December 15, 2014 - Israeli Elections - small signs of hope; and security and violence

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This week, Alpher discusses how the momentum for recognition of a Palestinian state is building up in Europe and at the United Nations and how this affects Israel, particularly at election time; emerging political dynamics as regards Israel's elections; the role of violence in Israeli and American security tactics; whether Palestinian Authority threats to sever security coordination with Israel over the Abu Ein incident are credible.

Q. The momentum for recognition of a Palestinian state is building up in Europe and at the United Nations. How does this affect Israel, particularly at election time?

A. Prime Minister Netanyahu traveled to Rome on Monday to try to persuade US Secretary of State Kerry to use the American veto to prevent Security Council approval of any Palestinian statehood motion. Netanyahu appears to be particularly concerned that France has proposed a more moderate version than that presented by the PLO, via Security Council member Jordan. The PLO proposal is slated to be presented to the Council as early as Wednesday.

This is the first time Washington's European partners have not deferred to its request to oppose Palestinian statehood at the UN. With one European country after another endorsing the idea, an American veto is presumably no longer a given in Netanyahu's eyes, though the State Department has intimated that it opposes the two-year mandatory negotiating deadline stipulated by both proposals.

If Palestinian statehood is not approved by the Security Council, the PLO is threatening to take its case against the occupation to the International Court of Justice at The Hague. One way or another, the current Security Council dynamic ensures that the Palestinian statehood issue will be on Israel's electoral agenda.

As the election campaign unfolds, Netanyahu will play on Israelis' security concerns and argue that the world wants to create what will quickly become a Hamas state in the West Bank, firing rockets at almost point blank range at Ben Gurion Airport. The left and center will argue that Netanyahu brought about this international intervention through his settlement policies, his ultranationalist legislative initiatives and his stonewalling of peace efforts, and that only the left-center can negotiate a rational two-state solution that guarantees Israel's integrity and security interests.

If there is no American veto, the left and center will also claim quite convincingly that, through his provocative policies, Netanyahu "lost" US support for Israel. Netanyahu will presumably respond (based on remarks he reportedly recently made) that the Obama-Kerry team does not represent the "real" America that he is in touch with: Sheldon Adelson, Republicans and Evangelicals who in any case will take power in two years.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is warning the US not to "intervene" in Israel's elections and not to allow the UN to intervene. As if the entire world is not involved in one way or another in the endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In any case, this is a selective warning: money from Adelson and other Netanyahu supporters can keep flowing. (Then again, virtually all politicians in Israel, left and right, secular and religious, receive campaign donations from abroad.)

Q. Apropos Israel's elections, can you at this early stage point to an emerging political dynamic?

A. Very broadly speaking, and bearing in mind that lots of political maneuvering awaits us in the months ahead, the left-center appears to be consolidating while the right and religious are fragmenting. A combined ticket unifying Labor and HaTnua is now a done deal, with Labor leader Yitzhak "Buzhi" Herzog dropping a bombshell into the political arena by agreeing to rotate the premiership with HaTnua leader Tzipi Livni after two years, despite Livni's relative inability to deliver an electoral dowry to the union (and of course, assuming they win these elections and form the next government). The public seems to like the idea, placing the combined left-center list slightly ahead of Likud in very early polls.

Still at the center, though more to the right, Yisrael Beitenu (Lieberman) and "Kulanu" ("All of Us", Moshe Kahlon's new list) have agreed to share surplus votes. This arrangement, though it affects the fate of only one mandate and is thus of relatively minor electoral significance, points to a political affinity between the two movements, which appeal mainly to lower middle class voters and seek, in voters' eyes, to isolate the Likud on the political right. Both have moved lately to the center on the two-state issue, and neither now rules out a coalition with Herzog/Livni (which Hebrew readily turns into the acronym "Herzl"—a stroke of good luck for the joint ticket). Only Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid, its fortunes plummeting in the polls, remains at the center without an electoral partner of some sort.

In contrast, the Sephardic ultra-orthodox party Shas appears to be splitting, with former leader Eli Yishai setting up a breakaway list. That leaves Shas exclusively in the hands of Arieh Deri, whose dovish inclinations make him a possible candidate for an anti-Netanyahu coalition. And Naftali Bennet's Jewish Home may also be splitting, with its more extreme orthodox wing breaking away.

A loosely-knit "anyone but Netanyahu" electoral coalition thus seems to be growing. So far, all this is good news for Israelis who want these elections to empower a more moderate government coalition than the outgoing one--a coalition capable of talking seriously about a two-state solution and saving Israel from the apartheid reality that Bennet and much of the Likud appear to favor.

But it is very early in the game. A rollercoaster of Israeli political shenanigans awaits in the months ahead. Readers should let me know when they've had enough.

Q. Last Wednesday, a Palestinian minister died after being roughed up at a West Bank demonstration. The US Senate's report on CIA torture was released more or less in parallel. Can you comment on the role of violence in Israeli and American security tactics?

A. Israel preempted the US Senate years ago in focusing public scrutiny on Shin Bet interrogation tactics where Palestinians are involved (the CIA has apparently cited Israel's ground rules in testifying about torture). In Israel's case, the High Court of Justice has intervened several times to set rules and limits. Perhaps as a consequence, Israeli public and international attention has been directed in recent years far more to the question of brutality by the IDF in war-fighting (e.g., selecting targets in Gaza that involve civilians) and by the Police and Border Patrol in dealing with Palestinian demonstrators in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The death of Ziad Abu Ein at the village of Turmus Aya near Ramallah last week falls into the latter category of scrutiny. Abu Ein held the title of "Head of the Committee against the Wall and Settlements" in the Palestinian Authority, with ministerial rank. He has a checkered history, including jail time in Israel for the murder of two Israeli civilians in Tiberias in 1979, and release in a hostage exchange.

Abu Ein confronted Border Patrol troops provocatively at a demonstration against the planting of trees by an illegal outpost. That Israeli forces are obliged to defend the illegal acts of illegal settlers against essentially peaceful Palestinian demonstrators led by a minister is one of the many ugly anomalies of the occupation and the settlement enterprise championed by the outgoing government.

Abu Ein was manhandled, breathed tear gas, collapsed and died. His autopsy, attended by Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli pathologists, revealed that his main coronary arteries had been blocked 80 percent and that he had suffered previous heart attacks.

The Israeli pathologist ruled that "his death was caused by a coronary occlusion, brought on by stress", meaning by the trauma of the confrontation at Turmus Aya. The Arab pathologists allowed that he had had a coronary incident but argued that he died because he had "been struck, inhaling tear gas" and due to "a delay in providing medical attention". An Israeli medic testified that she had been prevented by Abu Ein's Palestinian entourage from administering first aid on the spot, while he was still alive.

Note that something similar happened two weeks ago when a Palestinian bus driver in Jerusalem was found dead by hanging in his bus. Reputable Israeli pathologists concluded that he had committed suicide. A Palestinian pathologist concurred but, once back home, recanted. In both cases, angry Palestinian protest rioting ensued.

These incidents say something about the politicization of medicine when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The controversial role of physicians in monitoring violence during interrogation also came up in the US Senate report. The Senate's revelations, in turn, are also likely to catalyze more violence against Americans.

Q. The Palestinian Authority has threatened to sever security coordination with Israel over the Abu Ein incident. Is this a credible threat?

A. Almost certainly not. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas knows that Hamas is trying to undermine his rule and take over the West Bank. Israeli security forces, working with PA forces, have rounded up at least two large Hamas underground rings in the West Bank in recent months, coordinated by a Hamas activist sheltering in Turkey. Cooperation between Fateh and Hamas in a unity government in Gaza is a shambles. Hamas is parading its rockets in the streets of Gaza and heaping praise on Iran for supporting it militarily.

Like it or not, the PA's survival would be seriously compromised were it to cut security cooperation now. American and European representatives, whose financial support the PA relies on, have apparently said as much to Abbas. Israeli security officials may sound arrogant and patronizing when they claim that Abbas would not survive without Israel, but they are probably right.

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