Archive for July, 2011

July 29, 2011

Protests continue in Israel: 3 Lines

As the protests continue in Israel, I was intrigued by three lines from Aner Shalev’s op-ed in Ha’aretz:

At last, the social struggle in Israel has a chance, as the government cannot divert the public’s attention with a peace process. There is no peace process. There’s not even the appearance of one.

National security has always been center stage. It, not economics, provided the main dividing line between Israel’s largest political parties. Just recently a friend was saying why it made the idea of forming a truly social democratic party in Israel so difficult.

At last, the leaders of the struggle are the privileged classes, those known here as “the salt of the earth.” Those living in the center of the country and making double or triple the minimum wage have suddenly discovered that they, too, cannot buy an apartment or afford to spend half their wages on rent. At last, the social struggle in Israel has a chance, because the privileged classes are themselves downtrodden.

The Tel Aviv bubble (the State of Tel Aviv) as the vanguard of social change?

It’s not true that the government does not interfere in the economy, and that it operates according to the rules of supply and demand, competition and a free market. First of all, true competition is impossible when 10 families hold sway over most of the market. Rather than American-style capitalism, this is more like a Russian-style oligarchy following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

When consumers rose up against cottage cheese prices earlier this year, the struggle emphasized that a few companies control the dairy market. But Shalev broadens the point. With a small Israeli market, a few companies can choke off competition.

July 27, 2011

Silwan and the “City of David”

I’m still been gathering my thoughts about the “City of David” museum and settlement in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem, but I thought I’d jot a few things down.  Elad, a private settler organization, runs the museum and inserts Jewish settlers into the area – a problematic combination to say the least. Elad runs the “City of David” based upon a private agreement with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, a governmental authority. Some Israeli MKs are trying to amend the National Parks Law to further aid Elad.

A settler house in Silwan

Silwan’s Palestinian youth regularly use rocks to challenge the settlement. (see this dramatic photo) When I visited recently, one could see the chain of private security guards deployed to ensure settlers were able to remain and deepen their foothold. More than 400,000 foreign and Israeli tourists now visit the site annually, including youth tours like the Young Judea group of North American teens walking through a day I was there; I had to wonder if the current political controversy was part of their curriculum.

Ir Amim is one Israeli non-governmental organization that has challenged this cozy relationship. The Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement has leafleted outside the site and asked The Lonely Planet to make mention of the controversy in the next edition of its Jerusalem tourist guide. Meanwhile, the archaeological digging is sparking fears of the tunnels among Palestinians; some of the fears relate to the al-Aqsa mosque.

I’ll have more thoughts on this soon.

July 25, 2011

Israeli Settlement Freeze

President Obama took a lot of heat for efforts to get Israel to freeze its settlement construction. One thing that struck me about the debate was the way in which it seemed disconnected from a long history of US efforts to get Israel to freeze settlement construction.

Never mind that in one of the most prominent (the most prominent?) books proposing a foreign policy agenda for the new president in 2008, Restoring the Balance: A Middle East Strategy for the Next President, Shibley Telhami and Steven A. Cook called on the new president to seek a  freeze: “Press Israel to freeze settlement construction.” (page 153)

What is more noteworthy is how many recent US presidents have also sought a freeze. Jimmy Carter thought he had one at Camp David in September 1978 (Carter thought Menachem Begin had agreed to a freeze for the duration of the autonomy negotiations, meaning at least a year. After the summit, Begin “clarified” that the freeze was for the duration of the talks on an Egypt-Israel treaty, scheduled to take three months. The disagreement was never settled. See Quandt, Peace Process, pages 202-03, 208 in the 2001 edition; or this interview with then US Amb. to Israel Sam Lewis.)

President Ronald Reagan included a call for a freeze in his plan (or here) of September 1, 1982:

The United States will not support the use of any additional land for the purpose of settlements during the transitional period. Indeed, the immediate adoption of a settlement freeze by Israel, more than any other action, could create the confidence needed for wider participation in these talks. Further settlement activity is in no way necessary for the security of Israel and only diminishes the confidence of the Arabs that a final outcome can be freely and fairly negotiated.

Note in the speech how Reagan framed the move as a confidence-building measure.

When then Secretary of State James Baker convened the Madrid conference in 1991, he mentioned U.S. opposition to settlements in his pre-conference letter to the Palestinians (Appendix M):

The United States has long believed that no party should take unilateral actions that seek to predetermine issues that can only be resolved through negotiations. In this regard the United States has opposed and will continue to oppose settlement activity in the territories occupied in 1967, which remains an obstacle to peace.

Later, both the Mitchell Report (April 30, 2001) and George W. Bush’s Roadmap for Peace (April 30, 2003) directly called on the Government of Israel to freeze settlements, including “natural growth.”

I am not claiming every US administration pursued a freeze with the same vigor. But the fact that so many administrations chose to highlight a freeze suggests that the Obama administration was very much in the U.S. mainstream.


July 21, 2011

Social Protests in Israel: Pay Attention

The social protests in Israel are worth noting. The Cottage Cheese Revolution led to a drop in cottage cheese prices as the manufacturers backed down. Israeli medical residents and interns are protesting a new labor agreement. The perceived lack of affordable housing has led to tent cities and other actions. (I briefly posted on real estate prices here)

For me, these events raise questions (I have few answers):

1.  Did the wave of regional protest against dictatorship influence these Israeli movements? Are Arab and Israeli domestic protests caused by the same underlying motivation? (OK, a stretch, but sometimes it is good to stretch)

2. Israel’s dramatic shift from a socialist-oriented economy with significant state ownership of industry to a high-tech, globalized, capitalist economy may have come with some costs such as a) growing income and wealth inequity or b) declining tax revenue to support education and social welfare programs or c) over-concentration of industry in too few hands (crony capitalism)? Are today’s protests the result of Israel’s economic changes of the last 25 years? Ari Shavit (Ha’aretz) thinks so:

The new economic and social regime it established was based on two supreme principles: maximum competition below, minimum competition on top. Low wages for the worker, high profits for the mogul. No loans for the salaried worker, astronomical loans for the tycoon. A war to the death with the unions. Empowerment of the cartels. Duopolies and monopolies. Thus, the state soon became a robber state. The new Israeli capitalism was not popular capitalism or liberal capitalism, but swinish capitalism. It tyrannized the working class, annihilated the middle class and denied young people hope.

Shavit wants a new social order that combines “economic prosperity with mutual responsibility.” (Or see Yair Lapid’s op-ed)

So ignoring question #4 below, what is happening in Israel may be what many capitalist countries face today: what is the balance between individual enrichment and societal equity (and social needs)? Of course, in Israel you have other factors as well such as heavy defense spending (like the US) and a socialist flavor from the past that might make current inequities seem that much more out of line (unlike the US).

3. One Israeli told me that the cottage cheese revolution broke a psychological barrier. For the first time, Israeli consumers prevailed. She predicted it was the start of a wave on the basis of a new sense of empowerment. Will she be proven correct?

4. Could these domestic, Israeli events have unintended political implications for Israel’s external affairs, especially on the Israeli-Palestinian track? (or: Gideon Levy of Ha’aretz noted/complained that the energy invested in fighting cottage cheese prices would have been better directed toward addressing the conflict and diplomacy.)

Food for thought.

July 19, 2011

Palestinian non-violent, mass protest

What if 25,000 Palestinians marched from Ramallah on the Qalandia checkpoint? What if the protest was coupled with others of similar size? Most importantly, what if thousands of Palestinians in East Jerusalem began marching on West Jerusalem?

Palestinian society seems to be a candidate for an Arab Spring-type protest. My point is not that it is about to happen; this post is more hypothetical (although, see this small example). Rather, the general conditions of a non-democratic regime, economic woes, and the lack of fulfillment of the central Palestinian political aim (statehood), seem as if they would be fertile ground for such a movement.

The initial Israeli reaction would likely be harsh, with tens if not hundreds of casualties. (The Israeli use of live fire in the May and June 2011 protests along its borders is instructive.)  I don’t in any way to mean to minimize the death and injuries. But over time – and probably not that long a time – sustained protests could have two effects that would change the political dynamic.

First, they could increase external pressure on Israel to fundamentally address Palestinian self-determination. Democracies, including the United States, would support non-violent protest. It fits with their self-perception and free speech and assembly ethos.

Second, and more importantly, they could help Israelis realize that Palestinians want to find a workable resolution. In the same way that the second intifada and talk of the right of return convinced Israelis that Palestinians don’t accept Israel and want to destroy it, mass, peaceful protest also could teach a symbolic lesson, albeit a peaceful one.

The protests would have to be peaceful. No rock throwing despite its deep roots and symbolic power. Palestinians have used non-violence in the past (e.g. march, tax strike, BDS) but it has co-existed with things like throwing rocks and calling for the right of return. Because Israelis perceive that the exercise of the right of return would erase Israel’s Jewish identity, highlighting it induces fear in Israel, not conciliation. It is not violent as a tactic, but today in Israel it raises the same fears as older calls to militarily push the Jews into the sea.

Neither side believes the other is ready to negotiate a resolution. Such Palestinian protests could change the Israeli public’s mind, especially given the likely international reaction.

One could object to the post thus far in a few ways, but I am skeptical of all these objections:

1. Unlike the Arab countries like Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia, the Palestinians face two entities, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, rather than a single governing regime. That is descriptively true but on the occupation, the Israelis hold the territorial cards and would be the primary focus of the protests.

2. The objective is different than other Arab protests. Palestinians need territorial change not regime change. That is an accurate description of the difference, but I do not see why it precludes an attempt. Is a decision about territorial change somehow immune to popular pressure?

3. Palestinians have already used peaceful protests. This is true to an extent and in a way that is often underappreciated. But they have also made headlines with jaw-dropping violence. More to the point, a rock is not non-violent. We have not seen a societal decision for mass, non-violent protest.

4. The outcome of the Arab Spring is not impressive. A few dictators have fallen but no society has yet emerged as a liberal democracy responsive to the will of the people. I agree this approach is not a magic solution. But given that the menu of options is limited and many other tactics have not helped achieve Palestinian statehood, why not try it now?



July 14, 2011

Update on US-Israel-PA (talk)

Some skeletal notes from a talk I gave last night:

1. US-Israel alliance

The common explanations for the alliance are shared values and shared government type (democracies); domestic interest groups in the US, including American Jews and Evangelical Christians; and strategic relations based on counter-terrorism, intelligence sharing, developing and testing military equipment. I was noting, not endorsing, the explanations.

(I should add that I’ve talked about an additional motivation, alliance restraint, in chapter four of Warring Friends.)(Also, whatever led to the original alliance, the fact that it has endured means it has some institutional and organizational staying power.)

2. The Peace Process

There is a split in the United States about the causal logic. Some like Gen. David Petraeus, have argued that solving the peace process is the key to unlocking other regional issues. Others, like former VP Dick Cheney, have argued that addressing other regional issues is a precursor for success in the peace process. (The road to Jerusalem runs through Baghdad.)

Obama and Netanyahu obviously don’t get along that well. But the structural US-Israeli relationship is still strong with military cooperation as deep as it ever has been. Netanyahu does not support a two-state solution that looks anything like what former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was talking about in 2008. (see my comparison here of what different people mean by two states)

3. The Arab Upheaval

The outcome of the Arab protests is an issue of great uncertainty. It could change the strategic equation for Israel if the Syrian regime falls and a new one came to power that is not close to Iran, thereby cutting off Iran’s land connection to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Egypt under Mubarak was tight with Israel but it may also be less so in the post-Mubarak era.

The Palestinians have not adopted the tactics of the Arab “Spring.” They have used similar tactics but not on a mass-scale without the mixing in of some violent tactics, e.g. during the first intifada (uprising), 1987-1993. (I’ll post a longer post on this soon.)

4. Palestine, September, and the UN

The Palestinian appeal to the UN is more bark than bite. The day after, the occupation will still be in force. The Palestinian Authority (PA) prefers negotiations (but talks don’t seem to be an option). Israel fears a UN resolution will lead to violence and is preparing for that prospect. The PA does not think Palestinian violence is likely.

5. Israel

Israel feels a high sense of threat especially from Iran. The majority of Israelis see no Arab partner with whom to make peace – Abbas is weak, Hamas rejectionist. Many Israelis, including the government, believe the world is lined up against Israel. Any pressure reinforces this view. Thus the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement is considered further proof that the world is against Israel, not that Israel needs to change its occupation policy. BDS speaks 1967 and Israelis hear 1948.

Settlement building continues. The Israeli public supports the Netanyahu government, but there are sparks of alternative viewpoints such as the Israel Peace Initiative or other protests.

A vigorous discussion followed! Many thanks to Joyce for the invitation.

July 14, 2011

Costly Real Estate in Israel

I heard a lot about real estate prices on my recent trip to Israel. Tel Aviv and desirable suburbs in the coastal plan are very costly. Foreigners buy up expensive apartments for visits to Israel and perhaps as an insurance policy. (Whether foreign purchases are a major issue or merely an anecdotal rallying cry was unclear.)

Looking north at Tel Aviv

Shai Zamir, Ynet’s science editor, opined on the real estate issue here including the requisite reference to purchasing by French Jews. He also noted the way in which subsidies are avilable for those willing to live in the West Bank:

The housing crisis does not start at the heart of Tel Aviv. Young couples from Petach Tikva and Jerusalem cannot afford an apartment, but the government barely interferes. Well, that’s not completely true: Young couples can always put on a protective vest and move beyond the Green Line, where the government hands out rewards.

One thing I learned at a moshav south of Tel Aviv: the steep rise in the value of land in Israel’s coastal plain also works to the benefit of some Israelis. As the value of agricultural land rises and housing is difficult to find, a moshav, for example, could make a bundle by selling land for a new housing development or by keeping the land but building residential rental properties.

(Photos and text copyright Jeremy Pressman, 2011)

July 13, 2011

East Jerusalem Today

(Helpful maps for this post)

Over the last 40 years, Israel has gradually tried to cut off East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank. The premise was to cement Israeli control of a huge, new definition of the area of Jerusalem* and end East Jerusalem’s role as the center of Palestinian life including medical, educational, commercial, and cultural activity. In the last few days I participated in three tours of the political and building map in East Jerusalem and the picture is depressing. (One was the free, four-hour Ir Amim tour.)

By limiting access to Jerusalem for Palestinians from the rest of the West Bank, Israel has gone a long way toward strangling East Jerusalem. In addition, tight building restrictions for Arabs, home demolitions, and disproportionately low municipal Israeli budget allocations weaken the fabric of Palestinian life in East Jerusalem. That Ramallah, once a large village, has grown into a small Palestinian city and the center of the Palestinian Authority is in part a testament to Israeli success in taking East Jerusalem off the table, and forcing Palestinian life to develop elsewhere.

The wall** Israel has built over the last decade strengthens the separation of Jerusalem from most other West Bank Palestinians. Metro Jerusalem institutions on the east of the wall, such as Al-Quds University in Abu Dis, are much harder to get to for Jerusalem Palestinians on the west side of the wall. Or, many West Bank Palestinians who used to reach hospitals like Augusta Victoria on Mount Scopus – now on the west side of the wall – face a longer and more difficult journey.

As the Israel state has created challenges for Palestinian life in East Jerusalem, it has, as is well known, settled Israeli Jews in East Jerusalem. Much of the settlement building in the late 1960s and 1970s started on the outskirts of East Jerusalem in places today known as French Hill, Ramat Eshkol, and Gilo.*** The state built huge apartment blocs, playgrounds, sidewalks, sewer lines, and the like and now each one houses (tens of) thousands of Israelis. In recent years, such building has included controversial projects like Har Homa (to the south; see picture at left) and Nof Zion astride Jabel al-Mukhaber.

But Israeli settlement organizations (such as Ateret Cohanim and EL-AD – more on EL-AD here), with the support of the Israeli state, have also been penetrating the inner core of Arab East Jerusalem. Isolated settlers now live in places like the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, Sheikh Jarrakh, on Mt. Olives, in Silwan, Ras al-Amud (see picture at right), and Abu Dis.

These settlers start to dramatically transform the locale. Many require a constant security presence, whether private security personnel or Israeli police. Israeli-Palestinian friction and fighting is a common result.

Now one could attempt to distinguish between the actions of individuals & private organizations and state actions, but the two are actually intimately linked. First, the state, in a bureaucratic and legal sense, comes in and defends these private efforts. It rarely backs the Palestinian opponents or reverses such settler efforts.

Second, such isolated settler homes act as a wedge. One home becomes two and then three (The City of David settlers in Silwan are a perfect example). At best from the settlers’ perspective, such isolated efforts could be used to justify huge new blocs, as, for example, Ateret Cohanim hope to do with its settlers in Abu Dis (the nearby open space is inviting).

The settler movement and the Israeli government are following the central recipe of the Zionist movement and the Israeli state: relentlessly establish facts on the ground and it will inform and shape the political and territorial reality. For example, Zionist land acquisition, building, and farming affected the lines of the UN partition plan (1947). In the last decade, some Palestinian negotiators, not to mention Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, seemed ready to accept the Israeli annexation of settlement blocks in a two-state solution, a testament to the way in which some Israeli building has affected the (hypothetical) political-territorial map.

Moreover, if the Clinton principle from 2000 (“The general principle is that Arab areas are Palestinian and Jewish ones are Israeli.”) is operational, the Israeli incentive is to build as fast as it can so as to create new areas that would have to be under Israeli sovereignty.

In short, determine the outcome with unilateral action; make it a fait accompli. On one tour a former Israeli official asked rhetorically how could you put a border on the 1949 Israel-Jordan armistice line (as we drove along the hotels and Israeli government institutions on Bar-Lev Blvd). That is exactly the implication of building and blurring and covering over the green line.

One common Israeli justification for settlers is that Jews once lived here in these Arab areas (e.g. Sheik Jarakh). But if that logic is taken seriously, it has deep and likely unwelcome implications: the Israeli people and government will have to take the Palestinian right of return seriously because it is based on exactly the same idea. In short, Palestinians were in Haifa or Ramla or wherever so they have a right to live there now.

One caveat: It is important not to over-state the Israeli impact either. Approximately 250,000 Palestinians are still in east Jerusalem. Though they are restricted, they exist as a counter-weight to designs to judaize even the core of East Jerusalem.

A two-state solution relies on a resolution of the Jerusalem question with the most common answer being a division of sovereignty. Yet the complexity of dividing East Jerusalem is stunning. The situation is a mess and would require dramatic changes in a negotiated resolution.

(Text and photos copyright Jeremy Pressman, 2011)

* Prior to 1967, Jordanian defined East Jerusalem was 2.5 square miles. After the 1967 war, Israel expanded the municipal boundaries to include 27 square miles. (Source: Wikipedia)

** While I understand that the term wall is debated, much of the barrier in Jerusalem is a concrete wall, often nine meters high.

*** Most Israelis call these areas neighborhoods of Jerusalem, not settlements, but they are built on what was territory controlled by Jordan.

July 11, 2011

US Options on the peace process

The peace process is stuck. Today (July 11), the Quartet will meet to try to create some momentum. But what can the US do if the peace process is stuck? A few options that are not mutually exclusive:

1. Disengage – There have been times when the United States has decided that diplomatic progress is not possible or not desirable. Sometimes, the US has continued to hold meetings and issue statements. But such cases were motion without movement and the crucial follow-through and high-level US involvement was absent. (Examples: George W. Bush much of pre-2007; Ronald Reagan in 1981 and the first half of 1982.) With the 2012 election coming up, a holding pattern might appeal to the Obama administration.

2. Reassess – The United States has had the same aim (two-state solution) and same tactic (Israeli-Palestinian negotiations) off and on since 1993. Maybe it is time to step back and figure out whether, after so many setbacks, such an approach is still the best way to advance US interests. President Obama did a long review for Afghanistan and maybe the same approach is in order here. Some specific issues:

2A. Re-think relations with Hamas – The US/Israeli position of isolating Hamas since 2006-07 has not toppled Hamas. Hamas now has a much stronger hold on the Gaza economy due to the economic siege and the movement of the economy to tunnels. Perhaps a rethink is in order. Considering such changes would surely be part of a reassessment. This rethink also relates to whether to work with a Hamas that is part of a Palestinian unity government.

2B. Try to sculpt a UN resolution in September that is acceptable to the US and possibly Israel.

2C. Work on a partial Israeli-Palestinian deal. The sequencing in President Obama’s May 19, 2011 speech hints at this approach.

3. Go Big – The President has appeared to get caught up in tactical decisions (e.g., settlement freeze or not, 1967 lines with swaps). Another option would be to issue the Obama Plan, an updated version of the Clinton Parameters from December 2000. This might force the Israelis and Palestinians to have some vision and get back to the bigger picture. Of course, this might just beg the question of how to get a process started (and it might also reveal that larger Israeli-Palestinian gaps remain than “we all know what a final deal will look like” thinking admits.)

4. Carrots and sticks – The US may use incentives and and penalties. President Obama has thus far been unwilling to go much beyond pressure. But if he wants to move the process, he may need more than persuasion and finger-wagging.

5. Track 2 diplomacy – If the process is stuck, the US should make sure many backchannel dialogues are taking place. Stir the pot of ideas, keep contact up, and hope for a breakthrough or new ideas. Give the leaders a space in which to build a modicum of trust.

6. Domestic meddling – Although formally frowned upon, the US has long meddled in the politics of other countries. It can be messy and embarrassing but maybe it could undermine the Netanyahu government and weaken Israeli opposition to the Obama aproach.

7. Work the region & world – Who else has leverage? Can the US work with Arab countries to move the Palestinians? Can the US think more globally to build a wider process or perhaps a parallel multilateral track as in the 1990s? The Quartet meeting is a part of this approach.

8. Maintenance – Keep funding and training. Keep talking to the parties. This is a similar to #1 but the explicit point is to manage rather than resolve the conflict.

8A. Continue to help the West Bank – “Fayyadism” has helped build institutions and develop the economy in the West Bank (or at least that is what we are told). Continued US support could help one of the few positive stories for Palestinian negotiators. And it is a story that helps the PA image among Israelis.

Some of these options are far-fetched. But if the peace process is going nowhere, it would be prudent to think both inside and outside the box.





July 6, 2011

Competing explanations, no definitive evidence

In debates about an Israeli-Palestinian resolution, some on both sides make the following argument:

We cannot trust them. They have not said they would concede on the core issues (e.g. land, Jerusalem, refugees). They do not prepare their people for a major compromise and, in fact, they rhetorically reinforce their existing, maximalist position. They will never compromise, they don’t accept us etc.

Let’s call this the Core Belief explanation, as in they reject our core beliefs (and will never change, or at least not for decades).

But there are at least two other explanations for exactly the same behavior and speeches.

The first is about bargaining. Leaders do not want to concede major issues before the start of negotiations. The big concessions and tradeoffs actually would come in the middle to end of the talks, not before the talks even start. So if the Palestinian leadership starts telling the Palestinian people that they will never exercise the refugees’ right of return to Haifa or Lod or other places inside pre-1967 Israel OR if the Israeli leaders start explaining to the Israeli people that Palestinians will have sovereignty in Wadi Joz, Silwan, Sheikh Jarrah, and other Arab neighborhoods in inner East Jerusalem, it will be a negotiating disaster. The other side will pocket the concession without ever having had to make a counter-concession.

So they don’t start to explain in advance about concessions. That’s one other explanation.

The second alternative is about domestic politics. Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders know they will face a very difficult fight to sell a two-state agreement (versions #1 or 2 in my previous post) to their own publics. They want to stay in office. An agreement will involve wrenching changes and heated, if not violent, opposition. Given that, a leader will only tell the public about such concessions when the deal is at hand and the positive tradeoff – the other side’s concessions – are apparent and can act a a counterweight to what will be lost.

So, again, they don’t start to explain in advance about concessions.

The problem is that the same evidence in the absence of talks confirms all three explanations – core beliefs, bargaining, and the primacy of domestic politics. The only way to differentiate between the three explanations is to pursue an agreement and see if you can achieve it.

If the core beliefs explanation prevails and you pursue an agreement, you will be stymied and perhaps endanger yourself. If it is a domestic politics and/or bargaining explanation and you do NOT pursue an agreement, you will miss the chance to resolve the conflict. If you achieve one, it shows the core beliefs argument was not valid.