Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Uncomfortable Times for American Zionists

As one of the 75% of Israelis who do not support unilateral annexation,  I share the concern expressed by many American supporters who oppose annexation.  But where Israelis and many American Jewish Zionists seem to part ways is basing their perception of and connection with Israel based solely on annexation and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
There is no question that annexation, or the extension of sovereignty, is a very serious step to be taken unilaterally, with potential consequences for Israel’s security, demographics, diplomatic relations, democracy, and future as a Jewish state. However, there are credible voices that argue that, given the Palestinians’ long-time rejection of various proposals, and their inability to unify into one government, it is time to upset the apple cart and create our own future, whatever that may be.
Einat Wilf, a former member of the Knesset from the Labor Party, argues that Israel is in the final stages of the long process of establishing its borders and, while the road may get a bit bumpy, the sky is not falling.
One of the challenges is that, for as crucial an issue as annexation is, all but Prime Minister Netanyahu and perhaps a few other people know what it will amount to.  Are we debating annexing the Jordan Valley and every community and settlement in Judea and Samaria (aka the West Bank) as imagined in the Trump proposal as the starting point for negotiations that would also include a Palestinian state?
Or are we debating a couple of suburban neighborhoods contiguous or nearly contiguous to Jerusalem? Or are we talking about establishing the Jordan Valley as our security border?
It is a serious subject with much different ramifications depending upon what is actually done.  And, yet, we will apparently not know exactly what it is until just before or after it has gone through a tortured negotiation process with the Trump Administration and Netanyahu’s coalition partners and, of course, through Netanyahu’s political calculations.
For a facts and figures on what likely scenarios would entail, David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East policy provides a some very good outlines of how territory and people would be impacted.
American supporters of Israel are rightly confused and concerned.  So are many Israelis.  But where Israelis and many American supporters of Israel part company is seeing this issue as the end-all and be-all of Israel.
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Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Smart Israelis/Smart Palestinians

There is no doubt that both historically and legally Jews have every right to live in and to call home every inch of the territory from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.  As Yossi Klein Halevi explained in his latest book, Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor, Jews have ancient and deep roots in all of the Land of Israel.

In modern times our rights to a state were recognized by both powers that controlled the region and relevant international bodies.  A decent argument can even be made that Jews have the right to have had included in the state of Israel land east of the Jordan River that a younger Winston Churchill and his colonial colleagues lopped off from what was then called Southern Syria or Palestine and handed to the current King Abdullah's great-grandfather, Abdullah I.  

Abdullah's family, the Hashemites, ruled Mecca for 700 years and, as the Saudis were taking over Mecca, the Brits apparently thought, "hey, why not," the Hashemites can have part of Palestine or, as it was re-named, trans-Jordan.  King Abdullah and the Hashemites have about as much right being there as I have performing neurosurgery.  

But, for a myriad of strategic, political, military, demographic, and moral reasons, most Zionists have not pressed the Jewish people's legitimate claims to trans-Jordan for about 100 years.  It was not in our interest. We used our heads.

There is also no doubt that of all the peoples in the world aspiring to nationhood, the Palestinian people, under some of the most inept, corrupt leadership imaginable, have not earned their way to the top of the list.  Given opportunity after opportunity, with unprecedented financial and political support, they have opted not to develop the institutions and norms for success as a modern nation.

Among other things, they have not developed in an independent judiciary.  Their press is far from free. Journalists are attacked and jailed for not towing the party line.

They have not established a free and fair electoral system.  The most blatant illustration of that is 85-year-old President Abbas, who was elected to his four-year term 15 years ago.  Virtually no one expects a peaceful transfer of power when he dies.

The competing Palestinian governing entities, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, have not resolved the national divisions between their two major ideological camps, and they do not seem able to do so peacefully.  In a bloody coup in 2007, Hamas took over Gaza.  It controls it today, and it priorities terrorizing Israel and maintaining power over improving the lives of the inhabitants.  Every attempt at peacefully reconciling and uniting Hamas and the Palestinian Authority has gone nowhere.
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Thursday, May 28, 2020

Do the right thing

I felt compelled to write a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu.  And, no, I am not holding my breath.

Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu:

In the 50 years that I have been a pro-Israel activist, and in the decade since I made Aliyah, I have never felt such a feeling of despair and shame.  Not about Israel and its people and promise, but about its leadership and politics.  I fear for the Zionist enterprise.

I have not always agreed with every policy or statement of the Israeli government and its political leaders.  But I have always been able to explain policies, put them in context, and demonstrate that they are part of the give-and-take of a robust Israeli democracy.

No longer.  I cannot explain how the Israeli democracy has a Prime Minister charged with serious crimes involving breach of trust and bribery, nor how he does not feel compelled to resign for the sake of the country.  It is difficult if not impossible to find any healthy democracy where this has happened.

You are, of course, entitled to a presumption of innocence and to a strong and full defense.  Part of that would be an aggressive counter-argument to the prosecution’s case.  However, to remain in office and to attack the judiciary and your opponents and to encourage the behavior of your allies in the manner you have undermines Israel’s democratic foundations.

I am ashamed of what you and some of your allies are doing.  I cannot defend or explain your actions.  You and your allies falsely and maliciously assert that the investigation and prosecution amount to an “attempted coup.”  You and your allies falsely and maliciously allege some vast conspiracy consisting of the media, the “left,” the police, the investigators, and the prosecution that is out to get you.

Incredibly, you allege that an Attorney General and police leaders that you appointed are part of this fantastic vast conspiracy.  Undoubtedly with your orchestration, some of your ministers and others beholden to you show up at your first Court hearing attacking the proceedings and those responsible for enforcing the law, questioning their legitimacy and thereby undermining faith in Israel’s legal and judicial processes and institutions.

Law enforcement and prosecution personnel have been viciously attacked and threatened.  The word “traitor” has been thrown around. They now require extraordinary security, and they undoubtedly and legitimately fear for their safety and that of their families.  Attacks on the judges involved have already begun.  If the judges rule against you, one can only imagine the attacks you and your allies will engage in.

On many occasions I have heard you boast about the strong, independent, honest Israeli judiciary.  You have heralded it as evidence of Israel’s democracy.  How do you explain your years of these assertions in light of your current attacks?  Were you lying then or are you lying now? Or did the corruption of these great institutions happen just in time to come after you?

I have also proudly held Israel’s judiciary out as one of its great democratic pillars, as have many of Israel’s strongest advocates.  How will any of us do so after the Prime Minister and many of his allies have spent months, probably years, tearing into that judiciary?

Prime Minister Menachem Begin chose not to annex Judea and Samaria.  He clearly refrained from doing so not out of fear of the reaction of any foreign country or person, including the President of the U.S.  If he held such fears, he would not have extended sovereignty over Jerusalem or the Golan Heights.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who voted against the Camp David Accords and never feared defying anyone, including U.S. Presidents, also chose not to annex the territories.  Same with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who also feared no one and nothing.

And same with you, Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister.  You have had over a decade to annex Judea and Samaria, but you never did it.  The former Prime Ministers and you all knew the costs of unilaterally asserting sovereignty over substantial parts of the territories and effectively having jurisdiction over two or two-and-a- half million Palestinians: combined with the number of Israel’s Arab population, it places Israel’s Jewish identity in serious jeopardy.

It threatens the entire Zionist purpose.  You know that and you knew better than to do that.  And so you did not do it.  Until now.

In order to please your base, to consolidate your power, to ensure that you stay in office and out of jail, you are now willing to take this step and jeopardize Israel’s Jewish identity, the bi-partisan support of its crucial ally, its peace treaty with a country that provides an essential buffer, and more.

For nothing:  Israel already effectively controls the area.

Your family has given much to Israel and Zionism.  You have much to be proud of.  Your father was one of its great intellectuals.  Your brother gave his life in one of Israel’s greatest military feats.  He is a legend.  You served bravely in a storied unit, risking your life and suffering wounds.  You put Israel on its path to economic success, and you kept Israel safe and economically vibrant for over a decade as Prime Minister.

But what you, and what your allies are doing for you now, to allow you to stay in office and to escape the same justice system every other citizen is subject to, will tarnish your and your family’s legacy.  It will overwhelm all that you and they have done.  It will define you in history, and it may very well contribute to the destruction of Israel’s democracy and Jewish identity.

I implore you to do what is right: put your country and your family’s legacy first.  Resign.


Alan Edelstein

(Originally published in The Times of Israel)

Monday, May 18, 2020

We Beat Italy

After 18 months, three elections, myriad negotiation sessions, party splits, realignments, name calling, fear mongering, flirting, ministry-creating, and lots more that now seems de rigueur in Israel coalition-making, Israel has a government. Or, perhaps more accurately, two parallel governments, or one government with another in waiting.

There is the old saying: If you like law or sausage, don't watch how either is made. In this case, sausage is due an apology.

The intricacies of this deal make Rubik's Cube look simple. Indeed, this mishmash would confound Mr. Rubick himself. The agreement, negotiated by two candidates that have absolutely no trust in the other, creates some of the strangest governance provisions one could imagine.

The Israeli High Court of Justice held two days of hearings on eight petitions hearing challenges on the right of a Knesset member under indictment to form a government, as well as on the complex and convoluted coalition agreement between indicted Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and former Opposition Leader and now "alternative" Prime Minister-to-be Benny Gantz.

The Court ruled that Netanyahu could be designated to form a government. It largely avoided ruling on the agreement, putting that off until the provisions enshrining the agreement in law were enacted. Those challenges should be coming soon. The Court did make some pointed criticisms of some of the provisions that would have required the most glaring revisions of law and process. The would-be coalition partners thereupon made some overnight revisions.

The High Court was damned if it did and damned if it didn't. If it ruled that Netanyahu could not be tapped to put a government together, or that substantial parts of the coalition agreement violated Israel's Basic Laws, which pass for a kind-of Constitution, it would have been accused of being a liberal, activist court that was thwarting the will of the voters and of undermining democracy.

Thanks at least in part to the coronavirus crisis and his leadership of Israel's positive response to it, and perhaps also a symptom of Israelis' election fatigue and their dread of going through a fourth campaign, Netanyahu's polling numbers are up. Polls indicated that notwithstanding indictments and other Netanyahu baggage, Likud would have won about 40 seats in new elections, a gain of about seven or eight seats.

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Thursday, May 14, 2020

An Evening Walk in Jerusalem

Israel has done very well coronavirus-wise. The number of deaths is quite low—about 250—for a country of about nine million.

A disproportionate number of the deaths and the infections are in nursing homes and the ultra-Orthodox communities, so the rest of population feels pretty safe.

The rate of infections has decreased considerably.  So, the country is “re-opening.”  Of course, we don’t know how many younger people are walking around without any symptoms but with the infection.

We live in a part of Jerusalem with lots of young people—post-Army, college students.  It’s usually a good thing.  Busy restaurants and cafes, festivals.  It’s lively and stimulating. But now many of the younger folks, seemingly impervious to the disease and apparently not overly concerned about unknowingly infecting their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and me, are walking and jogging and shopping and talking without masks. 

Jerusalem is having its first days of really hot weather, which makes for beautiful warm evening walks.  The rainy spring has made for strikingly colorful flowers.  And there is nothing like a Jerusalem sunset, especially if there are a few clouds in the sky.

So off I went for a walk on a beautiful spring evening.  Taking a walk in the Coronavirus Age is a different experience, particularly if you are a senior and/or have some health issues.

It’s a bit like playing tag except that instead of darting here and there in order to tag someone, you dart here and there in order to avoid coming within two meters of a potential infected person or, if you were inventing new words, an infectee.

I walked up to the street behind my building and made a left onto Rehov HaNasi (the President’s Street).  I congratulated myself as I walked without stopping past the small ice cream shop with delicious ice cream if somewhat odd flavors, and on past the President’s residence.  It’s a wide street with wide sidewalks and so, it was fairly easy to move here, detour a bit there, walk faster here, and cross the street there, in order to avoid human contact.

Then I turned down a narrower, quiet, beautiful street with vegetation aplenty.  I noticed a man just standing on the narrow sidewalk.  There being no cars to speak of, I crossed the street at a bit of an angle.  Then I noticed up four or five meters a woman just standing on the sidewalk.

As I started to cross the street again, I looked up and saw a man davening (praying) on a balcony.  It being around sunset and this being, after all, Jerusalem, that did not surprise me in the least.
As I reached the sidewalk, I again noticed another man just standing on the sidewalk.  Yes, it was a beautiful evening for hanging out but, even given that, this seemed like a lot of just hanging out.

I moved to the middle of the street and kept walking.  The “joy” of the coronavirus: so few cars you can safely walk down the middle of a street in Jerusalem, even when it is not Shabbat.  I looked down the street.  All the way to the end at the little neighborhood park, in front of almost every building, there was a man or a woman standing.

I looked up and to both sides.  On one or two balconies on almost every building there was a man or woman praying.  It was a street-long outdoor, super-safe minyan (10-person prayer group) on a beautiful Jerusalem evening.

I listened closely as I walked down the middle of the street.  Sweet voices praying quietly.  Alone but together, if that is possible.

A Jerusalem moment.

No mechitzah (divider between men and women).  No women’s balcony, although there were balconies for men and women in this open-air street shul.

It seems fitting, and thought-provoking, that the street was named for Ahad Ha’am, an early Zionist intellectual who favored Zionism as a cultural and spiritual renaissance.

On my short walk up the middle of the street, I witnessed, and partook in just a bit, a brief but beautiful renaissance by regular people of Jerusalem.  On Ahad Ha’am— Hebrew for One of the People.

(Originally published in The Times of Israel)

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Thinking and Worrying: Polio, Coronavirus and Leadership

One thing about being under lock down because of the coronavirus:  you have time to do things and to think.  In my thinking time, my thoughts drifted back to the scare that polio put into the childhood of those of us who grew up in the 1950's and 1960's.

Specifically, I remember in the early 1960's, as a seven or eight year old, standing in line with my parents and brothers to receive our oral vaccine, developed by Albert Sabin.  Sabin had been to Cuba, and there he got the idea that the way to stop the virus was to inoculate everyone at the same time rather than waiting until they came to the doctor's office for a visit. Thus, the lines.

Because it was a live vaccine that attacked polio in the intestines and prevented the virus from entering the bloodstream, it was more effective than Jonas Salk's killed vaccine, which Salk had developed in 1955 and which had been widely distributed in the United States.  While the Sabin vaccine was widely distributed in many parts of the world, resistance to it by the March of Dimes and others somewhat limited its distribution in the U.S.

Still, my mother had us pretty much first up for it.  She was a worrier extraordinaire, and when it came to caution and safety measures, my mother made Ralph Nader to look like a lightweight.  My mother made my father install seat belts in our 1957 Plymouth the minute they were on the market.

She, along with every other parent in the U.S, was horrified by the pictures of children in huge steel iron lungs.  The picture of the 13-year old violin protegee Itzik Perlman lumbering onto the stage of the Ed Sullivan Show in 1958 with braces and crutches was etched in her proud Jewish mother's mind.  The thought of a child getting polio was terrifying to moms of the 1950's.

I started wondering:  Given what we are now witnessing with the lack of tests, respirators, masks, and other vital equipment, could the United States marshal the kind of effort it took in the 1950's and early 1960's to quickly and widely inoculate an entire populace against a terrible disease?  Does the U.S. have the kind of leadership, the kind of cohesiveness, the kind of united sense of purpose that it takes to accomplish such an extraordinary feat today?

The United States had two very different kinds of presidents in 1955 and in the early 1960's.  The 1950's was Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower, the Midwestern, seasoned, calm, understated commander, who had led the troops on D-Day.  When you think of Ike and his first lady, Mamie, words like dowdy, traditional, white bread come to mind.  But Eisenhower had a quiet determination, a steady hand that inspired confidence and trust.

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Thursday, April 9, 2020

I Was Wrong

On March 9th, I posted a piece in which I criticized the authorities in Israel for basically cutting travel off to the country by imposing a 14-day quarantine period for visitors. I opined that the authorities were overreacting and that there were effective alternatives to the extreme measure they were taking.
I minimized the danger of the coronavirus.

I heard from a lot of friends in Israel who, to put it mildly, said I was dead wrong, with an emphasis on “dead.” To summarize, they said that the actions taken were right for Israel because:

1) The coronavirus is much more easily transmitted than the common flu, and can result in a significantly higher fatality rate.

2) Israel is generally not a stop-off, but a final destination. Thus, it is relatively easy to quarantine the country.

3) Israel’s medical facilities are already strained. A deluge of patients needing acute care could overwhelm the country’s capacities.

4) Given Israel’s security situation, it must ensure that its military personnel as well as civilians, many of whom are called up to reserve duty when there is an imminent threat, are healthy and ready-to-go.

I was wrong. Given Israel’s unique circumstances and needs, a near-complete quarantine is possible and seems to be working, and the seriousness of the virus seems to have warranted such action.

A large concentration of the incidents of the virus are in the city of B’nei Brak and Jerusalem, which has a large Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population. About 50 percent of the hospitalizations of victims of the virus are from the Haredi population, which represents about 13 percent of all Israelis.

Why the disparate impact and the concentration? Likely four reasons: 1) Some (emphasis on "some") of the Haredi leadership, and one influential rabbi in B’nei Brak in particular, initially refused to close synagogues, yeshivas, and other places where the population gathers. 2) The density of population and living quarters in many Haredi neighborhoods.  3) A lack of access to the Internet and other media outlets. 4) A general skepticism of and resistance to state authority.

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