Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: May 19, 2014

This week, Alpher discusses the new "iNakba" app; last week's visit by PM Binyamin Netanyahu to Japan and of President Shimon Peres to Norway; what Israeli chief negotiator Tzipi Livni's meeting in London with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas against a backdrop of surprising progress in the Palestinian drive to form a Fateh-Hamas unity government tells us about the chances for reviving the peace process; and the level of intrigue over the Knesset electing a new president to replace Shimon Peres.

Q. An organization called Zochrot has issued an app, iNakba, that locates and identifies the remains of every Palestinian village destroyed in 1948. Do you see this as a positive or negative development?


A. Both positive and negative. On the positive side, Zionist Jewish Israel cannot and should not erase the recent past: hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were driven out of their villages in 1948 in the event known in Israel as the War of Independence and to Arabs as the Nakba. The remains of their villages are (literally) a concrete reminder that the aftermath of those events is still very much with us. Only in recent years have Israeli historians documented the very mixed record of Palestinian flight in 1948. True--an important truth!--the Arabs started the 1948 war, and refugee populations are created by every war. Still, we cannot ignore the status of the Palestinian refugee issue in the tough neighborhood we live in.

Do we need a reminder? Obviously, those in Israel who think the Palestinian issue and the Israel-Arab conflict are not obstacles to swallowing up and Judaizing the West Bank and East Jerusalem are very much in need of a reminder that this issue won't go away. In this connection it is interesting to note that, with the help of this app--or Harvard Professor Walid Khalidi's one-sided but moving book, All That Remains--one becomes aware that nowhere and at no time in the course of 66 years has there been a concerted attempt by any Israeli government to simply bulldoze and eliminate these remains. Here and there, they have even been actively restored and maintained, as at Tel Aviv University's elegant faculty club--once the home of the mukhtar of the village of Sheikh Munis that is now the site of the university.

On the other hand, Zochrot's motive is hardly constructive. Zochrot is the Hebrew feminine-plural of "remember"; this Israeli non-governmental organization, mostly women, believes in the "return" to those destroyed villages of all the 1948 refugees. The latter, thanks to a concerted effort by the Arab states, are now counted as five million, a number that grows with United Nations connivance from generation to generation. And they all have refugee status because the Arab host countries continue to deny them the possibility of being absorbed elsewhere, in striking contrast to the way Israel has absorbed millions of Jewish refugees (and continues to do to this day, with Jews fleeing Ukraine). The only exception to the Arab refusal to absorb Palestinian refugees is Jordan, and even there the non-Palestinians still insist that an Israeli-Palestinian end of conflict agreement will remove many of the Palestinians from the population roster.

So Zochrot's ultimate motive for creating the app is the mass return of all the refugees, meaning the end of Israel as we know it. This organization is plainly anti-Zionist, believes Israel was "born in sin", and favors a bi-national state instead of Israel. It is supported financially by a host of European and American philanthropic organizations--either out of ignorance, or because they really want to see Israel disappear. It represents a tiny minority of Israelis. Keep all this in mind as you use their interesting app to inform yourselves.

Q. Last week PM Binyamin Netanyahu visited Japan and President Shimon Peres visited Norway. Anything unusual here?

A. The visits seemingly symbolized opposite poles of the interaction between the Palestinian conflict and the international community. Peres, Nobel peace prize-winning hero of the Oslo process that Norway sponsored some 20 years ago, was invited back to Oslo on a state visit to mark the completion of his seven-year term as president of Israel (more on this below). While Norway's government today is center-right--unlike the socialist government that sponsored the Oslo agreement--and therefore, by contemporary European standards, relatively friendly toward Israel and inclined to invest in the Israeli economy, it is still heavily critical of the West Bank settlements. The only invitation it is likely to issue to Netanyahu might eventuate if something permanent emerges from the romance between the prime minister's son Yair and a Norwegian student he met at university in Herzlia.

Netanyahu's visit to Japan, on the other hand, was about business, security, and balancing growing western criticism of Israel. In this sense, it should be seen as a continuation of his tour of China a few months ago. The prime minister appears to be motivated at least in part by the well-grounded fear that his policy of gradually absorbing the West Bank and East Jerusalem while stringing along third-party peace initiatives like that of US Secretary of State Kerry will provoke increased readiness in Europe--Israel's biggest trading partner--to punish Israel through economic boycott. Accordingly, he seeks to expand Israel's commerce with Asian economic powers that make less of a fuss over the Palestinian issue.

A secondary motive for visiting the Asian powers (including potentially South Korea as well; stay tuned for a visit there) is the Iran nuclear issue. Asia is heavily dependent on Middle East oil and a major Iranian energy consumer. China has invested heavily in Iran, including its nuclear infrastructure. In Beijing, Netanyahu sought to instill some balance in China's Middle East policies while tempting it to invest in Israel. In Japan, Netanyahu went to great lengths to link the Iranian and North Korean nuclear projects in Tokyo's eyes and to discuss shared security interests, as well as to encourage Japanese high-tech investment in Israel. A Japanese journalist who covered the visit closely told me that Netanyahu scored successes with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on both counts.

Q. So the Palestinian issue motivates diversification of Israel's global economic links. But it still won't go away. Last week, Israeli chief negotiator Tzipi Livni met in London with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas against a backdrop of surprising progress in the Palestinian drive to form a Fateh-Hamas unity government. What does all this tell us about the chances for reviving the peace process?

A. Netanyahu's office briefed reporters that Livni's meeting with Abbas was private and that she was "representing only herself", noting that the Cabinet had decided to suspend talks with the Palestinians because of the Fateh-Hamas decision to form a unity government. Livni's own office noted only that she had warned Abbas about the consequences of forming such a government.

Still, there can be little doubt that the two discussed the fate of the peace process. Their meeting takes place against a backdrop of two significant developments. On the one hand, and somewhat surprisingly in view of past experience, Fateh and Hamas appear to be progressing toward forming a technocrat unity government. Particularly noticeable are the confidence-building measures put in place by the two sides: distributing one another's newspapers for the first time in years, permitting Hamas demonstrations and political activity in the West Bank and visits by Fateh leaders to Gaza, etc.

Still, there is apparently no progress on the security front and Fateh and Hamas forces remain entirely separate, each in charge of its territory. This means that a unity government will be to an extent cosmetic, and that in view of Hamas' ongoing hostility to Israel, newly-permitted Hamas activities on the West Bank could easily lead to a dangerous security miscalculation.

Turning to Washington, the Obama administration over the weekend reportedly briefed Israeli journalists that it is taking a "time out" from the process in the hope that both sides, after "stewing in their own juices", will moderate their positions. In view of specific administration criticism of Israel, it would appear that any US move to renew mediating efforts would require a genuine Israeli settlement-building freeze.

Q. On Monday, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein set June 10 as the date when the Knesset elects a new president to replace Shimon Peres. Is there as much intrigue over this issue as always?

A. More. One leading candidate, Likud's Reuven Rivlin, a former Knesset speaker, is so detested by PM Netanyahu and particularly by first lady Sarah Netanyahu that Netanyahu actually tried (and failed) last week--by political remote control from Japan--to recruit a Knesset majority to either abolish the position of president or at least remove the president's authority to nominate a prime minister after elections. Rivlin is a far right-winger on the Palestinian issue, yet enjoys some support on the left and center because of his impeccable integrity, criticism of Netanyahu and, thanks to fluent Arabic, his ability to communicate with Israel's large Arab minority.

A second leading potential candidate (he has yet to declare), long-time Likud minister Sylvan Shalom, has just emerged unscathed from a police investigation of molestation charges dating to years past, but only because the women in question refused to press charges. Shades of Moshe Katzav. . . . Edelstein declared on Monday that the course of election-related events in recent weeks had been humiliating for the Knesset.

A third candidate is Binyamin (Fuad) Ben Eliezer, former Labor party leader and minister of defense under Ariel Sharon. If Rivlin and Shalom split the right-wing vote, he could win.

Ben Eliezer, Shalom, and former Knesset speaker Dalia Itzik of Labor and Kadima are Sephardic Jews. Following the Ashkenazic Peres, this might prove an important factor. Then there are the dark horse candidates, non-politicians like Nobel Prize-winner Dan Shechtman and former Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner. If by May 27 they can garner the necessary ten signatures of members of Knesset to present their candidacy, then in the event of total stalemate one of them might just have a chance.