Europe Should Rethink its Approach to Annexation (The Times of Israel, 1 July 2020)

The possible extension of Israeli sovereignty (widely yet inaccurately described as “annexation”) to parts of the West Bank (or Judea & Samaria in Hebrew) raises two distinct questions on such a move: a) Would it be productive? b) Would it be legal? To most if not all European leaders, the answer to both questions is no. They should rethink their approach to the (currently unlikely) prospect of Israeli annexation. Here is why.

The two-state solution shall remain a myth so long as the Palestinians and their supporters insist on the above chimeras. Most Israelis, however, would agree to a two-state solution based on the following principles: a demilitarized Palestinian state; Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan valley and the settlement blocs; a united Jerusalem without some of the city’s Arab neighbourhoods; the integration of Palestinian refugees in their own state. Those were the parameters spelled-out by Yitzhak Rabin shortly before his assassination in November 1995. And those are the parameters of President Trump’s “deal of the century.”

The Palestinians admittedly reject those parameters. Yet they also rejected parameters that would have granted them a state over nearly the entire West Bank (after land swaps) and the Gaza Strip: those of President Clinton in December 2000; those of Prime Minister Olmert in September 2008; and those of Secretary of State Kerry in February 2014. Palestinian rejectionism was encouraged by a negotiating strategy that had so far worked for them: say no and expect a better offer. So long as the Palestinians felt that time was on their side, they had no incentive to compromise. By ending this cycle, President Trump has lifted an obstacle to a realistic two-state solution.

By annexing the settlement blocs and the Jordan valley, and by freezing construction in the areas designated to a Palestinian state, Israel shall set the conditions for a two-state solution acceptable to most Israelis. It will then be for the Palestinians to decide whether they prefer the status quo or a demilitarized state that shall not pay life salaries to the families of terrorists and that shall not educate its children in the hatred of Jews.

Partial annexation would be consistent with international law because the West Bank was not a sovereign territory before its conquest by Israel in 1967. When Britain ended is mandate in May 1948 it created a legal void that was filled by Israel, Egypt and Jordan following the 1949 armistice agreements. Jordan conquered part of the former British mandate in 1948 and annexed it in 1950. This annexation was never recognized by the international community (except for Britain and Pakistan), and therefore the West Bank (it was called “Cis-Jordan” then and is still called “Cisjordanie” in French) did not become a sovereign territory.

Moreover, Jordan conquered this territory in a war of aggression in 1948, while Israel conquered it in self-defence in 1967. This territory was part of the mandate which the League of Nations had designated for Jewish self-determination in 1922. The 1949 armistice agreements did not establish a border but a temporary ceasefire line. UN Security Council 242 does not require an Israeli withdrawal to that line, and resolution 2334 allows for mutually agreed border adjustments.

The Trump plan includes land swaps of similar sizes between Israel and a Palestinian state, as well as territorial continuity between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Even by annexing 30% of the West Bank (the maximum allowed by the Trump plan), Israel would only add a small Arab population to its sovereign territory. That population would be given access to Israeli citizenship, like the rest of Israel’s two-million Arabs who are represented in parliament, in the supreme court, and in the civil service.

The European Union (EU) has imposed sanctions on Russia after its annexation of Crimea, but Crimea was part of a sovereign country unlike the West Bank. And the EU can hardly evoke the principle of consistency since it does not impose sanctions on Turkey for its occupation of an EU member (Cyprus). As for those who say they oppose unilateral moves as a matter of principle, it is for them to explain why they supported Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.

Those in Europe who threaten Israel with sanctions in case of a partial annexation seem not to realize that Israelis, having paid in the past the intolerable price of their naïveté, are now willing to pay the tolerable price of their realism. As Golda Meir used to quip: “We prefer your condemnations to your condolences.”

The Deal of the Century and Israel’s European Challenge (Times of Israel, 10 February 2020)

The “deal of the century” is not faring well in Europe. Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, has issued a statement in which he claimed that the Trump plan “departs from … internationally agreed parameters” and warned that Israeli annexations in the West Bank would “not pass unchallenged.” France said it welcomed President Trump’s efforts, would “study” his plan, and reiterated its commitment to a two-state solution and to international law. Germany welcomed the plan’s endorsement of a two-state solution but questioned its compatibility with international law.

In Britain, there is a wide gap between the government and the mainstream media. The British government welcomed the Trump plan and called it “a serious proposal,” encouraging Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate on its basis and insisting that it was for them to determine if the plan suits their aspirations and concerns. By contrast, most opinion makers and commentators are aghast. The Economist asserted that the plan “will not bring peace” and “may spell the end of the two-state solution.” A Guardian columnist wrote that the deal must be rejected because it allegedly goes against “countless UN resolutions, the Oslo accords of 1993, the Arab peace initiative of 2002 and the fundamental idea that Palestinians, like Israelis, have the inalienable right to self-determination.”

While Israel should spare no effort to guarantee U.S. support for the deal’s partial implementation in the absence of negotiations, it should also work on mollifying European opposition to the deal. If Israel intends on annexing parts of the West Bank in the coming year, it must pre-empt and mitigate the opposition of the EU and of Britain. This must be done not only by neutralizing unanimous decisions from the EU’s foreign affairs council thanks to the votes of European governments sympathetic to Israel, but also by convincing European leaders and opinion makers that the “deal of the century” is not, in fact, inconsistent with international law and with the two-state solution.

Thanks to the votes of Italy, Austria, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, the EU’s foreign affairs council was not able to pass a resolution that was meant to criticize the Trump plan and to warn Israel not to proceed with annexations in the West Bank. Israel’s “divide-and-rule” tactic among EU members has thankfully delivered once again. But Israel must also influence European public opinions and decision makers of the plan’s advantages and of its consistency with international law, with the following arguments.

The ultimate outcome of the Oslo accords was meant to be a “final status” but that status was not pre-determined. The accords’ signatory on behalf of Israel, the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, spelled out shortly before his assassination what this “final status” should look like: a demilitarized Palestinian state with limited sovereignty over about 70% of the West Bank (and the entire Gaza Strip), and Israeli sovereignty over united Jerusalem as well as over the Jordan valley and settlement blocs.

The “deal of the century” implements Rabin’s vision, but with one major difference to the Palestinians’ advantage: annexations between Israel and the Palestinian state are to be reciprocal (something Rabin would never have dreamed of, let alone approved). Israel shall annex about 30% of the West Bank, and the Palestinian state shall annex a territory roughly similar in size within pre-1967 Israel (in the Judean desert, in the Negev at the border with Egypt, and north of the West Bank) so that the territory of the Palestinian state “encompasses territory reasonably comparable in size to the territory of the West Bank and Gaza pre-1967” (page 12 of the plan).  The plan guarantees the territorial contiguity of the Palestinian state within the West Bank (thanks to bridges and tunnels) and between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (thanks to a tunnel).

Hence does the plan remain faithful to Security Council resolution 2334, adopted in December 2016 during the Obama administration’s last days. While President Trump had denounced this resolution (as did many U.S. lawmakers), his plan abides by it. UNSC 2334 constituted a setback for Israel because it does “not recognize any changes to 4 June 1967 lines, including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties through negotiations.” Since the Palestinians do not agree to changes to the 1967 lines without land swaps, UNSC 2334 in effect denies Israel the territorial gains that were possible under the more flexible Security Council resolution 242 (which did not require from Israel to withdraw to those lines). By including land swaps of similar sizes, the plan is consistent with UNSC 2334. As for other “countless UN resolutions,” those adopted by the General Assembly are non-binding and they lack moral authority since they were passed thanks to a political “automatic majority” of autocracies that trample the rule of law and whose human rights record is dismal.

In the plan, Israeli settlements would remain in place. Those settlements are not illegal under international law because the West Bank was not recognized as a sovereign territory, or as part of a sovereign country, before it came under Israeli rule in June 1967. Jordan’s conquest and annexation (in 1948 and 1950 respectively) of this chunk of the former British mandate was neither accepted nor recognized by the international community (with the exception of two countries: Britain and Pakistan). Ironically, Britain recognized the legality of Jordanian rule over the West Bank following a war of aggression in 1948, but not the legality of Israel’s rule following a war of self-defense in 1967.

Finally, the plan does not deny the Palestinians’ right to self-determination. It sticks to the two-state solution and aims at achieving “mutual recognition of the State of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, and the State of Palestine as the nation-state of the Palestinian people” (page 7). That state shall be demilitarized, and its sovereignty shall be limited so as not to endanger Israel’s security. On the other hand, the Palestinian state will be lavished with a $50 billion “Marshall Plan” to build its infrastructure and boost its economy.

The plan is not to be imposed but negotiated between the two sides. The Palestinians have already rejected the plan outright, thus being faithful to and consistent with their policy since partition was first proposed in 1937. If the Palestinians persist in rejecting negotiations, Israel will likely and eventually proceed with annexations. The only way for Europe to stop that is not by issuing empty statements but by convincing the Palestinians to negotiate with Israel an imperfect deal that would give them a demilitarized state on a territory similar in size to the pre-1967 West Bank and Gaza Strip and whose economy will be rebuilt and boosted by a $50 billion investment.

 

Pourquoi je soutiens Guideon Saar (22 décembre 2019)

(Credit photo: Meir Elipur)

J’ai exprimé jusqu’à présent par écrit mon soutien à Guideon Saar en Hébreu et en Anglais, mais pas en Français. Si je le fais finalement c’est parce qu’on me l’a demandé, et si j’avais hésité à le faire jusqu’à présent c’est parce que le public juif francophone est excessivement émotionnel et souvent agressif et insultant sur les réseaux sociaux lorsque l’on évoque Benjamin Nétanyahou. Et puisque je m’adresse à un public francophone sur Benjamin Nétanyahou, je commencerai en allant tout droit au but : non, ce n’est pas par amertume que je critique Nétanyahou. C’est que cette accusation est récurrente sur les réseaux sociaux. Quand je critique Nétanyahou, on ne répond pas à mes arguments mais on m’accuse d’être amer. En revanche, lorsque je soutiens Nétanyahou (ce que je fais souvent contre ses détracteurs dans les médias anglophones et sur les campus américains) on ne m’accuse pas d’opportunisme. Cet « argument » n’en est pas un précisément parce qu’il n’est utilisé qu’à sens unique.

Mais, surtout, je n’éprouve aucune amertume envers Nétanyahou. Contrairement à la très longue liste de ses anciens collaborateurs qui l’on quitté après avoir été humiliés et maltraités, je n’ai jamais travaillé avec Nétanyahou. Aussi surprenant que cela puisse paraître, je n’ai rencontré Nétanyahou et discuté brièvement avec lui qu’une seule fois dans ma vie et il y a longtemps de cela : ce fut le 16 juillet 2008 alors qu’il était chef de l’opposition et qu’il assista à une conférence à laquelle j’eus l’honneur d’intervenir aux côtés de feu son père Ben-Zion Nétanyahou.

En novembre 2012 je me suis présenté aux élections primaires du Likoud pour la liste du parti à la Knesset, sur le poste réservé aux immigrants. Cette candidature est sans cesse évoquée par les « Bibistes » pour « expliquer » ma critique occasionnelle envers le premier ministre : c’est parce que je n’ai pas été élu que j’en voudrais à Nétanyahou. Cette accusation est fausse et absurde pour trois raisons. La première raison est qu’il ne s’agissait pas d’une nomination mais d’une élection dont le résultat n’avait rien à voir avec le choix de Nétanyahou. La deuxième raison est que Nétanyahou ne soutint officiellement aucun candidat pour le siège réservé aux immigrants. La troisième raison est que ce siège n’entra pas à la Knesset car il fut repoussé trop bas sur la liste suite à l’union entre le Likoud et « Israël Beiteou », le parti d’Avigdor Lieberman. Enfin, je savais très bien en me présentant que je pouvais soit être élu soit ne pas l’être. Je fus certes déçu du résultat, mais pas amer. Je repris immédiatement ma carrière professionnelle que j’aime et qui me passionne. Et, surtout, je pus enfin investir plus de temps dans ce qui m’est le plus cher au monde : ma famille. J’ai depuis décidé, avec ma femme, d’abandonner la politique. Je ne regrette pas d’avoir tenté ma chance et je n’ai aucune amertume ; au contraire, ce fut une expérience dont j’ai beaucoup appris et qui m’a enrichi.

Je critique Nétanyahou lorsque je pense qu’il a tort. Je l’ai critiqué lors de son premier gouvernement (1996-1999) lorsqu’il était sur le point de transférer le plateau du Golan à la Syrie et lorsqu’il transféra la ville d’Hébron à Arafat; je l’ai critiqué en 2005 lorsqu’il a voté pour le retrait unilatéral de la Bande de Gaza ; je l’ai critiqué durant son deuxième gouvernement (2009-2012) lorsqu’il a cédé à toutes les pressions d’Obama en acceptant le principe d’un Etat palestinien, en libérant des terroristes du Hamas avec du sang sur les mains, et en gelant la construction en Judée-Samarie. Je l’ai critiqué sous son troisième et son quatrième gouvernement lorsqu’il a voulu abroger la présidence de l’Etat quelques semaines avant les élections parce que sa femme de voulait pas de Réuven Rivlin ; lorsqu’il a cédé à la pression du Hamas et retiré les magnétomètres à l’entrée du Mont du Temple ; et lorsqu’il a renié son accord avec le judaïsme américain sur les conversions et le Mur des Lamentations. Je suis également critique du fait que, pendant ses treize années à la tête du gouvernement, Nétanyahou n’a rien fait pour réformer le système judiciaire ; de même que je suis critique du fait que, sous ses deux derniers gouvernements, il a confié le portefeuille des finances à des populistes qui nous ont laissé un déficit budgétaire énorme sans démanteler les monopoles responsables de la vie chère.

Je défends Nétanyahou lorsque je pense qu’il a raison. J’ai défendu sa politique économique courageuse lorsqu’il était ministre des finances entre 2003 et 2005. Je le respecte et le salue pour ses acquis exceptionnels en politique étrangère. Il me remplit de fierté chaque année lorsqu’il s’adresse à l’Assemblée générale des Nations Unies. Il a été l’un des meilleurs premiers ministres de l’histoire d’Israël.

Je pense que son bilan est positif, même si mon jugement est critique et nuancé. Je sais qu’à l’ère des réseaux sociaux la nuance n’est pas de mise : tout est noir ou blanc, et on est soit pour ou contre Bibi. Peu m’importe.

Mais après treize ans à la tête du gouvernement et plus de deux décennies à la tête du Likoud, je pense qu’il est temps pour Nétanyahou de céder sa place. Outre le fait que Nétanyahou a maintenant 70 ans, il n’est pas sain dans une démocratie de rester trop longtemps au pouvoir. Je précise que si je pense que Nétanyahou doit partir, ce n’est pas à cause de ses affaires judiciaires puisque la loi israélienne permet à un premier ministre inculpé de rester en fonctions jusqu’à sa condamnation en appel. Même si l’acte d’accusation contre Nétanyahou dans le « dossier 4000 » (Bezeq-Walla) est grave, il bénéficie de la présomption d’innocence.

Je rejette la théorie complotiste du coup d’Etat contre Nétanyahou. Le parquet n’avait aucune raison d’écarter Nétanyahou puisque ce dernier a protégé le système judiciaire et a bloqué toutes les tentatives de le réformer pendant ses treize années à la tête du gouvernement. Et ce même système judiciaire a envoyé un premier ministre de gauche, Ehud Olmert, en prison. Je n’accepte pas non plus l’argument que remplacer Nétanyahou serait déloyal et constituerait une victoire pour le système judiciaire.

Nétanyahou n’a pas été écarté par le système judiciaire mais par Avigdor Lieberman. C’est Lieberman qui a empêché Nétanyahou à former une coalition de droite (qui eût été identique à la précédente coalition dont Lieberman faisait partie) après les deux dernières élections. Si Lieberman n’avait pas bloqué Nétanyahou, ce dernier serait à l’heure actuelle premier ministre soit grâce à son immunité parlementaire soit grâce à la loi qui permet à un premier ministre inculpé de rester en fonctions.

Tenter de remplacer Nétanyahou n’est pas déloyal et ne constitue certainement pas une « trahison » pour reprendre le terme utilisé par certains. Le Likoud est un parti démocratique dont les statuts exigent la tenue d’élections à la tête du parti avant toute élection législative. C’est la tentative d’empêcher une élection qui constitue une trahison du droit et de la démocratie. Nétanyahou a échoué à deux reprises à former un gouvernement et il y échouera de nouveau s’il reste à la tête du Likoud. C’est aux 120.000 membres du Likoud de décider s’ils veulent maintenir Nétanyahou à la tête du parti dans ces circonstances. D’aucuns affirment que le moment est inopportun parce qu’il faut se montrer solidaires alors que le premier ministre est poursuivi par la justice et alors qu’Israël fait face à des défis sécuritaires. Or c’est Nétanyahou lui-même (par l’intermédiaire du porte-parole du Likoud) qui avait proposé il y a deux mois la tenue d’élections à la tête du Likoud. Pourquoi l’idée est-elle légitime lorsqu’elle est proposée par Nétanyahou et illégitime lorsqu’elle l’est par Guideon Saar ?

Par ailleurs, Nétanyahou lui-même s’était présenté contre Ariel Sharon à la tête du Likoud en 2002 alors que Sharon était poursuivi par la justice et qu’Israël était en guerre (c’était la « deuxième intifada »). Ce n’était ni un moment inopportun, ni un couteau dans le dos, ni une trahison. C’était la démocratie. Nétanyahou ne peut pas aujourd’hui accuser Saar de ce qu’il fit lui-même, légitimement, face à Sharon.

Nétanyahou a échoué à deux reprises à former un gouvernement et il échouera à une troisième reprise s’il reste à la tête du Likoud car Lieberman l’empêche à former un gouvernement de droite et parce que Bleu et Blanc refuse de siéger avec lui dans une gouvernement d’union nationale. Le bloc de droite sans Lieberman est passé de 60 à 55 députés entre les élections d’avril et de septembre et il descend en-dessous de 55 d’après tous les sondages si Nétanyahou reste à la tête du Likoud. Avec Saar, en revanche, le bloc de droite sans Lieberman repasse la barre des 60. Par ailleurs, contrairement à Nétanyahou, Saar n’est bloqué ni chez Lieberman ni chez Bleu et Blanc et donc il peut former à la fois un gouvernement de droite et un gouvernement d’union nationale.

C’est pourquoi la gauche préfère que Nétanyahou reste à la tête du Likoud car elle sait c’est son seul et dernier espoir pour gagner l’élection du 2 mars. Seule l’élection de Guideon Saar peut maintenir le Likoud au pouvoir.

Ce n’est pas la seule raison pour laquelle je soutiens Guideon Saar. Tandis que Nétanyahou a voté pour le retrait unilatéral de Gaza en 2005, Guideon Saar a voté contre. Tandis que Nétanyahou s’est prononcé pour le principe d’un Etat palestinien dans son discours de Bar-Ilan en 2009, Guideon Saar a condamné ce discours comme contraire à la politique du Likoud. Tandis que Nétanyahou n’a rien fait pour réformer le système judiciaire, Guideon Saar a fait passer une loi pour réformer et équilibrer le système de la nomination des juges à la Cour suprême. Tandis que Nétanyahou a glissé dans un populisme victimaire qui délégitimise les institutions de l’Etat de droit, Guideon Saar reste fidèle à la dignité et à l’intégrité qu’incarnaient Ze’ev Jabotinsky et Ménahem Bégin.

C’est pourquoi je voterai pour Guideon Saar le 26 décembre.

“Mr. Prime Minister, it is time to go” (The Times of Israel, 3 December 2019)

Israel’s current political crisis is not the product of a dysfunctional system nor of an inconclusive election, but of a paradox: the right has a majority, but its leader doesn’t. The reason for that paradox is that Benjamin Netanyahu has amassed too many enemies within his own political camp. Were it not for Avigdor Liberman’s revengefulness and for Moshe Ya’alon’s resentment, there would long have been a government – either of national unity or of right-wing and religious parties. Hence is Netanyahu the ultimate obstacle to the formation of a government. The only way to prevent a third election or, alternatively, to enable the formation of a government after a third election, is to elect a new Likud chair.

This statement is based on a cold assessment of the facts, not on my opinion on Netanyahu and on the controversy around him. Netanyahu’s supporters and opponents fight each other to death but in truth their arguments are unimportant: whether Netanyahu is guilty or innocent, and whether the police and Attorney General treated him fairly or not, the fact remains that Netanyahu will not be able to form a government after a third election for the same reason (explained above) that he has failed in his two previous attempts. The choice, therefore, is between keeping Netanyahu at the helm of Likud at the price of political paralysis and replacing Netanyahu to end the deadlock. That choice belongs to Likud’s registered members.

Likud members, including myself, will have to decide between maintaining Likud in power without Netanyahu and sticking with Netanyahu at any price – including at the price of losing power. Some would argue that this is a choice between loyalty and expediency. I disagree. Choosing a new Likud leader at this point would indeed be an act of realism but it would not amount to disloyalty because Netanyahu has been in power long enough, and because he has been a good prime minister but not an exceptional one.

Altogether, Netanyahu has served over thirteen years as prime minister. Not only has he broken the record of David Ben Gurion, but he is also approaching the record of Western heads of government. The record belongs to Germany’s Helmut Kohl (sixteen years) and might soon be shared by Angela Merkel (assuming she completes her final term). In Britain, Margaret Thatcher had to step down after eleven years in Downing Street because the conservative party defenestrated her when she became an electoral liability. Tony Blair kept his word of quitting after ten years in office (one decade, he correctly argued, was more than enough to leave one’s mark).

Even if Netanyahu had not been charged with bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, and even if he had not failed twice to form a government, would he deserve another term? I cannot think of a good reason to answer that question positively. Netanyahu is brilliant and charismatic. On his watch, Israel has enjoyed economic growth and relative security (though Israel’s southern residents would admittedly beg to differ). Netanyahu’s greatest achievement is arguably the deconstruction of the Oslo narrative (i.e. that Israel’s international standing depends on its concessions to the Palestinians). To his credit, Netanyahu has upgraded Israel’s international relations without mortgaging the country’s security.

But Netanyahu is far for being the exceptional statesman described by his admirers. His oratory surpasses his achievements. He hasn’t even tried to restore the system of checks-and-balances overhauled by Aharon Barak’s “constitutional revolution.”  He has done precious little to break-up the monopolies that make Israel so expensive, and he has given the finance portfolio to populists who’ve left Israel is a huge budget deficit. He wrote a book on fighting terrorism but has freed terrorists with blood on their hands. He spoke against the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza but voted in favour. He has built personal ties with world leaders but has dried out Israel’s foreign ministry. He has convinced President Trump to impose new sanctions on Iran but not to react to Iran’s provocations. Despite my criticism, I still think that Netanyahu’s overall record is positive. But it is not positive enough to justify another term in office, especially in the current circumstances.

I wish Netanyahu to prove his innocence in court and to clear his name. But it is for him to tilt the judgement of history in his favour by stopping to keep his party and his country hostages of a short-term and hopeless survival tactic.

Like Obama, Trump is eroding American credibility (The Times of Israel, 23 December 2018)

The US pullout from Syria confirms that civil wars tend to reflect the state of the international system.  The Thirty Years War set Catholics against Protestants; monarchs intervened according to their religious allegiance.  The Spanish Civil War set republicans and communists against monarchists and nationalists; France sided with the republicans, Stalin with the communists, Hitler and Mussolini with the nationalists.  The Yugoslav Wars set ethnic and religious groups against one another; Russia supported the Slavic and Orthodox Serbs, the Arab world sided with the Muslim Bosnians, and Catholic Croatia had the sympathy of the Vatican.  The first war was religious, the second ideological, the third civilizational.

The Syrian civil war was the outcome of a widespread political phenomenon throughout the Arab world: the implosion of artificial states established after World War One and kept together by the iron fist of dictators during the Cold War.  By toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003, the United States removed the ruthless political power that had imposed Sunni rule on Shias and Kurds.  Out of the Iraqi political chaos emerged the Islamic State, which spread throughout Iraq and Syria.  At the same time, Arab dictators were also threatened by popular revolts (the “Arab Spring”).

Syria’s Bashar Assad faced both a popular revolt and an Islamic insurgency.  He played one against the other by freeing Islamists from jail, which enabled him to raise the specter of radical Islam to scare Syrians into submission and to justify his repression to foreign powers.  By cynically releasing Islamists, Assad opened a Pandora box that went out of control.  Foreign powers soon stepped in.  Iran sent money and Shia militias to help Assad.  Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar gave money to Sunni rebels.  The United States timidly sent weapons to moderate rebels, but not forcefully enough to counter the influence of Islamists.  Precisely because American help was so small and so hesitant, moderate rebels felt they had no choice but to team up with Islamists to fight Assad.  They paid dearly for their mistake.  Eventually, Russia stepped in with airstrikes when it feared that Assad might lose.

The weaker the moderate rebels got (due in part to Obama’s dithering), the less America felt it had a dog in that fight.  After Obama backed down, in the summer of 2013, from the “red line” he had drawn in the sand (the use of chemical weapons by Assad), Putin understood he had a free hand to save his embattled ally.  Syria’s airspace has since become an international battlefield in which Russia bombards anti-Assad rebels, America bombards (together with Britain and France) Islamic State targets, and Israel bombards Iranian bases.  By abruptly pulling out, America is not only abandoning Syria to Russia and to Iran.  It is also betraying the Kurds and letting Israel face the Syrian quandary by itself.

Donald Trump’s claim that the Islamic State (IS) has been defeated in Syria is half-true. IS still has a stronghold in Syria (probably 2,000 troops).  There is no shortage of anti-Assad and anti-Iran Syrians that might join IS for lack of a better choice.  Recruiting them will certainly be made easier after the departure of all US troops, though the IS stronghold will not stop the joint Iranian and Russian takeover of Syria now made possible by the US withdrawal.  Shortly after Trump’s announcement, Turkish President Erdogan sent reinforcements to Turkey’s southern province of Kilis.  The Kurds have been abandoned by America, and Turkey is wasting no time in repressing their national aspirations.

Donald Trump has committed both a strategic and a moral mistake by abandoning America’s allies to Assad, to Russia, to Iran, to Turkey, and to what is left of the Islamic State.  Obama abandoned an ally for shooting demonstrators (Hosni Mubarak), but Trump abandoned allies (the Kurds) whose only “crime” is to cost money to the US army.  This decision will affect not only America’s credibility and honor, but also its interests.  As Defense Secretary Jim Mattis wrote in his resignation letter: “our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships. While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.”

Snubbing Matteo Salvini makes no sense (The Times of Israel, 11 December 2018)

 

The visit of Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini to Israel has been criticized by those who accuse his “Lega” party of having fascist roots.  The Ha’aretz newspaper ran an editorial asking the government to declare Salvini a “persona non grata.”  President Reuven Rivlin’s office announced earlier this week that he would not be meeting with Salvini because of a busy schedule.  This announcement was widely interpreted as a rebuke of Salvini, and it was praised as such by the Meretz party.

By contrast, I criticized President Rivlin over his decision on the ground that it was not coherent.  If, I asked, human rights violations or affiliation with the populist right are good enough reasons for boycotting foreign leaders, then why did President Rivlin meet with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurtz (whose coalition includes the “Freedom Party”), and with Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte?  President Trump has had much harsher words and deeds toward illegal immigrants than Matteo Salvini, yet boycotting the US President would not have even crossed Rivlin’s mind.  Nor would Rivlin boycott Vladimir Putin despite the fact that he eliminates his opponents, expands his borders, safeguards Assad, and supports Europe’s populist parties (including Salvini’s).

Shortly after questioning Rivlin’s judgement in an op-ed, I was contacted by his spokesperson who explained that the President has no intention of snubbing Salvini and that the announcement on Rivlin’s busy schedule was genuine.  So my accusation turned out to be unfounded.  But the controversy around Salvini’s visit remains, and it provides an opportunity to assess Israel’s policy of rapprochement with Europe’s “populist” governments.

The controversy around Salvini is a typical foreign policy dilemma between Realpolitik and principles.  The Israeli left, which is taking a strong stance against Salvini, has a peculiar way of addressing this dilemma.  When, in June 2016, Benjamin Netanyahu signed a reconciliation agreement with Turkey (over the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident), Ha’aretz columnists (most notably Zvi Barel and Barak Ravid) praised Netanyahu for making the choice of political realism.  The fact that Turkish President Recep Erdogan is an autocrat and an anti-Semite was not mentioned as an issue.  Yet when it comes to Italy (a democracy and an EU member), the rules of Realpolitik no longer apply for some reason.

No country in the world would sacrifice its national interest for the sake of moral values.  Expecting Israel (and only Israel) to do so is absurd.  The question is not whether Israel is also entitled to play by the rules of Realpolitik (of course it is) but whether its policy of rapprochement with Europe’s “populist” governments serves the national interest.  The answer is yes –though only to a point.

The 2008 financial crash and the 2011 ill-named “Arab Spring” plagued Europe with economic crisis, mass migration and ISIS-claimed terrorist attacks.  Many Europeans have accused their elites and the European Union (EU) for the loss of jobs and of border controls.  Hence the rise of governments that want to reclaim full sovereignty over economic and immigration policies in countries such as Poland, Hungary, Austria, Italy, and Greece.  Hence the rise of parties such as Alternative for Germany or Marine Le Pen’s National Rally.  And hence Brexit.

Those European governments and parties happen to admire Israel for what it represents: a proud nation-state that is both economically successful and socially conservative, and that has no qualms about defending its borders, about defeating terrorists, and about aggravating Eurocrats.  Thanks to its strong ties with Europe’s “rebels” Israel has been able to break the Brussels consensus.  Hungary, the Czech Republic and Romania, for example, have blocked an EU decision meant to condemn the transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem.  On the issue of Iran, the “Visegrad Group” (Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia) are making it harder for the European Commission to bypass the renewed US sanctions on Iran.  Recently, Israel signed a memorandum of understanding with Cyprus, Greece and Italy to build a pipeline that will enable Israel to export its natural gas to Europe.

So Israel’s special ties with Europe’s “rebels” do serve the national interest, because they enable Israel to use “divide and rule” tactics in the EU on the issues of Jerusalem and Iran, and because they help Israel promote its natural gas exports to Europe despite the project’s many opponents (such as Spain, for example).

On the other hand, Israel has no interest in the dislocation of the EU and in the proliferation of “populist” governments, because these governments generally oppose free trade and are more inclined to align with Russia than with the United States.  The EU is Israel’s first trade partner.  Israel has a free-trade agreement with he EU and it is part of its flagship research and development program (“Horizon 2020”). Israel would therefore not benefit from a Europe dominated by pro-Russian mercantilists.  But ad hoc and calculated links with the governments of Eastern Europe and of Italy do serve, for the time being, Israel’s national interest.  Therefore, snubbing would Matteo Salvini (who happens to be the strongman of Italy’s government) makes no sense.

 

 

The dichotomy between UNHCR and UNRWA is no myth (The Times of Israel, 15 November 2018)

I recently explained to European parliamentarians that most so-called “Palestinian refugees” are not refugees under the standard international law definition of refugee that is used around the world.  When the parliamentarians brought up the issue with the ambassador of their country to Israel, they were told that they had just been exposed to the usual Israeli propaganda on the refugee issue and that they should ignore it.  Yet there is no propaganda here, and this incident is an opportunity to state the facts and to set the record straight.

There are two separate UN agencies in charge of refugees: the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA).  UNRWA was established in December 1949 and UNHCR in December 1950.  With the creation of UNHCR, UNRWA became redundant and its existence unjustified.  Yet it was not dissolved, and the two agencies continue to exist side by side with a clear division of labor: UNHCR is responsible for all refugees around the world except Palestinians, and UNRWA is only responsible for Palestinian refugees.

UNHCR and UNRWA not only deal with different populations of refugees; they also have different ways of defining and of treating refugees.  There were about 700,000 Palestinian refugees in 1948.  According to UNRWA, they now amount to 5.4 million.  This exponential growth is do to the fact that UNRWA automatically applies the status of refugee to all the patrilineal descendants of the 1948 refugees, regardless of their status and country of residence.

UNHCR, by contrast, seeks “permanent or durable solutions” to the plight of refugees, including “local integration” and “resettlement.”  According to UNHCR’s Resettlement Handbook, “local integration is an important facet of comprehensive strategies to develop solutions to refugee situations, particularly those of a protracted nature … Overall, ethnic, cultural, or linguistic links with the local community can increase the chances of successful local integration.”  UNRWA, on the other hand, does not encourage the integration of Palestinian refugees in countries such as Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.  And, as opposed to UNRWA, UNHCR has a “cessation clause” for situations where refugee status ceases (generally because the refugees have found a durable solution or because the events that led refugees to leave their countries of origin have ceased to exist).

UNRWA’s definition of a refugee is factually inaccurate.  Among the 5.4 million people defined by UNRWA as “Palestinian refugees” 2.2 million live in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip.  Yet these people are not refugees but “internally displaced persons” since they did not leave their country in 1948 but were displaced within it (the West Bank and Gaza are within the borders of what was Mandatory Palestine in 1948).  As for the 2.2 “Palestinian refugees” in Jordan, they are not refugees either since they have Jordanian citizenship.  UNHCR would not recognize them as refugees because they are citizens of their country of residence.

So among the 5.4 Palestinian “refugees” registered by UNRWA, 4.4 are not refugees by UNHCR’s standards.  The remaining million are mostly scattered between Syria and Lebanon.  Yet Lebanon’s 2018 census listed 170,000 Palestinian refugees under UNRWA’s definition.  As for Syria, the civil war since 2011 has caused a massive exodus, including of Palestinians, and it is therefore hard to gauge the number of refugees there.  If one assumes, reasonably, that there are about 250,000 Palestinian refugees between Syria and Lebanon, then only 5% of the refugees listed by UNRWA are, indeed, refugees.  In other words, some 95% of “Palestinian refugees” are not considered refugees under the UNHCR definition.

UNRWA claims that UNHCR also gives refugee status to the descendants of refugees, but that is inaccurate.  First, UNHRC does not give refugee status based on descent; rather it gives certain services that it provides to refugees to their children as well. That is one reason the UNHRC numbers of refugees decline over time, while UNRWA’s roster balloons. Moreover, Unlike UNRWA, UNHCR does not define as refugees people who are citizens of another country or “internally displaced persons,” regardless of who their parents were.  Finally, unlike UNRWA, UNHCR does not automatically transfer the refugee status but only after verifying the actual status of the refugees’ descendants. That is why UNHCR does not have in its records refugees that have been defined as such for 70 years (UNHCR’s longest recorded refugees are Afghan refugees from the early 1980s).

So there are, indeed, major differences between the definition and treatment of refugees by UNRWA and by UNHCR.  It is not a myth but a fact.

Hosting Viktor Orban is in Israel’s best interest (The Times of Israel, 18 July 2018)

Some Israeli politicians (such as Yair Lapid and Tamar Zanberg) have called for the boycott of Viktor Orbán’s visit to Israel because of his contentious declarations (he has praised Miklós Horthy, the Hungarian leader who colluded with Hitler during most of WW2, and his campaign against the Hungarian-born Jewish financier George Soros had anti-Semitic overtones).  Should the Israeli government look the other way for the sake of Realpolitik?

Israel faces this question not only with Hungary but also with other European countries such as Poland and Austria.  Austria’s coalition government, for example, includes the FPÖ –a party that has a neo-Nazi past but boasts today about its pro-Israel credentials.  This is a classic foreign policy dilemma between principles and Realpolitik.  Israel has faced similar dilemmas in the past, for example when it signed a reparations agreement with Germany in 1951 or, more recently, when it apologized to Turkey over the Marmara incident.  Ironically, those who oppose the visit of Orbán to Israel were generally supportive of the apology to the autocratic and anti-Semitic Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the name of political realism.

Two questions need to be addressed regarding Israel’s relations with Europe’s nationalistic governments: a. Should Israel shun them as a matter of principle? b. Even from a purely realistic point of view, should Israel upgrade its relations with those governments?

On the first question, one needs to differentiate between Europe’s nationalistic governments, even within the “Visegrád Group” (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia).  In Poland, the current government’s policy is a mix of social conservatism, neo-Socialist economics, and pro-American foreign policy.  Hungary’s government also combines social conservatism with economic interventionism, but its foreign policy is pro-Russian (or, to be accurate, pro-Putin).  Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš is a Trump-like elite-bashing billionaire with no coherent worldview.  Czech President, Miloš Zeman is as pro-Israel as it gets (he was a lone voice in Europe supporting the transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem, and he has called upon the Czech government to follow suit).  Slovakian President Andrej Kiska is a Putin opponent who supports sanctions against Russia.

As for Austria, its young chancellor Sebastian Kurz has publicly scolded Iran’s president for denying the Holocaust as well as Israel’s right to exist; he has expelled dozens of radical Turkish imams, ignoring the threats of Erdoğan; and during his recent visit to Israel he recognized his country’s role in the Holocaust (he also departed from EU protocol by paying a visit to the Western Wall).  Kurz himself is a moderate conservative but his coalition government includes the FPÖ, a party with neo-Nazi roots (the party’s first leader, Anton Reinthaller, was a former Nazi cabinet member and SS officer).  The FPÖ’s current leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, is at pains to rebrand his party’s image and to prove its pro-Israel credentials.  At the same time, he is also a Putin apologist.

The overall picture is, therefore, a complex one.  The nationalist governments of Eastern Europe are not a uniform club of neo-Nazi anti-Semites.  Their policies, however, often deserve the criticism they attract.  Orbán did undermine the freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary, and the Polish government did try to criminalize the exposure of Polish collaboration with the Nazis.  Yet Israel does not boycott the no less autocratic governments of China or Russia, because doing so would do a disservice to Israel’s national interest.  Those who called for the cancellation of Orbán’s visit did not boycott Putin’s visit to Israel in 2012, nor did they condemn Israel’s apology to Erdoğan in 2013.  Realpolitik must be consistent, and self-righteousness cannot be selective.

The second question is whether upgrading relations with the Visegrád Group and with Austria best serves Israel’s interest.  The answer is mostly yes, but with one caveat.  The Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania recently blocked an EU decision meant to condemn the transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem.  The Czech President and the Romanian Prime Minister have both expressed their support for the transfer of their country’s embassy to Jerusalem.  The governments of Eastern Europe can therefore be useful and ad hoc counterweights to unwelcome votes of the European Council or to hostile initiatives coming from the European Commission.

At the same time, however, the pro-Russian foreign policy of Orbán and of Austria’s FPÖ are hardly in Israel’s interest given Russia’s support for Israel’s adversaries in the Middle-East (and despite the coordination between Israel and Russia in Syria).  Even from a Realpolitik point of view, therefore, there is also a downside to the otherwise valuable upgrading of Israel’s ties with “rebellious” European governments.

 

How my Grandfather Befriended a Nazi (Times of Israel, 4 July 2018)

Claude Blum (1910-2002) was my grandfather from my mother’s side.  He was an officer in the French army.  Though Alfred Dreyfus was acquitted in 1906, I dare to assume that Jewish officers in the French army never fully felt at ease.  With the collapse of France in June 1940, and the armistice with Germany, Claude Blum joined the Resistance and was condemned to death by the Vichy government for rebellion.  In 1943, his life was spared by a German officer in unexpected circumstances.  My grandfather recorded his story in an article published in 1965 in a veterans’ journal.  Having come across this article, I decided to translate it from French and to republish it.  I do so not only to honor the memory of my grandfather but also to share the story’s message: there can be decency and brotherhood in war, even between sworn enemies, even between a Jew and a Nazi.  Claude Blum was granted the highest military and civilian honors: Croix de Guerre (Cross of War), Médaille de la Résistance (Resistance Medal), and Légion d’Honneur (Legion of Honor).       

 

A peaceful tourist

On the 28th of May 1943 at 11 am Charles Blond vanishes.  He was arrested that morning by OVRA (the Italian political police).  An Italian officer politely explained to him that, under his real identity, he enjoys the name recognition of a rebellious French officer condemned to death by Vichy.  The Italian officer also explained that the German authorities had noticed him since the 8th of November 1942.  For it is on that date that the Gestapo started providing him food and shelter.

In other words, it seems to Blond that he is suspected of spying against the Axis powers.  Blond decides that it is time to vanish.  On that day, his escape is brilliantly planned and executed thanks to sympathetic Corsicans.

Corsica, a giant aircraft carrier

Shortly afterwards, Claude Bussières decides to tour the costal villages around Bastia, as well as the central Corsican towns of Ponte Leccia and Moltifao.  Those hikes were recommended to him by the “Travel Agency” in charge of his whereabouts.  Then the Agency sends him the following message:

“The Germans want to turn Corsica into a giant aircraft carrier in order to maintain their positions in North Africa despite their retreat.  The Allies need to know the sites chosen by the Germans for their airfields.  Your in-depth knowledge of German shall enable you to overhear conversations.  Also, from now on, you are a taxi driver named Benini.  You and your cab will be requisitioned by the Germans for their base in Borgo.  Obviously, you’re not supposed to understand a word of German.”

The dangers of collaboration

Benini starts his job.  He’s altogether committed and clumsy, but also much appreciated thanks to his good driving.  Could it be said, however, that he is scared?

Yes, he is scared; not of the Germans but of Corsican patriots.  They keep threatening him with reprisals if he continues his shameful collaboration.  But Benini is relentless and keeps telling Corsicans that the Germans are nice and polite.

Yet it is not because of those patriots that Benini will have to quit his job.  He eventually joins them in the underground, and this is how.

Patrimonio and lobster

On a fine summer day, an air force second lieutenant from the Africa Korps asks Benini to drive him to Bonifacio.  The German officer doesn’t seat in the back but next to his driver, and he starts a conversation.  He expresses his desire to eat a lobster in Bonifacio.  The driver, eager to satisfy his master, begins his search of the coveted animal.  Not an easy task, despite the abundance of lobsters in the area, because Corsican fishermen do not want to help collaborators.  Yet Benini eventually gets hold of a lobster and the thankful German officer invites him to join him for lunch.  Honored -and bon vivant- Benini accepts.

Le lobster is delicious and the patrimonio (a local wine) flows.  So does the mare (another Corsican spirit).  Hence does the meal end up euphorically in some kind of mutual understanding.  In the car, the officer continues the conversation on a friendly tone, and Benini answers at will.

“You are a spy!”

It’s sunset, and the taxi drives along the seashore.  Suddenly, Benini (aka Bussières, aka Blond, aka me) feels his arms being grabbed.  The officer screams: “What’s going on? We’ve been talking in high German for about fifteen minutes!” Pulling out his gun and pointing it at me he says: “You are a spy!”

Not proud of myself, I reply: “Think what you wish.  You are a German officer and I’m a French officer; we both fulfill our duty.”  Then I speed up the car toward a cliff and tell him that the two of us shall die.

“Wait. I understand your point and I think we can reach a gentlemen’s agreement.”

Last drink

After pondering for a few minutes, the officer says: “Drive me back to Borgo.  At about three miles before reaching the base you’ll stop the car pretending a breakdown and you’ll flee.  Ten minutes later I’ll report that you quit.”

He laid down his gun between us, and so did I with mine.  Our conversation continued in German.  I even told him my real name.  To which he replied, probably in good faith, that he was a member of the Wehrmacht and of the Luftwaffe, and that he had no interest in politics and in anti-Semitism.

Once in Casamozza, about 10 miles from Borgo, he offered me to have a last drink together and warned me that there would probably be some Germans in the bar.  And, indeed, we had a drink under the careless gaze of feldgendarmen.  Before departing we exchanged our addresses.  And then I disappeared according to the plan.

A solid friendship

In September 1945, while on a mission in Frankfort, I looked for the officer’s parents.  It was quite a challenge: Mainz, his city, had been flattened.  Yet I eventually found them in a shack made out of tarred cardboard, and I inquired about their son after telling them my story.  But the last time they had heard of him was when he was in Cherbourg.

Back in France I looked for his name on the French army’s list of prisoners.  He was nowhere to be found.  I asked for the help of an American officer who was a friend of mine, and I found the German second lieutenant in a prisoners’ camp in Cherbourg.  I was allowed to visit him, and Colonel Hamsteadt agreed to hand me his prisoner after I told him our adventure.  Hence did I have the joy of returning him to his parents.

Needless to say, we have since then become close friends.

One last word

In November 1943, having reintegrated the regular army, I took Allied officers to the sites chosen by the Germans for their airfields.  I knew the pros and cons of each selected site.  And this is how nearly all the infrastructure of the Corsican Air Sub-Area was in fact chosen and planned by the enemy.

 

Claude Blum being decorated

 

When Israel’s Supreme Court Approved of the Override Clause (The Times of Israel, 25 April 2018)

Israel’s public debate (or, rather, war of empty slogans) on the proposed “override clause” (which would enable the Knesset to re-legislate laws stroke down by the High Court of Justice) is missing the elephant in the room: the override clause already exists in Israel, and it was proposed by the Supreme Court itself.

Israel does not have a constitution but only basic laws.  Two basic laws (“human freedom and dignity” and “freedom of occupation”) were passed in 1992.  Those basic laws do not empower the High Court of Justice to strike down regular laws, but they do state that Knesset legislation cannot contradict basic laws.

In 1993, the High Court of Justice announced that it would strike down any law inconsistent with the basic law on freedom of occupation.  The reason for this announcement was that the High Court had been petitioned following a government decision to ban the import of non-kosher meat.  The High Court ruled that, were the Knesset to pass a law against the import of non-kosher meat, the law would be stroke down for being inconsistent with the basic law on freedom of occupation.  This decision was likely to bring down the coalition government of Yitzhak Rabin, because the Shas party (a key coalition partner) threatened to topple the government over the import of non-kosher meat.

Justice Aharon Barak came up with a creative solution to let the law pass, despite the fact he himself deemed the law unconstitutional: the Knesset should amend the basic law on freedom of occupation by adding an article stating that the Knesset can pass an unconstitutional law (i.e. a law that contradicts the basic law on freedom of occupation) on condition that the unconstitutional law be valid for a period of four years only.  The Knesset did amend the basic law of freedom of occupation according to Barak’s recommendations.  It then passed a law forbidding the import of non-kosher meat, and the High Court did not strike it down.

Barak’s recommendation was inspired by Canadian constitutional law.  The Canadian constitution has an override clause which states that when the Supreme Court strikes down a law, parliament can pass it again for a (renewable) period of five years.  In Britain, there is no such need for override since the Supreme Court cannot strike down laws deemed unconstitutional but can only recommend their amendment by parliament.

Other western democracies give less leeway to the legislative branch.  In France, the constitutional council (Conseil constitutionnel) can strike down unconstitutional bills before they are passed by parliament (a priori judicial review).  Since 2010, France’s two supreme courts (the Cour de Cassation and the Conseil d’État) can strike down unconstitutional laws even after being passed by parliament (a posteriori judicial review).  In France, however, the right of courts to strike down laws is granted by the law itself.

In Israel, by contrast, the right of the High Court of Justice to strike down laws was granted to the court by the court itself (in a 1995 ruling by -guess who- Aharon Barak).  The same court that approved the override clause in 1994 for the basic law on freedom of occupation says today that it won’t approve the override clause for the basic law on man’s freedom and dignity (which is what the government is trying to do in order to jail illegal immigrants or to send them back to their countries).  The court, in other words, has a selective way of approving of the override clause (in 1994, it did so to save the government of Yitzhak Rabin).  Could it be that there is a hierarchy between basic laws?  This is what the court’s double-standard seems to imply, though it does not say so.

After 70 years of independence, the time has come to have an agreed, written, and precise system of checks-and-balances between the three branches of government.  The current system is not balanced, and it is not the result of a constitutional debate.  An agreed-upon system of checks-and-balances is long overdue.  It may or may not include the override clause, but those who claim that override is undemocratic imply that Canada is not a democracy.  Admittedly, Israel should not only learn from other democracies’ constitutional law but also be inspired by their political manners.  But it is for the vocal critics of the override close to explain why they supported it to import non-kosher meat but oppose it to send back illegal immigrants to their countries.