrived back in Israel on a pre-dawn flight and decided to take the minibus shuttle to Jerusalem rather than splurging on a taxi. At that hour, it took time for the van to fill. I stood on the sidewalk, happy not to be breathing airplane cabin air. Just when some German tourists showed up to take the last seats, I noticed the writing on the side of the shuttle, advertising that it took Road 443. Unhappy at the prospect of making the other passengers wait for another traveler to show up, I climbed in, and spent the ride home feeling even more unhappy about the route.
As a journalist covering settlements, I can’t avoid West Bank roads. In fact, no Jerusalemite can really avoid highways cutting through occupied territory; the main route from Tel Aviv to the capital briefly crosses the Green Line. But I have a particular distaste for 443, the secondary route, a highway built on layers of deception. And practically the last thing I’d done before vacation was digging through the most recently declassified layers.
Earlier posts at South Jerusalem on the Road 443 deception:
Road 443, for those unfamiliar with the local geography, runs from the town of Lod into the West Bank hills to the north end of Jerusalem. Israel built it in the 1980s, partly along the route of an older road that connected Palestinian villages with Ramallah.
Highways take up space, and the Israeli military expropriated land from local Palestinians. Some of them petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court, arguing that the road served Israeli transportation needs, and that International law doesn’t allow an occupying power to seize property for its own benefit. The state’s answer was that the project was really meant to give the growing Palestinian population a modern highway. The court accepted the state’s claims at face value. …
As the prime minister prepares for his next White House appointment, my latest piece at The American Prospect lays out the weaknesses in Bibi’s position on Iran:
When Barack Obama looks at the White House appointment book and sees that Benjamin Netanyahu will come calling Monday, I doubt he’ll smile. Past meetings between the president and the Israeli prime minister have come in two types: ones in which they publicly displayed the mutual distaste of brothers-in-law who wish they weren’t in business together and ones in which they pretended for the cameras that they get along.
Netanyahu’s political soul is a hybrid of an early 21st-century Republican and a mid-20th-century Central European. In a certain place inside him, every day is September 30, 1938, when Britain sold out Czechoslovakia, and great-power perfidy is inevitable. A year ago, in his more contemporary mode, Netanyahu was publicly supporting Obama’s electoral opponent, a detail neither man will mention on Monday.
Obama and Netanyahu must always discuss two issues, Iran and Israeli-Palestinian peace, which they see in ways so different that they are not quite talking to each other. Netanyahu’s goals are to get Obama to commit himself to conditions for a deal on Iran’s nuclear program that Tehran will reject and to avoid paying with any concessions to America’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian talks. Syria will also be on the agenda. As always, Netanyahu will try to get Congress to take his more hawkish stance against the president, with encouragement from AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group. But there are contradictions—logical, strategic, political, and personal—in Netanyahu’s stance that weaken him even before the conversation with Obama begins. Continue reading On the Eve of Meeting Obama, Is Netanyahu Listening to Himself?→
Lebanon is teeming with refugees. This isn’t news, you might say. Palestinian refugees have dwelt in Lebanon since 1948. Back then, between 100,000 and 130,000 people, expecting a temporary sojourn, entered a country with a population perhaps ten times that number. The news is the Syrians: Over 700,000 who have fled the current catastrophe, according to the United Nations; a million according to the Lebanese government; possibly 1.4 million if you include Syrian guest workers who came before the war, in a country whose current population may be only three times that number.
That Lebanon is still functioning is a miracle. Only slightly less startling, the refugees aren’t living in vast tent cities; they’re in rented apartments and schools and empty buildings. This, I’m told, is partly due to a lesson that Lebanon learned after 1948: Refugee camps can become autonomous armed enclaves.