Category Archives: Ehud Olmert

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Israel and America: Going from ‘shared-values’ to ‘added-value’?

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minis...

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deliver a press conference following their meeting in the Oval Office. Screen-shot from official White House video. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s almost complete agreement among serious political analysts that Israel’s next government will not last out its term.

There will simply be too much external pressure on Israel to advance a meaningful peace process with the Palestinians, and too much internal coalition pressure to advance meaningful socio-economic structural reforms [equal sharing of the burden].

The one caveat to this is a drawn-out security situation, like war with Iran and/ or intense skirmishes along the Sinai, Golan, and Jordan borders with Islamists. Assuming the latter doesn’t happen, the next government will most likely be made up of Likud-Beytenu, the ultra-Orthodox Shas and UTJ parties, Habayit Hayehudi led by Naftali Bennett, and perhaps a ‘fig leaf’ party from the center left [Lapid's Yesh Atid, Livni's Hatnuah, and Kadima if it passes the electoral threshold].

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s main messages, as outlined in weekend interviews, are that the settlement issue is not the central factor blocking Israeli-Palestinian peace [contrary to world opinion], and furthermore, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not central to the upheavals and processes playing out in the Arab world and Iran – processes which are much more important and fateful than the Palestinian issue.

While some in the Likud apparatus say that US President Barack Obama’s comments to Jeffrey Goldberg [Israel doesn't know what its best interests are…Netanyahu is a political coward] are the result of encouragement by Livni and Ehud Olmert, and constitute meddling in Israeli elections, another school of thought posits that Obama’s comments, when taken at face value, constitute an attitude of benign neglect emanating from past disappointments and future priorities.

Obama has bigger fish to fry: his economy, his economy, his economy, Afghanistan, China, Russia, Pakistan, and Iran. Obama’s attention is elsewhere, and so if Israel wants to make its mistakes, it should be allowed to do so. This is a sentiment shared by Olmert too, who believes the next government will fall quickly, and fall hard, and that Israelis should be allowed to make this mistake for themselves and, hopefully, learn from it.

Make no mistake, security and intelligence cooperation will continue, and will continue to expand. These relations have never been better. And that’s what worries me: that we are increasingly basing our relationship with America on “added-values” interests instead of “shared-value” interests.

 Take this comment from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in today’s Israel Hayom:

 ”The relationship between Israel and the U.S. is very strong. We are in full cooperation on defense and intelligence. David Ben-Gurion had disagreements with U.S. Secretary of State [George] Marshall when he announced the establishment of the State of Israel. [Prime Minister Levi] Eshkol had disagreements with [U.S. President Lyndon] Johnson over lifting the blockade on the eve of the Six-Day War. [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin had disagreements with [U.S. President Gerald] Ford over American demands for unilateral withdrawal from Sinai. [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin had disagreements with [U.S. President Ronald] Reagan over Iraq as well as the Reagan administration’s diplomacy plan. [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon had disagreements with [U.S. President George W.] Bush over immediately ending Operation Defensive Shield. Despite all these disagreements, the relations between the two countries only grew closer, because the shared interests and shared values are stronger.”

Yes, Prime Minister. There have been disagreements in the past. But the examples mentioned above had more to do with security and diplomatic issues, not with the core “shared-values” matrix.

With Obama saying that every time the Israeli government announces settlement expansion it moves itself further into “near-total isolation” and goes against “its own interests” – we are no longer talking about just security and diplomacy. We are talking about an American administration which sees its “shared-values” relationship with Israel declining. We are talking about a president who is losing interest in that relationship. We are talking about vetoes at the Security Council. We are talking about the declining perception of Israel as a democratic bastion in a wild neighborhood. We are talking about a polarization of Israel in American political discourse, with the president and his senior circle on the side that thinks “Israel doesn’t know what its own interests are.”

What worries me now is that the Israeli political establishment is paying lip service to the strength of the shared values relationship. And every time our shared-values relationship takes a hit, politicians here, and in America, talk up our “added-values” relationship, i.e. security, intelligence and economic cooperation. They talk about “Israel’s unique contributions to U.S. national security and the economy as a matchless source of cutting-edge technologies, a sterling beachhead in a vital region, a battle-tested laboratory, and the largest U.S. aircraft carrier which does not require U.S. boots on board,” as one conservative columnist puts it.

Even our former military attaché to Washington, Gadi Shamni, believes that the US will always ensure Israel’s military advantage. Political differences pose no threat to “very deep” defense ties, says Shamni. This seems to be a given, and thank God for that. But even Shamni concedes that the impasse with the Palestinians is causing problems for Israel in Washington. “I think we have no choice but reach a deal [with the Palestinians] because both of us are going to be here forever,” he says.

So increasingly, the chatter is not about shared liberal democratic values anymore [the values that Obama believes got him reelected], it’s about our distinctive ‘added value’ as an aircraft carrier here: intelligence-sharing, counter-terrorism, homeland security, missile defense, training, battle tactics, joint exercises, pre-positioning of military hardware, medical treatment of soldiers and civilians, research and development, space, commercial and defense industries and high tech in general.

I’m not knocking these things. They’re vital in and of themselves and we’ve earned this added value with blood, sweat and tears. I’m just pointing out that increasingly, our relationship with America is becoming more about this, and less about that.

And that worries me.

What if America successfully pivots to Asia and cuts its defense budget; will its ‘reliance’ on Israeli battle tech and intelligence increase or decrease? It could increase, and wouldn’t that be a good thing? Yes it would, to the extent that it increases in tandem with the shared-values relationship. Is it a positive or negative thing that the American administration increasingly defines its relationship with Israel along “added-value” lines, like battle tech? If Obama is not going to invest political capital in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but rather leave us all to our own devices, will Israelis and Palestinians be able to come to a two-state solution by themselves – the only solution, in my opinion, that allows Israel to be a Jewish and Democratic state [i.e. to hold onto the "shared-values" part of the relationship with America].

And if, God forbid, one day our relationship with America is no longer based on shared values, but rather on ‘added-value’, will it last? What if America no longer needs our added-value because it has largely disengaged from our region, focusing instead entirely on the Gulf and Asia? Or what if our ‘added-value’ takes a big hit, like it did after the Second Lebanon War? What happens to our relationship then? So while our strategic dialogue with the Americans is strong and getting stronger, our shared-values dialogue is decreasing.

While I personally believe that the Palestinians are far, far more to blame for the death of the peace process [no to Barak, no to Olmert, ignoring Netanyahu's settlement freeze], and I believe it is important to deepen our cultural and historic ties to our ancestral homeland, I don’t think the American administration shares this view. For an America, whose gaze is becoming fixed over to the Far East, the Near East is going out of focus – and those Israelis and Palestinians are still going at it.

How do you say Two-State-Solution in Chinese?

Israeli intelligence rules, OK?

The conventional wisdom around these parts in the days following the return of Gilad Shalit in a costly prisoner exchange deal is that the much-vaunted Israeli establishment was handed a resounding failure by failing to locate the missing soldier, and proposing a viable rescue operation. Continue reading

Can Israel avoid its own looming Nakba?


63 years ago Israel was born at the United Nations General Assembly. The Palestinians called it their ‘Nakba’ – catastrophe. In a twist of fate, history may be repeating itself.

Some thoughts on the situation.

Richard Goldstone can’t stop what he’s started. The brilliant, yet naïve jurist thought he was helping to make the world a better place, thought he could bring human rights to one of the world’s most intractable conflicts, thought he could get Hamas to abide by international law [he was so proud he got the mandate to include Hamas violations of human rights]. He was terribly wrong, and now he knows it, and wishes he could change it. It remains to be seen how far he’ll go to make amends. Goldstone may have retracted his war crimes charge against Israel, but his report has a life of its own. The damage has been done and will continue to be done. In September, just as the Palestinians will be asking the United Nations General Assembly for recognition of their new state, the UN Human Rights Council will be holding a scheduled status review of the implementation of the Goldstone Report. The fact that Hamas has done nothing – and will do nothing – to investigate its human rights abuses and war crimes charges [in Gaza they call outbound rockets ‘legitimate resistance’ and inbound retaliatory Israeli rockets as ‘war crimes’] will have no effect on Hamas. Israel’s dozens of internal probes and convictions will be lauded, but any open investigations will be used to hit Israel over the head with charges of non-implementation, which will then go back to the General Assembly, where, as I’ve just mentioned, the Palestinians will be asking for recognition of Palestine. Not that the Palestinians need the Goldstone Report to convince member states to vote in favor of their independence. Continue reading

UN-Israel relations going up in Gaza’s smoke

Looking at the massive plume of thick smoke rising above the Gaza skyline on Thursday, Israelis tasked with coordinating humanitarian aid shipments into the Strip couldn’t believe their eyes. Thousands of sacks of wheat and other foodstuffs sent through the Israeli crossings over the past weeks and stored at the food storage warehouse at UNRWA headquarters were on fire, sending a thick smoke throughout the area that could be seen from miles away. All the work Israel and UNRWA have been doing to avert a humanitarian crisis in Gaza was going up in flames, literally. Continue reading

In Sderot, eyeing Gaza’s Black Sabbath

David Bouskila had a long and busy Friday night. The workload and
consultations started again very early on Saturday morning. So at about
11:30 a.m., when he finally found a few minutes to rest, he walked into his
bedroom and let his hefty body slump onto the mattress.

The second his head hit the pillow, IAF bombs hit their marks in nearby Gaza
City causing a thunderous sonic boom which shook Bouskila’s home. Sderot’s
new mayor knew it was not a good time to catch some sleep.

David Bouskila

Credit: Sderot media center

Bouskila is speaking on his cell phone to the BBC when I catch up with him.
“We praise the IDF and the government for acting after having been under
rocket attack for over eight years,” he says. Speaking in good English all
the way through the interview, Bouskila spells out the letters of his name
to the BBC reporter on the other end of the line. Continue reading

Mrs. Clean is from Mars, Mr. Security is from Venus

While the real battle between Tzipi Livni and Shaul Mofaz to replace Ehud Olmert as Kadima chairperson and prime minister is taking place amongst the 30,000 Kadima members and not the wider public, the two frontrunners have retained the services of skilled campaign consultants to convince both the party membership and the general public that their candidate is worthy of Israel’s top job.

Livni’s core team consists of kingmakers Reuven Adler and Eyal Arad, the duo that established Kadima for Ariel Sharon and got him elected as Prime Minister. On Mofaz’s side is world-renowned political strategist Arthur Finkelstein. While Livni is ahead in the latest polls, Mofaz is closing the gap, and the momentum seems to be with him, hence Livni’s announcement Monday that she has formally hired Adler and Co. Within the general population, Livni is more popular, but in the crucial Kadima membership, Mofaz is stronger. Livni’s team has until September 17 to stem Mofaz’s surge, while the latter will attempt to keep his momentum going.

Mofaz’s team will position their candidate as Mr. Security, a former IDF Chief of Staff, Minister of Defense, and currently heading the strategic dialogue with the US, whose entire life was spent fighting Israel’s enemies, and as such, the secure candidate to steer the Jewish state through what is undoubtedly very stormy security seas to come.

Livni’s team will position her as a strong Mrs. Clean, as Sharon’s successor, and as someone who can restore the country’s faith in the political system in general, and in Kadima in particular. Kadima was founded on the promise of being different to the corrupt Likud, especially its notorious Central Committee. That image has been largely destroyed by Olmert, Hirshzon, Hanegbi and others. That Livni’s hands are politically clean, after all the corruption that has flooded this country of late, is the foreign minister’s strongest selling point.

Continue reading

A bad deal, but is it good for Israel?

While on a recent trip abroad, a senior Israeli defense official was asked by a foreign diplomat why Israelis were making such a fuss about the Schalit, Goldwasser and Regev kidnappings.

“I mean, aren’t you the ones who invented kidnappings in the Middle East?” the diplomat asked the Israeli.

True, Israeli commandos have, in the past, kidnapped Syrian and Egyptian generals from their beds, and Lebanese and Palestinian terrorists from their bases. Mossad agents even captured and smuggled Eichmann from Argentina and Vanunu from Italy.

So what’s all the fuss about? Why are we so emotionally vulnerable to kidnappings of our soldiers that the public pressure exerted on the government, via the media, corners the decision-makers and forces their hand in hostage negotiations? Why do we allow the kidnap weapon to be used to such effect against us by our enemies? Continue reading

Barak unplugged

There is nothing I can report to you from our one-and-a-half hour meeting with Defense Minister Ehud Barak at our offices today, as it was agreed beforehand that the briefing would be entirely off record.

What I can do however, is to give you my impressions of Barak at this point in time, and the thing that stands out most about him right now is that he is angry and feels that he needs to act: angry at the way the government is handling things in general; angry at Kadima, angry at what he believes are lost opportunities and wasted resources.

When talking about strategic and defense issues – Barak’s words were measured and his tone relaxed, and I got that reassured feeling that on these matters, Ehud Barak is the best possible person for the job. One year into the job as Defense Minister, Barak is confident that the security establishment is on the right track to meet the threats of the future, and he comes across as eminently believable. Continue reading

A hard place and two fast-moving rocks

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Monday that his government considers the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa as an inseparable part of Israel and will continue to build there. This comes just a few days before US Vice President Dick Cheney’s arrival. America sees continued building in the settlements and East Jerusalem as an obstacle to peace, and Cheney will definitely make that point when he arrives Saturday. So why is Olmert seemingly picking a fight with the US Vice President?

I think Olmert has found himself in a position in which he has to keep Shas inside the coalition in order for him to survive politically. Nothing else seems to be sticking: Annapolis [the sides are talking but nobody really expects a deal either side can implement]; electoral reform [nothing serious moving here]. Poll show that if general elections were held now, Olmert would lose and Kadima would crash. Now Shas is not monolithic, contrary to popular belief, with Yishai pulling out of the government and Attias trying to stay in. The real question is what Ovadia thinks, and Ovadia and Olmert are tight.

To keep Shas in, Olmert has to give them gifts, and keep on giving, like permits for haredi housing, cheap housing because many  haredim don’t work, and where do you get cheap housing? Over the green line.

The way I see it Olmert is stuck between a hard place [an implacable Shas] and two very fast moving rocks [the Labor party and the US administration] to stop pandering to Shas and start getting serious about Abbas.

A clash is inevitable, unless Bush, Condi, Cheney find some sort of formula that gives Olmert some leeway so that he can stay in power for now. I guess that’s what Cheney is coming for. Bibi winning an election within the next year will destroy any chance of Bush-Condi achieving even the slightest success in the middle east policy – and no legacy.

What to look out for is how much rope they Americans are going to give Olmert; how much do they think Bibi is a threat [polls show him winning big here]; and if Bibi himself is sending any messages to the US administration about his views for a peace process with the Palestinians.

Head or Gut?

Israel wants to topple Hamas, but doing so would leave it in charge of Gaza again

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s assertion Tuesday that Israel would reoccupy the Gaza Strip should it be necessary to do so sounds like another unrealistic threat voiced by a government which woke up one morning and realized that Hamas cannot be done away with, and that, unfortunately, Israel will have to learn to live with Gaza’s fanatic rulers for the time being.

Livni’s threat, coming two days after the IDF withdrawal from the Gaza Strip following three days of fighting, gives voice to that frustration, as it is slowly dawning on Israel that Hamas cannot be removed from power, Israel cannot turn back the clock and reoccupy the Gaza Strip, and that a new balance of terror will have to be established between Israel and Hamas, in which the latter is constantly placed under pressure to seek a ceasefire. The prevailing feeling amongst the Israeli population is one of a missed opportunity – that the last IDF operation “didn’t go all the way” to topple Hamas Continue reading

Bubbles within bubbles

“The State of Israel has lost its dignity. Yes, countries have dignity too. Any country that allows its sovereignty to be violated 50 times a day will eventually wither and fall,” Sderot mayor Eli Moyal says Tuesday at a small protest tent he has established in a corner of Rabin Square in Tel-Aviv. The tent, a collection of posters, Kassam rockets, about two volunteers and a sound system blaring out home grown Sderot rap songs, moved to Tel-Aviv this week after spending a week outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. Moyal says the reason to bring the tent, part of the protest against the “government’s inability to either make peace or war”, to Tel-Aviv is to further get under the skin of Israelis living in the big city, not aware of the daily hell in the periphery town of Sderot. But, apart from a trickle of visitors who walk into the tent and sign a petition of solidarity with the people of Sderot, most Tel-Avivians were doing what Tel-Avivians do best: jauntily going about their business. One businessman in a nearby photography store says he just came out of the country club with its Jacuzzi and swimming pool. “A bubble within a bubble,” as one observer points out. “We’ve been in the hearts of people for a long time now and I have never met a single person who is not sympathetic to us,” Moyal tells The Jerusalem Post outside the tent. Not everyone is apathetic however, as many of the adjoining restaurants bring free food to the few volunteers manning the tent. Moyal admits that the protests, while managing to keep Sderot in the headlines, will not serve the ultimate goal of stopping the Kassams. Continue reading

Decisions, decisions

The fact that a permanent successor to outgoing National Security Council chief Ilan Mizrahi has not been chosen reflects poorly on the prime minister’s contention that much has been learned and fixed since the Winograd Committee issued its interim report in April.

In its final report issued on Wednesday, the committee found “serious failings and shortcomings in the decision-making processes and staff-work in the political and the military echelons and their interface,” and “serious failings and flaws in the lack of strategic thinking and planning, in both the political and the military echelons.”

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The words “decision-making,” “staff work” and “strategic thinking” pop up everywhere in the report, invariably along with terms like “failed,” “flawed,” “absent” or “inadequate.” That the National Security Council remains sidelined is one of the central factors behind this.

The serious failures in the process of decision-making by Olmert, wartime defense minister Amir Peretz and then IDF chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz were highlighted in the interim report a full nine months ago. Apart from the continuing National Security Council debacle, in the intervening months, the Strategic Affairs Ministry was established, but saw little cooperation from the Defense and Foreign Ministries. With the departure of strategic affairs minister Avigdor Lieberman from the government, greeted with glee within the defense establishment, that ministry is left without a head. Assuming it is carrying out important work, why has Olmert not found an immediate replacement? Continue reading

Yediot vs Ma’ariv

If it wasn’t so sad it would be funny.

Today’s front page banner headline in Yediot Aharonot read:

“Sources close to Olmert: This is anarchy! The company commanders have crossed a red line”

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The subheadline was: “In a normal country they would be dismissed. If the company commanders had fought as hard during the war as they are fighting now to depose Olmert, maybe our situation in the war wouldn’t have been so bad”.

Continue reading