“Has Israel’s China Policy Reached a Tipping Point?” (The Times of Israel, 11 July 2021)

Israel’s relations with China have always been marred by dilemmas. Those dilemmas became more acute in recent years with the intensified geopolitical contest between the U.S. and China. As President Joe Biden is reaffirming Western cohesion to face off China, Israel may have reached the tipping point it had hoped to avoid: choose side and take the risk of alienating China. In June 2021, the Biden Administration asked the newly sworn Israeli government to add its voice to a joint statement by UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) members expressing concern over China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority. This American request faced Israel with a conundrum, which was discussed and assessed by Israel’s new foreign minister Yair Lapid and the top echelon of his ministry.

At stake was a classic case of foreign policy dilemma between realpolitik and principles. Israel has no interest in crossing China; but it is also has moral obligations as a Western democracy, as a state whose people suffered from persecution, and as a U.S. ally. After weighing the pros and cons, Yair Lapid decided to join the Western criticism of China – a decision for which he was thanked by the U.S. administration, but which raised the ire of China and its threat to retaliate (never mind that China systematically backs anti-Israel resolutions at the UN). China’s threats caused Ukraine to back down and to withdraw its signature from the joint statement. The fact that China imposed painful economic sanctions on Australia to punish it for advocating an international probe into Covid-19’s origins must have concentrated the mind of Ukraine’s president.

Israel, like other signatories of the joint statement, will likely pay a price for its principled decision. Hence does the United States have a responsibility toward democracies. The Biden administration is correct to coalesce the free world around an expanding and repressive China; but it must also complete its strategy by shielding its allies from China’s economic bullying. Ukraine’s flip-flop and Australia’s woes are but a reminder that America’s legitimate expectations cannot be a one-way street. As China threatened to interrupt its supply of Covid-19 vaccines to Ukraine, the U.S. should have stepped in with its own supplies. The fact that the U.S. has taken advantage of Australia’s ostracization by selling more American coal to China is both cynical and counterproductive.

Israel would have much to lose from downgrading its economic relations with China – relations that were built thanks many years of diplomatic efforts. Israel was the first Middle East country to recognize, in 1950, Mao Zedong’s government; yet it also refrained from establishing full diplomatic relations for fear of alienating the U.S. (which fought North Korea between 1950 and 1953) and France (which fought China-backed Vietnamese communists until 1954). After the 1955 Bandung Conference and the 1956 Suez war, China engaged in a resolutely pro-Arab policy. Yet the Sino-Soviet split, together with the severance of relations between the USSR and Israel in 1967, produced the conditions for a quiet rapprochement between China and Israel.

Abandoned by its former Soviet ally, China lost its only military supplier. Having fought and defeated Soviet-backed Arab armies, Israel was known for its expertise in upgrading Soviet military equipment. Hence did China initiate secret military ties with Israel in the late 1970s under the pragmatic Deng Xiaoping. By the late 1980s, military ties between Israel and China were reported to be worth billions of dollars. Israel publicly admitted to their existence in 1992. That same year, the two countries established full diplomatic relations. But Israel’s military ties with China caused tension with the United States.

In March 1992, the U.S. government accused Israel of transferring American military technology to China.  In 2000, America stopped Israel from selling its airborne early warning and control radar system (AEW&C) to China. Although this system had been developed exclusively by Israel and did not include American technology, the U.S. government feared the sale would alter the military balance in the Strait of Taiwan to China’s advantage. In December 2004, the U.S. government asked Israel not to sell drones to China.  Again, the technology was Israeli, but the U.S. feared it might provide too much of a qualitative military advantage to China. The same year, Israel and the U.S. signed an agreement in which Israel committed not to sell any military equipment to China that might include American technology.

While Israel had to downgrade its military ties with China, economic relations between the two countries flourished.  In 2013, it was announced that China would be involved in building the “Med-Red” project, a commercial railway planned to run from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. In 2015, Israel became one of the founding members of China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), despite strong American reservations.  In March 2016, Israel and China announced the negotiation of a free-trade agreement.  In 2016 as well, China invested $21.5 billion in infrastructures in the Middle East and Africa. Its “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), partly financed by AIIB, involves investing heavily in transportation infrastructures (such as roads, railroads, and seaports) to connect China to European and African markets.  China is also involved in building infrastructures in Israel, such as the Carmel tunnels in Haifa, the light rail in Tel Aviv, and the expansion of the Ashdod and Haifa ports.

China’s interest in Israel is related to Israel’s scientific excellence and innovation, especially in high-tech, agriculture, water technologies, and biotech. Even though Israel’s deepening ties with China are now mostly commercial and technological, they are still a source of concern for the United States.  Since the U.S. perceives China as an economic rival in the global sphere, senior U.S. officials have warned their Israeli counterparts that trade and technological relations between Israel and China are going too far. In January 2019, for example, U.S. national security advisor John Bolton expressed to Israeli leaders his government’s discomfort that the Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE are investing in Israel, and that a Chinese company is building the new Haifa port.

Neither Israel nor China have an interest in economic decoupling. China is Israel’s third trade partner (after the EU and the U.S.), and Chinese investments in Israeli technology are mutually beneficial. Indeed, the U.S.-China trade is worth hundreds of billions of dollars despite acute disagreements between the two powers. Israel cannot reasonably be expected to disengage economically from China, but it does and will continue to coordinate with its U.S. ally Chinese investments in sensitive areas such as 5G and infrastructures.

While China used to separate between business and politics, and while its support for anti-Israel UN resolutions could be seen and forgiven as mere lip service to Chinese interests in the Muslim world, China’s Middle East policy has taken a worrying turn in recent months. During the May 2021 confrontation between Hamas and Israel, China adopted an aggressive stance vis-à-vis Israel both at the UN and in its state-controlled media: it co-sponsored (and not only supported) a biased UNHRC resolution against Israel; it initiated three Security Council emergency sessions aimed at condemning Israel; China’s foreign minister castigated the U.S. for shielding Israel and the Security Council (implying that Israel had no right to defend itself from Hamas); and Chinese media became replete with anti-Semitic slurs (typically accusing the Jews of controlling finance and the media).

In March 2021, shortly before the latest Israel-Hamas flare, China had signed a cooperation agreement with Iran in defiance of U.S. sanctions. Sensing partial U.S. retreat from the Middle East, and aware of America’s determination to reach an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program, China is positioning itself as a competing power in the region. A China that openly challenges the U.S. and upgrades its ties with Iran can hardly be a neutral Middle East actor. Hence, it seems, China’s outspoken support for Hamas during the recent conflict with Israel.

If China can decouple between bilateral and multilateral relations (developing strong economic ties with Israel while supporting anti-Israel UN resolutions), so can Israel. Chinese officials claim that China’s voting pattern at the UN has not changed on the Middle East, but the evidence (detailed above) suggests otherwise. The same officials claim that votes on Xinjiang or Tibet constitute an interference in domestic Chinese affairs, but they refuse to apply the same logic to votes on the West Bank or Gaza. Seen from Jerusalem, this double-standard is disingenuous.

The Biden administration can count on Israel to close the ranks of Western democracies. At the same time, however, Israel’s economic relations with China must be allowed to grow within the range of U.S. strategic interests and security concerns. As for China, it must understand that decoupling (between bilateral and multilateral diplomacy) and interference (whether on Xinjiang or Gaza) can no longer be a one-way street, due to Israel’s strategic relations with the United States, to the expectations of the Biden administration from its allies, and to recent changes in China’s UN votes on the Middle East.

“Netanyahou met sa survie politique avant l’intérêt national” (Actualité juive, 14 janvier 2021)

Israël s’apprête à aller aux urnes pour la quatrième fois en moins de deux ans. Les Juifs de France qui s’inquiètent à juste titre de cette instabilité auraient tort de l’attribuer au système politique israélien. C’est un fait qu’Israël n’a jamais connu une telle instabilité politique depuis son indépendance. Les causes de ces élections à répétition ne sont pas structurelles mais conjoncturelles : Benjamin Netanyahou n’a pas de majorité, il refuse de s’écarter, et il tient le pays en otage pour se maintenir au pouvoir coûte-que-coûte.

Pour comprendre cette perte de majorité, il faut remonter aux élections de février 2009. Netanyahou revient alors au pouvoir après une traversée du désert qui aura duré dix ans (il fut premier ministre entre 1996 et 1999). Le Likoud arrive en deuxième place derrière Kadima (27 et 28 sièges respectivement) mais parvient à former un gouvernement grâce au Parti travailliste alors dirigé par Ehud Barak, ainsi qu’aux partis orthodoxes qui refusent de soutenir Tzipi Livni (la chef du parti Kadima). La coalition est hétéroclite et contre-nature, mais Barak préfère être ministre de la défense de « Bibi » que de « Tzipora » (le surnom machiste qu’il donne à Livni). Le parti travailliste finit par se rebeller et Barak fait sécession en 2011 avec cinq députés. 2011 est également l’année de la grogne sociale, que Netanyahou neutralise en échangeant Gilead Shalit pour un millier de terroristes avec du sang sur les mains. En 2012 Livni perd la direction de Kadima au profit de son rival Shaul Mofaz, qui créé la surprise en se joignant au gouvernement de Netanyahou.

Aux élections de janvier 2013 Kadima s’effondre (de 28 à 2 sièges), mais le Likoud a également pris un coup puisqu’il passe de 27 à 20 sièges. Netanyahou a formé une alliance avec Lieberman pour être la plus grande liste après les élections (elle le sera avec les 11 sièges de Lieberman), mais ce choix s’avère être une erreur stratégique pour deux raisons : 1) Il fait perdre de nombreux électeurs au Likoud ; 2) Il fait de Libermann l’ennemi juré de Netanyahou car ce dernier n’honore pas son engagement d’intégrer Libermann au Likoud (les deux partis se sépareront en 2014). Netanyahou est contraint par Yaïr Lapid, le grand gagnant de cette élection (19 sièges), d’exclure les partis orthodoxes de la coalition. Netanyahou forme donc un gouvernement avec ses rivaux que sont Lapid, Bennett, Livni, et Liebermann. Au bout de deux ans-et-demi, Netanyahou met fin à cette coalition en provoquant des élections anticipées.

Il gagne son pari puisque, aux élections de mars 2015, le Likoud monte à 30 sièges et parvient à réintégrer ses alliés orthodoxes dans la coalition. Mais il s’agit en réalité d’une victoire en trompe-l’œil car la nouvelle coalition de Netanyahou repose sur une majorité-rasoir de 61 députés (sur 120). Sa coalition est donc menacée en cas de défection et elle est sujette aux chantages des députés puisque chaque voix est nécessaire dans une majorité aussi serrée. Netanyahou tente d’affermir son pouvoir par le biais de manipulations de plus en plus troublantes. En juillet 2014, il avait tout fait pour empêcher l’élection de Reuven Rivlin à la présidence de l’État car celui-ci figure sur la liste des cibles de Madame Netanyahou. Quelques semaines avant l’élection, « Balfour » (le surnom de la résidence du premier ministre) tente même de soumettre un projet de loi pour dissoudre l’institution de la présidence de l’État. C’est à la suite de cet épisode que Gideon Saar, alors ministre de l’Intérieur et étoile montante du Likoud, démissionne du gouvernement et de la Knesset. À la surprise de tous, il annonce son retrait temporaire de la vie politique.

La décision de Saar a des raisons plus profondes que le comportement erratique de « Balfour ». Il s’avère en effet que Netanyahou a entraîné le pays à des élections anticipées en 2015 pour préserver « son » journal Israel Hayom (un tabloïde propagandiste généreusement financé par le milliardaire américain Sheldon Adelson). En novembre 2014, en effet, la Knesset approuve en première lecture un projet de loi qui eût obligé Israel Hayom d’être payant (le journal est distribué gratuitement, ce qui asphyxie économiquement Yediot Aharonot, le tabloïde rival et anti-Netanyahou). Les partenaires-rivaux de Netanyahou ont voté pour le projet de loi : Yaïr Lapid, Tzipi Livni, et Avigdor Liebermann. En provoquant des élections anticipées, Netanyahou empêche que le projet de loi ne fût approuvé en seconde et troisième lectures. Netanyahou a inauguré un modus operandi qui se répétera en 2019 : entraîner tout un pays à des élections inutiles pour servir son intérêt personnel. L’État c’est moi, premier acte.

Après les élections de 2015, Netanyahou s’arroge le portefeuille de la Communication. Il limoge immédiatement le directeur général du ministère et nomme à sa place un fidèle de longue date. Par ailleurs, Netanyahou inclut dans les accords de coalition un article qui oblige les membres du gouvernement d’approuver toute décision du ministre de la Communication. La signification de ces signes suspects sera révélée quatre ans plus tard avec la mise en examen de Netanyahou dans le « dossier 4000 » : selon l’acte d’accusation, Netanyahou aurait forcé la vente de parts de la société « Yes » à la société « Bezeq » pour un somme de 170 millions d’Euros, contrairement à l’avis des experts du ministère de la Communication et de son directeur-général limogé par Netanyahou, et ce afin de de fournir à « Yes » les liquidités dont elle avait urgemment besoin. Or le propriétaire de « Yes » est l’homme d’affaires Shaul Alovitch, dont l’influent site d’information « Walla » est très critique de Netanyahou et de sa famille. Comme par miracle, ce même site devient très « pro-Bibi » dans les mois qui précèdent l’approbation de la vente des parts de « Yes » à « Bezeq ».

Netanyahou n’est pourtant pas rassasié, et son obsession avec les médias continue – au point qu’il pousse presque le pays à de nouvelles élections en mars 2017. Il veut maintenant bloquer la refonte de la chaîne de télévision publique pourtant décidée sous son gouvernement précédent. Il soupçonne en effet que cette nouvelle chaîne ne lui sera pas favorable. Et il s’avère en plus que la présentatrice du 20 heures sera la journaliste-star Geoula Even qui n’est autre que l’épouse de Gideon Saar, honni par « Balfour ». Le ministre des Finances Moshe Kahlon, dont le parti de dix sièges est vital à la coalition, dit non. Netanyahou menace de nouvelles élections, mais Kahlon tient bon et Netanyahou ne met pas sa menace à exécution.

Parallèlement, Netanyahou a réussi à élargir sa coalition. Il a longuement négocié avec le parti travailliste pour son entrée au gouvernement, mais l’aile droite du Likoud s’oppose à une telle reconfiguration de la coalition qui entraînerait un gel de la construction dans les implantations. Le leadership des implantations et le ministre Likoud Zeev Elkin font tout pour faire échouer les pourparlers avec le parti travailliste et pour convaincre Liebermann de se joindre à la coalition. Pas facile de convaincre Liebermann, qui ne tarit pas d’insultes sur Netanyahou (« menteur, arnaqueur, voyou » sont les superlatifs cités par la presse). Mais lorsqu’il s’avère que Netanyahou est prêt à céder son royaume pour un cheval (le ministère de la Défense pour cinq députés), Lieberman accepte. Lieberman finira par démissionner en novembre 2018, prétextant ce qu’il appelle la capitulation de Netanyahou face au Hamas. Netanyahou aurait pu tenir avec 61 députés, comme il l’avait fait entre mai 2015 et mai 2016, mais il décide d’avancer les élections.

Après les élections d’avril 2019, le bloc de Netanyahou (Likoud et alliés) se réduit à 60 députés et n’a donc pas de majorité. Liebermann ne veut plus entendre parler de Netanyahou, et ce dernier n’a donc pas de gouvernement. Plutôt que de laisser un autre député tenter sa chance (comme le prévoit la loi), Netanyahou exige de son parti de voter pour une dissolution immédiate. Aux élections de septembre 2019, le parti Bleu et Blanc arrive en tête du Likoud avec 33 députés contre 32. Le « bloc Bibi » compte 55 députés et le « bloc anti-Bibi » en compte 65. Étant donné que Benny Gantz exclue la formation d’un gouvernement avec la liste arabe unifiée, la situation est bloquée. La seule solution est un gouvernement d’union entre Bleu et Blanc et le Likoud. Mais Netanyahou préfère retenter sa chance avec une troisième élection en espérant qu’il obtiendra une majorité de 61 députés pour légiférer une immunité en sa faveur et mettre fin à son procès pour corruption. C’est Zeev Elkin, l’ancien confident du premier ministre, qui nous révèle cette âpre vérité en décembre 2020 : « Monsieur le premier ministre » déclare-t-il devant les caméras, « vous avez entraîné le pays à quatre élections en deux ans par calcul personnel (…) vous avez rejeté un gouvernement d’union après la deuxième élection en espérant à tort qu’une troisième élection vous apporterait la majorité requise pour faire passer des lois personnelles afin de vous protéger de votre procès pour corruption ».

Les accusation d’Elkin vont plus loin : « Vous avez détruit le Likoud, l’avez transformé en une cour byzantine et en culte de la personnalité qui fait taire toute critique » et qui promeut les courtisans serviles et incompétents. Après les élections de mars 2019 (les troisièmes) le « bloc Bibi » n’a que 58 députés et Netanyahou finit à la dernière minute par accepter un accord avec Benny Gantz. Mais Netanyahou laisse dans l’accord un piège que les avocats de Gantz n’ont pas repéré : sans approbation du budget, la Knesset s’auto-dissout et l’accord de coalition devient désuet. C’est pourquoi Netanyahou bloque le passage du budget pendant six mois en pleine crise économique, et c’est pourquoi nous nous dirigeons vers une quatrième élection.

Cette élection, Netanyahou ne pourra pas la gagner à l’instar des trois précédentes. Mais il atteint son but en restant premier ministre intérimaire. Il met donc sa survie politique avant l’intérêt national.

Seul Gideon Saar a eu le courage de se mesurer à Netanyahou pour mettre fin à cette folie. Netanyahou a fait beaucoup de bonnes choses pour Israël, en particulier en politique étrangère. Mais après quinze ans au pouvoir et après deux années de prise en otage d’Israël pour se protéger de son procès, il ne mérite plus de diriger le pays auquel il a beaucoup apporté mais auquel il porte à présent atteinte.

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.