Today Israel celebrated its 61st birthday. It is a day for celebration, but also for reflections. 113 years ago Theodore Herzl wrote his famous book, "The Jewish State" and founded modern Zionism. Herzl proposed the establishment of a Jewish state as the solution to the Jewish problem. For half a century, Zionists struggled to convince the Jewish people and the world at large that a Jewish state was indeed the solution to the problem. During that period waves of Jews emigrated to the United States, while some Jewish philanthropists funded the establishment of Jewish farming communities in the Soviet Union. World War II and the Holocaust ended the internal debate on whether there was a need for a Jewish State. The question one needs to answer now, 61 years after that state was established, is whether it did indeed accomplish what Herzl set out to do- solve the Jewish problem.
The answer to that question is complicated. However, let me say upfront, that I believe on balance it clearly did. First, we need to acknowledge the fact its establishment came too late– too late for the 6 million who perished in the Holocaust. No one can question that had there had been a Jewish state to accept them, the overwhelming number of the Jews of Europe would have found safe haven.
Second, there can be no question that one of Herzl's cherished goals has not been achieved. We have not become "a nation like all other nations". There can be no question the state Herzl helped establish is clearly a Jewish state. It has been the focal point of the world's interest in ways no other state in the world has been. It has been held up to standards no other state that has been fighting wars since the days of its inception should be expected to maintain. Of course, the very fact, that many of its neighbors refuse to accept the fact there can be a Jewish state in the middle of the Muslim Middle East.
Despite these facts, who can question the fact Israel has indeed succeeded in achieving Herzl prime goal. A core part of Herzl's argument was that as long as the Jews did not have a state of their own, they would remain powerless. Israel has forever changed the 2000 year story of Jews a supplicants, whose very existence, at times, was perilously at the mercy of rulers. While Israel is very far from a perfect nation and has a dysfunctional political system, over its first six decades, it has established a thriving country whose technological achievement are out of all proportion to its size and wealth. More importantly, despite the high price paid, with over 21,000 soldiers giving their lives over the 61 years, that number is equivilant to the number of Jews that died in one day at Aushwitz. In the 61 years since the establishment of the state, there has been an address for any Jew in trouble, from any place in the world. Furthermore, despite the repeated efforts of Israel’s neighbors to find a way to eliminate it, their efforts have failed.
There can be no doubt peace and security, the final positive solution of the Jewish problem, cannot come merely from a barrel of a gun. There were so many dreams of Israel being a “light unto nations” that have in its first 61 years gone unfulfilled. Sadly, I wonder whether they will ever be achieved in my lifetime. On the other side, a predicate to accomplishing that is physical security. So, while accomplishing Herzl's Dream has hardly been cost free- and indeed it has come with a very high price, it was appropriate that last night, in Israel, as it is done every year, the national celebrations of Israeli Independence began at the grave of the man whose vision inspired the establishment of the state, and vision which is the responsibility of the state to achieve.
Tomorrow new talks will be held in Cairo between Hamas and Fatah attempting to reach an agreement. There is no expectation of any progress in the talks. Relations between Hamas and Fatah have been deteriorating in recent weeks. In the West Bank, the Fatah has been cracking down on members of Hamas. There was even an attempted killing of one of the leading spiritual leaders of Hamas in Nablus. In return, Hamas has been arresting any remaining members of Fatah in Gaza. There is a clear sense of stalemate at this point both in Gaza and the West Bank. In Gaza, the decision by Hamas to hold out for better conditions for returning Shalit is seen as a mistake. At the same time Abu Mazen's unwillingness to agree to an agreement presented by Olmert- which is reported to have been better than what Barak offered, is also now seen as a possible mistake. With Netanyahu as Israel's prime minister, better offers are not likely to come.
There is growing talk in Israel that Netanyahu was not prepared to assume the Premiership. He has not succeeded in getting anyone to agree to be the head of his office, a job that was considered very prestigious. Allegedly, he has asked 20 people to take the job and up to now, none has agreed or worked out. Before the election Netanyahu said nothing about his diplomatic plans. Most political observers believed this was brilliant campaign strategy. Now, however, it appears like it was not a strategy, but rather, Netanyahu said nothing because he had no plan. He has until his meeting with Obama to come up with one. Even Netanyahu’s economic program does not seem like a product of careful thought, but rather, something he was forced to come up with quickly.
There was an interesting interview with Gideon Sa'ar, the new education minister. Saar has been getting good initial interviews. Saar spoke about the McKinley report on Israeli education. The report states what is obvious to anyone who understands education– it does not really matter how much money is spent on education, or how the administration of the Ministry of Education is organized. The only thing that really matters is the quality of the teachers. Improving the quality of classroom teachers will, of course, require more money, to attract better people to become teachers. Sa'ar also talked about the need to make sure not everyone can get into Teachers' College and that not every graduate becomes a teacher. He spoke of the need for much closer supervision and mentoring of all the new teachers in the first three years of their teaching. Scores of Israeli students on international standardized tests have been going down steadily over the course of the last thirty years. He stated, correctly, that if the deteriorating scores cannot be turned around, its “game over”. Achieving that, however, will require a revolution that is beyond the steps Sa'ar has mentioned so far.
The Israeli intelligence services have information on a planned Hezbollah attempt to abduct Israeli businessmen in a specific European country. As a result, those there have returned to Israel. If this has thwarted an attack, it will be the third time in recent months that a Hezbollah attack on Israel in retaliation for the supposed assassination of Imad Mugniyah has been thwarted. Hezbollah is under even more pressure throughout the Arab world after the public unearthing of its ring in Egypt. Arab states throughout the Middle East are cracking down on Hezbollah, arresting anyone thought to be associated with the terror organization. Today Egyptian President Husni Mubarak spoke out for the first time on the Hezbollah ring. In his speech Mubarak warned Teheran on interfering in the internal affairs of Arab States. Meanwhile, Egyptian television talk shows continued to lambaste Iran, claiming their only goal was to dominate the Arab world. There was also criticism of the Obama administration's discussion of talking to Iran. That criticism centered on the fact that it was rewarding a state that is following the path arm conflict against those that have not. One Egyptian commentator flat out said the talks with Iran will fail. Egypt tried to reach out and got nowhere.
Today Prime Minister Netanyahu announced his new economic plan. Most of his message was full of metaphors which basically said that the plane (economy) now had a pilot, and he would pilot the economy to safety. The specifics of his plan call for gradual decrease of the highest marginal tax rate in Israel to 39% (keep in mind there are no state or local income taxes in Israel) and the decrease of the corporate tax rate to a maximum of 18%. In addition, the government will give 12 billion shekels to the banks in form of guarantees for new loaning and an unspecified fund of 10 billion shekels to help high tech companies. In the meantime, after a month of Netanyahu's term in office, only 30% of the public is happy with his performance. 49% do not know what they think yet and 19% do no like what is going on. This is a lower figure than his predecessor, Olmert, at this point in his leadership.
President Obama gave a speech this afternoon in the Capital Rotunda to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. It was a good speech that can be read here. A line that was clearly directed at Iranian President Ahmadinajad stated, "To this day, there are those who insist the Holocaust never happened; who perpetrate every form of intolerance -- racism and anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, and more -- hatred that degrades its victim and diminishes us all".
Israeli television ran a piece taken from an interview from Arab television on President Obama'a advisor on Arabs and Muslims, Dalia Mujalik. She is Egyptian born and covers her hair. She was responsible for writing his speech that he gave in Turkey. Her job is to reach out to the Muslim world and try to understand why they hate the US and to help President Obama develop policies that will overcome these views. Interesting.
Yesterday's press conference by President Obama created waves in Israel today. Foreign Minister Lieberman was quick to explain his opposition to the Saudi plan, by clarifying he was specifically opposed to was the plan's solution of the refugee problem. The Saudi plan points to the right of return for Palestinian refugees, although the details on this point are a little vague. Israeli commentators were quick to point out that the “road map” which Lieberman says he accepts, states explicitly that at the end of the path there will be two states, and also refers to the Saudi Plan as a basis for negotiations.
Meanwhile, in testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Secretary of State Clinton reinterated the US position to refuse any interactions with Hamas or a government in which Hamas was a part, unless it accepted the Quartet terms (which include recognition of Israel and acceptance of all previous agreements.) Clinton also made it clear the US outreach to Iran had to reciprocated. She further stated the current overture was a clear prelude to what she characterized as ”crushing sanctions”, if either the Iranians did not respond or talks went nowhere.
The IDF released the results of investigations into actions in the recent war in Gaza. The results stated there were no deliberate attacks on Palestinian civilians during the war. There were a number of mistakes made, including one where the airforce was supposed to target a house 100 meters away, thought to house ammunition. Instead a private house was hit, in which the bomb killed 21 members of the family. Furthermore, in the case of the much reported attack on a UN school, the report stated the school itself was not attacked, but the road near it was and 12 civilians were killed. The report also stated that shells containing phosphates were fired during the war, but in accordance with international law, all were in open areas to create smoke screens.
There has been much talk over the course of the last few days regarding a possible economic stimulus package in Israel. The stimulus package would include a decrease in income tax and the instution of an earned income credit for those on the bottom of the economic scale. One of the major questions in Israel at the moment, economically speaking, is what to do with what are called "the tycoons." The tycoons are a small group of individuals, who, over the last 15 years have amassed huge fortunes and control a significant part of the Israeli economy. How they accomplished what they did will no doubt one day make a very interesting book. However, it has become clear they accomplished much of it on borrowed money. It would seem the 5 largest tycoons owe approximately 140 billion Shekels to Israel banks and investors in the debt bonds. Of that 30 billion shekels is due this year. The fear is, if they are allowed to fail, they can bring down some of the banks with them. The solution is really very clear. If necessary, bail out their companies, but not the tycoons. The state should, once again, gain control of some of their enterprises if they have to be bailed out. The state should, of course, not keep control. Instead, they should consider issuing new shares of stock and dividing the stock up among the population. In one step that would do more to correct the drastic change that has taken place in Israel in the last twenty years, from a country with one of greatest income equality- to one of the countries in the world with the largest economic inequality.
The news from Israel today began with stories on the commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day.
One of the major stories of the day continued to be the speech yesterday by Ahmadinejad at the UN conference. He received a hero's welcome. The general sense is that this time Ahmadinejad did himself and the UN a great deal of harm. He proved on a world stage how dangerous he can be, and undermined the conference. The New York Times ran an editorial today criticizing his remarks. By the fourth paragraph, the Times found it appropriate to criticize Israel's actions in the recent Gaza War.
The lead article in the NYT today was very disturbing due to its placement. The article is a rehashing of a story that appeared in Congressional Quarterly about the promise by Congressman Harman in 2004 to intervene in on behalf of the two former employees of AIPAC who were are about to go on trial for violating the Foreign Secrets Acts. The claim is that transcripts were obtained of the NSA intercepting a conversation that the Congresswoman was having on the subject. I will not go into here why the trial itself is a long stretch and I believe the indicted AIPAC are not guilty of doing anything that is truly illegal, but what made this a front page story is beyond me. Additionally, since when does the NSA record conversations of Congressmen and women?
There seems to be very immediate effect of the recently worsening relations between Egypt and Hezbollah, meaning Iran. Egypt is finally taking significant actions against the tunnels in Rafah. They are using poisonous gas to make the tunnel unusable.
Today President Obama met with King Abdullah of Jordan. At the meeting and at the following press conference Obama made clear his support for a two state solution. He also stated that he supports the Saudi plan as a basis for negotiations. Obama stated: "But I agree that we can't talk forever; that at some point, steps have to be taken so that people can see progress on the ground. And that will be something that we will expect to take place in the coming months and we will help hopefully to drive a process where each side is willing to build confidence". "I am a strong supporter of a two-state solution. I have articulated that publicly and I will articulate that privately. And I think that there are a lot of Israelis who also believe in a two-state solution. Unfortunately, right now what we've seen not just in Israel but within the Palestinian Territories, among the Arab states, worldwide, is a profound cynicism about the possibility of any progress being made whatsoever". "What we want to do is to step back from the abyss; to say, as hard as it is, as difficult as it may be, the prospect of peace still exists -- but it's going to require some hard choices, it's going to require resolution on the part of all the actors involved, and it's going to require that we -- we create some concrete steps that all parties can take that are evidence of that resolution. And the United States is going to deeply engage in this process to see if we can make progress".
It is clear that Obama is not planning to step back from the Arab Israeli conflict. Israeli Minister of Defense Barak has already made clear that he believes Israel needs to accept the Saudi plan as a basis for negotiations. Israeli Minister of Foreign Relations Lieberman has made it clear he opposes any discussion of the plan, and it is unclear what Prime Minister Netanyahu thinks. Netanyahu better have it figured out by the end of May when he meets Obama
Tonight is Yom Ha'shoa, Holocaust Remembrance Day. I had the opportunity to watch the beginning of the National Commemoration on at Yad Va'shem in Jerusalem on television. It was moving as it usually is, especially some of the personal vignettes shown of those seven people (one group of twins) who are survivors and were asked to light the torches of candelabra commemorating the six million Jews who were murdered. The event had a particular political dimension as it took place just a mere few hours the speech at the UN Human Rights Conference called Durban II by Iranian President Ahmadinajad.
President Peres lambasted the Iranian's President's (mentioning his name once tonight is more than enough) speech and the world that gave a Holocaust denier a stage, especially on this day- the eve of the Holocaust Memorial Day. Prime Minister Netanyahu tried to tackle a more difficult line, attacking the world for being so silent in not criticizing Iran's attacks on Israel and the denial of the Holocaust. At the same time, Netanyahu acknowledged the action of the US, Canada, Italy, Poland, Holland, Germany, Australia and New Zealand for not attending the conference due to the clear double standard that the conference was going to have on matters relating to Israel. This was a clear Israeli diplomatic achievement. Furthermore Netanyahu acknowledged the fact that most of the representatives of the West walked out of the hall when the Iranian leader began his speech. Is the glass half full or half empty?
On another note, Amos Yadlin, the head of the military intelligence, gave his first briefing to the new cabinet today. On the question of the direction of Syria, he stated that Syria would like to improve their relations with the new Obama administration, but that is not stopping them from giving their full support to terrorist organizations. He supposedly stated that Syria is giving Iran complete backing if their efforts with Hezbollah and Hamas. As to the state of the Iranian nuclear program, Yadlin stated that Iran is walking a careful line to move their program forward without crossing the line of weapons grade material. He believes they want to go forward up to the point where they could have weapons within a few months if they so wished
The news from the Middle East continues to be dominated by accusations heard in Egypt claiming Hezbollah (as an agent of Iran) attempting to overthrow the Egyptian government. The verbal attacks on Hezbollah and Iran have been gathering speed since the announcement last week of the arrest of Hezbollah agents in Egypt, coupled with Nasrallah’s statement admitting that at least one of those arrested was indeed an agent of Hezbollah (although Nasrallah claimed the Hezbollah agent was only there to help the Palestinians.)
The Mubarak government has been waiting for the moment to attack Iran, as well as the government of Qatar and Al Jazerra TV, who the Egyptians claim have been aligned with the Iranians. Mubarak has a ledger full of claims against Al Jazeera, which he claims covered every demonstration in Egypt against food price increased and turned it into events that would end Mubarak's rule in Egypt. The Egyptian government has been very successful in uniting Egypt in the last few days against the Iranian-Shites. The newspapers have been full of articles attacking them. The TV station was full of interviews with officials describing Nasrallah in the most unflattering terms, calling him a liar, who is not really a Sheik. The Egyptian opposition parties have been quick to rally around the Egyptian flag. One of the members of the Muslim Brotherhood stated that while we will fight with all our blood for our Palestinian brothers, we will also fight with all our might against any danger to the sovereignty of Egypt.
The Egytian government is requesting the death penalty against the leader of the Hezbollah cell, who has admitted his actions.
The US has decided not to participate in the Durban II Conference on Human Rights. It tried for a number of months to insure the event would not be a replay of the earlier anti-Israeli meeting. In the end, it failed and has decided not attend as a result. The wording of the State Department includes: “There remain, however, elements of the current draft text that continue to pose significant concerns. The U. S. believes any viable text for the Review Conference must be shortened and not reaffirm in toto the flawed 2001 Durban Declaration and Program of Action (DDPA). In addition, while references to “defamation of religion” have been removed from the current draft text, we cannot support restrictions on freedom of expression that could result from some of the document's language related to “incitement” to religious hatred -- a concept that the United States believes should be narrow and clearly defined and made consistent with human rights obligations ensuring freedom of expression. ”
The second US objection to the conference is the attempt of Muslim countries to make verbal attacks on a religion a violation of human rights. An example of that being the Danish cartoon making fun of Mohammed.
An interesting group of visitors came to an Israeli Air Force installation today. A group of Holocaust survivors visited an F-16 squadron at Hatzor. The survivors questioned whether the pilots could reach Iran and avoid a second Holocaust. The government seems to be giving the Obama administration a clear message, to go speak to the Iranians, however, we do not believe anything is going to happen, so we will continue to prepare to attack.
There was an investigative piece on Channel 10 tonight on the actions of the Israel’s Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi Metzeger. As background... the police had previously recommended he be indicted for receiving illegal gifts. The chief prosecutor declined to bring charges, but recommended Metzger be removed from his job. Metzeger appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed that without an indictment there was no basis to remove him. The new investigation shows that Metziger is spending over 25% of his time overseas, and during his time there, fundraising for private groups, something that is illegal for a government official to do.
The Passover holiday ended and so ended the Netanyahu government’s brief period of grace. Today, President Obama’s special envoy for the Arab-Israeli conflict, Senator George Mitchell, arrived in Israel for meeting with the new government. His first meeting, characterized as somewhat tense, was with Foreign Minister Lieberman. Lieberman is said to have stated it’s necessary to start over. In Lieberman's opinion, the current approach, the approach supported by the Obama administration, has not worked. Mitchell was not happy hearing Lieberman's assertions. After the meeting Mitchell publicly stated that the Obama Administration is committed to the two-State solution. Mitchell then met with opposition leader Tzpi Livni. In contrast, the Mitchell-Livni meeting was characterized as warm and friendly. After that meeting Mitchell was more explicit regarding America's commitment to two state solution. Mitchell then met with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Netanyahu raised a new demand in his meeting with Mitchell. Netanyahu stated that before Israel will discuss the possibilities for a Palestinian state; the Palestinians must recognize the Jewish character of the state of Israel. This is a demand that has never been raised before in any negotiations. Observers believe this is mainly an attempt by Netanyahu to delay any negotiations.
Netanyahu is trying to convince the Obama administration that before issues relating to the Palestinians can be addressed, Iran’s nuclear program needs to be stopped; along with it’s interference in Lebanon and other places. The Obama administration, however, believes it will be harder to address the Iranian problem if progress is not made on the Palestinian front. Netanyahu and the Likud are said to be aware he will have not choice but to make some concessions to the US. There is, therefore, talk of Netanyahu removing some of the illegal settlements as a concession to the Americans. Beyond all this, of course, is the fact that as much as America would like to make progress in the Middle East, it is currently most worried about events in the other part of the Muslim world... the possible total unraveling of Pakistan.
One of the Palestinian organizations tried to use a small boat filled with explosives to attack an Israeli naval vessel. The attack failed when the boat exploded early, although even if it had not exploded, the Israeli navy would not have allowed the vessel to get close enough to harm it, without opening fire.
Meanwhile in the northern Sinai desert the Egyptian military is searching for a terrorist cell that is either planning to attack Israelis in Sinai or infiltrate into Israel to engage in a terrorist attack. In North Sinai the terrorist seem to be getting help from the Bediun’s there. The Bediun of North Sinai are very different from the Bediun of the south. They belong to different tribes and they have been making their money for the last 10 years by smuggling into Gaza and to a smaller extent into Israel itself. Those of the south are the ones that most Israelis know from their visits to southern and have been much friendly to Israel and Israelis while those of the North have always more problematic.
There was an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal today What Iran Really Thinks About Talks by Michael Rubin. The article puts forth the view that widely shared by many that the Iranian’s have been and will continue to just use talks as a way to delay sanctions while they continue to build the bomb. I think the problem is more fundemental. Americans and the particularly the new administration seems to believe that Iran truly cares about what the United States thinks and do’s and I have heard endless commentators say that what really wants is respect. This is missing the main goals of the Iranians. That goal is not to get respect from the US but to dominate the world of Islam. Their policy to do that, is to support groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas to undermine the conservative regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The actions of the US in reaching out to Iran is not worrying Israel as much as it worries those regimes. Ultimately any attempt to outreach to Iran will most likely be futile, since what Iran wants it cannot get from the US.
The big news from the Middle East this weekend has been the arrest of a series of people in Egypt described as agents of Nasrallah from Lebanon. Egypt is claiming that the agents were in Egypt to engage in terrorist activities to undermine the Egyptian regime. Nasrallah admitted on television last night that at least one of those arrested was indeed his agent. He claimed he was just there to help the Palestinians in Gaza. According to many observers, Nasrallah’s admission was a mistake. By admitting his involvement in internal Egyptian affairs, he forces Egypt to take additional actions. There are calls in Egypt to add his name to the indictment against those arrested and then to ask for an international arrest warrant from Interpol.
These are farfetched ideas, but there is a clear ranching up in the rhetoric. The Egyptians are blaming Iran for Nasrallah’s actions. This represents a continuation and a worsening of the ongoing conflict between Iran and its allies and the rest of the Arab world. How this will evolve is unclear, but with the situation in Gaza unresolved, it will clearly become more complicated in coming weeks and months.
I have a picture on my website of the President Obama’s seder. I have to admit it is a very strange site to see a seder in the White House, taking place under the picture of Dolly Madison. Does it have any long term meaning? Probably not. This is another step along the way of making Jewish traditions part of the mainstream American traditions. This goes hand in hand with some of the American church movements in the past few years to recognize the Jewish origins of Christianity.