Rome and Jerusalem (Times of Israel, 10 May 2024)

 

 

 

On the 8th of May 2024, ELNET (European Leadership Network) held its first Italy-Israel strategic dialogue in Rome, in partnership with the De Gasperi Foundation. The date was symbolic because May 8 marks the end of World War II in Europe. Italians and Jews fought together as brothers toward the end of the war in northern Italy. The Italian Resistance and the Jewish Brigade joined the Allies to fight and defeat the Nazis, intoning Bella Ciao –the song of the Italian partisans– and Hatikva –the Hebrew ode to hope that became Israel’s national anthem.

The Jewish Brigade had been established in the Summer of 1944. It was composed of Palestinian Jews (this is how Israelis were called at the time) and it started fighting in Italy in October 1944. Unlike the Jewish Legion that fought during World War One and which was made up of Diaspora Jews, the Jewish Brigade was composed of what Italians call Ebrei –Hebrews. Jews who spoke Hebrew, who lived in their historic homeland, and who were rebuilding their country.

It is symbolic that in 1944 Hebrew and Italian soldiers fought together because, eighteen hundred years before, Roman and Judean soldiers had fought each other. The two Jewish-Roman wars between the years 66 and 136 were eventually won by the Roman Empire. The Jews were defeated and scattered, and their country was destroyed. But if we look at history in a broad perspective, the Jews ended-up having the upper hand. They survived eighteen centuries of exile and rebuilt their independence. The Roman empire, by contrast, is no longer around –even though it has shaped, and continues to influence, Western civilization.

This civilization rests upon two pillars: Rome and Jerusalem. It is from Jerusalem that the Jews wrote the Bible and observed its commandments, and it is from there that the Jewish faith became a universal message via the Church. Rome incorporated and expanded both Hellenism and Christianism. This unique blend produced Western civilization which, with the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, became a wonder of scientific innovation, of cultural richness, and of political freedom. This civilization, of which our two respective capitals are the cornerstones, is under attack today –both by radical Islam and by post-modernism.

You only need to look at European and at American universities to witness this coordinated assault. The same people on Western campuses who call for the elimination of Israel also chant “Death to America.” The billions spent by Qatar and by Saudi Arabia on American universities have turned entire departments into machines of indoctrination, with the willing support of radical professors whose deconstructionist agenda is only directed at Western culture.

Hence the bizarre alliance between two otherwise incompatible ideologies: post-modern nihilism and pre-modern Islamism. The only reason they are joining forces is because they have a common enemy: Western civilization. It is no coincidence that Judith Butler, who has spent her professional life fighting the core values of the Judeo-Christian civilization, has described Hamas as a progressive movement, and October 7 as an act of resistance.

In this unholy alliance between wannabee revolutionaries and medieval reactionaries, the former always end up being the useful idiots of the latter. Those tik-tok students who wear a keffiyeh today would have worn a Che Gevara shirt forty years ago.

It is both tragic and ironic that, as Iranian women risk their lives by removing their headscarves, spoiled and ignorant students in the West walk around with those scarves thinking they are cool. They follow the steps of Jean-Paul Sartre who, in 1963, went to Prague to tell the Czechs oppressed by Communism that they were lucky to be on the right side of the iron curtain.

Sartre, like most French intellectuals then and Western academics today, was at least consistent in always being on the wrong side of history. He didn’t join the French resistance, he praised Mao Zedong, and he considered Ayatollah Khomeini a liberator. Michel Foucault called Khomeini a holy man. As we all know, Foucault was hardly an expert on holiness… Given his personal lifestyle, he would not have survived a single day in the Islamic republic. But, of course, Sartre and Foucault were only fascinated by the totalitarian and destructive ideologies of Mao and of Khomeini.

A hundred years before that, in 1856, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his book L’ancien régime et la révolution that French philosophers were fascinated by autocratic China. That’s because, Tocqueville explained, the radical philosophes were not interested in freedom but in imposing their untested ideas on others. Another brilliant French mind, Raymond Aron, described Marxism as the “opium of the intellectuals.” Marxism has morphed into wokeism, but many intellectuals still need their opium.

We must provide an alternative to that opium by rebuilding the pride of our youth in Western civilization. There are no better places to start from than Rome and Jerusalem.

Rome and Jerusalem is the name of a book published in 1862 by Moses Hess, a Jewish-German philosopher who argued that the Jews needed to reclaim the national component of their identity and to put an end to their exile. Hess was addressing a question raised by the defeat of the Judean armies in the first century, which I mentioned earlier. This defeat was described in detail by Flavius Josephus in his book The Jewish Wars.

Toward the end of the book, Josephus tells the story of Emperor Titus visiting the city of Antioch whose inhabitants demanded from him the expulsion of the Jews. And this is what Titus told them: “Well, their country, where they should be sent back since they’re Jews, has just been destroyed, and no other territory can welcome them.”

Those words were pronounced 1,954 years ago. The Jews have survived that period against all odds, and they have rebuilt a country that is free, prosperous, and successful. This is a source of pride and inspiration to whoever wants to preserve Western civilization, and a source of rage and frustration to those who want to destroy it.

I’ve used the words “pride” and “rage” as a reference to Oriana Fallaci’s book The Rage and the Pride (“La rabbia e l’orgoglio”), which she published shortly after 9/11. As Sartre and Foucault were celebrating Khomeini, Oriana confronted him. The pride Florentine donna threw her chador in Khomeini’s face after interviewing him for hours, and then told him the following: “Your revolution did not yield the good fruit that people had called for, did not bring any of the things you had promised. Less freedom than ever. You are headed for darker waters, Imam.”

Oriana ends her book –which she called a sermon– by writing that she wants an Italy that defends its values, its culture, its national identity.

It is for this Italy, and for this Israel, that we fought together in 1944.

And it is for them that we must fight again today.

Israel’s Judicial System Needs an Evolution, Not a Revolution (12 February 2023)

 

The controversy around the constitutional overhaul proposed by the Netanyahu government understandably leaves outside observers confused. The purpose of this article is to understand this controversy and to suggest a constructive solution to the current constitutional crisis.

In the absence of a written constitution, Israel’s system of checks-and-balances between the three branches of government has evolved empirically. For the first three decades that followed Israel’s independence in 1948, the Socialist Mapai party dominated Israeli politics. In the absence of a bicameral parliament, of a presidential veto to legislation, and of regional elections for the Knesset, the only counter-power to the government was (and still is) the Supreme Court. Menachem Begin was full of praise for the Judiciary precisely because judges were a shield of last resort in a system dominated by his nemesis David Ben Gurion.

In contemporary Israeli politics, judicial activism is generally criticized by the right and defended by the left. But, five decades ago, the opposite was true. Indeed, Yitzhak Rabin resigned in 1977 because then-Attorney General Aharon Barak decided to prosecute him over the bank account he and his wife illegally held in the U.S. (Rabin’s resignation paved the way for Likud’s historical victory).

Israel’s Supreme Court became more activist under the presidency of Meir Shamgar (1983-1995) and of Aharon Barack (1995-2006). During that period, the Court made five profound changes to Israel’s constitutional order by declaring that:

  1. Israel’s basic laws collectively constitute a de facto constitution and that the Court has the authority to strike down unconstitutional legislation;
  2. Everything is justiciable, meaning that the Court can rule on any matter and not only on legal ones;
  3. There should be no restriction to petitioning the Court, and therefore standing applies to anyone;
  4. The Attorney General’s advice is binding and must be accepted as is by the government;
  5. The Court can strike down government decisions not only for being illegal but also for being “unreasonable” in the Court’s opinion.

Some of those principles are common in other democracies. But, in Israel, they were not the outcome of legislation nor of public debate. They were simply and unilaterally imposed by the Court itself. This judicial overreach went further yet after the Knesset passed in 2018 a basic law that officially defines Israel as a nation state. The Court was expectedly petitioned to strike down the law.

According to its own doctrine (i.e., basic laws enjoy a constitutional status), the Court should have dismissed the petitioners out of hand. It did not. Rather, the Court argued that it was free to revise its own doctrine and strike down basic laws as well. The new basic law was spared that fate only because the Court could not find anything wrong with it.

This new constitutional order produced an imbalance because the Judiciary ends up having the last word on matters of policy, and because the activist Court is now used as a de facto second chamber by the opposition when it loses a vote in parliament. Add to this the fact that the Israeli left was dealt a fatal and durable electoral blow by the Second Intifada, while it can count on sympathetic judges in the Court, and you understand why the Israeli right has been bemoaning for the past two decades that it keeps winning at the ballot box only to be struck down by the bench.

Hence has judicial activism become a right-left issue in Israeli politics. Having won a majority after five consecutive inconclusive elections, and having formed a government that sees judicial overhaul as a priority, the pro-Netanyahu right feels that it has hit the jackpot and that it cannot let go of a golden opportunity.

The reforms presented by Yariv Levin on January 4th, 2023, include the following:

  1. The government would handpick Supreme Court judges of its liking;
  2. The Court would in effect lose its power to strike down unconstitutional legislation because the Knesset would be able to re-legislate it with a simple majority of 61;
  3. The Court would no longer be able to use the principle of “unreasonableness” to strike down government decisions;
  4. The ruling of government legal advisors would cease to be binding, and ministers will be entitled to hire and fire their ministry’s legal advisor at will without the involvement of the Ministry of Justice.

In effect, the government would become mostly unrestricted.

Altogether, those four reforms go too far, and they would replace one imbalance with another instead of fixing the imbalance produced by the Court over the years. In order to improve checks-and-balances and to enjoy broad public support, the reform of Israel’s judicial system should include the five elements below:

  1. The principle of justiciability (i.e., the purview of the High Court) must be clearly delineated so as not to apply to all aspects of government policy and of Knesset legislation;
  2. The principle of “unreasonableness” should be restricted but not repealed altogether – as proposed in fact by Supreme Court Justice Noam Solberg;
  3. Standing should be narrowed to petitioners who can prove that they are affected by a law or administrative decision;
  4. Both judicial review of legislation and the override of the Court should require a special majority, not a simple one. Israel should adopt a charter of basic rights and freedoms if it is to add an override clause to its mechanism of checks-and-balances;
  5. The override clause should not apply to the fundamental rights spelled out by the bill of rights. Basic laws should not be within the reach of judicial review, but the Knesset should not escape judicial review just by arbitrarily adding the adjective “basic” to any legislation.

Such reforms need to be discussed and to gather wide support. The current coalition controls 53% of the Knesset but only received 48.38% of the popular vote. It should not force radical reforms with the support of barely half of the electorate. Recent polls clearly show that most Israelis do not want an imbalanced and rushed reform.

As for the committee that appoints judges, it has already been reformed in a positive way. The committee is composed of nine members: the minister of justice, another cabinet member, two members of Knesset, two members of the lawyers’ association, and three Supreme Court judges (including the Court’s president). The assertion that “judges appoint themselves” was mostly true until 2008 because the three Justices would team up with the lawyers’ association to impose their picks.

But this is no longer the case. In 2008, the law was amended so as to require a majority of seven out of nine, thus breaking up the “automatic majority” of the judges. All members of the committee are now forced to compromise. This mechanism, which enabled conservative justice ministers such as Ayelet Shaked and Gideon Sa’ar to block overly activist judges and to nominate more moderate ones, shows that piecemeal and constructive reforms are possible. This being said, an additional reform of the committee can be discussed.

The compromise proposal of President Herzog, as a basis for discussion, is welcome. The State of Israel needs an agreed, clarified, and balanced constitutional order.

“The Tragedy of Eric Zemmour” (The Times of Israel, 3 April 2022)

France has had two Jewish heads of government: Léon Blum between 1936 and 1937, and Pierre Mendès-France between 1954 and 1955 (Michel Debré, who served as prime minister between 1959 and 1962, had a Jewish father but not a Jewish mother; Laurent Fabius, who served between 1984 and 1986, is of Jewish descent but his family converted to Catholicism and he was raised as a Catholic). Though their Jewishness was a matter of controversy at the time, especially for Léon Blum, a Jewish prime minister would not raise eyebrows in France today. Being head of state is a different matter, however. In Europe, heads of state (whether hereditary monarchs or elected presidents) incarnate the nation. In France, they inherit the mantle of kings and emperors. Since the establishment of the Fifth Republic by Charles de Gaulle in 1958, French presidents have often been described as “Republican monarchs” because of their extended powers. By running for president, Eric Zemmour is setting a precedent of the first Jew vying for what the French call “la fonction suprême” (the supreme function).

One could have expected Catholics, monarchists, and ultra-conservatives object to a Jew claiming the virtual crown of French kings. After all, when Léon Blum became premier in June 1936, monarchist parliamentarian Xavier Vallat complained that “For the first time, this Gallo-Roman land is going to be governed by a Jew.” Yet the very opposite has happened with Zemmour, who has gathered the support of France’s most conservative figures. Zemmour’s maiden speech as candidate on 5 December 2021 was preceded by public endorsements. Among them was ultra-conservative politician and author Paul-Marie Coûteaux, who declared that Eric Zemmour shall “incarnate ‘the king’s second body’, the immemorial and immortal body of France” and become in effect “King of France.”

Anticipating the bewilderment of his audience, given Zemmour’s Jewishness, Coûteaux explained that Zemmour’s authentic love for France has granted him access to the Catholic anointment of French Kings: “This transubstantiation, which was once called ‘the king’s two bodies’, is a moral matter, and, like every moral matter in a Christian land, is a question of love. Yes, Zemmour is a love story, an unshakable love for this country.”

Coûteaux’s speech was altogether bizarre and telling. The Catholic and monarchist right, which eight decades ago vilified Léon Blum as a “Talmudist” unfit to rule over a “nation of peasants” (in Xavier Vallat’s words), is willing today to anoint an Algerian Jew because he has proven his indefectible love for France and because such love is needed to protect an old Christian nation from Islamization (whose main source, incidentally, is Zemmour’s native Algeria). Coûteaux is not an isolated and iconoclastic case. Zemmour has also been endorsed by Philippe de Villiers, a prominent Catholic and monarchist politician. France’s Catholic right is not endorsing Zemmour simply because his intellect and debating skills far surpass those of Marine Le Pen. Something deeper is at stake.

One of Zemmour’s leitmotivs is that France is not a race but a Catholic nation, and that immigrants must assimilate (and not merely integrate) into that nation by learning its language, by adopting its culture, by identifying with its history, and by keeping religious observance to the private sphere. Zemmour proudly reminds his audiences that he did just that as a “Berberian Jew,” and that today’s immigrants can and must do the same. Zemmour often quotes, and fully endorses, the famous formula of Count Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre who said during a debate at the French national assembly in 1789 that Jews “should be granted everything as individuals but nothing as a nation.” This formula was turned into policy by Napoléon Bonaparte in 1806 following the resolutions of the “Grand Sanhedrin.” Zemmour continues to endorse this policy of “replacing Jerusalem with Paris.”

Unlike Bruno Kreisky (a former Austrian chancellor who, despite having Jewish parents, said he had no connection whatsoever with Judaism), Zemmour openly identifies as a Jew. His wife is Jewish (so is his mistress…), he celebrates Jewish holidays, and he occasionally attends an Orthodox synagogue. Yet his identification as a Jew is solely religious and not national. His religious allegiance is to Judaism, but his national allegiance is to France. Hence is he not a Zionist.

When Zemmour advocates the preservation of French civilization, he sounds genuine because he has embraced that civilization. When he says that immigrants should give French names to their children, he cannot be accused of nativism since his family did just that after immigrating from Algeria. “Racism,” Zemmour explained in his abovementioned speech, means “claiming that those who are different from us are inferior because they are different, and that you can only be French if you descend from Clovis. How could I possibly believe that, me, a little Berberian Jew who came from the other side of the Mediterranean?” As an admirer of Bonaparte, Zemmour can think of another Mediterranean foreigner who fell in love with France and became its leader. Yet Zemmour owes his popularity among French nationalists not only to his assimilationist ideology, but also to his description of France as the “New Israel.”

In his book Destin français (“French destiny”), Zemmour has a chapter named “Saint-Louis, the Jewish king.” In it, he claims that, since the Carolingian dynasty, the Franks considered themselves the new chosen people and that the French monarchy took from the Hebrew Bible both its rituals (such as the king’s ointment) and its concepts (such as the chosen people and the divine source of power). For Zemmour, there is no contradiction between his religious allegiance to Judaism and his national allegiance to France, because “For centuries Israel was France’s model.” Moreover, Zemmour writes in this chapter, “It is no coincidence that Israel has been hated for decades by France’s post-Christian and post-colonial Left which, after having venerated Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China … has subjugated itself to Islam as the ultimate banner against nations … Israel is the mirror of a France they hate.”

Zemmour’s 2014 book Le suicide français (“The French Suicide”) was his first bestseller and made him a household name. The book dedicates eight pages out of 527 to the different historical perspectives on the Vichy regime. Those few pages are actually about US historian Robert Paxton, whose book Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944 (published in English in 1972 and in French in 1973) challenged traditional French historiography on Vichy. Zemmour dedicates 1.5 percent of his book to Paxton as part of his general thesis, which is that the French radical left failed to overthrow de Gaulle in May 1968 but managed to undo his legacy over the next forty years by way of systematic “deconstruction” in academia, the media, the judiciary, and the high civil service. According to Zemmour, the French left enthusiastically embraced Paxton because his book was a perfect fit for the “deconstruction” of French history.

Zemmour challenges Paxton’s thesis that the Vichy government was eager to collaborate with Germany. Until Paxton, the consensus among French historians was that Vichy had played a double-game to try and preserve the French people. Although Paxton challenges this thesis, he himself admits that three quarters of France’s Jews survived the Holocaust –as opposed to a quarter of Dutch Jews for example. Paxton claims that 75% of France’s Jews survived thanks to French civil society. Until Paxton, Zemmour explains, many historians agreed that Vichy’s double-game had played a role in preserving French Jews. Such was the opinion of French historian Robert Aron and of US historian Raul Hilberg (both of whom were Jewish).

In recent years, Paxton’s thesis has been challenged by Alain Michel, a Franco-Israeli historian and Conservative rabbi mentioned by Zemmour in his book. Michel holds a Ph.D. in history but he is not a history professor, and his 2011 book Vichy et la Shoah (“Vichy and the Shoah”) was published by an obscure publishing house. Michel claims that the Vichy government traded foreign Jews, or recently naturalized ones, to preserve “French Israelites.” In any case, all Zemmour does in Le suicide français is to confront Paxton’s thesis with that of three Jewish historians who claim that Vichy’s double-game did play a role in preserving some French Jews, in spite of Vichy’s antisemitic policies.

In his book Destin français (2018), Zemmour elaborates further on the distinction between French and foreign Jews (or recently naturalized ones) under the Vichy government. This distinction was sometimes advocated by Jews themselves. Zemmour quotes a letter from Jacques Helbronner, then president of the Consistoire (the institution established by Bonaparte in 1808 to administer Jewish worship and congregations in France) to Marshall Philippe Pétain. In it, Helbronner blamed the “invasion” of France by foreign Jews for understandably reviving an antisemitism now directed at “old French family of the Israelite religion.” Pétain promised Helbronner that he would distinguish between Jews “rooted” in France, especially war veterans, and recent Jewish immigrants.

There is, of course, a political motivation behind Zemmour’s efforts to posthumously reconcile the respective legacies of de Gaulle and Pétain. His aim is to unify the French right, which was split by the Algerian war. In the 1980s, President Mitterrand had cynically encouraged the ascendency of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s “national front” by changing the electoral law (he briefly replaced a first-past-the post system with proportional voting in 1986). While Mitterrand had no problem allying with the Communists, he branded Le Pen as illegitimate – thus undermining the right’s electoral prospects. Zemmour is trying to end this divide, which implies wooing the right that had welcomed Pétain in 1940, had opposed de Gaulle in 1962, and had raised the anti-immigration banner in the 1980s.

Zemmour’s efforts to legitimize the hitherto illegitimate right, however, have led him to murky waters. In his recent book La France n’a pas dit son dernier mot (“France hasn’t said its last word”), Zemmour laments the fact that the three Jewish children murdered by an Islamist terrorist in March 2012 in the city of Toulouse were buried in Israel and not in France. According to Zemmour, the parents and grandparents of the murdered children (the Sandler family) felt a stronger affiliation to Israel than to France, something Zemmour regrets. This statement was extremely insensitive toward the Sandler family and its tragedy. Zemmour could have argued that a growing number of French Jews prefer Israel to France for their burial by using official statistics and while leaving the Sandler family alone (Zemmour has since then called Samuel Sandler to apologize).

Another indication of how far Zemmour is ready to go to “kosherize” the deep right was his recent statement on the Dreyfus Affair. This legal and political drama tore France apart over a century ago, setting secularists against Catholics, republicans against monarchists, and advocates of principled justice against defenders of raison d’État. Zemmour recently declared that we shall never know the whole truth about the Dreyfus Affair, that it is not entirely clear whether Dreyfus was guilty or innocent, and that anyways Dreyfus had been accused not much as a Jew but as a German (Dreyfus was a native of Alsace, which Bismarck had annexed to the German Reich in 1871).

Zemmour seems to be aiming at army officers, 40% of which believe that Dreyfus was not innocent. Yet by casting doubt, out of cynical political calculation, on Dreyfus’ innocence as well as on the fact that Dreyfus was framed because he was Jewish, Zemmour is crossing a red line. That Dreyfus was innocent and that his false accusation was motivated by antisemitism is not a matter of debate among historians. Even Jean-Marie Le Pen, known for his provocative and outrageous statements (he once described the Holocaust as “a detail” of World War II) has not tried to “reopen” the Dreyfus Affair

Hence is Zemmour accused by his opponents of absolving the antisemitic right with the seal of a Jew. Except that, in recent years, Jews in France have been attacked and murdered for being Jewish by Islamists, not by neo-Nazis or Vichy nostalgists. The gruesome list includes the barbarous murders of Sébastien Sellam in 2003, of Ilan Halimi in 2006, of the children of Toulouse’s Jewish school in 2012, of the customers of a kosher supermarket in Paris in 2015, of Sarah Halimi in 2017, and of Mireille Knoll in 2018.

While Zemmour is embraced by France’s most conservative figures, despite being open about his Jewishness, it is the French left that singles him out as a Jew (even as a Zionist). On 18 September 2021, Zemmour was heckled by “antifa” activists (a far-left movement) who yelled at him: “Zemmour, Zionist, go back to your country!” On 29 October 2021, far-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélanchon said in a TV interview that Zemmour’s ideas were influenced by what he described as Judaism’s intrinsic conservatism and strong attachment to a particular identity. On 13 February 2022, environmentalist candidate Yannick Jadot accused Eric Zemmour of being “the antisemites’ useful Jew” (“Juif de service” in French).

Like Saint-Louis, Zemmour aspires to become France’s Jewish King. As he wrote in his book Destin français, “Israel is the mirror of a France they [the French left] hate.” But so is Zemmour himself. Hence the tragedy of Eric Zemmour. He may have achieved the tour de force of anointing “a little Berberian Jew” (to quote his own words) as the candidate of French Catholics and archconservatives. Yet Zemmour is still singled out as a Jew no matter how French he claims to be, thus replicating the lethal illusion of assimilated French Jews (such as Alfred Dreyfus) who sincerely believed that their love for France was mutual. It never was and never will be, as Theodor Herzl realized in Paris. And, incidentally, there is no more need for Zemmour to “replace Jerusalem with Paris”: Jerusalem has been rebuilt, while in Paris Jews are still singled out.

“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.”