Monday 21 April 2014

Palestinian Confusion?

An Israeli newspaper has reported that Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, has said that he is considering dismantling the Palestinian Authority.  This was the body that was set up under the Oslo Accords to govern the Palestinians and their affairs in the West Bank and Gaza.  The Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority lost control of Gaza in 2007 when Hamas seized control there.  They have, however, continued to rule over the West Bank, and has been the body officially tasked with negotiating a peace agreement with Israel.  Having been a governing authority for the past 20 years, what would prompt Mahmoud Abbas to take the seemingly extreme step to dismantle it?

I interpret the threat by Mahmoud Abbas to be simply another tactic to attempt to weaken Israel's standing in the international community, and to create embarrassment and difficulty for Israel.  I cannot imagine that a leader that is determined to lead his people to an independent existence in peace and security, would behave in this way.  It is difficult for me to understand how dismantling the Palestinian Authority would serve the purpose of the Palestinian people in their publicly-stated quest to be counted amongst the legitimate nations of the world.

The first leader of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat, was outed as a fraud who did little to further the cause of the two-state solution as envisaged by the Oslo Accords.  Instead, it has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that he encouraged the intifadas against Israel, organised and financed suicide bombings and other terrorist atrocities committed against Israeli civilians, and negotiated with Israeli leaders in bad faith while being feted as an international leader around the world.  He was also personally pocketing billions of dollars of aid money donated by the international community, which was intended to assist the building of a Palestinian state and help the Palestinian people.  While Mahmoud Abbas does not quite have the same notorious track record, his true intentions as the current leader of the Palestinian Authority and people has not been made clear.  Is he a leader in the mould of Yasser Arafat, whose primary intentions were to destroy Israel and to build a personal empire for himself, or are his intentions more honourable in wishing to build a viable state and nation for his people?  It is true that there has been no intifada under Abbas's watch (despite numerous threats to launch one), and that the level of terror activities has been lower.  We have also not observed negotiations with Israel in good faith to create a long-term peace for the two-state solution.

For those people who promote Abbas as a genuine leader who would be prepared to live side-by-side in peace with Israel under the right conditions, it seems to be difficult to explain why he would take any steps towards dismantling the Palestinian Authority.  While this governing body has not achieved all that was hoped for it when the Oslo Accords were signed 20 years ago, it has undoubtedly achieved a much greater level of independence for the Palestinian people.  If the leaders had pursued this model more honestly, much more may have been achieved.  If, at 79 years of age, Abbas feels he is tired and no longer has the energy and drive to continue to lead this effort, he should stand aside and allow the younger generation to take it forward.  Surely dismantling the model would do more harm than good for the independence of the Palestinian people?

For those who promote Abbas as a true heir of the legacy left to him by Arafat, the act of dismantling the Palestinian Authority is entirely consistent with other attempts to destroy Israel.  In 1948, when the State of Israel was established, Israel's enemies thought that the brute force of the Arab armies would be enough to destroy a Jewish state without any real army.  When it was proved to them that this tactic was not working and would not work, they changed their tactic to waging a "people's" war.  This involved training soldiers to operate under the cover of private civilians, and from civilian areas.  They fired missiles from the living rooms of homes that housed women and children, often using them as human shields, and initiated two intifadas.  While these tactics tested Israel's determination to adhere to moral warfare to the maximum, it has not succeded in testing Israel's determination to exist and to build a state.  When this was shown to be inaffective, a new tactic was employed.  This is to use pressure exerted by the international community and by international bodies to beat Israel into submission and destruction.  The actions at the United Nations in recent years, and particularly in recent months, show clear evidence of this.

The threat to dismantle the Palestinian Authority is entirely consistent with the latest tactic adopted.  By declaring that the Palestinian Authority as an "occupied government", the Palestinians can annul the Oslo Accords.  This would effectively return the rule over the Palestinians in the West Bank to the responsibility of the Israeli government.  Such a move would open a whole new opportunity for the Palestinians to bring their resistance directly to the Israeli government, and to present Israel as a pariah state in the international community.

By building a powerful military machine to defend her existence, Israel has created an unfavourable situation for herself in the international community.  The international community prefers to favour the underdog, and Israel's formidable army means that she is not regarded as such by the international community.  The balance of sympathy has shifted to the Palestinians, in spite of the acts of terror carried out by them, and in spite of the clear links that the leadership has to these acts of terror.  The idea of creating further embarrassment and discomfort for Israel, by forcing the Israeli government to rule directly over the Palestinians in the West Bank, is likely to enhance the situation enjoyed by the Palestinians in the international community.

It is unfortunate that the Palestinians have worked harder to discredit Israel than they have to build their own nation and state.  If they had devoted as much time and energy to positive efforts of building a state as they had to destroying Israel it is highly unlikely that they would be considering the possibility of returning rule to Israel at this time.  While some may regard this tactic as being somewhat inconsistent and confused, what they are trying to achieve seems quite clear to me.

Monday 14 April 2014

Carrying the Blame for the Breakdown of the Peace Talks

I am not too bothered that Israel has been blamed for the breakdown of the peace talks with the Palestinians.  I don't believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu will be overly concerned about this either.  Despite US Secretary of State John Kerry's denials that he is blaming Israel for the breakdown of the talks, he is quoted as saying that the peace talks broke down because Israel was not prepared to release the final group of 26 Palestinian prisoners.  When referring to the unilateral action taken by the Palestinian Authority to apply to 15 international organisations and treaties for membership, Kerry said that this is a response to the breakdown of the talks.  Maybe he did not mention the specific words that Israel is to blame, but his references seem quite clear where he is laying the responsibility.

There are a few reasons why I am unconcerned about the inappropriate attribution of blame.  Firstly, we have witnessed over the years that the stigma that may be associated with blame of this type, does not necessarily stick for too long.  We saw the openly hostile and dissenting attitude displayed by former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at Camp David, where he rejected any form of compromise agreement out of hand.  He later managed to turn this situation around in a such a way, that it was difficult to believe that he had torpedoed the talks.  He succeeded in convincing the subsequent American administrations that he was genuinely seeking peace, despite having shown in no uncertain terms that this was not his intention.  All was quickly forgotten.  We are currently witnessing this form of political amnesia with the events in Crimea.  It was only a few weeks ago that the US, NATO and other western countries were up in arms over Russia's invasion of Crimea.  Now, despite ongoing criticism of Russia's belligerent behaviour on the Ukrainian eastern border, the world seems to have completely forgotten Crimea.  The Russian invasion is a fait accompli.

It is my view that Prime Minister Netanyahu acted exactly correctly in refusing to release the final group of prisoners.  If this means that Israel has to carry the blame, then so be it.  I think that Netanyahu was correct to embark upon the path to try to seek out a peace arrangement with the Palestinians, despite all indications that this was likely to be a futile exercises.  I think that he was correct to split the prisoner release into 4 separate stages, even though I question whether he was correct to agree the unilateral release of prisoners without any tangible equivalent steps on the part of the Palestinians.  Having insisted upon splitting the prisoner release into 4 stages, the prime minister was obliged to consider at each stage whether proceeding with that stage was in the best interests of Israel and her people.  All things considered, I would already have stopped things at the third stage.  The fact that he stood up to the international community and refused to release the fourth group, however, restored some of my confidence in him.

The prime minister has the obligation, on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people, to seek out any possible way to peace that he can find.  In that sense, when John Kerry showed serious intention of finding a way to peace despite the conditions and circumstances not looking quite right, Netanyahu took the gamble.  He even agreed to the highly controversial step of releasing prisoners with blood on their hands, something that not everybody concurred with.  He went the extra mile to show intent and goodwill, in the interests of granting the gift of peace to our children and grandchildren.  The mistake in taking this step, was that the US interlocutors somehow did not value this step in the same way as Israel did.  For the country that has detained prisoners without trial in Guantanamo Bay for years, it seems strange that this demand was taken so for granted by the US.  I feel sure that the US would never have agreed to a similar step, perhaps not even in the pursuit of the elusive peace that we seek.  The decision for Israel to release prisoners who have been tried and found guilty of murder and terror acts, is not an easy one.  When it became clear that the peace talks were not progressing in a positive direction, Netanyahu did the right thing by cutting his losses.

History will yet judge Netanyahu's decision in entering into the peace talks, in releasing 78 prisoners, in insisting that he maintains some control over the process by continuing to approve construction in the West Bank, and in refusing to release the final group of 26.  It will also judge his attitude towards the substance of the talks, as well as judging the actions taken by the Palestinians.  I believe that trying and failing, is better than not trying at all.  This is especially true when it comes to matters of strategic national interest such as the peace talks.  I trust that history will judge him accurately, and not concur with the Kerry version of laying the blame.

Chag Pesach sameach.

Wednesday 2 April 2014

Recognising Israel as a Jewish State

In the context of the on-again off-again peace discussions between Israel and the Palestinians, one of the most public issues of disagreement surrounds the insistence by Israel that the Palestinians recognise Israel as Jewish state, and the Jewish homeland.  Is this a valid demand, or is Prime Minister Netanyahu simply using this demand as an excuse to create a roadblock in the process?  What advantage would such a recognition bring to Israel, and to its relationship with a future Palestinian state?

There seems to be much public disagreement over this demand, with most Israelis supporting the prime minister's insistence that our neighbours (and those around the world) be prepared to publicly acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state.  But how justified is Israel to demand that the international community should recognise it as a Jewish state.  Most countries around the world are happy to be simply recognised as a country by their name, with some adding the nature of the country's government to its name such as kingdom or republic.  Despite the opposition voiced by the Palestinians, there is a precedent for countries adding the predominant religion to their names as in "The Islamic Republic of Iran" or "The Islamic Republic of Pakistan".  Even though the international community has not always liked the activities of these Islamic republics, there has never been a question about recognising them as Islamic republics.  So why should there be any problem with recognising Israel as a Jewish state, even without adding this to its name?

The nature of Israel as a Jewish state has been a public matter since even before the State of Israel was established.  The Balfour Declaration, in which the British government ackowledged in 1917 that it viewed "with favour the establishment of Palestine as a national home for the Jewish people", was only one of many public statements made about the nature of Israel as a Jewish state.  Of course, the "Palestine" referred to by Balfour is modern-day Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and even includes Jordan.  UN General Assembly Resolution 181 was passed in November 1947, and includes reference in Part I A3 to independent Arab and Jewish states coming into existence in the area formerly known as Palestine.  Israel's Declaration of Independence was unequivocal in declaring Israel as the Jewish state  when it says, "... declare the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz-Israel, to be known as The State of Israel".  It could not be much clearer.  So, what drives the Palestinians need to deny this, and what gives them the right to change a decades-old reality?

The Palestinians have never admitted publicly why they wish to deny Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, but I speculate that it is connected to the issue of the return of the refugees.  This is a highly controversial matter that continues to be one of the points for discussion in the peace talks.  During the War of Independence in 1948, approximately 700,000 Arab residents of the nascent State of Israel fled their homes.  This was despite the invitation by the new Jewish government of the state for them to remain in their homes, and take up citizenship of the new state.  Those who chose to stay have enjoyed a relatively comfortable existence as citizens of Israel, with all democratic rights that flow from that.  Those who fled, on advice from the Arab leadership, were advised that they would have the opportunity to return triumphantly to reclaim their properties and to reclaim all the land which is the State of Israel.  That triumphant moment never came, and the refugees remain cooped up in refugee camps in countries on Israel's borders to this day.  Of the original generation of refugees, approximately 20,000 to 30,000 still remain.  The descendants of the refugees now number around 5 million.  They have been kept in these camps as a form of pressure on Israel and the international community to allow the refugees to return to their original homes.  With 5 million people now part of the discussion, there is clearly no prospect that Israel will admit them as citizens of the State of Israel.  There is a discussion, however, about how this problem will be resolved such that these people will be given permanent homes and citizenship.  It is likely to be a combination of some moving to the West Bank, with others being naturalised in the countries in which they currently live, and in which most of them were born.  The connection between this issue and the issue of recognising Israel as a Jewish state, is that the act of recognising Israel as a Jewish state effectively means that the Palestinians will give up on any claim to move refugees of any significant number into Israel itself to return to the  homes in which they once lived.  The Palestinian leadership does not seem to be ready for this yet.

There are those who ask why Israel continues to insist that the Palestinians formally recognise the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state, when this same requirement did not form any part of the peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt.  I believe that the answer to this is that the Jordanians and the Egyptians never doubted this.  The reason why they were at war with Israel is because it is a Jewish state, and the reason that they were finally prepared to reach a peace agreement with Israel was because they were prepared to accept this fact.  The recognition of the Jewish nature of Israel was the fundamental basis of the peace agreements.  The agreement with the Palestinians is much more complex, and is based on many other substantial points that are yet to be agreed.  The reason why Prime Minister Netanyahu is making a big issue out of recognising Israel as a Jewish state, is exactly because the Palestinians deny it.  I believe that most citizens of Israel would support the position that he takes.

When countries are founded and nations created, there is usually a common bond that connects the people in that country.  The common thread that connects Israelis who have come from all four corners of the earth over the past 66 years, is the fact that they are Jewish.  The majority of the citizens in Israel identify themselves as Jewish, and there is no way of denying this.  This is the will of most of the citizens, and any national agreement entered into with a party that denies this fact will not have the support of the citizens of Israel.   Now that this issue has such a high public profile, with the Palestinians continuing to be ambiguous about their recognition of Israel's Jewish character, many citizens of Israel would demand that the Palestinians unequivocally acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state before any agreement is signed.

The issue of recognising Israel as a Jewish state has been brought to the forefront of the peace talks.  The reason for this is really not clear, as the Palestinians have not explained why they object to this recognition.  For Israelis, the fact that they are objecting is cause for concern, and reason to insist that no peace deal can be signed without it.  This is surely the most basic requirement for any neighbour of Israel which wishes to respect Israel's existence according to the will of the majority of her citizens.