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Apr 24, 2014

The Painstakingly Slow Evolution of Roger Cohen

Roger Cohen is catching on. Slowly, ever so painfully slowly, but still it seems to be happening. Today Cohen blasts through one of the oft told myths in the Liberal Zionist narrative. But, staying true to Liberal Zionist form, he fails to prescribe the obvious and necessary solutions to the problem he identifies.

Cohen addresses the "myth" that the Israeli occupation is unsustainable. This myth is central in Liberal Zionist lore. Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street Founder and President writes in his book "Our voice must speak the truth as loudly and clearly as possible: The present path that the state of Israel is on is unsustainable."

But Cohen writes: "It is time to retire the unsustainability nostrum. Facile and inaccurate, it distracts from the inconvenient truth of Israel’s sustainable success..." Later, "that 'point' of unmanageability is a vanishing one. Permanent occupation is what several ministers in Netanyahu’s coalition government advocate. Backed by the evidence, they are certain it can be managed. They are right."

If this sounds familiar to some of you, you may have come across my comments at a Middle East Policy Council panel last fall where I discuss the three most problematic myths in our discourse on Israel/Palestine. The myth of unsustainable occupation was one of them:
Indeed, in 2011, President Obama said about Israel, quote, “precisely because of our friendship, it is important that we tell the truth. The status quo is unsustainable. The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.” The same was uttered by his then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

If anything has been sustainable in the turbulent Middle East for the last half-century, longer than Mubarak and longer than Gadhafi, it has been Israel’s occupation. Sure, nothing is sustainable forever. At one point, I suppose, the Grand Canyon was just a river. But it’s particularly disingenuous to hear this language from the very officials who are crafting policy to ensure that the status quo remains sustainable.  
As I’ve already discussed, not only is the Israeli occupation sustainable, it is profitable. Indeed, Israel has done almost all it can to ensure the occupation persists for generations by carving up the West Bank with colonies and entrenching its presence there.
So even though Cohen successfully identifies the same problem I pointed out, here is where Cohen fails spectacularly. While he identifies that the occupation is very much sustainable, he fails to put the proper blame on Washington for its support of Israel, without which the sustainability of occupation would be in serious jeopardy.  This is a slippery slope for a Liberal Zionist. Liberal Zionists constantly tell us that ending the occupation is in Israel's interest, but if the status quo is sustainable and Israel is secure and thriving, then what would motivate it to change its behavior in occupied Palestine - behavior that even Liberal Zionists identify as morally reprehensible? Not much.

Which is why the next logical step, a step Liberal Zionists generally don't take, is a call for the necessary pressure to change the Israeli decision calculus. So does Cohen call for an end to US military, economic and/or diplomatic support for Israel which helps make the status quo sustainable? Does he call for sanctions on Israel until it complies with international law? Nope. He merely concludes that majorities on both sides must determine "that painful compromise in the name of a better future is preferable to manageable conflict."

But what changes need to take place to get Israelis to prefer making the necessary concessions instead of not making them and enjoying the status quo he only paragraphs earlier identified as sustainable?

Cohen doesn't say. Maybe he will in a column 2 to 3 years from now. And why rush anyway Roger? The status quo is, as we both note, sustainable. Its just a few more years of millions of Palestinians living under the jack-boot of Israeli occupation. If this hasn't driven you to urgency after several decades, what's a couple more years. I'm sure you will might get around to it at some point.



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Apr 4, 2014

Middle East Blame Game Misreporting

Two things are certain with U.S.-mediated Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The first is that they will inevitably fail (I say inevitably because of long-standing foundational flaws precluding success) and the second is that when they do, the blame game will inevitably ensue. Well, we have arrived at blame game stage once again.

Both parties don't trust each other, both parties don't believe the talks will amount to anything and both parties do not want to be blamed for failure. But with nothing to show after months of talks and more trips by Secretary of State John Kerry than I can count, the question will be asked: who is to blame?

The most direct cause of the "crisis" in the talks in recent days is the Israeli refusal to uphold their end of the bargain in an American-brokered agreement which got the talks kicked off last July. The agreement was simple, Israel would release 104 pre-Oslo prisoners. In exchange, the Palestinians would hold off on bids for international recognition for a period of nine months giving Kerry's negotiations a chance. The Israelis insisted on releasing these prisoners in batches and the fourth and final batch of prisoners was due to be released on March 29th.

Weeks before the deadline, the Israelis began to indicate they might not release the prisoners. This was happening in the context of talks where no progress was being made and the April 29th deadline was approaching. Kerry was unable to sell the pro-Israel parameters of a framework to the Palestinians, so it seem that without progress, there would be no extension beyond April 29th. In an effort to blackmail the Palestinians into extending the talks even without progress, Israel reneged on the fourth batch of the release and wanted to tie it to an extension of talks beyond the 29th, unilaterally changing the terms of the agreement. I wonder if this Israeli move was not green lighted by Washington as a way to press the Palestinians to extend the talks.

In any case, it was clear from the outset that the Palestinians would object to this breach of the agreement and consider the agreement null if it took place. They said so explicitly and publicly when a delegation came to meet with President Obama and Kerry in mid-March. So no one should be surprised by the fact that Abbas went ahead with joining fifteen international treaties once Israel failed to meet its commitment. He said that is what he was going to do and he did it. In short, when Israel failed to keep its word, Abbas kept his. Those of us watching this issue closely knew the impasse was coming so Kerry and his team can't plead ignorance or surprise.

But it would be damaging for Israel to be blamed for the end of these talks. So how is the media covering this? Well, The New York Times can't seem to get the story straight. On March 17th, they got it right, noting that Israel was attempting to unilaterally change the terms of the agreement:

There is another, more imminent, date that could jeopardize the process. Israel promised in July that it would free 104 Palestinian prisoners in four batches, and the last release date is March 29. Some Israeli officials warned that Mr. Netanyahu would not carry out the release unless the talks were extended.

Got that? The New York Times clearly stated there was an agreed upon release date, March 29th, and that if Israel failed to release these prisoners by that day, it could "jeopardize the process." Yet reading The New York Times' reporting of the events since Israel's failure to meet the deadline has been almost comical.

This April 3rd story completely rewrites history. It was initially headlined "Israel calls of prisoner release as Kerry seeks to keep talks alive". By why is the Times reporting on Israel failing to release prisoners it should have released four days earlier on April 3rd? That's old news by now. The answer? Because they were changing the story. Here is what the story initially said was the reason Israel didn't release the prisoners:

The Israeli decision was a response to the announcement on Tuesday by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, that his administration was formally seeking to join 15 international bodies, which the Israelis regarded as an unacceptable move that would subvert the direct negotiations with Israel for Palestinian statehood.
Now the Times is telling its readers that Israel is not releasing the prisoners as a response to the Palestinian move to join fifteen international bodies, even though they had previously reported that Israel was threatening not to release the prisoners to extort an extension out of Abbas. There was also the fact that Abbas actually signed those agreements after the Israelis failed to meet the March 29th deadline. So why rewrite history here?

Additionally, as word of a larger deal that would include Jonathan Pollard was breaking, a Jodi Rudoren story included this gem:

[A Palestinian official] also said “today is the last chance” for Israel to release the promised fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners — an impossible deadline because the release requires a 48-hour waiting period after approval by five Israeli ministers and the five have not yet convened.

Notice how Rudoren editorialized after the hyphen calling it an "impossible deadline" and casting the Palestinians as making an unreasonable demand. The story was written on April 1st, two days after the deadline had already passed, a deadline which this newspaper had already reported on March 17th was one that Israel did not intend to keep. Why is Rudoren creating excuses for the Israelis?

Both of these egregious and contradictory excerpts has since either been removed from the stories or rewritten in marginally improved ways. This is probably because many readers (full disclosure: including myself) have noted the inaccuracies to the editors. So many readers have chimed in that the Public Editor devoted a post to it today entitled "Readers Object to Times’s Portrayal of Palestinian Role in Impasse" and she comes down on the side of the readers.

Yet here, The New York Times is making excuses for Israel again, turning a clear violation of a commitment to meet a deadline into a he said/she said situation:

For the Palestinians, the breakdown of the talks was precipitated by what they said was an Israeli violation of the commitment to release the fourth group of Palestinian prisoners by March 29. But Israel delayed the release while it sought a broader, American-brokered deal to extend the negotiations to early 2015.
So who is to blame here? Well, the paper of record tells us it is all a matter of perspective. What cowardly journalism. There are simple ascertainable facts here. There was an agreement and the Times reported on it. Israel reneged on its end of the bargain when it failed to meet the agreed upon deadline. That's it. That isn't a matter of perspective. Either Israel did what it committed to do when it was supposed to or it didn't. But putting blame squarely where it lies seems too difficult for the Times.

The paragraph has since been altered, explaining Israel's intentions behind failing to meet the deadline and ultimately, it is still a matter of dispute:

But Israel sought to condition the release of the final batch on an extension of the negotiations beyond the current deadline of April 29. And though the Palestinians blamed Israel for delaying the fourth release beyond a late-March deadline and precipitating the current crisis, Israel is now accusing the Palestinians of having foreclosed the planned release with their move.
The facts here are not in dispute. There was a deadline, Israel didn't meet it, it did not have an intention of meeting it and attempted to change the deal all together. Once this occurred the Palestinians gave Kerry additional time to try to get the Israelis to keep their end of the bargain. He couldn't. Thus, the Palestinians signed fifteen letters, keeping with what they said they would do.  That's it. That is the story.

Why is it so hard for The New York Times to get this simple story right? Perhaps because if reported properly, the reader will get the idea that Israel is in fact to blame.
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Apr 1, 2014

What the Jonathan Pollard deal tells us about the "Peace Process"

If it seems to you that a deal to release Jonathan Pollard, an American convicted of espionage for Israel, to keep a moribund "peace process" above water is some sort of April Fools', joke you are not alone. But this, sadly, is typical of Washington's handling of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Pollard is serving a life sentence and is due to be released in a couple years. Previous Israeli governments have requested his release only to be denied by previous American administrations. Numerous high-ranking intelligence officials have objected to his early release on account of the extent of the damage his espionage caused. But the bigger issue here is not that the U.S. is considering releasing a convicted spy to Israel, but rather how and for what and what this says about the entire "peace process." The terms of the deal have been leaking out and are detailed here. Let's keep in mind that this is just a report for now but multiple outlets have reported that a deal is in the works from government officials on both sides and reported similar terms.

If these are in fact the terms, they are little more than another indictment of American mediation. Let's take them one at a time.

In return for the early release of Jonathan Pollard, Israel will:

1. Release 26 Palestinian prisoners, the fourth batch of the 104 pre-Oslo prisoners which it refused to release this past week.

2. Release 400 additional prisoners, many of whom are woman and children that are not convicted of crimes with "blood on their hands."

3. Israel will "exercise restraint" in building in the West Bank, not including occupied Jerusalem.

This is a very long way of saying that in return for the early release of Pollard, Israel will do several things it already should have done long ago. Or, to put it even more succinctly, that Israel will be rewarded for violating commitments.

The 26 Palestinian prisoners were supposed to be released last week as part of a deal Secretary of State John Kerry brokered between Netanyahu and Abbas. Abbas agreed to hold off on going to international institutions with the Palestinian statehood bid for nine months of negotiations if Israel released the 104 pre-Oslo prisoners. Israel insisted on a phased release and after three phases they balked, went back on their commitment and refused to release the fourth group. Israel refused to release the prisoners saying that they did not want to do so without a Palestinian commitment to extend negotiations beyond the nine-month period which concludes on April 29th. But, of course, that was not the deal.

The deal was releasing the prisoners for a period of 9-month negotiations without international bids. Any agreement to an extension of the talks from the Palestinian side would be contingent on progress since the Palestinians do not want the negotiations to be what they have been in the past: a cover for Israeli colonization and occupation. Of course there has been no progress in the talks, only regress, because of absurd and hard line positions taken by the Israeli government which they know no Palestinian leader can agree to, including insistence on the "Jewish State" issue and more.

But Israel was not only trying to use the last batch of 26 prisoners, a bargaining chip they had already committed to using eight months ago, again. It has already reused this same group of 104 prisoners as a bargaining chip over again. In 1999, Israel agreed to release these pre-Oslo prisoners but never did so. So they have effectively cashed in this bargaining chip three times not only to extract concessions from the Palestinians, but now also from the Americans in the form of Jonathan Pollard. Washington is getting robbed in broad daylight and no one seems to care.

The second thing Israel will reportedly do in return for Pollard is also something they should have done already. The 400 prisoners they are to release might sound significant. The reality is many of these prisoners are "administrative detainees," which means they have not been convicted of anything and in many cases never been charged or tried. They are basically picked up and held indefinitely without any due process. Amnesty International has said that these practices "contravene Israel’s obligations under international human rights law and international humanitarian law" and Human Rights Watch has demanded Israel "stop jailing people without charge of trial." So, in essence, Israel is using its violations of international law as bargaining chips as well.

The third thing Israel will commit to doing is "exercise restraint" in further colonizing the West Bank. We've seen how this played out before. They claimed to freeze settlements while not actually freezing them and colonial activity in occupied Jerusalem was never even slowed. Now they claim they will "exercise restraint." In reality, a settlement freeze was a first phase Israeli obligation under the Road Map in 2003 and has always been illegal under international law. Ending settlement construction is an Israeli obligation and one that they should have been held accountable for since 1967 but have not been. Instead, they are once again able to use this violation of international law as a bargaining chip.

Time and again, Israel has been allowed to use the same bargaining chips over and over and commit to ending violations of international law which it never seems to end in return for concessions from Palestinians, now they are doing this to get concessions from Washington as well. Frankly, Washington is as much to blame for this embarrassment as Israel is. By failing to adequately play to role of mediator and enforcing Israeli commitments and obligations, Washington has enabled this Israeli misbehavior.

The United States of America, the lone superpower in the world, has to bribe a client state to get it to maybe stop violating some international laws for a few months. If the U.S. is so weak before Israel when it comes to merely making sure Israel releases prisoners they already committed to release three times over fifteen years, how on earth will they get them to meet obligations on core issues like borders, refugees, Jerusalem, etc in a comprehensive peace agreement?

SPOILER ALERT: They can't!

This is why the Washington-led peace process has become a farce and why so many around the globe are turning toward alternative ways to demand Palestinian rights.


















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Mar 18, 2014

Netanyahu's DC Flack Attack

PA President Mahmoud Abbas is in Washington and you know what that means, it is time for Jackson Diehl, Netanyahu's microphone at the Washington Post, to write another column complaining about Washington pressuring Netanyahu too much and Abbas too little.

The refrain is as wrong as it is consistent. It also isn't limited to Diehl. We've heard the same sort of nonsense from the AIPAC-spawned Washington Institute for Near East Policy and their director Robert Satloff, among others. They argue that Washington is letting Abbas off easy and that if he doesn't perceive the costs of failed peace talks, he isn't going to take the risks necessary for peace. That's not a typo, I wrote Abbas, not Netanyahu intentionally. The Palestinians, they argue, are the ones who bare no costs if the talks fail.

Perhaps it has not dawned on Diehl, Satloff and their ilk that if the talks fail to deliver an independent Palestinian state, Palestinians will continue to bear the brunt of Israeli occupation and colonization. That sure sounds like a cost to me and plenty of incentive to want the talks to succeed.

Think about this for a second. One party, a strong nuclear armed state, occupies and illegally colonizes the other, which is a stateless people with no capacity to challenge it militarily. Diehl and Satloff argue the weaker, occupied, colonized, stateless party isn't feeling enough heat. Oh, by the way, the stronger party receives unwavering military, economic, and diplomatic support from the world's lone remaining superpower.

If anything, it is the Israelis that pay little or no costs for continuing to occupy and colonize Palestinian land. This is why it has persisted for decades. Diehl, Satloff and company turn the entire situation on its head. They completely de-contextualize reality to find a way to slam Obama and support Netanyahu. What else, I suppose, should one expect from Netanyahu's DC flacks?




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Feb 27, 2014

Spike Lee and the Bogarting of Palestine

Yesterday I became aware of Spike Lee's emphatic response to a question posed to him at an event in Brooklyn about gentrification. The questioner asked about the "good side of gentrification". Well, Spike Lee, a Brooklyn native, wasn't buying into the argument at all. The notion that anyone would put a positive spin on gentrification was so insulting to Lee that he gave an emotional, expletive-laden reply.

I didn't grow up in Brooklyn and haven't ever lived there (though I make a point to visit for better than decent shawarma) but something about the question and Spike Lee's response was so familiar to me. The offense and anger so profoundly felt in his comments was not only something I could sympathize with, but something I could empathize with. Why was this the case? I couldn't tell right away. 

Here is the question as it was posed to Spike Lee:
You mentioned gentrification with some slightly negative connotations, but I wonder if you have ever looked at it from the other side, which is that if your family was still in that forty-thousand dollar home, it is now worth three and a half/ four million dollars.
Why did this sound so familiar? This morning, while rereading some documents I hadn't reviewed in some time it hit me. Zionist leader Theodore Herzl wrote to Yusuf Diya-uddin Pasha al-Khalidi who was, in 1899, mayor of Jerusalem. Khalidi had written to the Chief Rabbi of France that the Zionist movement's interest in Palestine would cause major conflict because Palestine was already inhabited. "In the name of God," Khalidi wrote to the Rabbi, "Let Palestine be left alone." Herzl, who saw the letter responded. Here is an excerpt:
You see another difficulty, Excellency, in the existence of the non-Jewish population in Palestine. But who would think of sending them away? It is their well-being, their individual wealth which we will increase by bringing in our own. Do you think that an Arab who owns land or a house in Palestine worth three or four thousand francs will be very angry to see the price of his land rise in a short time, to see it rise five and ten times in value perhaps in a few months? Moreover, that will necessarily happen with the arrival of the Jews.
There are countless Palestinian refugees who will never see their homes again because entire villages - hundreds of them - have been razed to the ground. An entire society, millennia in the making, was torn apart by Zionism. The smooth talk of a real estate agent is never going to make that appealing.

Gentrification is horrible to see, but colonization, depopulation and enforced exile are worse by an immeasurable factor. Take the anger you heard from Spike Lee, multiply it by whatever you think that factor really is and then maybe, maybe, you can understand the way Palestinians feel about Zionism.

Give me my modest home, my olive trees, my ziet and zaatar and keep your francs - all of them.

As Spike said, you can't just come and bogart.

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Feb 17, 2014

A Tale of Two Articles: Wonderwater vs Watergate

In the daily universe of what is opinion writing and reporting on Israel/Palestine in the English language press, today offered an interesting juxtaposition. Both the New York Times and an Israeli daily ran stories about water and its availability in the region.

One piece lauded Israel for its ingenuity, mentioned nothing about occupation and the theft of Palestinian water resources and depicted Israel as the generous benefactor of Palestinian water. Here is an excerpt:
Because of geography and hydrology, the Palestinians’ water future is closely tied to Israel’s. In just the few years of Hamas control of Gaza, the water supply there has been polluted, and though no solution to its coming water crisis is likely without an Israeli role, Hamas has refused to cooperate with Israel. 
The Palestinians in the West Bank already receive much of their water from Israel’s national water utility and, sovereignty and symbolism aside, neither a two-state solution nor a continuation of the status quo will change that. Given their proximity to Israel, the Palestinians are likely to be among the few Arab winners in the water race. 

The other piece was far more critical of Israel and accurately described the way in which Israel exploits Palestinian water resources properly contextualizing the situation in Occupation. The author writes:
So here are the facts:  
 * Israel doesn’t give water to the Palestinians. Rather, it sells it to them at full price.  
 * The Palestinians would not have been forced to buy water from Israel if it were not an occupying power which controls their natural resource, and if it were not for the Oslo II Accords, which limit the volume of water they can produce, as well as the development and maintenance of their water infrastructure.  
 * This 1995 interim agreement was supposed to lead to a permanent arrangement after five years. The Palestinian negotiators deluded themselves that they would gain sovereignty and thus control over their water resources. The Palestinians were the weak, desperate, easily tempted side and sloppy when it came to details. Therefore, in that agreement Israel imposed a scandalously uneven, humiliating and infuriating division of the water resources of the West Bank.  
 * The division is based on the volume of water Palestinians produced and consumed on the eve of the deal. The Palestinians were allotted 118 million cubic meters (mcm) per year from three aquifers via drilling, agricultural wells, springs and precipitation. Pay attention, Rino Tzror: the same deal allotted Israel 483 mcm annually from the same resources (and it has also exceeded this limit in some years). In other words, some 20 percent goes to the Palestinians living in the West Bank, and about 80 percent goes to Israelis – on both sides of the Green Line – who also enjoy resources from the rest of the country.  
 Why should Palestinians agree to pay for desalinated water from Israel, which constantly robs them of the water flowing under their feet?

Now, can you guess which appeared in the New York Times and which in the Israeli daily?


UPDATE*: It seems Seth Siegel, the author of the NY Times puff piece on Israel and water scarcity who was identified in the article as "a founder of Beanstalk, a brand-licensing agency, and of Sixpoint Partners, an investment bank" is also....drum-roll.....an AIPAC board member. Why did the NYT omit this very relevant part of his bio in the author description?
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