Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (August 12, 2019) - Gun Violence, Annexation, Government Corruption: Israel, the World, and the Law


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.

Q. With all the guns floating around Israel, why doesn’t it experience atrocities like El Paso and Dayton?

A. No other developed country has witnessed repeated mass atrocities like in the US. And some, including in Scandinavia and Switzerland, allow widespread gun possession and usage. But none, including Israel, has gun rights constitutionally protected as in the second amendment to the US Constitution and none that I know of has a historical frontier gun-toting tradition like in America.

In Israel you see a lot of automatic weapons because soldiers on leave often take their weapons with them. That’s the practice since the 1967 Six-Day War occupation of the West Bank and Gaza placed many Israelis and Palestinians in close proximity, with the inevitable violence this generated. Yet beyond isolated suicides and domestic shootings, IDF soldiers, like the police and licensed armed guards, are generally well-trained and not prone to abusing their weapons.

Many West Bank settlers also have weapons provided by the IDF, and West Bank settler extremists can be violent against Palestinians. But it is interesting to note that this violence usually takes the form of acts like arson and bulldozing olive trees. The singular exception is Baruch Goldstein’s Purim massacre in Hebron in 1994, killing 29 Muslim worshipers and wounding over 100 with an IDF-issued assault weapon before being killed himself. Note that Goldstein, like around 20 percent of all settlers, was American-born and bred.

Israeli gun-licensing laws for the general population are tough. To get and, every three years, renew your license (for a pistol, not an assault weapon!) you need a doctor’s written approval and you need to fire 50 rounds with an instructor at a licensed shooting range. Perhaps most significantly, you need to listen to an hour-long lecture on gun usage and safety. You are told, for example, that you may not fire at an intruder in your home unless he/she is armed and actually threatening you. You are mandated by law to secure your gun, unloaded, in a safe. You are advised of the legal penalties for disobeying these restrictions.

Still, no one looks at your on-line screeds and ideological manifestos. Recall Yigal Amir, a non-settler but an extremist who used his licensed gun to assassinate an Israeli prime minister in 1995.

Having noted all these differences, it is interesting to speculate what will happen if Israel continues on its current path of eroding the rule of law and de facto annexation of Palestinian-populated territories. The El Paso shooter, echoing President Trump and Fox News, railed against Hispanic “invaders”. Will we encounter this sort of extremist incitement if Israel, with Trump’s backing, continues to move toward compelling West Bank Palestinians to become second-class residents of a quasi-apartheid state whose economy is increasingly integrated into Israel’s?

Q. Speaking of annexation, did Indian PM Modi’s decision to fully annex and integrate Indian-ruled Kashmir and eliminate its autonomous status inspire any Israeli annexationists?

A. No more than those Israelis already advocating annexing 60 percent of the West Bank (Area C) and relegating the other 40 percent (Areas A and B) to some form of apartheid.

Modi’s move must be seen as part of a broad global trend whereby nationalist authoritarian governments and regimes swallow up adjacent sovereign or autonomous territory and get away with it. In India’s case, a Hindu-majority state is flouting its own constitution to cancel the autonomy of the Muslim-majority portion of Kashmir with its eight million residents.

China, an authoritarian country with no need for constitutional niceties, did this with Tibet decades ago. If it now flouts its own international legal commitments and fully takes over rebellious Hong Kong, it is unlikely the rest of the world will intervene beyond tut-tutting Beijing. Putin’s Russia swallowed Crimea and encroached on eastern Ukraine just a few years ago. The Russians don’t seem deterred by western economic sanctions.

Concerning Kashmir, it seems relevant to note Indian Prime Minister Modi’s economic rationale. Rendering Kashmir a federal Indian territory will, he promises, eliminate corruption and attract investment to lift a stagnant economy. By the by, Indian Hindus can now for the first time purchase land in Kashmir.

Sound familiar? That’s the sort of economic peace the Trump “deal of the century” team wants to offer West Bank Palestinians, even as the plan reportedly denies them full independence and allows Israel under Netanyahu to expand its territorial grip. Like Modi, Trump and Netanyahu are democratically-elected ultra-nationalists who voice incendiary rationales for their aggressive attitude toward neighbors whose religion or ethnic origins they don’t like or whose land they covet.

Q. Still looking at the rule of law, four ministers in Netanyahu’s transition government and one prominent coalition activist have been indicted or face police recommendations to indict. An entire extremist Arab party is likely to be indicted.

A. The list of the four begins with PM Netanyahu himself, who faces a hearing where he can appeal the prospect of indictment on three counts of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Just last week, Likud Minister of Labor and Welfare Haim Katz was informed he is about to be indicted on charges of fraud and breach of trust. Deputy Minister of Health Yaakov Litzman faces an Israel Police recommendation to indict for fraud, breach of trust, suborning of witnesses and bribery.

Apropos Litzman and the rule of law, note that there is no minister of health, only a deputy, because the United Torah Judaism party that Litzman heads refuses the ministerial title in order not to be seen as fully recognizing the authority of a “secular” government. That this is tolerated in Israel might be a factor helping explain the extreme liberties Litzman is alleged to have taken in flouting the law.

Then there is Aryeh Deri, minister of interior and head of the Shas party, who already served a term in jail for fraud. Now the Israel Police are again recommending indictment, this time for fraud, breach of trust, and suborning witnesses.

The fifth alleged offender and third Likudnik involved is former coalition whip David Bitan, who is accused by the Israel Police of the same laundry list of corruption charges as the four ministers.

Finally, lest the finger be pointed only at right wingers and the ultra-Orthodox, the most extreme Arab party, Balad, and one of its former members of Knesset, Hanin Zoabi, are also being charged with abuse of state-issued funds. Balad with its Palestinian-ultra-nationalist and anti-Zionist platform is again one of four Arab parties in a United List running in the current elections.

Q. Are we looking at rampant corruption or enhanced enforcement? And is this a big election issue?

A. Yes, corruption seems more widespread as Israel becomes more prosperous. But this impression may merely derive from the fact that enforcement has indeed improved over recent decades. Right-wing attempts to constrain and limit the jurisdiction of Israel’s legal institutions and of gatekeepers like the State Controller are one form of reaction to enhanced enforcement of the rule of law. Of course, as American readers will testify, these issues are not limited just to Israel.

Corruption an election issue? With barely a month to go before elections, the issue is sensitive enough that virtually all the accused, including Balad, have voiced knee-jerk allegations that the police and/or the attorney general have timed their accusations and indictments for political reasons. Still, thus far the political opposition has not seized upon any corruption charges as a major campaign issue other than those against Netanyahu.

One reason may be the old admonition that people who live in glass houses should not throw stones. Avigdor Liberman, whose “secular right” Yisrael Beitenu party has doubled its polling scores (up from five to ten mandates) by attacking religious parties’ encroachments on secular institutions and living styles, does not want to be reminded that he himself barely avoided heavy corruption charges through dubious evasive measures a few years ago. Meretz’s squeaky-clean civil society agenda could be compromised by its electoral alliance with former prime minister Ehud Barak, who is under scrutiny for his extravagant life style and his past business dealings with the just-deceased Jeffrey Epstein. The United Arab list has to decide what to do about Balad’s alleged transgressions.

Q. Is there a bottom line here?

A. It is easy enough to recognize a single unifying theme connecting issues of gun usage, annexation and abuse of the rule of law in Israel. It is the Palestinian issue and the drive of Israel’s mainstream ultra-nationalist and messianic right, with Trump’s backing, to gobble up as much of the West Bank as possible and integrate the Palestinian population there as second or third-class residents. Needless to say, there is a huge demographic-democratic issue looming here as well. As this process unfolds, it will breed violence and the law will be bent to accommodate annexation, whether de facto or de jure.

Corrupt leadership? A more universal issue.