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City of Brass

This is a guest post by Richard Silverstein of Tikkun Olam blog. The text is of a prepared talk Richard gave on Friday at a conference in Seattle focused on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

I have the unenviable task of telling you tonight about the state of the State of Israel. In short, it’s not good. I’ve been following Israeli politics since I was a teenager in 1967 and I don’t think I’ve ever felt more alarmed and depressed about what is happening within Israel.

We all knew when Bibi Netanyahu became prime minister that we were in for a far-right government. But sad to say I think we were spoiled by the more centrist governments that preceded them. We thought that since both Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert were former Likud political leaders that Bibi would perhaps be a slightly more conservative version.

But Bibi has been a revelation, and not a good one. Under his rule, the Israeli peace and human rights community have come under fire as never before. The leader of the New Israel Fund, a relatively tame advocate of Israeli civil society and democracy, was vilified in all the major Israeli newspapers in an ad displaying a caricature of her with a rhino horn sprouting from her forehead. It was an ugly display worthy of some of the lowest propaganda of the Nazi anti-Semitic publication, Der Shturmer.

A few months ago, Uri Blau, an Israeli journalist writing for Haaretz was forced into exile because he received secret documents from an IDF soldier named Anat Kamm. These memos documented major military violations of an Israeli Supreme Court ruling barring targeted killings of Palestinian militants who could be apprehended non-violently. Not only did the Israeli intelligence service, Shabak, threaten to prosecute Uri Blau, Haaretz’s military correspondent now residing in London, they did prosecute Kamm, threatening her with a life sentence. Essentially, this woman is an Israeli Daniel Ellsberg, yet she faces calls from the Israeli far-right for hanging.

An Israeli Palestinian Knesset member, Haneen Zoabi, joined the Gaza flotilla and sailed on the ill-fated Mavi Marmara. If she’d been a regular Israeli citizen she could’ve been arrested and imprisoned for her action. Luckily for her, she had parliamentary immunity. When she returned to the Knesset, right-wing MKs called her a traitor and killer. She arose to defend herself and all hell broke loose. A Jewish female Knesset member lunged at her and would’ve taken her down if she hadn’t been restrained by Knesset security. Everyone knows how fractious and dysfunctional the Israeli parliament can be. Many of us have seen the shouting matches and bad behavior. But this was a different order of magnitude. Even an Israeli TV newscaster called it a “near-lynching.”

The Israeli security apparatus has gone to war against Israeli Palestinian political leaders. This goes back to an announcement in 2007 by Yuval Diskin, Shin Bet chief, that he planned to wage all-out combat against Palestinian nationalists. He viewed even legal political activities that advanced views that were detrimental to the notion that Israel was solely a Jewish state, as anathema. He made clear as part of this crusade, he would pull out all the stops. And he has done so.

In the past month, the Shin Bet arrested the director of an Israeli Palestinian NGO named Ameer Makhoul. They came to his Haifa apartment in the dead of night, ransacked it, and confiscated all the electronic equipment in it, including cell phones and computers belonging to his teenage daughters. They slapped a gag order on his arrest. No Israeli reporter could say what had happened to Makhoul. He essentially disappeared into the maw of the secret police.

One of my jobs as a blogger is to break such gag orders and I’m pleased to say that with the help of Israeli sources I did. After my reporting, we knew who had been arrested. We found out about the preposterous charges against him, that he had consorted with known Hezbollah agents and offered to spy against his country.

The identity of the alleged Hezbollah agent was also under gag order. But I broke that too and revealed that Hassan Jaja was so dangerous that he was a landscape designer and nurseryman in Amman who ran an Arab environmental NGO.

Despite the ludicrousness of the charges, this didn’t stop the Shin Bet from torturing Makhoul during the three weeks when they held him incommunicado, preventing access to his lawyers or family. He was deprived of sleep, tied to a chair that was bolted to the floor and forced to confirm a narrative that his interrogators dictated to him. It reminds me of a Teheran show trial.

This is how low Israel has gone. In an effort to combat the international campaign to hold Israel accountable for its actions its actions in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, the nation has inflicted upon itself and the rest of the world a sort of pathological madness.

It called Judge Richard Goldstone, author of the UN report on the war, a traitor to his people. Accused him of a blood libel against Israel. Accused him of being a moser, a Jew who during the Holocaust ferreted out Jews in hiding and betrayed them to the Gestapo. They tarnished Goldstone’s record as a South African anti-apartheid judge by comparing him to Josef Mengele.

Some of us attended the last SABEEL conference held here in this Cathedral and heard Israeli Professor Neve Gordon’s address. He, several months ago, electrified observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by publicly expressing his support for the global BDS movement in the Los Angeles Times and The Guardian. For this, he too was excoriated. The president of Ben Gurion University where he teaches, claimed he had crossed a red line that no professor had a right to cross, doing damage to the State. Israelis across the political spectrum attempted to make the case that academic freedom did not entitle someone to speak ill of Israel or Zionism. They suggested not so subtly Gordon might be happier living elsewhere (a fate that befell Ilan Pappe and Tanya Reinhardt).

Ben Gurion’s President Carmi essentially said she would fire Gordon if she could. But of course she couldn’t since there is such a thing as academic freedom still honored in Israel.

Add to this, the fact that a British trustee of Ben Gurion told a Jewish newspaper that Prof. David Newman, a colleague of Gordon’s should die because he criticized Israeli policy in a British TV documentary. 140 faculty members protested to the president about the trustee’s irresponsible statement and she promptly ignored them.

Speaking of dying, last week Neve Gordon received a bona fide death threat from an anonymous source, calling him a traitor and warning him that the writer would come to the campus and kill him. While Pres. Carmi denounced the act, she also in effect blamed Gordon for bringing it on himself by his “irresponsible” behavior.

In light of the repression and paranoia I’ve outlined above, it isn’t surprising that the IDF perpetrated the debacle it did on the Mavi Marmara. I don’t know exactly what happened. But in the most charitable interpretation I imagine that after it faced resistance from some passengers and the belief among the assault team that some members were captured, I believe there was a general breakdown in unit discipline and chaos ensued. While I don’t believe the IDF planned to execute anyone and engage in cold blooded murder, the stage was certainly set by spokespeople who threatened that Israel was prepared to use force to prevent the ships from reaching Gaza.

Now, a word on the Israeli investigation of this disaster. In short, it too is a disaster. Netanyahu has appointed three Israelis and two foreign “observers.” The panel is chaired by Yaakov Tirkel, a 75 year old retired Supreme Court justice who has said publicly that he holds the honor of the IDF above “the enemy.” The justice is known for siding with the government on national security cases. Another Israeli panelist is Amos Horev, an 86 year-old retired general who, in 1943, was accused of castrating a Palestinian villager who sexually harassed a Jewish woman. The third member is Shabtai Rosenne, a 94 year-old former diplomat who counseled the Israeli prime minister after the notorious Kibya massacre orchestrated by Ariel Sharon to lie to the world by claiming that Israeli civilians perpetrated the killings and not the army. An Israeli newspaper photographed this poor man at his home wearing the type of summer shorty pajamas worn by elderly folks and tended by his Filipino caretaker. I call this the geriatric commission. They should hold the sessions in a retirement home rather than a government conference room.

One of the foreign observers, Lord David Trimble, just co-founded a European pro-Israel advocacy organization whose mission is to oppose “delegitimization” of Israel within Europe. The second observer is a former judge in the Canadian army.

In short, the fix is in. No one really believes this body will satisfy anyone except Israel. Haaretz has editorialized to that effect. Ban Ki Moon has warned the commission isn’t credible. We need a true international investigation. Nothing less will suffice.

Now, I’d like to turn to U.S. policy. As an American Jew and supporter of Israeli-Palestinian peace, I had high hopes of Barack Obama. I still do. But I’ve become doubtful that any of those hopes will ever be realized.

When faced with the intransigence of the Israeli government, whether the settlement freeze, the Goldstone Report or the Gaza flotilla massacre, the operative mode seems to be keeping things quiet and under control. There never seems to be backbone when it’s called for.

When the Goldstone Report was first issued, the U.S. attempted to block it and threatened a Security Council veto if it was brought up there. When Turkey and the nations of the world demanded an international investigation of the Mavi Marmara murders, the U.S. said an Israeli investigation would do. When things got hot and heavy in the aftermath of the killings and pressure mounted to end the Gaza siege, the Obama administration made do with merely easing the suffering rather than ending it completely.

This is an administration satisfied with half measures. There are times when half-measures may work to quiet a crisis if it isn’t terribly severe. But we’re way past severe when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The situation calls for backbone, for perseverance, for fortitude. Instead we get waffling, and zig-zagging.

Finally, I want to note that today is the fourth anniversary of the capture of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit by Palestinian militants. During that time, there have been negotiations between Israel and Hamas over his fate. Essentially, the latter demanded the release of several hundred jailed Palestinians. Israel balked. While everything about the case is veiled in a fog, from what I’ve read the sides were close to agreement a number of times. But negotiations foundered over which detainees would be released and how many. Israel balked when faced with the prospect of releasing those with blood on their hands.

I want Gilad Shalit to return to the bosom of his family. But I also want Israel to recognize Hamas and end its siege. I want the residents of Sderot to be safe from Qassam rockets. But I also want the residents of Gaza to be free from paralyzing fear and anticipation of the next war.

There is a way out of this mess. The 2002 Saudi initiative proposed Arab acceptance of Israeli in return for a withdrawal to near-1967 borders. Israel has rejected this peace plan, which is still on the table. There is only one way to save Israel: to make peace. Everyone knows the parameters of the future settlement. The only question is how many will have to die before Israel comes to its senses and agrees to it. To quote a Jewish saying: “may it happen speedily and in our day.”

Richard Silverstein is a mensch of a journalist-blogger who is credited with exposing the Anat Kamm case and censorship of the Israeli press to the global news media. Summary articles about Anat Kamm have been written by Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Judith Miller, and reported by the JTA and the Daily Telegraph, all crediting Richard by name for his work in bringing the facts of the case to light while the Israeli press remained silent.

Richard’s blog Tikkun Olam remains the best source of further information on the Anat Kamm case, Mr X., the case of Ameer Makhoul, and the Gaza Flotilla. Subscribe to his RSS feed here.

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