New coalition, new negotiations

So Avigdor Liberman is Israel’s new Defence Minister, right..? Well, not yet. Negotiations are ongoing for the now-5-seat Israel Beiteinu to join the coalition, with Liberman getting Defence and some sort of vote on the use of death penalty in military courts which might or might not actually happen.

But one big ‘red line’ remains. Liberman wants substantial increases in pensions for Russian olim, costing something like a billion shekels. This is in many ways a good policy to lift people out of poverty, but it faces two problems. One is that it’s hard to justify applying it only to Russian olim and not, say, Ethiopian or Argentinian or French olim — which means it might end up being expanded by the Supreme Court and costing even more.

The other problem is that the budget is controlled, in the first instance, by Moshe Kahlon of the Kulanu party, who said he supports widening the coalition but not at any price. He opposes the plan, and claims it is discriminatory. According to one report, Kahlon said Netanyahu would have to fire him to get his billion shekels.

Then there’s Bayit Yehudi. The party voted unanimously at today’s faction meeting that it would only vote for the wider coalition if the recommendations of the report into the 2014 Defensive Edge war were accepted in full. The report, due out tomorrow, has been substantially leaked and is expected to be highly critical of Netanyahu, Yaalon and the way decisions were taken. Bennett in particular is demanding that the Security Cabinet is given fuller intelligence briefings. Likud MKs have reacted angrily to Bennett’s conditions.

The report is due out tomorrow and I’ve already seen speculation that the reason Netanyahu was so willing to oust Yaalon is because it will insulate him from some of the criticism. Other cynics have suggested that the new coalition deal will be signed minutes before/after the report is released.

And then, hovering in the background of all of this, is the French peace initiative, which will formally start with a multilateral conference in early June with various Foreign Ministers. John Kerry is now expected to attend, but Israelis and Palestinians are not invited.

And despite everything, Netanyahu is still saying that he wants Labour/the Zionist Union to join the coalition, and that he’s not appointing a Foreign Minister for this reason. This seems doubly unlikely, now that ZU Leader Isaac Herzog has refused to conduct any more negotiations, and because Herzog might find himself forced out of the party leadership for holding coalition talks in the first place.

More likely, he’s holding the role (and several others like the Economy Ministry) because appointing anyone would necessitate a whole Government reshuffle, and he’s not willing to go through all that again. The question for the next couple of days is how long Netanyahu will keep his newest job – as acting Defence Minister.

Meanwhile, two Knesset members resigned in the last week: Moshe Yaalon and UTJ’s Meir Porush, who remains a deputy-Minister but left the Knesset to allow a Degel HaTorah member to take his place as part of some sort of deal inside the smaller parties that make up UTJ. Two more are considering leaving – Miki Zohar and Ayoub Kara, both current Likud members. The current Knesset has been seated for a little over a year, but it’s had a remarkably high number of resignations.

The Israeli Public and a Strike on Iran

When I came to Israel nearly a year ago,  there was intense speculation that an Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities was imminent. Working inside the Jewish community in the UK, we had lots of worries about a possible strike, Iranian retaliation and the political and security ramfications. British news, Israeli news, world news were all talking as if a strike could happen any day.

One of the first questions that my friends in the UK used to ask me about moving to Israel was “How is it over there? Is everyone worried about Iran?”. And I answered, no. Nobody was talking about Iran. It wasn’t being debated or overtly worried about. The topics of the day in Israel flowed seamlessly one into the other: The social justice movement, the Gilad Shalit deal, evacuating Migron and other unathorised settlement outposts, Haredi enlistment, new elections,  a new coalition, Egypt and then social justice again.

In all this time Iran never left the headlines. It was frequently the lead story on the news here. But it somehow hadn’t permeated the country’s consciousness. It was a bit like the whole population was in denial about the fact that the air-raid sirens (which every town in Israel has) could start ringing at any minute to alert us of a counter-attack, giving us just 30 seconds to get to our bomb shelters or secure rooms.

There also wasn’t really any debate about the wisdom or necessity of any strike. That was odd for two reasons. Firstly, retired senior Israeli security figures kept popping up on the news to say they thought a strike was a bad idea – the sort of thing that would normally start a public debate. Secondly, though, Israelis debate everything. All of the issues I mentioned above were and remain contentious. Was the Shalit deal a sacred trust to a soldier in captivity or was it a price so high that we should never pay it? Would forcing Haredim into military or civil service unify the country or pull it apart? But on the Iran issue, there was no real debate at street level. The Op-Eds and interviews didn’t filter down to café chats. It just wasn’t there.

In the last few weeks, that seems to have changed dramatically. Suddenly I seem to hear nothing else but Iran talk – and again I don’t mean on the TV. Cab drivers will ask my opinion on the issue, old men playing chess or cards talk about whether a strike would be successful, people chatting at Kiddush after the Shabbat synagogue service question whether Hamas would join any retaliation and what Syria would do.

I’m not sure what’s caused this. Yes, the Home Front Security has stepped up its work clearing bomb shelters and giving out gas masks (I got mine), but this has actually been ongoing for months. Maybe it just took a long time to sink in. An Iran strike is a big deal. So, of course, is a nuclear-capable Iran.

So everyone is a bit more nervous, but that’s probably to the good. And the question is being debated, and that’s probably good too. Of course, this being Israel, the debate isn’t always the most respectful or mature. But it’s a start.

I realise that I haven’t mentioned my own thoughts on an Iran strike. I’ll deal with that in another post.

The Burgas Bombing

Israeli tourists were killed today in a bomb attack on a bus in Burgas, Bulgaria. We don’t know how many were killed yet – at least three, but there are reports of up to seven fatalities with 20 wounded. We don’t know for sure how the bombing was carried out, though initial reports suggest that either a suicide bomber carrying a backpack boarded the bus and exploded, or there was a bomb placed in the luggage compartment.

And, of course, we don’t know who was responsible. It could be far-Rightists, though they don’t usually use suicide bombers. It could be an al Qaeda-linked bomber or a home-grown Salafi-Jihadi.

But the biggest suspicion has to be on Hezbollah and Iran. Iran has, in recent weeks, launched or almost launched terrorist attacks against Israelis in India, Thailand, GeorgiaAzerbaijan and Kenya. A Hezbollah operative was stopped planning an attack in Cyprus earlier this week. Today is the 18th anniversary of the AMIA bombing, a Hezbollah operation jointly organised by Iran.

The thing is, Hezbollah is a member of the Government of Lebanon. Iran is a sovereign state. These aren’t guys hiding in caves in Afghanistan. We know where they are and who they are.

Bulgaria is a member of the European Union. An attack on tourists – teenagers – like this is an Act of War. It’s not 1994 any more. All countries, and especially EU countries, will have to take real steps against Iran, Hezbollah and possibly even Lebanon if there is good evidence that they’re behind it. Can Bulgarian athletes just compete against Iranians in the Olympics a couple of weeks after they bombed their country? Can EU Governments sit in international forums like it’s business as usual? Can they allow Iranian and Lebanese embassies to remain anywhere in the Western world?

Enough. No country can ignore this anymore. Yes, this was an attack on Jews and Israelis and Jews and Israelis should respond to it. I’m sure the Israeli Government will find ways of responding, whether we find out about them or not. But we shouldn’t forget that it was also an attack on Bulgaria, Europe and the West as a whole. We shouldn’t give anyone a free pass for an act of war just because they were aiming for Jews.

Get the picture?

Avi Mayer called it first, when he asked if the photo below was genuine.

Photo tweeted by @KhuloodBadawi

He guessed it wasn’t.

Over the last few days, hundreds of increasingly sophisticated rockets have been fired into Israel by Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza. The rockets have been able to reach large cities like Ashdod, Beer Sheva and even Gedera, only 25 miles south of Tel Aviv proper. Most of those have been shot down by the Iron Dome system, an anti-missile defence system that actually works. Some, inevitably, have got through. A rocket hit a school yesterday, but luckily it was empty, all students in south-central Israel told to stay home to keep them safe.

Israel’s response has actually been pretty restrained – hitting the small rocket crews from Islamic Jihad and the PRC and operational leaders. There had been no reports of a girl being killed.

Avi found some websites using the picture in 2009, which was enough to prove that it didn’t happen yesterday.

I put the photo into Google Image Search, which brought up a lot of 2008 sites claiming that the girl was Iraqi, a victim of a white phosphorus attack by the US on Fallujah in 2004. I tweeted this:

So I kept digging. Playing with the time-window, I could find no record of the photo before 2006, and several in August 2006, which suggested that this might the time it was taken. Eventually I found an left-wing Israeli website called Mahsom. The photo was captioned:

הילדה רג’א אבו שעבאן בת ה-3 נהרגה בידי הצבא ב-9 באוגוסט. צילום: סוכנות ופא

which translates as:

The girl Raja Abu Shaban, aged 3, killed by the [Israeli] army on the 9th of August. Photo: WAFA

This was the only source that named the girl, so it seemed to be genuine. But to double-check, I googled “Raja Abu Shaban” in English to see what came up. One of the first hits was this Little Green Footballs post, from August 2006, which revealed that AP and Reuters had retracted their stories about the poor girl.

AP published the following note:

EDS NOTE GRAPHIC CONTENT ** A Relative carries the body of Rajaa Abu Shaban, 5, into Shifa hospital in Gaza City, Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2006. On Thursday, doctors said that the 5-year-old Palestinian girl initially believed to have been killed by an Israeli military strike Wednesday apparently died after sustaining head injuries during a fall from a swing in the same area shortly before the strike.(AP Photo/Adel Hana)

I passed on my info to Avi

He found a similar note from Reuters, including their photo recall note. And then he spread the word to his 4000 followers. He forced Twitter user @ManaraRam, who had spread the photo into admitting it was false. And then the blogs picked up on it – the IDF’s official blog and the Times of Israel. Honest Reporting traced the original tweet to a UN employee.

Some thoughts on the Twitterstorm:

First, perhaps I’m naive, but I try to follow the advice of the sage Yehoshua ben Prachia, who used to say:

“הוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות”

“Judge every person favourably”

Or perhaps I’m ultra-cynical, because I also do my best to live by Hanlon’s razor:

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”

My point is that I don’t assume the people who used these incorrect photos were deliberately lying. Maybe they made a mistake with their image searches, or didn’t check dates properly. That doesn’t mean I rule out malice absolutely, but I don’t assume it. People are generally quite capable of screwing up.

That said, no doubt there are some anti-Israel campaigners who would say “Well, this might not be an actual photo, but I’m sure it reflects the essential truth about what’s going on”. Or something. In fact, a load of them have answered in just such a predictable way. This article by Lynette Nusbacher wisely notes:

The IDF Spokesman blog says that the photos have been proven false.  False is, in context, irrelevant.  The picture has spoken its thousand words, and the one word “false” is not an adequate response.

Dr Nusbacher is partly wrong; “false” is not irrelevant, and it’s important to expose distortions when they appear. Bur she’s also right to note that the damage is done, and the wider narrative that the picture re-enforces is already well-established. Despite hundreds of rockets, the international media narrative has been “Israel hits Gaza”.

Knocking down false photos isn’t nearly enough. But it’s a start.

Why Mahmoud Abbas is like Yoko Ono

Is Mahmoud Abbas the new Yoko Ono? I ask because it seems very much like he’s trying to break up the Middle East’s very own Fab Four.

In 2002, roughly 18 months after the start of the Second Intifada, the USA, European Union, Russia and the United Nations came together to form the Quartet on the Middle East. It quickly released the “Roadmap to peace”, which was eventually accepted by Israel and the Palestinian Authority as the process that should be followed to reach a peace deal. The Quartet has been the main mediator in the Peace Process since then, the custodian of the bilateral Israeli-Palestinian relationship. In 2007, Tony Blair became the Quartet’s representative, and has generally been praised by the Israeli Government and the PA for the work that he’s done in the region.

But bilateralism isn’t fashionable anymore. For the last 18 months or so, Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have been running a unilateral track to statehood – first trying to get all those States that recognised Palestine in the 1980s (the NAM and ex-Eastern Bloc) to reiterate their recognition, then getting the South American states to add their names, and having an unsuccesful stab in Europe too.

After this, Abbas announced that he would seek full UN member state status for Palestine.

The Quartet generally opposes unilateral steps by any side. It tried to persuade the PA not to go to the UN and instead return to talks with Israel without preconditions. It also put pressure on Israel to meet the PA’s preconditions anyway – specifically, to stop construction in settlements. Following Abbas’ application to the Security Council for recognition and membership for Palestine, the Quartet also published a formula for restarting talks between Israel and the PA.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the formula and broadly accepted the terms – albeit with reservations.

It’s pretty clear now that Abbas prefers the unilateral route, which has won him praise in the Arab world for standing up to the USA and strengthened him domestically.

So, suddenly there have been a series of attacks on the Quartet from the PA. First a couple of weeks ago, PA-run newspaper Al-Hayat Al-Jadidah called Tony Blair a liar, the “godfather of wars on the Arabs, Muslims and weak peoples” and a US lackey.

Then the PA said the terms of the Quartet statement were ‘biased’ in favour of Israel. Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudaineh said that “The Quartet has lost its credibility” and that Tony Blair is a

“servant of the Israeli government” [who is] “no longer welcome in Ramallah. We prefer not to see him here again.”

The PA leaked that they were considering formally asking for Tony Blair to be fired. And today, Fatah Central Committee member Mohammed Ishtayeh said on the radio:

“We do not expect much of the Quartet. There is discontent with its envoy Mr. Tony Blair”

“Our general evaluation of his efforts is that he has become of no use at all. He has developed a large bias in favor of the Israeli side and he has lost a lot of his credibility.”

“We hope the Quartet will reconsider the appointment of this person”

He also attacked the Quartet more generally, saying

“I believe the Quartet needs to work on itself more than anything else”

There are tensions in the Quartet between Russia and the USA over issues like Israel’s status as the state of the Jewish people. The Quartet office run by Tony Blair has helped hold the members together, but knifing Blair could destabilise the whole operation.

I think that’s the whole point. The Egyptian revoltion and Turkish realignment have changed the balance of power in the Middle East. Unilateralism is boosting Abbas and hurting Israel and the US, as well as splitting the EU. From the point of view of Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, the Quartet – with its committment to promoting bilateralism and negotiations – is now in the way. Abbas thinks he can smash the Quartet, and he might be right.