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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


A peaceful tourist

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

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

Corsica, a giant aircraft carrier

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

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

The dangers of collaboration

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

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

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

Patrimonio and lobster

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

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

“You are a spy!”

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

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

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

Last drink

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

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

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

A solid friendship

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

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

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

One last word

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


Claude Blum being decorated


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Israel Is Not Deporting Refugees (The Times of Israel, 1 February 2018)

Israel’s decision to expel illegal immigrants (and to redirect some of them to third countries) has aroused fierce criticism both in Israel and abroad.  The debate about this contentious issue is welcome, but it must be fair and grounded in facts.

There are 37,288 illegal immigrants in Israel.  71% of them are from Eritrea, 21% from Sudan, 7% from other African countries, and 1% from non-African countries.  Most entered Israel illegally from Sinai between 2006 and 2012, and many live in south Tel-Aviv.  Illegal entry into Israel from Sinai during those years was possible because the border between Israel and Egypt was only marked by a low and easily trespassed fence.  In 2010, Israel began the construction of an impregnable barrier which was completed in 2013.  This barrier has put an end to illegal immigration.

Like other signatories of the UN’s Refugees Convention (1951), Israel is bound to grant refugee status to people who flee “genocide, war, persecution, and slavery to dictatorial regimes.”  It did so in 1977 when it accepted Vietnamese “boat people” rejected by other countries.  It has been doing so for the small percentage of African migrants who are actual asylum seekers.  Eritrean immigrants claim the status of refugee based on the harshness of military service in Eritrea.  This claim has been rejected by the Swiss government, for reasons that the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) mostly justified in its 2016 report.  As for Sudanese immigrants, they reached Israel via Egypt -a country where their lives were generally no longer in danger. Israel does consider the Sudanese from Darfur a special case, however, which is why the Israeli government has granted temporary resident status so far to 500 Darfur refugees, and has promised to speed up the RSD (Refugee Status Determination) process for other Darfur refugees.

Israel could theoretically keep illegal work migrants for altruistic reasons (as advocated mainly by American Jewish groups), but the Israeli government, like any responsible and answerable government, must also (some would argue primarily) take into account the well-being of its own citizens.  South Tel-Aviv residents are the victims of rising crime rates and of deteriorating living conditions.  They, too, have human rights.  Some claim that illegal immigrants should be spread out throughout the country to relieve southern Tel-Aviv.  Yet when the Israeli government tried to do just that (in 2009), the Association of Civil Rights in Israel petitioned the High Court of Justice against this policy, claiming that it infringed upon the freedom of movement.

Moreover, as opposed to large and ageing countries such as Germany and Japan, Israel is a small and densely populated country with high birthrates, and therefore it neither has the need nor the capacity to legalize illegal work migration.  Hence does Israel send illegal immigrants back to their countries when they are not eligible for refugee status.  Israel is only expelling illegal immigrants who are single, and it has made clear that it will not expel families.

Israel is far from being the only democracy that sends back illegal immigrants.  The United States expels 400,000 illegal immigrants every year.  Germany has been sending back illegal immigrants to Afghanistan, and Italy to Sudan.  In 2017, Germany expelled 80,000 illegal immigrants.  Starting February 2018, the German government will pay illegal immigrants € 3,000 as an incentive to return to their respective countries.  This policy is consistent with the guidelines of the European Council, which stated on 19 October 2017 that it is favorable to “voluntary resettlement schemes” for illegal immigrants.

Some claim that Israel is only expelling illegal immigrants from Africa but not from eastern Europe.  This accusation is both malicious and false.  In 2017, Israel expelled far more illegal immigrants from the Ukraine (3,361) and from Georgia (844) than from Ethiopia (40).  Israel is the only country in the world that brought in Africans (Ethiopian Jews in 1985 and in 1991), not to enslave them but to make them free.

Israel cannot send back illegal Sudanese immigrants to their country because Israel and Sudan do not have diplomatic relations.  This is why Israel is redirecting some illegal Sudanese immigrants to third countries such as Uganda and Rwanda (and granting them a $3,500 stipend, which covers a year-and-a-half of income).  Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled in December 2017 that: a. The UN refugee convention allows the redirection of immigrants to third countries when their lives are not in danger in those countries, and b. that there is no evidence that the immigrants’ lives will be in danger in Rwanda and in Uganda.  Israel is not the only democracy that redirects illegal immigrants to third countries.  Australia, for example, routinely redirects illegal immigrants to Papua New Guinea.

Israel is a safe haven to all Jews, as well as to non-Jewish asylum seekers who meet the criteria of the Refugee Convention –which most illegal immigrants don’t.  Israel’s policy is consistent with international law and with the practice of other democracies, and it should not be judged by higher standards.

Jerusalem is the Test of US Leadership in the Middle-East (The Times of Israel, 6 December 2017)

The Arab League’s Chairman, Ahmed Abul Gheit, has warned President Trump that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would do as disservice to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as well as ignite violence in the Middle-East.  Given the absence of a peace process and given the abundance of violence in the Middle-East, Mr. Aboul-Gheit’s warning does not even pass the laughing test.  Far from inflaming the region, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would actually send a sobering message to the Arab world: that the time of historical denial is over, and that Israel is being retributed for being the only country in the region that protects the holy sites of all faiths.

The 1947 UN partition plan had recommended the internationalization of Jerusalem, but this recommendation was never implemented.  The Arab League launched a war against the newly declared State of Israel, and the 1949 armistice agreements divided the city between Israel (in the west) and Jordan (in the east).  This de facto partition of Jerusalem was never recognized by the international community.

In September 1949, the UN General Assembly voted again in favor of the internationalization of Jerusalem.  Both Israel and Jordan ignored that resolution.  In December 1950 Israel declared Jerusalem its capital, and Jordan annexed East Jerusalem.  No country recognized those annexations (only Pakistan recognized Jordan’s annexation of East Jerusalem).  Only in 1952 did the UN General Assembly drop the internationalization of Jerusalem from its agenda.  The status quo became tacitly accepted but never legally endorsed.

The Six Day War of June 1967 brought East Jerusalem under Israel’s control.  Hitherto ignored, the status of Jerusalem became hotly contested.  Israel’s sovereignty over East Jerusalem is challenged, but its sovereignty over West Jerusalem was never recognized.  The US government still refuses to register US citizens born in Jerusalem (including in West Jerusalem) as “born in Israel” (a refusal that was upheld by the US Supreme Court in June 2015).  Successive US governments have claimed that they will recognize whatever Israel and the Palestinians agree upon.  Yet such agreement has so far been beyond reach, and the gap between the parties is likely to remain unbridgeable.

During the negotiations at Camp David (July 2000) and in Taba (January 2001), the Palestinians denied the existence of the Jerusalem Temples and, therefore, any Jewish claim to the Temple Mount.  Yet Jerusalem is commonly designated in Islamic sources as Bayit al-Maqdis, which is the Arabic transliteration of the Hebrew Beit Hamikdash (which means “temple”).  A touristic guidebook published by the Supreme Muslim Council in 1924 described the Temple Mount as the ancient site of Solomon’s Temple.  The Palestinians’ “Temple denial” is therefore a new phenomenon that contradicts Muslim tradition.  It flies in the face of historical evidence (such as Flavius Josephus’ The Jewish War) and it is deeply offensive to the Jewish faith.

The Palestinians’ historical denials were and remain one major obstacle to an agreement on the final status of Jerusalem.  Disrespect for other faiths leads to the desecration of their holy places.  When East Jerusalem was under Jordanian rule (between 1949 and 1967), Jews were denied access to the Western Wall, dozens of synagogues were destroyed (including the landmark “Hurva” synagogue), and the Mount of Olives cemetery was desecrated.  In the 1990s, the Palestinian Authority (PA) vandalized Jewish antiquities underneath the Temple Mount as it built two large mosques there.

By contrast, only Israeli sovereignty has guaranteed religious freedom for all and the preservation of the holy places of the three monotheistic religions.  The record of Israel must be weighted against that of Jordan and of the PA while discussing the final status of Jerusalem.

President Trump can recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital without precluding the final status of the holy places or possible future changes in the city’s boundaries.  Russia was the first country to de facto recognize Israel’s sovereignty in West Jerusalem (in April 2017, the Russian foreign ministry declared: “We view West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel”).  If Russia can recognize Israel’s sovereignty in West Jerusalem, why can’t the United States?

It is time for the United States to show leadership in the Middle-East.  Ending a seventy-year-old anomaly, while rewarding the only country in the region that upholds religious freedom and the rule of law, is a good way to start.

70 Years to the UN Vote on Partition (The Times of Israel, 29 November 2017)

The 70th anniversary of the UN resolution on the partition of British Palestine is an opportunity to debunk a myth about this resolution, and to rethink Israel’s policy toward the United Nations.

The General Assembly (GA) vote on 29 November 1947 was a recommendation and not a binding decision (like all GA resolutions).  It became moot the moment it was rejected by the Arab League.  The Security Council did not act to implement the GA resolution, even though it knew that the Arab League opposed the resolution and that it was preparing for war.  Israel would not have become independent had the Jews not built a society and an economy for decades, and had they not won the war imposed on them by the Arab League.

In 1947, Israel got lucky at the UN: Stalin wanted to end Britain’s presence in Palestine (to him, any British and Western retreat was a victory); Truman was determined to override the State Department (“Dealing with them was as rough as a cob” he said); and France was eager to give Britain a taste of its own medicine (the French blamed the British for the independence of Syria and Lebanon in 1944).  There were very few independent Arab and Muslim states back then (Africa, the Middle-East, and South-East Asia were mostly under European colonial rule).

Decolonization and the Cold War changed this configuration to Israel’s disadvantage.  The number of Arab and Muslim states plummeted, and the Soviet Union successfully recruited them to fight “imperialism” (Soviet foreign policy became openly pro-Arab in 1953, and Egypt became a Soviet ally in 1955).  After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Arab world used not only the oil blackmail but also its “automatic majority” at the UN to isolate Israel.  This diplomatic warfare culminated in the November 1975 GA resolution that condemned Zionism as a form of racism.

Despite the end of the Cold War and peace agreements between Israel, Egypt, and Jordan, the political hijacking of the UN never abated.  The 2001 UN Conference against Racism in Durban turned into an anti-Israel festival, and the replacement of the Human Rights Commission by the Human Rights Council (HRC) in 2006 only made things worse for Israel (and for human rights).  Special UN agencies such as UNESCO are still manipulated by the Palestinians and the Arab states to gang-up against Israel.

Yet Israel is not helpless, and there are ways of taming the hijacking of the UN.

One powerful tool is US defund (or threat thereof).  Since the US funds 22% of the UN budget, pulling the plug on agencies such as UNESCO or HRC is likely to concentrate the mind of abusers.  In addition, Israel must strengthen its ties with countries that traditionally vote with the Arab and Muslim bloc at the UN.  Prime Minister Netanyahu’s proactive diplomacy in India, Africa and South America has started to dent the “automatic majority,” but Israel must make it clear to emerging economies that they cannot benefit from Israeli technology while bashing Israel at the UN.  Israel should also use its tacit alliance with Saudi Arabia to drive a wedge in the UN’s “automatic majority.”  The same way that Saudi Arabia led the post-1973 oil embargo against Israel, it can influence the Arab world today in a different direction.  Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s struggle against Iran makes Israel an indispensable partner, thus granting Israel some diplomatic leverage.

Finally, Israel must forcefully make the case for its sovereignty in Jerusalem.  In 1947, the internationalization of Jerusalem was advocated by the Peruvian member of UNSCOP (the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine), Arturo García Salazar (who was his country’s ambassador to the Vatican and was likely influenced by the Pope).  Other members of UNSCOP proposed the city’s partition between the prospective Arab and Jewish states (with a special status for the holy sites).  At the end, a majority recommended internationalization, but the city was divided between Israel and Jordan in 1949, and reunited by Israel in 1967.  The UN eventually gave-up on the internationalization of Jerusalem in the 1950s, but it never gave-up on challenging Israel’s full sovereignty after 1967.  Yet it is only under Israeli sovereignty that religious freedom has been guaranteed and the holy sites of all religions have been protected.

The UN vote of November 1947 was a historical landmark, but it did not create the State of Israel nor did it guarantee its existence.  Since then, the UN has changed for the worse.  Israel was a victim of the political hijacking of the UN after 1973, but today Israel is a powerful country whose military clout, diplomatic reach, and technological edge are coveted.  Israel can and must leverage these assets to improve its position at the UN and, incidentally, to restore some of the UN’s credibility.

Israel and Latin America: It’s Complicated (The Times of Israel, 13 September 2017)

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to Latin America is welcome and long-overdue.  Indeed, it is astonishing that no Israeli prime minister before him ever paid an official visit there.  As Israel is trying to counter Iran’s global reach and to crack the “automatic majority” at the United Nations, investing diplomatic efforts in Latin America is the right thing to do.

Latin America played an important role in the birth of Israel.  Three of the eleven countries that constituted the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) were Latin American (Guatemala, Peru, and Uruguay).  The representative of Guatemala at UNSCOP was George Garcia Granados, a pro-Zionist who had met twice with Menachem Begin in secret when the British were trying to kill him.  Granados pushed hard to get UNSCOP to adopt partition and to get it approved by the General Assembly.

The President of the General Assembly at the time of the vote on partition was Oswaldo Aranha from Brazil.  Like Granados, Aranha also had strong Zionist sympathies.  The vote on UNSCOP’s partition proposal had been scheduled to take place on the 27th of November 1947.  As the vote was approaching, however, it became clear that there was no majority for the approval of partition.  More time was needed to gather support, especially among Latin American countries.  Aranha came up with an idea that saved the day: November 28 was Thanksgiving, he reminded delegates, and it would be unfair to keep American workers at the UN.  He therefore suggested renewing the debates and votes over the UNSCOP proposal after Thanksgiving.  His proposal was accepted, and the extra 48 hours enabled the Jewish Agency to gather more support among UN delegations.  During the vote, the support of Latin American countries was critical.  At the General Assembly, 33 countries voted “yes,” 13 voted “no,” and 10 abstained.  Of the 33 “yes” votes, 13 were from Latin America (i.e. 40%).

Despite this diplomatic support, however, relations were overshadowed by the shelter offered by Latin American governments to senior Nazi criminals such as Adolph Eichmann, Klaus Barbie, and Joseph Mengele.  After Israel captured Eichmann in Argentina in 1960, the Argentinian government complained that Israel had violated diplomatic étiquette, but it did not apologize for granting Eichmann a save heaven in the first place.  Other Nazis lived a happy life in Argentina and died in old age, such as Erich Priebke who died in October 2013 at age 100.  Like many other Nazis, he lived a comfortable life in the Argentinian ski resort of Bariloche, where Joseph Mengele took his driving test and where Erich Priebke ran a deli.  It was said to be the best in town, and customers used to call it “the Nazi deli.”

While most Latin American countries voted in favor of partition at the UN in 1947, their voting patterns at the General Assembly became unfavorable to Israel from the 1960s onward.  In 1964, a voting group of third world countries (known as “Group of 77”) was formed at the General Assembly.  Latin American countries were part of this bloc, which was very much influenced by its Arab and Muslim members.  To Israel, Latin America was “lost” diplomatically but it still mattered economically because of its oil reserves.  After the Iranian revolution of 1979 Israel lost a major oil supplier and oil exporters such as Venezuela, Mexico, Brazil and Ecuador became valuable alternatives.

In addition, Latin America once again became diplomatically relevant to Israel after the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  Due to the oil embargo, most African countries cut their diplomatic ties with Israel, while Western Europe and Japan kowtowed to Arab demands.   Israel tried to bypass its diplomatic isolation by leveraging common interests with unsavory regimes.  In the case of Latin America, this policy meant selling weapons to anti-Soviet and authoritarian countries.

Of all Latin American states, only Cuba severed its diplomatic relations with Israel after the Yom Kippur War.  Latin America became the last bastion of Israel’s presence in the Third World after 1973: Israel was isolated from Africa, and it had no diplomatic relations with China and India.  Except for Cuba after 1959 and Nicaragua after 1979, Latin America did not become “red” during the Cold War.  The United States was eager to prevent a Communist “domino effect” in what it considered to be its backyard.  In Chile, the Socialist Salvador Allende was eliminated by the CIA shortly after his election in 1973.  Latin American dictators knew they could count on the United States to keep Communist rebels at bay.

Yet this policy was suspended under Jimmy Carter’s presidency (1977-1981).  Carter stopped giving carte blanche to anti-Communist dictators in Latin America because of their human rights violations.  For example, Carter vetoed in 1977 the granting of a loan to Argentina for the purchase of US weapons.  Israel filled the void temporarily left by America by becoming a major arms supplier to most Latin American countries, such as Argentina, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Honduras.  In 1980, for example, Israel was reportedly providing 80% of El Salvador’s military hardware.

Except for Nicaragua after the 1979 Sandinista Revolution, all Central American countries bought weapons from Israel.  This was a win-win relationship since Latin America needed Israel’s weapons as much as Israel needed Latin America’s oil (especially after the 1979 Iranian revolution).  Communist guerillas also happened to have close ties with the PLO and with anti-Western Arab leaders.  The Sandinistas in Nicaragua, for example, had been cooperating with the PLO since 1969 and they enjoyed the military and financial support of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

In recent years, relations between Israel and Latin America are overshadowed by the influence of Iran and Hezbollah.  On the 18th of July 1994, the Jewish community center of Buenos Aires was bombed, killing 85 people.  It was revealed in October 2006 that Iran had ordered the bombing and that Hezbollah had carried it out.  In June 2013, Alberto Nisman, Argentina’s special prosecutor, issued a 500-page report showing that Iran had been building a network in Argentina for 30 years.  Nisman’s report revealed that Iran’s intelligence activities in Latin America are conducted directly by Iranian officials and through Hezbollah.  Nisman was found dead on 18 January 2015, hours before he was scheduled to testify in Congress.  Nisman has drafted warrants for the arrest of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner for her alleged role in covering-up the role of Iran and Hezbollah in the 1994 bombing.

Hezbollah’s presence in Latin America is growing through the expansion of Iran’s diplomatic and intelligence missions, businesses and investments.  Hezbollah started its infiltration of Latin America in the mid-1980s, establishing its first major stronghold in the Tri-Border Area, a relatively lawless region along the frontiers of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.  From this base, deep in the heart of South America, Hezbollah set up illicit enterprises to fund its operations in the Middle East and elsewhere. Among the organization’s reported major undertakings are money-laundering, counterfeiting, piracy and drug trafficking.  The Tri-Border Area constitutes Hezbollah’s most significant source of independent funding.  Hezbollah has gained entry into Latin America through Iran, which has strengthened ties with Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua.

Argentina’s previous president, Cristina Kirchner, had developed strong ties with Iran.  Her successor and political opponent, Maurizio Macri (elected in December 2015), has rectified Argentina’s foreign policy.  He is well-disposed toward the West and toward Israel, and Netanyahu is right to build a personal relationship with him as well as with other like-minded Latin American leaders.  The prime minister’s trip to Latin America is timely, and his diplomatic initiative praiseworthy.


New Likudniks legitimately play by the rules of a flawed game (The Times of Israel, 30 August 2017)

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud party is in the throes of a public family feud.  Thousands of freshly registered Likud members, self-branded as “New Likudniks,” are accused by some (including by Netanyahu himself) of being closet leftists that are crashing the party (pun intended) to move it leftward.  Likud’s legal advisor, Avi Halevi, claims that the New Likudniks’ registration drive is illegal because it is “manipulative.”

In Israel, Members of Knesset (MKs) do not run in districts but vie for the highest slots in the (many) parties competing for the Knesset’s 120 seats.  Parties are entitled to select their candidates as they wish, and they do so in different ways.  Yair Lapid and Avigdor Lieberman singlehandedly handpick their candidates by order of preference.  In ultra-orthodox parties (Shas and UTJ), candidates are selected by a “council of sages.”  In Likud, Labor and Jewish Home, Knesset candidates are elected by registered party members in primary elections (the English word “primaries” has imposed itself in modern Hebrew).

It did not take long for the Jewish mind to figure-out how to take advantage of primary elections.  Interest groups sign-up thousands of members to force the hand of candidates.  This is not mere lobbying: candidates do not stand a chance it they don’t toe the line of vested interests with large numbers of registered party members.  “Organized groups,” as they are called, multiply their influence by trading votes (“We’ll support your candidates if you support ours”).  Among Likud’s 100,000 or so registered members, organized groups include quite a range of vested interests: settlers, trade unionists, gays, taxi drivers, divorcés, and even cabbalists.

This free-for-all contest produces awkward results.  Trade-unionists impose their socialist agenda on a pro-market party; settlers block any move toward a two-state solution officially endorsed by the Prime minister since 2009; and showing-up at gay parades has become de rigueur for MKs of a supposedly conservative party.  Vested interest groups know that MKs pledge their allegiance disingenuously and for lack of better choice; but those groups care about submissiveness, not about good-faith.  Yet the side-effect of this cynicism is the rewarding of opportunism and of deceit.  Indeed, a quick glance at most Likud MKs is worth a thousand words about the shortcomings of party primaries.

Not only are the New Likudniks no different in their methods than other organized groups; but they are not, in fact, promoting vested interests.  Rather, they want to bring back sanity and balance to a party that has lost both.  To a party whose charter calls for free markets (Article 1.G), for the rule of law and for equal rights to all (Article 1.E); a party in which Dan Meridor, Benny Begin and Michael Eitan failed to get elected in the 2012 primaries.

For praiseworthy at it is, however, the New Likudniks’ undertaking is not what is needed to cure the ills of party primaries.  The solution lies in introducing open lists in Israel’s electoral system.

Like in most democracies (65% of them), Israel’s voting system is one of party-list proportional representation (Knesset representation is proportional to the number of votes obtained by parties on election day).  Yet unlike most democracies that practice proportional representation, Israel does not allow voters to influence the composition of the list they vote for.  In open list elections, voters not only choose a party but also the order of candidates on the party’s list.  Israel belongs to a minority of countries (16%) that still practice a system of closed lists, i.e. a system in which voters are not able to reward or penalize their representatives.  In open list elections, candidates are selected based on their ideas, record and personality, and not by murky party machinations.  They are answerable to their voters and not to party stalwarts and vested interests.  In open lists, parties are still free to select their candidates as they wish (either by the party chairman, by a “council of sages,” by a central committee, or by primaries), but the last word belongs to voters.

Adopting open list elections in Israel would require legislation.  Chances of gathering a Knesset majority for such legislation would be higher were the adoption of open lists made optional, i.e. if parties are entitled but not compelled to open their lists to voters’ judgement.  Parties will be entitled to have the only and last word on their Knesset list, but they will have an incentive to adopt open lists because voters who hesitate between two similar parties on election day will go for the one that enables them to choose their candidates.  As for one-man-show parties that care a lot about their public image (think of Yair Lapid), open lists will enable them to repel the accusation that they are undemocratic.

Pre-Knesset primary elections (which Likud adopted in 2006 upon Netanyahu’s insistence) are fictitious and corrupt.  The New Likudniks a legitimately playing the by the rules of a flawed game.  In the 2015 Knesset elections, Netanyahu opened Likud’s campaign by promising to change Israel’s electoral system “within 100 days.”  It is not too late for him to honor this commitment by promoting a reform that shall improve the level of MKs and make them answerable to their voters.


Narendra Modi in Israel: The Apex of India’s Diplomatic Realignment (The Times of Israel, 3 July 2017)

The historically unprecedented visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Israel may come as a surprise to some.  India’s early leaders were lukewarm at best toward Israel, and the two countries were at odds during the Cold War.  Today, India and Israel are strategic partners and Modi’s visit confirms a diplomatic realignment that began years ago.

India and Israel both obtained their independence after a fierce struggle against Great-Britain, and the two countries were partitioned because of religious and ethnic strife.  The partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947 between a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan produced a double Hindu/Muslim refugee tragedy (estimated at 14 million people) and a geographically divided Muslim state (Pakistan was split between its main landmass in the west and its eastern province, which became Bangladesh in 1971).  British Palestine was also partitioned de facto in 1949 (with the Rhodes armistice agreements) between a Jewish-majority Israel and a geographically divided Muslim polity (the Jordanian-controlled West Bank, and the Egyptian-controlled Gaza Strip).  This partition also produced a double-refugee phenomenon between Jews and Arabs.

Mahatma Gandhi opposed partition as a matter of principle.  He strove for a pluralistic and unified India.  So he certainly did not apply a double-standard by opposing the partition of Palestine, too.  But he also opposed Zionism.  Because he considered the Jews a religion and not a nation, he rejected their right to national self-determination (especially in Palestine which, he claimed, was the sole property of the Arabs).  India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, formerly recognized Israel in 1950 but he refrained from establishing full diplomatic relations.  Despite partition, India still had a large Muslim minority and Nehru did not want to provoke further unrest with a divisive diplomatic move.  India also needed diplomatic support in its conflict with Pakistan, and would therefore not unnecessarily alienate Arab and Muslim states by upgrading relations with Israel.

During the Cold War, India aligned with the Soviet Union in spite of its officially “non-aligned” foreign policy.  This diplomatic alignment further widened the rift between India and Israel, especially after the 1967 Six Day War (at the end of which the Soviet Union severed its diplomatic relations with Israel).  The pro-Soviet foreign policy of India was institutionalized under Indira Gandhi’s premiership (1966-1977, and 1980-1984).  Despite this official chasm, however, Israel provided weapons to India in its conflicts with China (in 1962) and with Pakistan (in 1971).

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, India lost its international backer.  The United States, which had nominally supported Pakistan during the Cold War, was now interested in developing a strategic relationship with India, especially to counter-balance China’s growing power in Asia.  This shift in US foreign policy was materialized by the 2008 Congress bill which allowed India to use nuclear technology (despite the fact that India was not a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty).

India and Israel established full diplomatic relations in 1992.  India’s conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir entered a danger zone when Pakistan detonated its first nuclear bomb in 1998 (India had been a military nuclear power since 1974).  India could now benefit from Israel’s technological and military expertise at a low diplomatic cost.  Hence the emergence of a strategic partnership between the two countries.  In 1999, for example, Israel provided India with surveillance drones and laser-guided missiles during the “Kargil war” with Pakistan.

India’s rapprochement with Israel was also influenced by Indian domestic politics.  There is a striking similarity between the political history of the two countries (besides partition).  Both India and Israel were uninterruptedly ruled during the first three decades of their independence by a Socialist party: The Congress Party in India, and Mapai in Israel.  The two countries had a marginalized and ostracized nationalist right: the Janata party in India (today’s BJP) and the Herut party in Israel (today’s Likud).  Both the Indian and Israeli right-wing parties won their first election in 1977.  BJP won the 1998 general election and it led a diplomatic realignment, which included a rapprochement with Israel.  The Indian right was always staunchly pro-Israel and critical of Congress’ pro-Soviet and pro-Arab foreign policy.  Narendra Modi brought BJP to power again in 2014 and he renewed his party’s pro-American and pro-Israel foreign policy.

Today, India is Israel’s largest importer of military equipment, and Israel is India’s third largest provider of military equipment after the United States and Russia.  Prime Minister Modi has approved a $250 billion multiyear plan to modernize the Indian army (India’s two major regional rivals are Pakistan and China).  Israel has been chosen by India as a key player in this modernization plan.  In April 2017, for example, India’s Defense Ministry signed a $2 billion contract with the Israel Aircraft Industry (IAI) for the supply of missile defense systems.

Prime Minister Modi has also taken the unprecedented step of breaking ranks with the UN General Assembly’s “automatic majority,” which Arab States have exploited for four decades to pass one-sided resolutions on the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Modi will not be visiting the Palestinian Authority during his trip to Israel, something the Palestinians will likely interpret as a snub.

Modi is uninhibited by the “Muslim vote” (14% of India’s population), as his BJP party draws its political strength from Hindu nationalism.  He sees in radical Islam the common enemy of both India and Israel.  As for Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, strengthening ties with India is part of a wider strategy of diplomatic diversification meant to reduce Israel’s dependency on its growingly critical European partners.