The crisis in the Gaza Strip is proceeding like a dramatic serial, from week to week, with no good end in sight. Egyptian military intelligence officials are, to use an Americanism, kicking the can down the road. There is no real solution to the friction between Israel and Hamas at this point. In its absence, Cairo is focused on one goal: preventing a blow-up between the two sides before the Knesset election on April 9.
The big test comes next week, when tens of thousands of demonstrators will come to the fence to mark one year since the start of the March of Return, as well as the 43rd Land Day (commemorating Arab protesters killed by police in 1976). On Thursday, the Egyptians announced that they would not be sending their representatives to Gaza, as they’ve been doing over the last few Fridays. This seems like another attempt on their part to pressure Hamas so that it will control the height of the flames.
The tradition of Friday demonstrations was interrupted last week due to the events of the preceding night. After the launch of two rockets at the Tel Aviv area during a meeting of Hamas leaders and an Egyptian delegation, the visiting intelligence officials provided an explanation that was convenient for all sides: The rockets were fired by mistake during maintenance work. Talking to experts, it turns out that this is possible. So is this what really happened? From the moment that Israel, Hamas and Egypt decided to tell the world that it did, it doesn’t matter so much.
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That night, Israel attacked 100 targets associated with Hamas, but the time it took the air force to prepare allowed Hamas to evacuate headquarters beforehand. The relatively extensive attack ended with a few people injured. Israel again acted with restraint, despite the tough public rhetoric. Brig. Gen. (res.) Udi Dekel, a member of the Institute for National Security Studies, wrote this week that “the launch of these rockets and Israel’s limited response give further testimony to the fact that Hamas continues its defiant and provocative policies, dictating the level of escalation and the rules of the game in facing Israel.”
Israel’s policy of deterrence in Gaza, argues Dekel, has reached its limits. Alternating between military strikes and some easing of restrictions in the siege is insufficient, both in contending with the huge humanitarian crisis and with Hamas’ dominance in the Gaza Strip, given the slim chances that the Palestinian Authority will resume control there.
This week, Hamas viciously suppressed demonstrations over the economic situation in Gaza. Hundreds of protesters were arrested, most of them Fatah members, as well as dozens of journalists, some of whom were severely beaten. It appears Hamas tried to prevent the dissemination of photos documenting the extent of the protests and the violence used in putting them down.
Yet the outbreak of these protests shows that some Gazans have breached the fear barrier, on the backdrop of the economic distress. This is one of the main reasons Hamas cannot afford to compromise and allow prolonged quiet in exchange for a limited easing of the siege. Thus, demonstrations along the fence will continue – at night in the middle of the week and on Fridays, and mainly next Friday, with the participation of tens of thousands.
In the meantime, the West Bank is in turmoil. On Sunday, a soldier and a civilian were killed in a stabbing and shooting attack near Ariel. After a two-day manhunt the assailant was killed in a shoot-out with a combined police and Shin Bet force in a village near Ramallah. In another incident on the same night, two Palestinians were killed by IDF fire near Nablus. Early Thursday morning, another Palestinian was killed, the fourth one this week and 10th this month, by a soldier near Bethlehem. Apparently, this was a case of a mistaken shooting.
The attack in Ariel – which developed into a killing spree by the gunman in a car he hijacked – revealed, and not for the first time, a hesitant and “soft” response by the soldiers who were attacked. Like a string of incidents involving soldiers from a Haredi Nahal battalion two months ago, the attack demonstrated great boldness by the assailants (which was also evident in the murder of two Israelis in the Barkan industrial park last October), along with insufficient alertness on the part of soldiers on the scene.
The IDF had similar problems at the beginning of the wave of knifing attacks in the fall of 2015, but then commanders quickly took control and changed the manner of deployment and the instructions on how to respond to such attacks. The assailant who attacked in Ariel, Omar Abu Laila, who was only 18, and apparently operated on his own. One of his motives was the wish to avenge the death of a relative who was killed by the IDF during clashes with demonstrators in the adjacent town of Salfit, a week earlier. Social media in the territories heaped praise on Abu Laila, who was presented as something of a Palestinian Rambo. It seems that again, if we’re facing a wave of imitations, it will be necessary to improve the IDF’s tactical methods of responding.
Compromise shaping up on Temple Mount
This week there were developments at two other sources of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. On the Temple Mount, a compromise was shaping up over the opening of the structure at the Bab-al-Rahma gate. This was achieved following another visit by an Israeli delegation to Amman. The discussions, which included a senior police officer, concluded that Israel would not use force to close the structure before the election. Afterwards, it would be announced that the building was being closed for a few months for renovations. When these are done, Waqf offices would be opened there, rather than a place of prayer. Israel and Jordan are in agreement on the terms of the desired solution. The Achilles heel of the new deal is the possibility that the Palestinians may decide to tear it up.
In prisons for Palestinian security offenders, the Israel Prison Service continues with its plan to block inmates’ cellular phones. Earlier in the week there was a riot by prisoners in the Hamas wing of Ramon Prison, where fires were set. The Prison Service returned the inmates to the burned-out wing that night, distributing 240 of them among other wings while putting the leader in solitary confinement.
Installing devices to block calls is a “pilot” in a bigger plan being tested in two prison wings for now. The IDF opposed the plan at this time and the Prison Service also hesitated. Prisoner leaders who read about such reservations in the Israeli media assumed that the Prison Service would cave in. This has not happened so far.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan intends to approve the full plan in May. It will cost 22 million shekels ($6.1 million) and block all phone calls in all security wings. This is worrying Hamas and Fatah prisoners greatly. The message given by interim Prison Service Commissioner Asher Vaknin is that they’ll handle anything the prisoners throw at them, and that the plan will be implemented. Meanwhile, wardens are holding the line. Next week, it will be seen how this meshes with events connected to the anniversary of the March of Return.
Black smoke accompanied by the suffocating stench of burning plastic has become the norm on the Lachish hills in southern central Israel. It’s coming from Palestinian villages in the area, which have developed a vast but illegal industry of burning discarded electronic appliances to extract their metal for resale.
This activity is unhealthy for everybody in the area but neither the Palestinian Authority or Israeli government have managed to put a stop to it. The political tension between the sides also put a halt to a project that attempted to reduce the damage but no results have been yielded.
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Three Palestinian towns – Idhna, Deir Sammit and Beit Awwa, all west of Hebron – developed a brisk industry of fixing malfunctioning electronics such as computers and burning the ones they can’t fix.
Dr. Yaakov Garb of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev has been looking for solutions. In January him and two Canadian colleagues, John-Michael Davis and Grace Akese of Memorial University, published a paper in the Elsevier journal Geoforum on “e-waste hubs” in Lachish and elsewhere in the world.
“E-waste recycling has become the dominant economy in the West Line [Bank] villages,” they write. This rural area has a population of 35,000 within a 45km-square area, and this “ad hoc industry collects and imports up to 40,000 tons of Israeli e-waste annually, which supports over 380 businesses, more than 1000 full-time jobs.”
Electronic waste which will later be burned for its plastic. 223 sites that emit toxins in the area have been discovered. Leblond / Garb
The e-waste is driven from Israel into this area by trucks – a feasible endeavor since “the overwhelming majority of the Israeli population lives within an hour drive of the West Line [Bank] villages,” they write. Moreover, the villages that process the waste are located near the separation wall, making the day-trip to collect waste easier.
Israeli companies are happy about not having to pay to have waste removed for legal sorting and recycling within Israel.
Meanwhile the Israeli Civil Administration and Environmental Affairs Ministry have set up an inspection unit dubbed “David” to thwart e-waste smuggling from Israel in to the territories.
Burning electronics and cables produces metals, including copper, which has become especially costly. 223 sites in the area emit toxins these into the air, and reports show a relatively high level of local morbidity. Among other things, a direct connection has been found between lymphoma in children and proximity to the burn sites.
The Israeli settlements in Lachish are not immune to the fumes and illnesses. In fact in recent years new sites have been erected on the Israeli side of the separation wall.
E-waste recycling has become dominant in the West Bank economy. Leblond / Garb
Timna Eidan and Michal Efrat-Shkuri from the Eliav settlement are part of a grassroots drive to eradicate the burning. “At first we didn’t notice it,” says Timna. “The we started to document the burning, and grasped how serious the problem is. It happens every day, sometimes all day. The smell is unbearable.” A lot of young families whio live on the settlement with children are worried about future health problems, she said.
The residents have set up an action committee and have begun meeting with interested parties, environmental groups and Knesset members. They even reached out to nearby Palestinian residents looking to find a solution together. In addition locals have met with representatives of the e-waste-collection and recycling companies operating legally in Israel.
Tzahi Ein Gal, manager of Ecommunity – Social Corporation for the Recycling of Electronic Waste, admits that a significant proportion of Israeli e-waste goes over the Green Line to the territories, making it hard to meet the recycling targets set in Israeli law.
There are Palestinian voices also calling for regulation of the e-waste. Despite the number of Palestinian trucks being confiscated has been relatedly small, it causes severe economic hardship.
Last year Palestinian businessmen initiated the creation of a device designed to peel the plastic coating off copper cables so it wouldn’t have to be burned in order to extract the metal. The initiative included the Palestinian recycling company Safa and village leaders, in which Garb was involved, with the cooperation of the civil administration. The Swedish government also helped subsidize paying illegal waste truckers to bring the materials to the facility instead of bringing them to burning sites.
“The goal was to stop the fires and create an alternative that is environmentally safer,” Garb says. “We set up hotline for complaints about fires and were aided by local volunteers who would go to the fires and give them vouchers, to bring the cables to the facility for peeling for free.”
The local authority also began to fine e-waste burners – Sweden is also funding this enforcement, and some villages have started cleaning up the contaminated land. The copper peeling model has further proved a success, reducing fires by 90 percent, says Efrat-Shkuri.
Electronic waste remains in the West Bank village of Idhna. Leblond / Garb
At the end of the first stage, the Swedish government agreed to provided more funding but the Palestinian Authority opposed the very concept of Israeli waste being brought into its jurisdiction. The dispute prevented further funds and the black smoke and fumes are now back and the David patrol can’t make it stop, says Efrat-Shkuri. Garb has been trying in recent months to find a way to reach agreements and resume activity.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection said that they patrol and search for illegal e-waste burning sites which they close down. In the last four years they confiscated 950 trucks carrying illegal waste at crossing points between Israel and the West Bank, the coordinator said.
Yet the people living in the Lachish hills know that however many have been seized, most of the trucks will continue to ply the route, transporting waste illegally from Israel to the Palestinian towns. And the proof is right before everybody’s eyes: black plumes of smoke rising heavenward, day in and day out.
“Just imagine what would have happened if Israel weren’t present on the Golan,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Jerusalem, a day before President Donald Trump granted the ultimate gift to Netanyahu in a dramatic tweet: endorsement of U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights.
But what need is there for imagining? Until not too long ago, Netanyahu himself was engaged in cooking up a detailed answer to the not-at-all imaginary question, as he conducted advanced negotiations with the Syrians about an Israeli withdrawal from territories in the Golan Heights in return for the distancing of Iran and Hezbollah from them.
For 20 years, nearly all the Israeli governments held secret talks with Damascus focused on formulating a peace agreement that would include a territorial compromise. The last and least known round of these talks, under the baton of Netanyahu’s government, was abruptly terminated in March 2011 in the shadow of the outbreak of the civil war. During the years of the slaughter, there was a gradual but definite change in direction in Israel’s position: The age of “the Syrian option” ended and it became time to demand recognition of the existing de facto sovereignty.
The idea, which initially trickled down from right-wing Israeli circles to the U.S. Senate, and then was whispered into the ears of President Barack Obama’s administration, gradually became public and gained momentum in the political center as well. This change of direction is seen most clearly in the current election race: Most of the prominent candidates have declared that they support such recognition. The first was Yair Lapid, who made the issue one of his campaign banners and also brought along his partner Benny Gantz, who announced on a trip to the north that “we will never come down from the Golan. On the contrary, it will be developed intensively.” From efforts to achieve an agreement, in more or less secret channels, the Israeli consensus moved towards a campaign for unilateral recognition of the annexation – reaching a peak now in the form of the gift from Trump.
In recent months Haaretz spoke with many of the people involved in the last round of talks and its predecessors, to clarify the extent to which the negotiations were serious and what the implications of the change in the direction of the diplomacy might be. Most of the sources we spoke with agree: Even under Netanyahu there were serious, advanced discussions with Syrian President Bashar Assad and his people, which included maps and computerized scenarios for a possibility that included Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights on the basis of the pre-1967 lines.
Most of them also believe that unilateral American recognition at this time will not benefit Israel much, and is liable to ignite a conflagration. On the other side, supporters of the idea in the political arena in Israel are convinced that this is an opportunity.
Assad the father and the ‘deposit’
Israel’s northern border disputes go back to the days when colonialism first drew the maps. After that came the first cease-fire lines and the 1967 lines at the heart of the conflict. In the wake of the capture of additional territories in the Yom Kippur War, in 1974 a separation of forces agreement was signed between Israel and Syria, in which Israel drew back and a buffer zone was created.
Recently Netanyahu informed the Russians, the new regional partners, that for its part Israel would return to the separation agreements. In 1981 Israel ratified the Golan Heights annexation law. Initial feelers towards negotiations began with the Madrid Conference in 1991 but as far as is known, serious talks with Syria began only during Yitzhak Rabin’s term as prime minister, in 1992. U.S. Secretary of State James Baker came to Rabin after a visit to Damascus and told him that the elder Assad, Hafez, was prepared to make peace “like Sadat.”
File photo: A Israeli tank passes the remains of a Syrian tank in the Golan Heights in Israel during the Yom Kippur War on Oct. 9, 1973. AP Photo/Spartaco Bodini
“The talks took place on the sixth floor of the State Department from 9 A.M. to 12:00,” says Prof. Itamar Rabinovich, head of the Israeli delegation to the talks with Syria during the Rabin period and a former Israeli ambassador to Washington. “Journalists waited when we went in and when we came out. Recorders on the table. It was clear that this wasn’t the way to conduct negotiations. It took time to normalize this when we were also talking at intervals. One day they put principles of an agreement on the table. For nearly a year, from September of 1992 to August of 1993, we were in this situation. We made progress but in small steps. We met nearly every month.”
According to Rabinovich, Rabin did not like the idea of coming down from the Golan but preferred the Syrian track to the Palestinian one, which was initially identified with his political rival Shimon Peres, and thought that Assad might perhaps be more serious than Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The systematic zigzagging between the Syrian and the Palestinian channels, sometimes in an attempt to reduce American pressure, continued to accompany Israeli governments since then and became a clear trend.
Rabin’s proposal was for a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights to the pre-1967 lines within five years, in return for full normalization and security arrangements. He gave this proposal to Secretary of State Warren Christopher in what later became known as a “deposit” or “in the pocket.” That is, Rabin asked Christopher to keep the proposal in his pocket as a card to play in the talks only if the other side made a commitment. In retrospect, it appears Christopher indeed put the withdrawal on the table too quickly. In the end, Rabin decided on Peres and Oslo. He came back to the Syrians only in 1994 and talks began between senior military officers from both sides. According to Rabinovich, Hafez Assad crippled the talks. Negotiations also went on when Peres was prime minister but they were not productive.
Assad’s bedroom and the Hermon
When Netanyahu began his first term as prime minister, the Americans sought clarification that he was no longer obligated to Rabin’s “deposit.” They agreed it would not have the status of a commitment. In 1998 Netanyahu embarked on a new round of secret talks by means of his close associate, businessman Ron Lauder. According to sources who are knowledgeable about the substance of the discussions, they too revolved around Israel’s willingness to agree to a significant withdrawal on the basis of the pre-1967 lines.
However, after a number of talks with Assad in Damascus, the Syrian leader reportedly asked Lauder to come back with a map “or not come back at all.” Israel’s foreign minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, and the defense minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, opposed this and that was the end of that round of talks, which is remembered largely for surfacing as a point of dispute in the TV debate between Netanyahu and Mordechai.
Sources knowledgeable about the content of Netanyahu’s first round of talks at that time say today that at their center, among other things, was an Israeli demand to maintain a presence on the Hermon. The Syrians said to Lauder that this was a “spy line.” To this Lauder purportedly replied to Assad: “Why does it bother you that anyone sees what you do in your bedroom. It doesn’t bother me.” To everyone’s surprise, the Syrians changed their mind. However, they offered a creative compromise: “There are American Jews to whom it can be transferred.” Israel, according to these sources, decided to understand the opposite: that the Israelis would pretend to be Americans. The entire Hermon would become internationalized and an installation that supposedly would be manned by Americans would in actuality be Israeli. Like a similar arrangement in Sinai.
During Ehud Barak’s time as prime minister, there were the Shepherdstown peace talks, which ended in a blow-up, the details of which are controversial to this day. The Syrians insisted on access to the Sea of Galilee. Some of the people who were involved say Barak got “cold feet.” For his part, Barak blamed the leaks. After that, Hafez Assad died, his son Bashar came to power and the talks were frozen. The Americans invaded Iraq and clashed with Syria, Sharon in any case was busy with the intifada and thus he became the only Israeli prime minister who did not purportedly conduct secret talks with the Syrians about withdrawing from the Golan.
File photo: U.S. President Bill Clinton (C) walks next to Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in Shepherdstown, West Virginia on January 3, 2000.REUTERS/Larry Downing/Files
This is confirmed even today by his former top aide Dov Weisglass, who says that in December 2003 Sharon was asked to meet American diplomat Elliot Abrams in Rome to promise him that Israel had no contacts with Syria, despite reports on messages that supposedly had been sent to Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. That meeting, says Weisglass, was the first time Sharon told the Americans about the Gaza disengagement plan.
During Ehud Olmert’s time as prime minister, the Americans still had reservations at first and in 2008 Olmert finally agreed to Turkish mediation. These talks collapsed in part because of Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip. At their end, Israel had in hand a “six point plan” according to which the Syrians demanded the border be moved and Olmert agreed to discuss that. Sources who have seen the materials from those talks say that the sides were already engaged in drawing up a border on “very high-resolution” maps.
Throughout the years of negotiations, the international community in general and the United States in particular never officially recognized the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights.
Netanyahu and Assad: The last round
The last round of talks mediated by the Americans between Netanyahu and Bashar Assad began in September 2010. Among the cabinet members, only Defense Minister Ehud Barak was in on the secret, but Military Intelligence also supported the idea in principle. The talks were conducted by means of American envoys Fred Hoff and Dennis Ross, while on the Israeli side were National Security Adviser Uzi Arad and later his successor, Yaakov Amidror, diplomatic adviser Ron Dermer, military secretary Yohanan Locker, special envoy Yitzhak Molho and Brig. Gen. (res.) Mike Herzog. Lauder was no longer in the picture. According to some of those involved, “He was burned because he was unreliable. He didn’t coordinate what he was saying to both sides.”
According to sources knowledgeable about the talks, Netanyahu was prepared to discuss the Syrian demand for a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines – that is, to the Sea of Galilee – but this time he conditioned it on Syria disengaging itself entirely from Iran and Hezbollah in new security arrangements. The teams worked on formulating a statement of principles and various American drafts had been replaced. These negotiations ended entirely in March 2011 when Assad began slaughtering his countrymen and Netanyahu realized that the Syrian leader was losing legitimacy. The sources assess that had it not been for the outbreak of the civil war, it would only have taken another half a year for the two sides to reach an agreement.
Initially the Syrians sought to restart the talks from the “six points” document from Olmert’s time, but Netanyahu’s team determined that they did not serve Israel’s security interests. The new idea was to build a line the Syrians could call a return to the June 4, 1967 lines, but with changes. The Sea of Galilee was once again the bone of contention, and after that, the security arrangements. A computerized model was built to assess the redeployment of military forces, disarmament and the thinning of the forces, insofar as the Syrians would agree to take a strategic decision to disengage entirely from the Iranian “axis of evil.” Staff work even got underway in advance of public presentation of the process.
Former adviser Arad revealed this year that Israel, at its own initiative, also proposed at that time a deal for a territorial swap between Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia in exchange for Israeli settlements remaining in the Golan Heights. Jordan would transfer lands to Syria equivalent to the territory that would remain in Israeli hands. At the same time, Saudi Arabia would give Jordan a strip of land along the sea south of Aqaba and receive from it an area of similar size along the border between the two countries. Amman agreed but Damascus refused outright.
Syrian President Bashar Assad with Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass and Hassan Turkmany, chief of staff, visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Oct. 2002. AP Photo/SANA
Did Netanyahu “really mean it’?
Netanyahu often says in response to reports of his negotiations with Assad that there wasn’t any substance to them. About a month ago we asked him during his visit to Warsaw whether that meant he had been “bluffing” the Syrians. Netanyahu replied: “I will never come down from the Golan and I am keeping the Golan and I will not reveal here what I told them.”
However, people involved in the last round with whom we spoke agree: Although the process did not make it to the final stretch, it was indeed advanced and detailed.
A former U.S. government official told Haaretz that there was some substantial progress with clear recognition of it from both sides. He said the Israeli side was very interested in the possibility of a strategic turnabout in Syria, while the Syrians were interested in regaining the real estate they lost in 1967. Whatever progress was made, in the end, if things hadn’t happened the way they did in Syria and if six months later there had been an agreed-upon text of an agreement, signing off on it would have required difficult decisions by both leaders.
According to another former U.S. government official, the negotiations, while serious, were incomplete. “The essence of the work was about [Israeli] withdrawal in return for strategic realignment of Syria away from Hezbollah and Iran.” In addition, the official said they delved deeply into many details concerning what was needed from each side in exchange, adding that in all fairness, no final decision was taken and he himself had doubts as to whether Assad would have been able to implement an agreement. They were, however, close to an agreement on paper, the official added, the work had been serious and detailed, and those involved thought there was potential for actually reaching an agreement.
Another source involved in the talks said: “Bibi didn’t want the Palestinian channel at first and this was a way for him to ward off pressure from the Americans. But it was a promising process and it wasn’t a bluff.”
Yet another Israeli source said: “Bibi can tell himself he didn’t say he agreed and it was an American document and not an Israeli one, but he enabled the discussion. You don’t fool around with the Americans. Apart from that, it doesn’t matter what he is saying now – everything was written down in Damascus and there were international witnesses. What is this, theater? The Syrians have transcripts, documents, maps.”
Rabinovich, who followed the last round of talks closely, believes Netanyahu is continuing with the defensive tactic he used in the past: “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” – which is a kind of permanent Israeli formula. “When they’d ask me whether Assad was serious, I would say that he had bought a ticket on a train for which the last station is peace, but he can always get off along the way. And Netanyahu the same.”
The annexation era
On the question of the Israeli demand to recognize its annexation of the Golan Heights, most of the people formerly involved in the talks agree: Since the Israeli presence is not actively being challenged now, certainly after Assad has been denounced as a mass murderer, there is no benefit in a symbolic process that can only spark a reaction. So, as an Israeli former senior official has said: “Today there is no one in the world who thinks Israel needs to come down from the Golan. The best way to cast this in doubt is to ask for this recognition.”
Dennis Ross, one of the most eminent former mediators, told Haaretz: “I do think it’s a mistake for the administration to do it. I don’t think it will contribute to their desire to present their peace plan. I think it will make it harder for Arab leaders to be responsive. If they want the peace plan to have a chance of success, they also need to be thinking about how you create a context that makes it easier for Arab leaders to respond to them, not harder, and this will make it harder.”
Another former top American official has said he could understand the timing from Netanyahu’s point of view, given the upcoming election, but that it is an own-goal for relations with the Arab states. And it could cause Trump’s successor to reverse the decision – a pattern we are seeing a lot these days.
An Israeli former senior official told Haaretz: “Netanyahu is familiar with the entire process that has happened, and all of a sudden he wants recognition in the Golan Heights? What are they going to do with it? Take it to the grocery store? This is liable to cause a reaction and a heating up of he northern front even more.”
File photo: An old Israeli tank sits near Merom Golan in the Golan Heights, April 24, 2008. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
And according to Rabinovich: “We will only be helping Assad transform the conflict from a Syrian problem into an Israeli-Arab problem. I think Netanyahu is doing this mainly to garner votes.”
The person most closely associated with the campaign for recognition of the annexation is Zvi Hauser, formerly Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary and currently a candidate for the Knesset on the Kahol Lavan slate, who celebrates Trump’s tweeted announcement Thursday in New York.”. He believes there is a historic opportunity now that must not be missed because of “an idée fixe.” According to him, Netanyahu did not initially understand the gravity of the moment: “The civil war in Syria was a reality-changing event from Israel’s perspective but to my regret, as someone who saw the cockpit from up close, they didn’t understand it there as a strategic event. American recognition of the Israeli sovereignty in the Golan used to sound ridiculous to everyone. Until the rise of Trump they didn’t believe it was possible and they did not understand the importance of the matter. It was a strategic fault and now all of a sudden everyone understands.”
According to him, without the recognition there will be “Lebanonization of the Golan border and a dynamic that demands we come down from there. We will wake up one morning and find ourselves facing a demand for a redeployment of the forces in the arena. A package deal that the Iranians withdraw from Syria and in return Israel will have to come down from the Golan Heights. A withdrawal of the Americans without recognition in the Golan will signal to the radical elements, Assad and Hezbollah, that it is legitimate to ignite the line of the resistance on the Golan.”
Regarding the past idea of conditioning withdrawal on Syria’s distancing itself from Iran, Hauser says: “The thesis of the negotiations to extract Syria from the covenant of evil was naive.” And regarding the possible damage that recognition could cause to the developing relations with the Arab world, he argues: “There’s no such thing as the Arab world. It is split.”
One of the former prominent players in the talks with Syria agrees with Hauser: “The opportunity for peace with Syria was apparently missed for many years. It is off the agenda. No one has sympathy for Assad and there isn’t sensitivity about the Golan the way there is about Jerusalem. So the world will yell – and we will move on.”
The Prime Minister’s Office stated in response to the report: “Prime Minister Netanyahu was never willing to give up the Golan Heights and acted all along to strengthen Israel’s hold on the Golan. Over the years the prime minister acted to promote [international] recognition of [Israeli control over] the Golan, which came to fruition tonight and which we embrace and thank the Trump administration for.”
The Jews of the Diaspora, if they had a vote in the upcoming election on April 9, would be choosing Stav Shaffir from Rothschild Boulevard over Benjamin Netanyahu from Balfour Street. They prefer Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. They know very little about the indifferent general, Benny Gantz, but if he can replace Bibi, then they are willing to project every aspiration and hope they have for the Jewish state on his tall blank canvas. As a certain American freshman congresswoman said, it’s all about the Benjamins.
No, not all the Jews. Netanyahu still has his supporters, particularly among the Orthodox communities, but from dozens of conversations in recent weeks during visits to the U.S. and Britain and with Diaspora groups visiting Israel, you get a clear sense that the virtual Likud constituency among non-Israeli Jews is shrinking. And this impression comes across especially when talking with “professional Jews,” those who are more committed to strengthening the ties with Israel, including many who are instinctively right-of-center, because they are the ones called upon to protect Israel in public.
Since most of these conversations were off the record, I can’t name any of the organizations they work for, but the overall sentiment from many veteran employees in pro-Israel groups was how they can’t wait for Netanyahu to leave. Not necessarily because they massively object to things he’s recently done or said, per se, but as one of them bluntly put it, “it would make our lives so much easier.”
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So many Jews, who do not live in Israel and do not have to suffer the consequences of the actions of its leaders, feel their lives would be much easier if Netanyahu was no longer prime minister. It’s not just those who work in various advocacy organizations, who in their line of work take fire for his latest racist dog-whistle statement or any of the extreme antics of his ministers and party members.
For them, a post-Netanyahu Israel would be so much easier to defend, even before it changes any of its policies. Even under a different right-wing leader. It’s also true for so many ordinary Jews for whom Israel is an integral part of their identity. It transcends mere politics and has become almost visceral, how some non-Israeli Jews would simply prefer to think about themselves as Jews without Netanyahu.
For those concerned with the widening rift between Israel and the Diaspora, there is a silver lining of sorts here. If Netanyahu is clouding the very notion of Israel in the minds of many Jews, then this is a passing problem. Because, one day, may be even next month, but one day for certain, Netanyahu will be gone. And then they can resume identifying with Israel. But just like Netanyahu has sucked the oxygen out of Israeli public discourse, with his personal fate dominating this election, above and beyond any actual issue of policy or ideology – so has his towering image done the same to the Israel-Diaspora relationship.
But even if the (rather unlikely) outcome of this election will be a Gantz government, complete with an Education Minister Shaffir, all will not be well with the Jews. Netanyahu, in his blatant disregard of the Diaspora and his abuse of what he has called his position as “a representative of the entire Jewish people,” has become a convenient distraction.
It distracts us from the long overdue realization that the overwhelming majority of Israelis define their Jewishness by nationalism and religion, while most in the Diaspora build their Jewish identities around social values and culture. It won’t change when Netanyahu leaves. And when that happens, will anyone remember how American Jews launched and financed Netanyahu’s political career, long before he became a star in Israel?
For years, even as it became abundantly clear how distant his views were from those of three quarters of American Jews, they continued to enable him, providing him with an adoring echo chamber on every visit. As they will next week once again at AIPAC. Will anyone be asking Gantz, or whoever else may come next, the difficult questions they failed to ask Bibi?
Netanyahu may have been more obvious in his contempt for the sensitivities of Jews abroad than any previous Israeli prime minister, but he simply highlighted how limited their influence has always been. It’s hardly a coincidence that the only truly influential American Jews in Israel are the hardly representative Jared Kushner and Sheldon Adelson. That’s not just because of Netanyahu.
And the interest in the indictments against him for fraud and bribery shouldn’t obscure the fact that Diaspora money has had a deeply corrupting influence on Israel’s politicians – going back at least 50 years, to the days when Ambassador to the U.S. Yitzhak Rabin accepted speaking fees for appearances at Jewish functions and squirreled the money away in his tax-evading foreign bank account.
The celebrations in the Diaspora over Netanyahu’s departure, when it happens, shouldn’t obscure the need to address all these issues. And since he may not be leaving for a while, a reckoning should start now.