Hard Questions, Tough Answers (1.31.18) - When extremism takes over: four instances


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses a Likud MK's bill to apply Israeli sovereignty to all the West Bank settlements; the comparison of incarcerated Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi to Hannah Senesh, Anne Frank and Joan of Arc; Poland's legislation of a ban on statements implicating it and Poles in general in the WWII genocide of Jews; and President Trump's announcement of the withholding of US funds not only for UNRWA but for the Palestinian Authority, where the United States finances vital security and development projects.


Q. A Likud member of Knesset has presented a bill to apply Israeli sovereignty to all the West Bank settlements. Why now?

A. Notably, over the past year or so there have been a number of Knesset proposals to annex specific settlements like Maale Adumim, just east of Jerusalem, and even to annex settlements in the Jerusalem area to the Jerusalem municipality. And there are elements in the ruling coalition like the Jewish Home party that advocate annexing all of Area C of the West Bank, some 60 percent, where all the settlements lie. So this is the direction that at least some of the ultra-right mainstream is moving lately. Until now PM Netanyahu has blocked all these proposals in deference to international pressures and in order to avoid a possible confrontation with the US as well as Israel’s Arab neighbors.

This new proposal from Likud MK Yoav Kish takes the issue a step further. It appears to have been inspired or encouraged by US Vice-President Pence’s recent remarks to the Knesset with their messianic ultra-nationalist tone. Another inspiration is almost certainly rumors and reports to the effect that President Trump’s anticipated proposal for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations leaves the fate of Area C (where all West Bank settlements are located) as well as the disposition of the settlements effectively up for grabs.

Will Netanyahu bloc this legislative initiative too? The signals he sends his coalition will presumably reflect his reading of the direction Washington is planning to take the peace process. Needless to say, by applying its sovereignty to all the settlements Israel would be signaling that final status with the Palestinians would involve either a “Swiss cheese” arrangement for Area C or Israeli annexation of nearly all of Area C. The former idea is virtually unprecedented in international conflict resolution and is a recipe for chaos. The latter essentially creates an apartheid state by rendering the remaining 40 percent of the West Bank, the enclaves of Areas A and B, non-viable as a Palestinian state.


Q. A popular Israeli writer and songster recently compared incarcerated Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi to Hannah Senesh, Anne Frank and Joan of Arc. The ensuing firestorm has provoked one additional extreme provocation after another. A sign of the times?

A. Definitely. Ahed Tamimi is a blond Palestinian teenage girl who has been taunting and slapping IDF occupation troops in the West Bank in front of the cameras since she was little. Recently she did so in her village in response to the invasion of her home by the troops and the injuries they inflicted on a local boy. As usual, the soldiers avoided any response to Ahed’s slaps and taunts, in which her mother joined in.

The clip of the slapping incident went viral. The Israeli ultra-nationalist mainstream argued that the soldiers should have subdued Tamimi and handcuffed her on the spot rather than ignore her. The peace camp saw this as one more instance of the moral bankruptcy of occupation. Finally, Tamimi was arrested, tried and sentenced by the IDF to a short prison term. That engendered more protest in Israel.

One of the protesters, Yehonatan Gefen, wrote a song comparing Ahed to Anne Frank, Hannah Senesh (a pre-state poet who volunteered during WWII to parachute behind Nazi lines, was captured and executed), Joan of Arc and even David against Goliath. That seemed to many Israelis, including some of Gefen’s fellow peace camp advocates, to have gone too far. This Sunday Gefen (whose prestigious Israeli roots are in the seminal moshav Nahalal and the family that produced Moshe Dayan) walked back his comparison and apologized.

But not before Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman had tried to ban Gefen’s songs from the IDF radio station, Galei Tzahal, that is under his jurisdiction. And not before MK Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador in Washington and currently deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, revealed that he had initiated an investigation of the entire Tamimi family based on the suspicion that they are not a real family but a Palestinian PR creation. Among other things, Oren argued that the Tamimis are too blond and photogenic in ways that supposedly are designed to appeal to the western media.

Lieberman was informed by the attorney general that he had no authority to ban songs from Galei Tzahal, which continued to air Gefen. Oren was subject to a wave of media ridicule. Gefen, as noted, apologized. In the midst of it all, singer Dudu Alharar stated in a radio program that he “would be happy to see [left-wing writer] Amoz Oz go up in smoke from the chimney at Treblinka”. Then Alharar apologized, too.

Tamimi is not Anne Frank. Gefen’s songs are still being broadcast. Oren slid into racism. And Alharar? Too many Israelis seem to be incapable of keeping the Holocaust out of their daily politics.


Q. Speaking of the Holocaust, Poland is in the process of legislating a ban on statements implicating it and Poles in general in the WWII genocide of Jews. Is this an inevitable extension of the wave of ultra-nationalism sweeping the countries of Central and Eastern Europe?

A. Sweeping Israel, too, where laws limiting freedom of expression and restricting the financing of human rights NGOs have been proposed and in some cases enacted in recent years. A Polish deputy minister, in presenting the Holocaust law for parliamentary approval, specifically cited recent Israeli legislation as a positive precedent.

I was not surprised by the Polish measure, which was passed by Poland’s lower legislative house precisely on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. These Polish sentiments precede the current right-wing wave in parts of Europe.

More than seven years ago I was invited to speak at a seminar on Middle East issues held by a Polish think tank. One of the events was a closed-door discussion dealing with Israel and the Iranian threat. An Algerian participant could not understand Israel’s concerns with the threats to annihilate Israel voiced by senior Iranian officials, from Supreme Leader Khamenei on down: “There is no danger of genocide today. This is a thing of the past. This is just talk,” the Algerian stated.

I responded: “Really? Here we sit on Polish soil, where in my lifetime the Holocaust was carried out. Don’t tell me we Jews have no basis for being concerned.”

My comment was met by silence. A few weeks later, the conference organizer sent me a summary of my remarks at the seminar, for my corrections before publication. My response to the Algerian was nowhere to be found. I reinstated it and sent it back to Warsaw. After a few more weeks I received the final, published version. My reinstated remark had again been removed. Note that I had not blamed the Poles for anything. I had only noted where all six Nazi death camps were located. I have never been invited back.

For me this was a lesson not only in Polish Holocaust attitudes. It also illustrates how Holocaust denial can affect the conversation between Israelis and Arabs. The new Polish legislation is particularly striking when contrasted with the groundbreaking decision by the head of the Saudi-based Muslim World League to condemn Holocaust denial. Dr. Mohammed Al Issa, secretary-general of the MWL, recently wrote that “we consider any denial of the Holocaust or minimizing its effect a crime to distort history . . . . an affront to us all.” Wow! Saudi Arabia! Poland, take note.


Q. Finally, at the Davos World Economic Forum, President Trump took the occasion of a brief photo op with PM Netanyahu to announce the withholding of US funds not only for UNRWA but for the Palestinian Authority, where the United States finances vital security and development projects. Is there anything really surprising here? What’s the significance?

A. Here is part of what Trump said:

“And when they [the Palestinians] disrespected us a week ago by not allowing our great vice president to see them, and we give them hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and support, tremendous numbers, numbers that nobody understands, that money is on the table and that money is not going to them unless they sit down and negotiate peace.

“Because I can tell you that Israel does want to make peace, and they’re going to have to want to make peace too, or we’re going to have nothing to do with it any longer.

“This was never brought up by other negotiators, but it’s brought up by me.”

Trump’s remarks at Davos are significant for three reasons. First, the words were spoken in the presence of Netanyahu, who took no exception to them, thereby in effect endorsing Trump’s financial threats against UNRWA and the Palestinian Authority.

Second, and in marked contrast to Netanyahu’s silence, in recent days the Israeli security establishment has gone out of its way to brief the media regarding the dangerous consequences of Trump’s threatened measures. Denying US security aid to the PA means weakening its capacity to oppose Hamas and other terrorist elements that seek to attack Israel. Cancelling US financial aid to UNRWA (as discussed in last week’s Q & A) denies Palestinians in refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank and elsewhere in the Middle East vital food aid and educational and health services. This could well precipitate a humanitarian crisis that could spill over into violence. Yes, UNRWA is a problem and even an obstacle to resolving the refugee issue. But the way to deal with its nefarious influence is not by precipitously canceling its funding.

On the face of it the wily negotiator Trump, with Netanyahu’s agreement, is merely using the threat of financial punishment to force Mahmoud Abbas, the recalcitrant Palestinian leader, to come to the table and negotiate. Never mind that there are no negotiations. Trump may even at some point balance this threatened “stick” with a “carrot” of financial inducements for the Palestinians. But this approach of treating the Israeli-Palestinian issue as a conflict that can be managed and manipulated with money is almost certain to fail. And when it does, then like so many previous attempts (Camp David 2000, Kerry in 2013-2014) it could well provoke renewed large-scale Palestinian violence against Israelis.

The third reason Trump’s remarks at Davos are significant has to do with the raison d’etre of these Davos conferences. They bring together businesspeople to promote global business. In his formal speech at the Davos forum Trump followed the unwritten rule and promoted US business. But in his off-the-cuff threats against the Palestinians he made statements that are likely to be understood by potential investors--Trump’s true intent notwithstanding--as being bad for business. At Davos, that is “bad form”.

The Trump threats reminded me of my own Davos experience six or seven years ago. This was at a World Economic Forum convocation held at an elaborate conference center on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea. It brought together business people, diplomats and various lobbyists from around the region and beyond. Prominent among the lobbyists was the actor Richard Gere, who had decided to solve the Israeli-Palestinian issue single-handedly and was making the rounds, followed by a retinue of advisers and bag holders.

I found myself on a panel discussing the Palestinian issue, together with the Afghan and Iraqi foreign ministers, a prominent US congresswoman and one or two others. The Davos style is to give each panelist exactly two minutes to present a single main point about the topic at hand. As the lowest in rank on the panel, my turn came last. All those who preceded me spoke in glowing terms about the prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace process and two-state solution. I was appalled at how unrealistic their remarks were. When my turn arrived, I briefly explained that there was no peace process, that the outlook was dark and that the two-state solution was in danger. There followed a discussion period in which no one addressed my seemingly out-of-step remark.

As the session ended and we filed out of the conference hall, a prominent Israeli industrial whom I knew button-holed me. “Yossi,” he said, “you have to understand that Davos is about business. No one came here to listen to a gloomy assessment about the Israel-Palestine conflict. That’s bad for business”.