Coming Apart & Coming Together

A look at Israeli Politics & Policies During the Last Six Months

Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority

The most dramatic development of the past six months has been the breakdown of the peace negotiations spearheaded by US Secretary of State John Kerry between Israel and the Palestinians.

After a maelstrom of jockeying for concessions and fretting about whether the talks would be extended beyond their April 29th deadline, Israel suspended the negotiations in response to the reconciliation of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority which controls the West Bank, and Hamas which forcibly took control of Gaza. The agreement could lead to a unified Palestinian government within the next month, with elections scheduled to follow within six months.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately went on the offensive, both within Israel and on US Sunday morning talk shows, telling the Palestinian leadership they can make peace with Israel or they can reach an accord with Hamas, but not both. In Israel, the Palestinian Authority was lambasted for showing its true “terrorist” colors, by allying with an organization committed to Israel’s destruction. Even Abbas’s unequivocal denunciation of the Holocaust as “the most heinous crime against humanity of the modern era,” was met with skeptical dismissals and denigration.

The trigger for the latest setback was the postponed release of the fourth and final scheduled tranche of 26 Palestinian prisoners, including 14 Israeli citizens, all convicted of murder in nationalist terror actions. Israel signed on to these releases in lieu of a settlement freeze as a Palestinian precondition for resuming negotiations, in exchange for a Palestinian promise to not seek further recognition in international bodies including the U.N.  Israel reneged following leaks of alleged Palestinian intentions to abandon the negotiations as soon as the prisoners were home.  While Kerry scrambled, Abbas starting applying to international agencies, and Netanyahu, adding fuel to the fire, announced plans for another 700 housing starts in the Occupied Territories, which Secretary Kerry identified as “the moment” it all fell apart.

Abbas then threatened to dissolve the Palestinian Authority, and to hand over complete responsibility for the West Bank to Israel, and shortly after, announced the possible deal with Hamas. Abbas has clearly been in the weaker position throughout this negotiation process, but hooking up with Hamas and his threat to dissolve the PA got the attention of Israeli leaders in a way the talks themselves never seemed to.

Israeli and American government reaction to the PA agreement with Hamas have been almost universally negative. The U.S. also considers Hamas a terrorist organization, and attacked Abbas for his terrible timing, although Israel got its share of criticism from the U.S. administration. Abbas, for his part, is insisting that he will continue to head the new government and that it will abide by the principles outlined by the Quartet; recognizing Israel, renouncing violence and honoring previous agreements between the P.A. and Israel, including the Oslo Accords. Whether Hamas will sign on, will try to finesse these demands, or simply reject them remains to be seen.

Regardless of Israeli or American reaction, unification could be beneficial for the Palestinians, who are weak enough, without such internal division. Israeli hard-liners have argued for several years that the divided Palestinian leadership was a main reason that Israel could not make far-reaching concessions to the Palestinian Authority; there was another Palestinian government still sworn to Israel’s destruction. If Hamas modifies its positions and/or its behavior, this argument could lose its force, and a united government could present an opportunity to move forward, although it’s also possible that a new government would take a more extreme line toward Israel. Now that the initial flurry of denunciations has been completed, Israel’s leadership seems to be taking a wait and see attitude while the talks themselves go on hiatus.

There are multiple levels to this opera. Behind closed doors and far from public scrutiny, at least according to leaks, chief negotiators Tzipi Livni and Itzik Molcho (Israel) and Saeb Erakat (Palestinians), have been considering dramatic, fateful and potentially game-changing proposals. In the most frequently discussed scenario, Israel would keep the large settlement blocs, freeze building elsewhere in the West Bank and identify land to swap, without the Palestinians agreeing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. But also under consideration may be a version of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s land and population exchange proposal, in which Israel would keep most of the settlements while specific Arab towns on Israel’s eastern border, along with their current Israeli Arab citizenry, would become part of Palestine.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas both have problems satisfying their own hard line constituencies, in Netanyahu’s case settler supporters capable of bringing down the government. In front of the cameras, they seem to be working hard to poison attitudes toward any final status agreement. Netanyahu launched unprecedented construction in the Occupied Territories, and Abbas has complained steadily about zero progress. Netanyahu has been obstructing the peace process for years, dictating ever harsher terms, while Abbas has proven himself incapable of closing a deal.  Netanyahu, for example, could forego his demand that the Palestinians recognize the Jewish character of the State of Israel, although a case can be made that this would truly eliminate the source of the conflict, and Abbas could accept this demand without sacrificing his own people’s narrative or Israeli Arabs (who he has never cared about). The U.S. is using its leverage to a point, but so far has not seemed willing to play hardball vis-à-vis Israel.

Kerry exceeded expectations in his sheer doggedness and the time he devoted to pushing peace talks forward, especially considering the geopolitical crises in the Ukraine, Syria, Egypt, Iran and elsewhere. Nonetheless, expectations of the negotiations both within Israel and the Palestinian Authority areas were remarkably low, and their breakdown has received more attention in Israel than any previous stage of the process. Netanyahu and Abbas have been overt about their distrust of one another, and for months they appeared more interested in positioning themselves to blame the other side for the failure of the talks than achieving compromise. This has given the negotiations an almost dreamlike insubstantiality, with neither populace putting much stock in them.

Most Israelis have not seriously considered the cost of failure of the negotiations. In Europe, for example, reaction has been more positive regarding the embryonic Palestinian reconciliation. Israel’s popularity may take another hit if the Palestinians present a united front and offer to negotiate but Israel refuses. The Israeli government has entirely ignored offers of extraordinarily generous trading terms from the European Union, should Israel and the Palestinians reach a final settlement, and more pressure may emerge from that corner. We will see, and may already be seeing, a temporary disengagement in our affairs by the US administration which has so heavily invested in the process up until now, at least until the dust settles around the Palestinian government.

The Negev Bedouin

Although the current Israeli government coalition is not as aggressively anti-democratic as the previous one, many of the principal players involved in formulating and promoting anti-democratic legislation remain. Israel’s most vulnerable non-Jewish populations have been under assault, with threats of displacement against the Negev Bedouin and anti-refugee practices worsening.

After passing the Begin-Prawer legislation to forcibly relocate 30,000 Bedouin residents of unrecognized villages as part of a larger scheme of reorganizing and developing the Negev, including Bedouin communities, and beginning to build the police infrastructure necessary to carry out the eviction plan, the government suspended operations at the 11th hour. Young Bedouin activists in the Negev eschewed the tactics of accommodation and the infighting of their parents’ generation and actively recruited international media coverage and pressure, which seems to have been effective. But in addition to the pressure from the left and the international community, there was serious opposition from the right charging the government offer to the Bedouin was too generous.

While it is hard to get a clear sense of the government’s next move, house demolitions continue, police are being reinforced, and newly allocated development resources for the region are being withheld from Bedouin who do not publicly endorse the government plan. Stewardship of the program passed from Benny Begin, who publicly admitted that contrary to government claims, Bedouin leaders had not only never signed on to the plan, but had never seen it, to Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir, of the Likud-Beitenu party. His 30-day deadline for announcing his next steps has long since passed.

Refugees

Under the leadership of Minister of the Interior Gidon Saar, the government passed and began to implement draconian policies against the 53,000 African refugees, labor and asylum seekers in Israel, most of whom came from the Sudan and Eritrea. The construction of the Sinai fence and harsh treatment has effectively terminated the arrival of new refugees, with the numbers of annual new arrivals in the single digits. Israeli government policy eschews humane treatment of those already in Israel in favor of an obsessive focus on deterrence, due to a perceived threat of additional waves of refugees.

Activists working on behalf of refugees, the Hotline for Migrant Workers, Assaf, the African Refugee Development Center, and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), successfully challenged in the High Court the amendment to the “Infiltrators Law” that would have allowed Israel to incarcerate any refugee for up to three years, and the government was issued a stern rebuke for violating the rights of refugees and criminalizing them. The most vocal public sentiment, unfortunately, is rabidly anti-refugee, spurred on by members of the Likud party and extremists further to the right.

Exploiting the language in the High Court decision, the government established an “open” detention facility called Holot in an isolated area in the Negev desert, and has begun to transfer refugees living in South Tel Aviv, starting with their leaders, to what amounts to a kind of prison camp. The requirement to check in five times daily prevents the possibility of leaving the area, seeking work, or having any reasonable life. The government has used various tactics, including cash incentives, intimidation and threats of transfer to “Holot”, to pressure more than 1000 refugees to “voluntarily” leave Israel for third country destinations in Africa, including Uganda, or in some cases, their home countries. In the Sudan, it is clear that returnees would face torture and imprisonment, while Eritrea is marred by gross violations of human rights and lifetime conscription with desertion punishable by death. The security or future prospects of these refugees are by no means guaranteed in any of the new destinations.  Refugee supporters went back to the High Court to challenge the new procedures and are waiting for a ruling.

Funding Settlement Expansion

The Jerusalem based progressive think tank, Molad, exposed the absurd policy allowing West Bank settlements to continue to receive government compensation for “projected income lost” due to the 10-month settlement freeze in 2009-10, and revealed that these funds have been used in part to pay for lobbying against government policies unfavorable to settlements. This story received wide coverage in the media.

Knesset member, Stav Shaffir (Labor), has begun a campaign to follow the money flowing into the settlements. Israel’s government recently approved a transfer of $51 million (177 million shekels) to the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization (WZO). As a private organization, the WZO is not subject to any government oversight, and is routinely used to channel funds into settlement construction. A recent bid to demand transparency of all government allocations to the WZO led by Shaffir and other Knesset members did not succeed. The NGO Social Guard has also been extremely active in documenting the decision-making that takes place inside Knesset committees.

Sharing the Burden / Drafting the Ultra-Orthodox

The Ultra-Orthodox world has been in turmoil for months over recently passed legislation intended to equalize sharing the military burden, a core component of the election platform of the bill’s sponsors, Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), and Minister of the Economy Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home). The final version of the bill postpones the blanket draft of ultra-orthodox draft-age males for another three years, by which time a new government might rescind the order. The bill therefore neither equalizes the military service burden nor drafts ultra-Orthodox at the present.

It does however attempt to unravel a long-running problem; ultra-Orthodox young men are allowed to evade the draft while receiving government living stipends so long as they remain in a Torah study framework – a yeshiva (for bachelors) or a kollel (for married men) – and so long as they do not seek employment. This stipulation has kept them out of the job market for fear of being drafted if they abandoned their yeshiva or kollel, or to engage in fictitious enrollments while working in secret. The new bill allows those men currently above standard draft age to enter the job market without fear of being drafted, potentially liberating large numbers of “students” who already are or would rather be out working to support their families, and may begin to unravel the fictitious student scam.

The new bill also provided a boon to Bennett’s national religious core constituency, who make up the majority of participants in special “hesder” frameworks which combine yeshiva study with military service. Hesder student-soldiers will now have even more favorable terms than previously, reducing the length of their actual military service.

A massive ultra-Orthodox rally protested the clause criminalizing draft evasion for ultra-Orthodox men, spuriously charging that Israel would become the only country in the world making it a crime to study Torah. Draft evasion, of course, and not Torah study, would become a criminal act subject to penalty for Ultra-Orthodox men, just as it is for all other Jewish Israelis, but Haredi leaders got a lot of mileage out of this bogus spin. Behind the scenes, ultra-Orthodox leaders celebrated the leniency of the new law, and used their mass rally and the attendant brouhaha to save face with their followers, while privately acknowledging that the status quo is unsustainable.

The Middle Class and the Aftermath of the Social Protest

The social protest of 2011 was inspired by grossly inflated housing costs in Israel. Ironically, Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid, a neo-liberal capitalist in the Netanyahu-Thatcher-Reagan trickle-down mold, got elected, in part, by appropriating the social protest’s concern for the middle class, if not its prescriptions for economic policy change. Lapid’s disappointing first year as Finance Minister was marked by a regressive tax plan and budget that hurt Israel’s poor and middle class and continued to stream massive funds toward the settlements. As Lapid’s popularity figures sank, he recognized that he needed to provide some solace to the middle class voters who put him into office. His latest gambit was to eliminate the 18% value added tax from first-time apartment and home buyers. Lapid wanted to limit this benefit to young families of ex-serviceman and women, thereby excluding most ultra-Orthodox and Arab citizens. Pressure from the Coalition for Affordable Housing, led to the elimination of this exclusion.

Progress was also made for the first time in many years in shaping policy favorable to the creation of new affordable housing, with new Knesset legislation requiring that one quarter of housing units in large developments be dedicated to either rental units, subsidized housing for low income residents, or smaller apartments for young couples. A huge new apartment complex plan for Northern Tel Aviv will provide more than 2300 new affordable housing units for lower income residents of the city. These policy shifts can be seen as a direct result of the social protest of 2011 and the ongoing NGO activity which grew out of it.

Ethiopian Israelis

Following a blistering report by the State Comptroller, the government’s expiring Five Year Plan for the Integration of the Ethiopian immigrant community will not be renewed in its current form. One criticism of the expiring program was that it was not overseen by any specific Ministry, so a new three-year plan is being developed under the auspices of the Ministry of Absorption. Some activists have pressed instead for the Office of the Prime Minister, arguing that since Ethiopian community members are no longer recent immigrants, it is patronizing and ultimately counterproductive, creating the impression among other ministries that they are not responsible to adequately meet the needs of the Ethiopian immigrant community.

Government support for the Ethiopian immigration appears to have come to an end, as the final groups of immigrants were brought to Israel in 2013. The vast majority of those Falashmura identified in the 1999 Efrati Census are now in Israel, and overall the Falashmura represent more than half of the approximately 130,000 Ethiopian Israelis. The remaining 5,000- 6,000 members of the Falashmura community in Ethiopia, have mostly been denied permission to immigrate to Israel on the grounds that they cannot demonstrate Jewish matrilineal descent. The NGO, South Wing to Zion, continues to press for individuals being granted immigration privileges under laws of family reunification.

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