June 11, 2012: Tel Aviv, Israel, Herzliya, Israel, and Jerusalem, Israel

Laila Tov from Jerusalem, Israel! We covered a lot of ground today and met with some really fascinating people from a former Chief of Staff of the IDF to a former Mossad officer and current blog editor with some other great stuff in between. The two main topics of all of our conversations today seem to be Iran and Israel (with some Arab Spring implications and explanations thrown in, too), and the Israel-Palestinian Conflict. Since the discussions we had were so dense and full of information and opinions, I’m just going to jump right in and explain what we talked about. I’ll also share my own opinions along the way with some commentary per usual.

In our hotel in Tel Aviv, we got two rooms for the three boys, so Jake and Dillon made me take the single because I was the only one who shared the bed all three nights in Dubai. I woke up at around 8:30 (although I slept rather restlessly because I stupidly turned the AC off before bed because I was cold; I kept waking up covered in sweat), got ready for the day and met the girls upstairs for breakfast at around 9:15 AM. We ate breakfast fairly quickly (I had toast with Israeli chocolate sauce – my absolute favorite! I could probably down an entire jar by myself) and went back to our rooms to pack up and meet in the lobby for a 10:30 AM departure.

We had an 11:00 meeting scheduled with Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, the former Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, at his office. Mark thought that Amnon’s office was in the building where the two had most recently met only a few months ago, but it turns out that he had moved offices fairly recently and there was some sort of miscommunication that led to us having to drive half an hour around Tel Aviv to the new office to get to our meeting. Despite the fact that we were already half an hour late, Amnon was excited to be with us and share his thoughts, and even stayed an extra half hour with us to make up for the lost time.

Amnon got right down to business and started his discussion off with Iran, which has been the first priority of Israeli media (aside from domestic politics) for the last two to three years. According to Amnon, Israelis are convinced that the Iranians are deep in an effort to reach nuclear weapons (not just attain nuclear capabilities). This is because although the Iranian economy is down, huge amounts of money have been invested in attaining nuclear capabilities in Iran, which could signal a desire to harness these capabilities for weaponry. If this nuclear capability were to be used for nuclear power, this would be an entirely different story (and an understandable and acceptable one at that!). However, nuclear power does not require 20% enrichment, which the Iranians have recently reached. Instead, that number is a signal that Iran has more in mind then just nuclear energy power plants.

Iranians know how to make nuclear weapons. And they are harnessing the required nuclear enrichment to do so. So the question now becomes: Is Iran actually willing and serious to go through with a nuclear weapons program? Israeli intelligence says yes. The rise of nuclear capabilities, coupled with Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory comments that Israel has no right to exist, has left Israelis worried about Iran and Ahmadinejad’s declarations. With most of Israeli power and economy concentrated in a small 50-60 kilometer area, Israel “cannot afford his [Ahmadinejad’s] threat.” Not to mention that Iran supports the existing Syrian regime and sent weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, both of which have created problems in Israel.

Which brings us to a new series of question. At the top of the list: should Israel do something? Amnon argues that the real threat of Iran is not to Israel but to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, which are just as frightened by nuclear development in Iran as the Israelis, if not more. The difference is, though, that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf nations are not as ready as Israel to defend itself. So is trying to eliminate Iranian nuclear power worthwhile for Israel? What if it only defers the entire problem and doesn’t end it? Should the first priority be to avoid war? Nobody wants a war, but what’s at stake here? These are the important questions that are shaping the policy of Israel toward Iran, and right now their answers are rather unclear. But one thing is certain for Amnon (and I must say his argument is very appealing), who said that, “I hope there is no need for an Israeli attack or an international attack.” Whatever happens, Israel should not be the only country involved and bearing weight in this situation. The entire international community must pay attention to this issue, and if any sort of impact is to be made in Iran, then international sanctions must continue.

Once Amnon finished speaking about Iran, he started discussing the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (which I will from this point forward refer to as the IPC in an effort to save some typing time). Compared to 1995-1996 and 2000, we seem very far away from reaching any sort of concrete agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Every day, the political gap between the two groups is widening, as mistrust between the Israelis and the Palestinians grows as well. Without trust, nothing will ever happen.

With the gap widening and the need to reach an agreement growing each day, why is attention leaving the IPC? Why are we farther away today than we were only twelve years? Amnon points to three main reasons for the (hopefully temporary) abandonment of the IPC. First, Iran has become more of a priority in Israeli affairs than the IPC for the reasons I discussed above. Second, with the rise of the Arab Spring, attention is elsewhere within the region and no longer on the IPC. People are paying closer attention to places like Libya, Egypt, and Syria where revolutions are occurring and progress is occurring each day. On top of this, while there is Arab momentum throughout the region, there is no momentum in support of Palestine for the moment. People’s attention is simply concentrated on their own countries’ issues rather than those of the IPC. Finally, things in the area (Israel and Palestine) have been relatively quiet lately. And by that I mean there haven’t been any killings recently.

In addition to the abandonment of attention to the IPC, Amnon points to the divide between Hamas (which controls Gaza) and Fatah (which controls the PA in the West Bank) as bringing hope for a resolution to the IPC to a further standstill. Hamas is a terrorist organization in Gaza (see: bombings in Sder0t, etc.) with relatively low conventional capabilities. Life in Gaza (and Israel, too) is not normal. In the West Bank, there isn’t “normal” life either with severe limitations on movement throughout the area. However, the difference lies in the fact that people like PA President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, and Salam Fayyad, Prime Minister of the PA, realize that they cannot gain anything by terror. So there’s clearly a discrepancy between Hamas’ approach and Fatah’s approach to reaching an agreement.

Amnon is not optimistic about any of the current prospects, but he feels that it is in pure Israeli interest to reach an agreement. While some think that a “one-state solution” might work (in which either Israel or Palestine becomes the sole nation on the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea), Amnon does not think this is feasible. The Palestinians will never give up their will to have a state. Neither will the Israelis. But one thing is for sure: the situation as it currently stands cannot last much longer without something happening. It’s clear that terror and counterterror cannot solve the problem, but the issue now is that the leadership on both sides is not strong enough to reach a lasting and meaningful agreement.

Which brings us to an entirely new issue: leadership and the Israeli political system and politics. I could write and discuss this for hours (and perhaps I will at some point in another post), but in order to understand the implications of the Israeli political system for the IPC, first you need to understand a few things about the system itself. The Israeli political system is very different from that in the United States. The Knesset, which is the parliamentary body of Israeli government, is composed of 120 members that represent about twelve to thirteen different parties. The existence of a multiparty system in Israel means that in order for anyone to receive a 61-vote majority in the Knesset, the parties need to form coalitions. In this “coalition government,” the highest vote-getting party is offered to form a coalition to reach the 61-vote threshold. If they are unable to do so, then the offer is extended to the next highest vote-getting party, and so on. This was actually the case in the most recent election in Israel where the Kadima party received 28 seats, beating out Likud, the right-moderate party, by only one seat. However, Kadima was unable to form a coalition, so Likud heads up the current coalition government and, until recently, Kadima (the largest party in the Knesset) was out of the coalition (more in that in a little bit).

As Amnon said, “Any coalition has to compromise.” But the problem is that the coalitions are not very stable. At any given moment, someone can leave the coalition, lowering the coalition to below the 61-vote threshold and creating a need for new elections and a turnover of the entire government. Today, however, the coalition is now at 94/120, which is incredibly large, because Kadima recently joined for a variety of political reasons that I’m not going to get into right now. This new expanded coalition allows for significantly more opportunities for dialogue with the Palestinians and eventually reaching an agreement. (A stronger coalition theoretically means more universal support for a plan that would be put in place by the existing government).

Despite the new, expanded coalition, though, the basic problems within the Israeli political system are still not solved, according to Amnon’s point of view. Amnon believes that the minimum required percentage of the vote a party must receive to be eligible to participate in government should be raised from the current 2% to 5%. The two party system cannot work in Israeli society simple because there are two many interests and groups represented within the current political framework (4 religious Jewish parties, 3 Arab parties, a Russian party, etc.), but a smaller number of parties in the government overall would theoretically allow for more stability and cohesiveness. The issue is that the largest parties (like Likud, Kadima, and Labor) are afraid to do anything because if a plan to change the requirement threshold like I discussed above is brought to the table and it fails, then they lose the support of all the small parties who feel that legislation like this hurts them and undermines democracy. The good news is that a new government committee was just created to bring new idea to change the government in the hopes that changes will bring about more stability in the Israel political system. Interestingly enough, Amnon feels that the public is either not full aware or indifferent to the changes in government as long as their daily life is undisturbed. For now, we’ll just have to see how the matter of Israeli domestic politics continues to play out in the IPC and, if the government does alter the existing political system, how it will affect negotiations in the region.

The final issue we discussed with Amnon was the issue of unilateral action in the IPC. Amnon firmly believes that unilateral action (as in the Israelis or the Palestinians seeking to make decisions regarding the IPC without a partner or the consent/approval of the other) in this conflict will not solve anything. As evidence, Amnon presented the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, saying that while it was good that Israel got out of Gaza, it solved absolutely nothing except give Hamas control over the area. Amnon believes that unilateral action is unnecessary, as he also thinks that Israel can reach an agreement with Abu Mazen. However, an agreement with Hamas is another story. Going quickly back to the Hamas and Fatah divide, is it possible that two Palestinian states could emerge (essentially creating a 3-state solution)? One under Fatah in the West Bank and one under Hamas in Gaza? Amnon says no. If Israel were to reach an agreement with Fatah in the West Bank, then Gaza will want to receive the benefits of statehood as well and will join with Fatah in a two-state solution. Amnon believes that if free elections occurs in Gaza, the population will vote for whoever they feel can offer them a better future, and this point, that’s Fatah. One thing is for certain in this mess, though. A solution can only be reached through dialogue. And, hey, isn’t that why the six of us are here in the first place? Only through dialogue can we reach a lasting peace.

I’m now going to fast forward a few hours so I can provide you with a second narrative on both Iran and the IPC that we received only a few hours after our meeting with Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. When we finished with Amnon in Tel Aviv, we headed up to IDC Herzliya, a small private university just north of Tel Aviv, where we were schedule to meet with a couple of people. The final person we met with at IDC was Yossi Alpher, a former Mossad officer and current producer and editor of the bitterlemons.net, a series of online publications that reflect a joint Palestinian-Israeli effort to promote a civilized exchange of views about the Israeli-Arab conflict and other prevalent issues in the Middle East. Interestingly enough, Alpher opened his discussion with us by explaining that there would be no new posts on bitterlemons because they lost funding from governments and philanthropic organizations that previously supported the project, and it is also increasingly difficult to get people from the Arab world to write given the current political climate. The fact that bitterlemons has lost its funding is indicative of the fact that donors funding dialogue, especially for the IPC, are becoming frustrated because it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what they have accomplished. In any case, check out bitterlemons. It’s a really great collection of writing and is a nice way to learn about important issues in the Middle East in a short and interesting way.

Anyway, Alpher jumped right into a discussion on Iran to begin the afternoon. Alpher believes that Iran is actively seeking to expand its influence wherever there are Shiites of proto-Shiites in the Middle East (or Sunnis willing to jump ship and support the Iranians). Iran is on Israel’s borders in Lebanon (by the transitive property: Iran supports Hezbollah, Hezbollah is in Lebanon, and Lebanon is on Israel’s borders), and so Iran is a growing concern to Israel. Most Israelis in security don’t feel that Iran will bomb Israel directly, but the larger issue at hand is the clout and influence that a nuclear Iran will play throughout the Middle East in countries like Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, and Iraq (interestingly enough, the same countries that Alpher pointed to as being more at risk than Israel if Iran were to have nuclear weapons).

Alpher then expanded the conversation to include not just Iran but the greater Arab world. He discussed the implications of the Arab Spring in the region and Israel’s responses to this revolutionary period. Essentially, Alpher narrowed down Israel’s responses to the Arab Spring into two categories. The first type of response is Netanyahu’s “keep your powder dry” method, in which Israel is cautious and avoids new initiatives during this time, choosing to wait out the Arab Spring before it continues forward with its own policy agenda. This method has been in Turkey and in Saudi Arabia with mixed results. In Turkey, which held a “zero problems strategy” at its borders, there are now problems on all of its borders. Turkey has said that they are an example of how Islam and democracy can coexist, which has boosted Turkey’s reputation and made them popular among the revolutions, but still, Turkey was unable to keep the Spring out. In Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, a “zero revolution strategy” at its borders, in which the Saudis refuse to let any of the revolutions of the time affect their internal structure, has allowed the country to inject money and armies into Jordan, Bahrain, Yemen, and other countries to ensure their own welfare. The second type of response, promulgated by Peres and Barak, says that Israel must continue talking about the peace process so that it can start to form strong relations with the new leadership in these countries. This, however, is the minority opinion between the two views.

Nevertheless, Israel has cautiously chosen to side with the Syrian revolutionaries amidst the ongoing struggle in Syria (see: current massacres and devastation throughout Syria in any credible news publication). And here’s where this all ties back into Iran for Alpher. Assad is a symbol of Iran in the region, and pushing him (and the Alewites) out of Syria will lead to a weakening of Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon. However, if Assad is removed from power, who replaces him? Presumably, it’s the Muslim Brotherhood, but they won’t necessarily be friends of Israel either. The Brotherhood refuses to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist and nobody in the Brotherhood is prepared to meet with Israel in an official capacity.  If the Brotherhood also comes to power in Egypt, then there is the risk of a downgrade in the Egypt-Israel peace as well.  The peace with Egypt has allowed Israel to reduce its defense budget and boost Israel’s economy. If the Brotherhood comes to power, Israel’s economic prosperity could all go down the drain. So what would happen if the Brotherhood in Syria? The answer is: we don’t know yet. At least that’s my answer. Only time will tell here. But the bottom line, from Alpher’s view, is that Israel had been sitting on the fence for a while, but that’s starting to change now. It’s taking action and making decisions regarding whom to support in the tumultuous political struggles throughout the region.

Once we finished discussing Iran, we moved onto the IPC. In contrast with Amnon’s dovish and hopeful views on the conflict, Alpher is incredible pessimistic. Alpher believes that nothing will happen between Netanyahu and Abu Mazen, and part of this is because nobody in the United States is rushing to help solve the IPC any more as the Middle East agenda is focusing on Iran and the Arab Spring instead. With the change of agenda, no institutional or educational sources are prepping a new administration in Washington for the IPC, and the political risk of getting involved in the conflict during an election year is too large.

Alpher firmly believes that “without serious American intervention, seriously nothing can happen.” Netanyahu’s party and coalition won’t give up the West Bank, and Netanyahu has learned how to manipulate the American and Israeli political scene. But his solutions are short-term and he continues to allow settlements in the West Bank (which is definitely not helping if Israel is to reach an agreement with the Palestinians any time soon). At this point, Abu Mazen understands that he will never receive as comprehensive an offer as Olmert’s 2008 plan from Netanyahu or any other Israeli leader in the near future. So where does that leave us?

Alpher thinks that we need a new peace paradigm (along the lines of Oslo) that does not try to agree on every single issue on the table at once. Essentially, Alpher believes there are two sets of issues on the table that are difficult to reconcile. The first set, the post-1967 issues such as borders, settlers, and security agreements, is possible to reach an agreement upon and is relatively easy when compared to the second set. The pre-1967 issues, on the other hand, which include larger ideological issues such as right of return, refugees, and whom the land truly belongs to, are downright impossible to reach an agreement on. “Just getting to the table,” as United States Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta advocated, will not work in Alpher’s opinion. Neither will Blair’s idea that the outline of the solution is understood already and that both parties simply need to confirm it. On top of this, Washington has failed to acknowledge that there could be a Palestinian state already if only the post-1967 issues are taken into account. So essentially, Alpher believes that a decisive agreement can be reached if the post-1967 issues alone, and not everything all at once, are the issues put on the negotiating table. Once both sides are recognized, then we can start to talk about the pre-1967 issues like the Temple Mount and the right of return. But having a conversation about a two-state solution only talking about the post-1967 issues and leaving the pre-1967 issues on the table, despite it being Alpher’s best hope for a peace plan, seems difficult at best and in his opinion will take a whole other generation to sort out. (I guess that means us!)

Perhaps the most important part of Alpher’s argument is that Israel and Palestine cannot reach an agreement alone (see: Alpher’s op-ed in the New York Times on the IPC). A majority of people in Israel and Palestine would support a two-state solution and are starting to soften up on the issue. Alpher also agrees with Amnon that unilateral decision-making here won’t work. For Alpher, though, this is because there’s simply not enough political will on both sides to reach any unilateral decision.

In terms of the Fatah (PA) and Hamas divide and how a possible Israel/Fatah reconciliation might affect Hamas, Alpher forwarded two different views. The first view is that Hamas today is where the PLO was fifty years ago, and if reconciliation were to happen now between Israel and Fatah, then Hamas would jump in and want to receive the benefits of a two-state solution as well. The second view (which Alpher leans towards) is that Hamas comes from the Muslim Brotherhood and thus will never recognize Israel in any capacity. As a result, Hamas will either be left out entire or a three-state situation would emerge (as I already discussed and which Amnon said would never happen, in his opinion). Gaza is clearly a key piece in these negotiations, but Israel refuses to talk to Hamas and vise versa. Not to mention that if Israel did talk to Hamas, then it would be undermining Abu Mazen’s authority and power, which could also be a backwards move. So again, we have a big mess.

Unlike Amnon, Alpher does not the Israeli domestic political system and politics shifting at all. He believes that there is no revolutionary change that could make a huge difference in the process at this point and that there is no strong Israeli leader on the horizon. At this point, only a third party leader from an external government (like the United States) could help settle this issue. There is no doubt that the IPC needs to be solved sooner rather than later. Indeed, as Alpher suggested, if Israel does not solve this issue soon then it is liable to pay two heavy prices: it’s status as a Jewish and democratic state, and making the Palestinian issue a renewed rallying point for the Islamist movement.

I think it’s really important that we understand that there is not just one narrative on each side of this conflict. There are many different opinions on all sides of the conflict, and I have tried to provide you with two of these narratives as I have understood them. Personally, I lean more towards Amnon Lipkin-Shahak’s dovish, optimistic narrative than Alpher’s more pessimistic view of the situation which, in my opinion, places too much blame and importance on the rise of “political Islam” and the Brotherhood, as well as the desperate need for a third party. I do think that a third party is needed to broker a final agreement, but I’m a little more optimistic than Alpher seemed to be about the entire conflict. But that’s just my opinion, another narrative among the many. Take from it what you will and draw up your own conclusions and narratives. After all, dialogue and debate are, as I see it, the only way we can move forward.

But I don’t want to leave you thinking that the Middle East is all one big mess! I also think that it’s critical that aside from all the conflict and struggle occurring here, there is also great innovation, development, and growth. Sometimes, with the prevalence of war and struggle in traditional media, we forget that the Middle East is also a place where some incredible things happen. Which is why I am so glad that our first speaker at IDC Herzliya, immediately prior to Yossi Alpher, was Michal Divon, the Public Relations Chair for a really awesome website called NoCamels.com that I highly recommend you check out.  NoCamels is a website that covers Israeli innovations in technology, health, environment, and social awareness (essentially everything that traditional media doesn’t). NoCamels “highlights local solutions to global problems,” and is written by twenty top students at IDC who travel all around Israel to find cutting-edge innovations and write about them. They have partnership with major publications in Israel such as the Jerusalem Post, but their main audience is foreign journalists and they try to make sure that the majority of their readers come from outside of Israel. If you have a second, please go take a look! It’s a great site with a great mission and I truly feel that it highlights some shining moments in the Middle East in a time of conflict and revolution throughout the area.

After our meeting with Yossi Alpher, we got on the bus in Herzliya and headed straight for Jerusalem. I was so exhausted from our conversations that day that I fell asleep almost immediately on the bus and woke up just as we were approaching Abu Ghosh, a small Arab Israeli town right outside of Jerusalem that has some delicious, authentic restaurants. Every time I’ve been to Israel, I have visited Abu Ghosh for a meal. Mark suggested that we have dinner at a well-known Lebanese restaurant in the town, and so we stopped for a fun meal of hummus, pita, falafel, kebabs, and about a thousand other dishes until we were completely full. We finished our drive to our little hotel in Jerusalem (which is literally called the “Little House”) and all checked into our final rooms on the trip. It seems so weird that we’ve reached the last destination on our journey. Of course, we still have a lot to look forward to in Israel and in Ramallah when we go visit on Friday, but there’s definitely a sense of the end drawing near. But I won’t get all nostalgic on you just yet. Anyway, our hotel is in a great neighborhood only a short walking distance from some of the important spots in Jerusalem including the Old City, Ben Yehuda Street, and the Knesset. We weren’t quite ready to turn in on our first night in Jerusalem (and it was still on the early side at around 9:30 PM), so the six of us decided to take a walk over to the Knesset and check it out. Of course, at that time of night it was closed, but the building was lit up beautifully with blueish-purple lights and the walk was really nice – only about 20 minutes there and a little shorter on the way back (which is downhill). I’m glad we went out for a little adventure, though!

So that’s June 11, 2012 for you! Three cities, two narratives, and one whole lot of information to process. Stay tuned for tomorrow, when I’ll get to talk about my experience driving around in the West Bank through checkpoints and to the Jewish settlements there for the first time, followed by my third visit to Yad Vashem. But for now, it’s time to get some sleep. It’s going to be a busy day tomorrow.

Safe Travels! – Jake

P.S. This post was completed and posted on June 13, 2012 but concerns events that took place on June 11, 2012. This is the post that was partially erased last night (June 12, 2012), but thanks to the wonderful detective work of Shereen, I was able to find a draft copy saved on the WordPress server and start over from there. I’ll be playing catch-up with blog posts for the next few days, but I promise that as soon as I have a post finished, I’ll have it up it for you all to see! Thanks for your love and support throughout this entire project. I’m loving every second of it.

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