Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: June 9, 2014

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This week, Alpher discusses how the Netanyahu government plans to deal with the anomaly of its position vis-a-vis the new Palestinian government and the proposals and counter-proposals for unilateral and bilateral initiatives which are everywhere in the Netanyahu government; last weekend's dramatic withdrawal from the race of Binyamin (Fuad) Ben Eliezer, who had suddenly come under suspicion of receiving bribes and and when will the corruption trail end; who among the candidates benefits from Ben Eliezer's departure; and how dangerous is it that Palestinian prisoners under administrative detention in Israeli jails are on hunger strike, demanding to be charged and tried and why does administration detention exist in Israel?

 

Q.  So, how does the Netanyahu government plan to deal with the anomaly of its position vis-a-vis the new Palestinian government?

 

A. Thus far, and as predicted last week, the Israeli government's "boycott" of the new PA government has been little more than symbolic. No fuss was even made over the joint appearance at the Vatican on Sunday of presidents Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas. On the other hand, the US decision to recognize the new PA government was labeled a "betrayal" by Netanyahu, who argued that he had received assurances to the contrary from Secretary of State John Kerry. The usual counter-productive protest pattern was invoked to signal Israeli anger and frustration over growing international isolation on this issue: declaring many hundreds of new settlement construction starts--some fictitious or repeats of earlier plans. (Note that the new PA government satisfies all international demands to qualify for direct contact and financial support: it comprises no Hamas ministers and it fully endorses all Quartet conditions regarding Israel and the Oslo process.)

But the drama of Israel's intermittent interaction with the new Palestinian government is just beginning. Israeli intelligence sources are already citing mounting evidence of Hamas political activity being permitted on the West Bank, particularly in the sensitive refugee camps. On the other hand, in recent days Fateh-oriented West Bank security forces (responding to Israeli protests?) have arrested a number of Hamas activists. Gaza-based Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh has resigned his "premiership" in deference to the new unity government. But he has contrived to appoint himself speaker of the long-dormant Palestinian parliament where Hamas holds a majority, making him second in the Palestinian hierarchy to Mahmoud Abbas.

Then there are the Gaza-linked security issues. Will the international community agree that Abbas' new PA government pay the salaries of Hamas' 20,000 strong security forces in Gaza? Will Egypt, Hamas and Fateh agree to open the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egyptian Sinai permanently and unconditionally under the protection (on the Gaza side) of five battalions of the American-trained Palestinian Presidential Guard, thereby further absolving Israel of any responsibility for the Strip and its inhabitants. Can the new Sisi government in Egypt with its strong anti-Muslim Brotherhood bias get along that well with Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood? For the moment, according to an authoritative Palestinian poll (PSR, early June), even Palestinian public opinion favors leaving Hamas in control of Gaza's security until elections.

Meanwhile, pressures on Israel to resume active peace negotiations with the Palestinians will remain light. Abbas is intent on completing the unity move and on joining more international pacts and organizations, to be followed in six months by elections. Kerry has in any case backed off the Palestinian file for the moment.

 

Q.  One would have thought therefore that all would remain quiet in the Netanyahu government. Instead, proposals and counter-proposals for unilateral and bilateral initiatives are everywhere.

 

A.

 Indeed, at least two members of Justice Minister Tzipi Livni's seven-strong HaTnua faction, Environment Minister Amir Peretz and Knesset Education Committee head Amram Mitzna, have called in recent days for HaTnua to leave the coalition because of Netanyahu's approach to the peace process. Livni has countered by calling for a new diplomatic initiative toward the Palestinians and stating forthrightly, "The settlement enterprise is a security, economic and moral burden that is aimed at preventing us from ever coming to an arrangement." In parallel, Finance Minister Yair Lapid has presented his own unilateral withdrawal plan, while Labor leader Yitzhak Herzog is calling on Livni and Lapid to bring down the government and form a left-center coalition with him.

In stark contrast, Economy Minister Naftali Bennet has countered by proposing to begin annexing parts of Area C to Israel while ostensibly expanding autonomy arrangements for the Palestinians. Former head of the Council of Settlers Dani Dayan, not to be outdone in patronizing his neighbors and in stealthily easing in apartheid, also proposed in the New York Times virtually integrating West Bank Palestinians into all walks of Israeli life--except, of course, giving them citizenship and voting rights.

For the moment, Netanyahu can lean back in his premier's chair and chuckle at these relative political novices. Even if HaTnua were to leave the coalition--which is doubtful because Livni has her hands full as justice minister rebuffing jingoistic and anti-democratic legislative initiatives--it's doubtful anyone else will. Right now the coalition, built as it is on contrasts, is safe. There will be no peace process and no unilateral measures. We'll meet again after Palestinian elections--if indeed they are held half a year from now. . . 

 

Q.  With the Knesset set to elect a new president of Israel Tuesday, last weekend witnessed the dramatic withdrawal from the race of Binyamin (Fuad) Ben Eliezer, who had suddenly come under suspicion of receiving bribes. Where and when will the corruption trail end?

A.  This corruption trail has an increasingly long history. When Ben Eliezer failed to adequately report "loans" he had received from a tycoon whose interests he had allegedly looked after, his case fit the stereotypical pattern of "power and money" that had already generated the early resignation of one president, Ezer Weizman, and that just produced a jail sentence for former prime minister Ehud Olmert.

Ben Eliezer's withdrawal from the race followed by a few weeks a decision not to present his candidacy by another front-runner, Sylvan Shalom, which followed a parallel corruption trail, "power and sex". Shalom was accused of sexual harassment. Seven years ago, Moshe Katzav resigned from the presidency over rape charges that sent him to jail.

Are Israel's senior officials more corrupt today than in the past? Or are enforcement tougher and the "system" less tolerant? Two differences from the past are clear. First, the country enjoys a far higher standard of living, income gaps are greater, and material temptations have grown dramatically. And second, women are far more likely to complain about sexual harassment today--and harassment is defined much more broadly--than in decades past when a variety of sexist taboos prevailed.

Certainly, with two leading candidates for president forced to drop out and the remaining five hastening to publicly disclose their incomes and assets, a new and welcome standard for approaching public office in Israel seems to have been suggested. Could we possibly hope that, in future political contests, men with huge egos and a troublesome past will quietly step aside?

 

Q.  So who among the candidates benefits from Ben Eliezer's departure?

 

A.  Former Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner will pick up some left-liberal votes. Former Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik and MK Meir Sheetrit will pick up some pro-Mizrachi/Sephardic votes. Non-politicians Dorner and Nobel-winner Daniel Shechtman will pick up some anti-corruption votes. Only front-runner Reuven Rivlin from the Likud doesn't benefit. Mercifully, this soap opera will end on Tuesday.

 

Q.  Palestinian prisoners under administrative detention in Israeli jails are on hunger strike, demanding to be charged and tried. Other Palestinian prisoners are also refusing to eat in a display of solidarity. How dangerous is this situation? And why does administration detention exist in Israel?

A.  Broadly speaking, prisoners placed under administrative detention are not brought to trial because the Shin Bet security service argues that the sources of information that led to the prisoners' incarceration are too sensitive to reveal in court. Israel's system, which limits administration detention to six months but allows a judge to renew it, was inherited from the pre-1948 British Mandate, which used it against both Jews and Arabs who opposed it. The system employed at America's Guantanamo Bay incarceration facility appears to be similar.

Administrative detention is justified by the need to combat terrorism at all costs. Because it denies due process, the idea is to invoke it as seldom as possible. When he was justice minister, Yossi Beilin vowed to eliminate this measure but eventually even he backed down.

Past hunger strikes by Palestinian prisoners were carried out by individual administrative detainees, and they usually ended with some sort of compromise agreement regarding the length of detention and conditions of release. Now Israel confronts a prolonged hunger strike (45 days for the longest striker) by upwards of 100 administrative detainees. Another 200 or so regular Palestinian prisoners have joined in sympathy. One contributing background factor is the expectations raised by the Netanyahu government's prisoner releases during the recent nine-month peace process. Another is the growing momentum of Palestinian appeals to join a variety of international bodies where the case against administrative detention can be pursued.

No one in the Netanyahu government is considering ending administrative detention. But there is a debate over whether it is moral and legal to force-feed strikers deemed in danger of death. Netanyahu, backed by the Shin Bet, is pushing a proposed law to allow force-feeding. A government-appointed bioethics council is firmly opposed. And there is concern over the ramifications on the Palestinian "street" if and when one of the strikers dies. All this is playing out against the backdrop of the emergence of the new Palestinian unity government, which is condemned by Israel because of its link to Hamas but welcomed by the rest of the world, led by the US. Meanwhile, the Cabinet has approved a legislative proposal to bar amnesty and release of hard-core prisoners in future.

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