Tag Archives: Middle East

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There goes the neighborhood

The internationalization of the Syrian civil war

World powers and regional actors are increasingly converging on Syria, a development which threatens to mesh the civil war between pro- and anti-Syrian regime forces into the wider regional conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, as well as the global tussle between the U.S. and Russia over spheres of influence. Continue reading

Israelis and Palestinians

The Four State State Solution

The Four State Solution

Many of the Jewish settlers and their supporters don’t want the status quo to change. They do not want to be removed from their homes, God forbid, and they do not want a Palestinian state to rise in the West Bank, God forbid. Many of them don’t believe that the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem has any authority to relinquish Jewish holy land. Many Jewish Israelis who live west of the Green Line don’t want to hold onto any of the settlements east of the Green Line. Many of Hamas’ supporters in Gaza don’t want a Palestinian state to arise along the 1967 borders — they want it along the 1948 borders, i.e. they don’t want any Jewish state here. And they don’t think that the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah has any authority to relinquish Muslim holy land.

Many smart people just don’t see why other smart people are still talking about the Two State Solution. That solution is long gone, they say. In fact, many of them believe that there is no real solution to the physics problem of Jews and Palestinians inhabiting the same space at the same time. Many Jewish settlers don’t understand why the Palestinians just won’t move to Jordan [it's 80% Palestinian anyway]. The Jordanians, the Palestinians, and the rest of the world, what can you do, will have none of that. They’re stubborn that way.

So the Jews are divided and they won’t budge; the Palestinians are divided and they won’t budge, and don’t even talk to me about the Jordanians.

So we’re left with the status quo. No peace talks, or just an endless series of talks about talks, no territorial withdrawals, no border agreements, more conflict over land, more arrests, rocks, shootings and death.

We go on as before. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, according to many Jews living in Judea and Samaria. What’s wrong with the way things are now, they ask? There is real coexistence in the West Bank now between Jews and Arabs.  There are all the industrial zones and all the trade that goes on. So what if Europe boycotts us? We’ll sell our wine and goat cheese to China. Jews are living proudly in their ancient homeland, they say. Give us time, and the world will get used to the idea. You’ll see.

But the world doesn’t see.

And the settlers don’t see the Palestinians.

And the Palestinians don’t see the Jews’ point of view: that they truly believe they have returned to their ancient homeland. A miracle really, one of the biggest miracles in history — an ancient people banished from their land, keeping their faith for 2,000 years, and coming back to their ancient homeland. The Palestinians will likely never, ever, come to terms with that point of view – the return to Zion. As far as the Palestinians are concerned, there is no Zion and there never was. 

So there is no solution.

But there has to be a solution, because Israel cannot remain the only sort-of democracy in the Middle East [democracy on one side of the Green Line, military rule on the other]. And the Palestinians cannot remain a nation-in-the-making divided into the religious fanatics of the Gaza Strip and the secular crybabies of the West Bank.

So I have an idea: since over 60% of Israelis want Israel to be a real democracy and they want Israel to be a Jewish state and they want to end the conflict with the Palestinians, but neither the Palestinians nor Israelis want to give an inch of territory to the other, I propose that Israel draws its national border along the security fence [give or take a large settlement bloc or three] – and let the settlers and the Palestinians decide what to do with their mixed state, which we could call, until they decide what to name it, the State of Judea and Samaria and Palestine. The settlers and the Palestinians could each have their state – Judea and Samaria for the Jews, Palestine for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Palestine for the Palestinians in Gaza – and they can work out the details amongst themselves. They don’t need us for that. They certainly don’t need America for that.

So we have four states:

Israel – in Israel

Jude and Samaria – in Judea and Samaria

Palestine #1 – in the West Bank

Palestine #2 – in the Gaza Strip.

If all sides can’t agree on two states for two people in Judea and Samaria and Palestine #1 and Palestine #2, they could have four states for four peoples – the status quo if you will – and call it whatever they want to call it.

Sovereignty, representation, nationality, taxes, trade pacts, foreign alliances – this would all be up to them to decide. They could have their own elections, their own flags, their own Olympic teams, even their own mixed anthems representing the aspirations of each of them.

The Israelis on the western side of the security fence will live in the State of Israel, and the Jews and Palestinians living on the eastern side of the fence will live in the state of Judea and Samaria and Palestine #1, and the Hamas and its people in Gaza in Palestine #2.

Of course, there could be negotiations between the State of Israel and the State of Judea and Samaria and Palestine #1 over territorial swaps here and there; as well as border arrangements, visa waivers, family reunifications, economic agreements etc etc.

 

Jewish Palestinian coexistence

The truth is that this kind of thing already has a precedent in Jewish history, at least.

After the death of King Solomon in 930BC, the Jews of old were divided into two kingdoms: Israel, and Judea. These kingdoms remained separate states for over two hundred years, until they both disappeared.

 

The Hebrew press.

In Israel, more and better media in English than in Hebrew

There is now more, and better, journalism out of Israel in English than there is in Hebrew. While the mainstream Hebrew press struggles with the same issues as much of the world’s press does, and many of its own extremely serious native issues, there is very little innovation and disruption happening in the local Hebrew media, in my opinion. On the English side however we are seeing a veritable explosion, not just of new and improving outlets, but, more significantly, of the quality, quantity, variety, and reach of the content they’re producing online. Leading the pack, in my opinion, is Haaretz’s English edition, which has recently launched a paid subscription model for its online version and its mobile apps.

The quality and frequency of the journalism and opinion its writers are producing in English is very high, with writers like Chemi Shalev making serious inroads into everything Israeli, Jewish and middle east foreign policy coming out of America. The Times of Israel comes in second, in sheer terms of quantity of content produced and their social media reach. While not breaking anywhere near the same amount of hard news as Haaretz does [a good amount of TOI content is curated], TOI nevertheless is increasingly reporting original material of a wider appeal, and is experimenting successfully with a super flexible site which allows their editorial to play around with positioning of stories, something they do with great skill. As far as I can see, TOI and Haaretz are the most widely referenced Israeli news sources [English and Hebrew] apart from Yediot Aharonot, which still breaks many big stories, but whose Ynetnews English version has not been elevated to anywhere near its full potential [it is still a player though and has a steady readership].

The Jerusalem Post, while having consistently lost altitude and attitude over the past several years is bouncing back nicely with a combination of smart, assertive reporting by the likes of Gil Hoffman, Lahav Harkov and others, content partnerships with its parent company’s Hebrew assets, and successful conferences in New York. Jpost still lags behind on mobile applications, and its homepage is still, yes still, horrendous. Haaretz is also planning a conference in America, and TOI has had several smaller meet-ups. Maariv and Makor Rishon’s UK-born publisher may not have launched English versions yet, but word has it that these outlets are planning specific English projects with a Diaspora Jewish target in mind.

After the main players in terms of traffic and clout, there are increasingly good moves by the always-steady Israel National News, which reports strongly from Judea and Samaria, has a great video presence, as well as strong editorials, and interacts effectively with its core readership. While the media outlet I’m in charge of, Israel Hayom English, is nominally still a daily newsletter, we are expanding our content and readership base at a steady clip and our visibility amongst international media and policy circles is growing. We are bringing new voices into the crucible and exposing an international audience to Israel’s most widely-read daily. On the left wing side of the political spectrum, +972 is doing strong on-the-ground reporting and expansive opinion, and is doing specifically well in long-form journalism, design, video and info graphics.

The Israel Project’s TowerDotOrg news blog is making a good entrance with some original reporting and insight as well as a growing social media presence. A strong new player on the field is Al-Monitor, which has original and translated material from some very heavy hitters. While very niched, Israel Defense is nevertheless a quality product with high-end reporting and analysis on security issues as well as a good focus on the business side of the military industries. Talking about the business side, while Globes in English at times looks like it’s getting its act together, there is still a very big gap in the market for a serious English business news site that can be of interest and value to a wider global audience.

Some non-Israeli, or non-Israeli-based news outlets are also doing impressive, quality reporting, analysis and opinion about Israel, Judaism, America and everything in between, and here I’m referring to Algemeiner, Open Zion, The Mideast Matrix,Tablet, the Forward, TIME Magazine’s man in Israel Karl Vick, The Jewish Chronicle, The Jewish Week, The Jewish Press, JTA, Commentary [its Israel stuff], and others. Meir Javendafar’s The Iran-Israel observer is as strong as anything by the best reporters in the Hebrew press.
Summing up, to me it looks like there is a lot more activity, originality and innovation in the English media coming out of Israel [and the US about Israel] than there is in the Hebrew press.
Whether the English players manage to sustain and grow the financial aspects of their businesses remains to be seen – some of them might have a better shot than others. But for now, the world is spoiled for choice, especially coming at a time when most foreign news organisations are scaling down their foreign bureaus. Israeli readers of the Hebrew press might be well served by reading some of what’s going on in their own country written by their Anglo journalists.
An increasing global reach and direct communication with audiences is also why several prominent Israeli Hebrew journalists are increasingly tweeting in English. It is a positive and welcome sign to see the likes of Ayala Hasson from Channel 1 and Israel Radio tweeting in English, as well as Chico Menashe from the same stations as Hasson.
Please forgive me if I’ve left out/ missed anyone/ anything I must have had a good reason to.

The battle over Israel’s brand narrative

The battle over Israel’s brand narrative

You might call it 3 narratives for 1 peoples, or 3 states of brand.
There are three distinct yet interlinked narratives of Israel:

The Start-Up Nation

The Comeback Nation

The Occupation Nation

The Start-Up Nation positions Israel as being about technology and innovation that makes the world a better place; a tiny place with huge brainpower, a nation that has more Nobel Prizes than all of its neighbours combined; about a liberal democracy, the only democracy in the Middle East, where gays are not beheaded, where Arabs are represented in parliament and the courts; a multicultural melting pot, with bright people who have a bright future.

The Comeback Nation is about our ties to this land – historical, Biblical, legal and moral – roots to our ancient homeland. We are an ancient nation that was exiled from its home into the cruel Diaspora, where we suffered untold evil and humiliation for 2,000 years, culminating in the Holocaust. We were defenceless, we had no army, we relied on others to protect us, a reliance that failed time and time again. But we kept our traditions, and eventually returned to our homeland, and the Jews’ return from exile is one of the most enthralling human dramas of all time. We keep on uncovering evidence of our past here and we celebrate each discovery. Now we are fighting for our biblical/ historical rights to parts of this land. Under this narrative, Israelis are not “settlers” nor “occupiers” as “one cannot be an occupier in one’s own land.” If anyone is illegally occupying the land, it is the Palestinians.

The Occupation Nation paints Israel as an usurper state taking what does not belong to it, an Apartheid state that is denying basic rights to the “original inhabitants” of the area – the Palestinians [I put original in quotes only to contrast it with the Comeback Nation narrative]. It negates the first two narratives: Israel is not the only democracy in the Middle East, it is, in fact, not a democracy at all because it doesn’t allow the Palestinians living under its rule the same rights as it allows Jews; and it negates the Comeback Nation narrative by denying the Jews’ have any rights to any part of the Holy Land. It is from this narrative that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign springs. There are some shades to this narrative: not everyone who ascribes to the Occupation Nation narrative believes Israel shouldn’t exist within the 1967 borders.

These three narratives are all vying for the coveted title of “the truth” – the one that actually frames “what Israel is.” And there are serious professionals working tirelessly to promote each narrative, mostly working against each other – like the three-headed Cerberus they try bite each others’ heads off while all connected to the same neck.

But the truth is more complex

The truth is that Israel is all three.

I also find it interesting that Naftali Bennett, the new leader of the Habayit Hayehudi settlement party, is an embodiment of all three narratives: a technology start-up guy who now represents a sector that lives in what they believe is their ancient homeland; he wants to perpetuate the occupation – i.e. deny the Palestinians the right to a state of their own. All three narratives in one. Quite remarkable, and perhaps a first in Israeli politics.

The truth is that anyone who sells you just one of the narratives is selling you an incomplete picture.

The complete picture is that:

We are creating a future with startups that are as alien to the region as the region’s inhabitants see us.

We are a start up nation with deep, legitimate rights and roots in this ancient land and we are not letting go of many of our ancestral places.

We are an occupation nation because the people who lived here while we were in exile can’t live in freedom from our rule.

The problem is that we can’t keep on being all three.

We even managed to convince the leader of the free world to adopt our Comeback Nation narrative, and move him away from his previous notion that Israel was created because of the Holocaust. But in his speech in Jerusalem last week, Barack Obama painted an accurate picture of Israel as a complex country with three competing narratives: Start-Up Nation, Comeback Nation, and Occupation Nation.

If we persist in being the Occupation Nation we could lose the narrative of Start -Up Nation as Israel focuses more and more of its finances, resources, morality and international standing on denying the Palestinians a state. Who will we sell our start-ups to if the Occupation Nation narrative gets stronger and we are boycotted more and more? We can win the third intifada and the fourth and the fifth until the only thing left to win is a permanent branding of Occupation Nation. If we persist in the Occupation Nation we will also lose our legitimate rights as the Comeback Nation, because we will never get the world to accept this narrative in its entirety. The key is to hold on to realistic aspects of the Comeback Nation, strengthen the Start-Up Nation, and ditch the Occupation Nation.

A light unto the nations?

A light unto the nations?

Stuck in the Middle East with you.

Israel’s new coalition government: Who’s the boss?

Israel’s new coalition government: a three-headed monster pulling in two different directions.

Stuck in the Middle East with you.

Stuck in the Middle East with you.

Israel’s 33rd government is on the cusp of being formed. It has been a tortuous coalition negotiations path, and the fact that it has gone all the way to the 42nd and very last day of the mandated time allotted to form a coalition does not speak well about the ability of the erstwhile political partners to work together in the future.

Assuming that there is no final [really final this time] glitches, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, and Habayit Hayehudi’s Naftali Bennett will sign a coalition deal Friday afternoon.

Netanyahu’s government will be made up of the Likud-Yisrael Beytenu [31 seats], Yesh Atid [19], Habayit Hayehud [12], Hatnuah [6], a thin ruling majority of 68 MKs.

Significantly, this government will not include the haredi Shas and United Torah Judaism parties. It is the first time, apart from one brief stint of two years in the Knesset opposition, that the haredim have not been included in an Israeli government for almost forty years – an entire generation. What was not possible with the haredim in government – teaching core curriculum in haredi schools, drafting haredim into the army and increasing their participation in the workforce – may now be possible. Possible, but perilous, as much rests on how much is done with the cooperation of the haredi leadership. While the haredim are out, the settlers of the religious Zionist stream are in, and they’re making a beeline for the institutions of religion and state, most significantly the position of Chief Rabbi. Again, the outcome of any potential changes to the fabric of haredi society relies on a smart and humanistic combination of kosher carrots and sticks.

Once installed in his third term as prime minister, Netanyahu’s first challenge will be to pass the national budget, ostensibly the reason he called elections in the first place. Israel is in murky financial waters, and the government will have to cut over NIS 30 billion in the state budget, as well as increase taxes and institute other painful austerity measures. He will have to do this while keeping the coalition intact, if that’s what he wants. It will be interesting to see how Lapid fares as Finance Minister in what is shaping up to be a severe austerity economy [it is telling that Netanyahu all but begged Lapid to take on the finance portfolio.] Lapid will have to immediately cut at least NIS 14 billion from state expenditure and may even need to raise taxes. “I’ve got your back,” Netanyahu told Lapid. Just Do It, go find the money.

On socioeconomic issues, the coalition may be able to make some important reforms to the structural flaws in Israel’s society and economy, but any far-reaching, root-and-branch reforms, if they happen, will take time. While some change can be expected to the institutions of religion and state in Israel, it is unlikely that Likud and Habayit Hayehudi will agree to transportation on the Sabbath, for instance. While the coalition will move to redress the imbalance in the equality of national burden, don’t expect to see thousands of young haredi men join the ranks of the IDF, or, alternatively, be locked up behind bars for draft dodging.

Not a lame-duck Prime Minister

Netanyahu’s second order of business will be to quell the uprising within his own Likud, borne out of deep and discernible dissatisfaction of many Likud ministers and MKs with the results of the elections and the results of the coalition talks. Netanyahu will move quickly to change the primaries system in the Likud, which was abused by interested parties, like the settlers and their supporters, to vote in hard-line politicians ahead of the moderate, old-guard conservatives. Tens of thousands of settlers, card-carrying Likud members all, voted in the Likud primaries to make sure that certain politicians were in and others out, but then voted for Habayit Hayehudi and other parties in the general elections. This was one major reason why the Likud fared so badly in the general elections. If he doesn’t want to be a lame-duck prime minister, Netanyahu first, and foremost, has to reassert his authority within the Likud party. Make no mistake, Netanyahu wants to run for a fourth term.

Divide and Conquer

His third order of business will be to make sure that Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett don’t make his bid for a fourth term impossible. The country may have voted for Lapid and Bennett to ease their financial burden, but they also voted for Netanyahu to steer the country through burning Middle East sands. And this is how the government has ended up being divided: socioeconomic issues go to Lapid and Bennett, defense and foreign affairs stay with Likud-Beytenu. Lapid and Bennett can tackle the labor unions, striking nurses and dissatisfied teachers. Netanyahu and Ya’alon will tackle the Ayatollah. Lapid can “look for the money” leaving Netanyahu to “look for the centrifuges.” If Finance Minister Lapid wins, Netanyahu wins. If Lapid loses, Netanyahu wins.

The story of this post-election coalition-forming period was undoubtedly the historic and ironclad alliance between Lapid and Bennett. It began because of Netanyahu’s negative emotional response to Bennett’s electoral success which pushed Bennett into Lapid’s arms, and ended with Bennett becoming the real power broker behind Netanyahu’s ability to form a coalition.

Apart from their ideology over the peace process with the Palestinians, the two ascendant leaders see eye-to-eye on almost every socio-economic issue, especially the tough nut that is the inequality in the national burden, also known as the non-participation of the majority of the ultra-Orthodox sector in the military and, more crucially, the workforce.

The alliance worked well for both Bennett and Lapid, essentially forcing Netanyahu to bring them both into his coalition, as forming a government without them would have forced Netanyahu to form a coalition with Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich and the haredi parties – something he tried desperately to do but failed, largely because Yechimovich wanted to stay in the opposition and build herself up there.

But the alliance between the centrist Lapid and the rightist Bennett was for coalition negotiations leverage only, and should, by all accounts, flounder on the rocks of serious diplomacy with the Palestinians, should such diplomacy actually happen.

That’s not to say that even if serious diplomacy happens, the Palestinian Authority will come to the party. They refused Barak’s offers, they refused Olmert’s offers, they refused to come to the table during a ten-month settlement freeze – so any offer they’re liable to get under Netanyahu now is not going to be better than anything previously offered them. Which is why Bennett is not sweating it.

Jewish Home won’t leave the coalition if talks with the Palestinian Authority restart. It won’t even leave the coalition if a limited settlement freeze is implemented to get PA President Mahmoud Abbas to the table. Bennett will only leave the coalition if a real deal is likely. Israel and the Palestinians can talk all they want, as long as there is no deal, no practical outcome to the talks that leads to a Palestinian state, says Naftali Bennett, the Jewish Home leader.

The truth is that this suits Netanyahu just fine: the kind of Palestinian state he’s willing to agree to is the kind of Palestinian state the Palestinians will never agree to. And in any case, there is absolutely no appetite in Jerusalem to make any bold moves in the current regional turbulence, and especially the implications of a rapidly imploding Syria and an uncertain Egypt.

The Americans can push to restart the talks, but the ball is really in PA President Abbas’ court. If he comes to the party without any preconditions, then it’s game on.

During the election campaign, Netanyahu said repeatedly that should he form a government, he would make sure that Tzippi Livni gets “nowhere near” the negotiations with the Palestinians. Livni was the first person Netanyahu signed a coalition deal with, placing Livni in charge of peace talks with the Palestinians, with the caveat that a Netanyahu representative is in the room with her whenever she’s meeting the Palestinians. It’s obvious why Livni accepted this: she had no choice. With six mandates, her and her “Movement” would have disintegrated in the Opposition. Livni was not a very effective Leader of the Opposition with 28 Knesset seats, so a b backbench with 6 seats and a slow death, or “Justice Minister and person in charge of talks with the Palestinians that go nowhere.” The choice was clear and Livni signed on to become this government’s centrist fig leaf. Bennett however is demanding that Netanyahu amend his coalition deal with Livni, to make doubly sure that she is not able to give away any meaningful concessions [read settlements] to the Palestinians.

Some movement on the diplomatic track does seem likely, even though the consensus in Washington, Israel and the Palestinian territories is that a deal is very, very far off, if even possible. Right now, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the second Obama administration have an interest in restarting the process and keeping it going. Whether Abbas can deliver the Palestinians [he does not speak for Gaza] has always been a sticking point. And the same goes for Netanyahu’s right flank.

The upcoming visit by US President Barack Obama, and the planned visit to the region afterward by Secretary of State John Kerry do not represent an American administration imposing a peace plan on both sides. Obama and Netanyahu have much bigger fish to fry, namely the Iranian nuclear program, Syrian chemical weapons, and an Egypt spinning out of control. But there will be increasing pressure by the international community to move towards a two-state solution.

2013 could be the year of Iran, or it could not. What we are seeing however is an increasing military threat from the Sinai and the Golan Heights, both formerly quiet borders, now major issues on the Israeli national agenda. The next government then is likely to focus on internal issues such as the haredi question and the cost of living, and gird for possible violence against jihadis in Sinai and the Golan.

Netanyahu, convincingly drubbed in both the elections, and in coalition negotiations, is not going to let Lapid and Bennett dictate his premiership.

The prime minister has already stated his intentions for his next term in office:

“The coming term will be one of the most challenging in the country’s history. This is no exaggeration. We face security and diplomatic challenges. The important thing is for this government to be able to meet the challenges. We did our best with 31 Knesset seats; we’ve kept the important portfolios. We’ve taken back the defense portfolio and we’ve kept the foreign affairs portfolio.”

In other words: this will be the government that deals with Iran; this will be the government that deals with the Sinai and the Golan Heights; this will be the government that deals with fallout from Syria’s implosion; this will be the government that deals with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood across the region. Equalizing the national burden is important, lowering the cost of housing is important – and best of luck to Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Economics Concentration Minister Naftali Bennett. But what’s more important is facing the most challenging security and diplomatic challenges this country has ever faced. And for that, I’m the boss.

IsraelAustFlag

What if Australian agents needed Israeli passports?

Surprise surprise. The New York Times reports that the Hezbollah men who traveled to Burgas, Bulgaria to kill Israelis, did so by using Australian and Canadian passports, and they also carried fake Michigan IDs which were fabricated in Lebanon.

Now I know Australia is furious with Israel over the latter’s use of its passports. And apparently Israel promised Canberra that it wouldn’t do so again. Australia even expelled two Israeli diplomats after the Mabhouh affair, in which Mossad apparently used Australian passports. Will Australia now read the riot act to Hezbollah? Will Canada call in the Lebanese ambassador, who represents a government of which Hezbollah is a senior member? Will Australia and Canada expel Lebanese embassy staff in protest?

I may be extremely naïve, but I can’t see why this would be necessary in this day and age, and why Australian intelligence and Mossad can’t work out their issues quietly and efficiently. The Zygier case may point to deeper problems between Canberra and Jerusalem. I understand the necessity of sovereignty and not putting Australian citizens traveling abroad in precarious situations, but as I see the global terror map, Israel and Australia are on the same side, with Hezbollah and its ilk on the other. So if everyone is using everyone else’s passports, why would the Australians give Israel so much stick over the use of its passports? The same goes for Canada. I understand that Australia and Canada don’t want their traveling citizens to be suspected of working for Mossad, and I feel their apprehension. I also see the inherent problem here for Australian Jews of being accused of dual loyalty. But what if this wasn’t even an issue? What if Australia and Israel’s security concerns and priorities dovetailed when it came to the war on terrorists? What if every Australian, Jewish and non-Jewish, understood that he or she stands shoulder to shoulder with Israel in this fight?

Surely Canberra and Jerusalem could come up with a modus vivendi that works for both countries, who are in the same boat against global Islamic terrorism.

What possible gain could Australia get by exposing Mossad operations against Iran and terror groups? Wouldn’t Australia benefit from the intelligence that Mossad gathers and the operations that it carries out? Doesn’t Australia have its own war to fight against Islamic terrorists?

What possible benefit could Canberra get by leaking this Zygier story to the media? Why is someone in Australian intelligence purposefully turning up the heat on the Mossad? Being upset over the use of passports is one thing, exposing entire Mossad operations in Europe [against Iran] is on another level entirely.

But seriously, why not coordinate the use of passports? Why not extend the level of intelligence cooperation, which is already at a very high level, to this area too? Sharing intelligence is one thing, but intelligence agencies are loathe to share agents and methods. Fine, but you can’t win the war against Islamic terrorists this way. Soon the issue of passports will be a thing of the past, with biometric measures rapidly making their way into the system. There, in the bio-digital realm, intelligence agencies might actually be forced to create and share a list of “travelers” –a “simple” fake identity just won’t cut it anymore.

If the reports from the Australian Broadcast Corporation are true and Zygier passed on details of Mossad operations in Europe, I have to ask, why on earth are the Australians even digging for this information? What would they do with this information, sell it to the Iranians? We’re on the same side no? If there’s something Australian intelligence want to know, because they feel they need to know, why don’t they just ask?

And while we’re on the subject, I’m sure that Israel would have no problem letting Australian agents use Israeli passports on their overseas missions. Just ask, for you, no problem.

No hard feelings mate.

Ben_Zygier

Our Man in X

So who was Ben Zygier? A double agent for Australia? A sellout to the Dubai authorities? A rogue agent ala Jason Bourne?

A “young agent caught between the intelligence agencies of two nations, both of which he had claimed as his own,” as TIME Magazine suggests?

Or maybe just a young man who cracked under the pressure of life in the shadow war, who was in over his head, and who made a terrible mistake, a mistake whose shame overcame him?

Ben_Zygier

On Thursday, Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Jarida claimed that Zygier was one of the members of the Mossad team which assassinated Hamas terrorist Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai. “But after the assassination, for some reason, Zygier contacted the Dubai authorities and gave them detailed information on the assassination,” the paper reported. According to the paper, Zygier was then captured by Israel after he went into hiding. The Dubai police however have rejected this report out of hand. So what is smoke, and what is mirroI don’t want to believe that Zygier would have betrayed the Mossad. There is no way of knowing, of course, but a young Jew brought up in a Zionist home, the son of a senior official in Bnei Brit, who perhaps, like many young Diaspora Jewish boys, dreamed of serving in the IDF and the Mossad – to eventually want to betray Israel seems [like many reports about this story] very uncomfortable.

Israeli boys grow up wanting to be in the Golani Brigade, or to become pilots. Australian, South African, and Canadian Jewish boys grow up wanting to be in the Mossad.

To have finally achieved his dream [if that’s what Zygier wanted] – becoming a warrior in the Mossad – only to turn around and betray the Mossad, seems like an improbable, grim ending to a fairytale. But let’s assume that this is in fact what happened. Let’s assume that Zygier turned on Israel, or was about to. Could that then explain why he chose to take his own life instead of living with the shame of having betrayed the Jewish state that let him into its most trusted circle?

Like many journalists, I’m intrigued by the story of Ben Zygier, AKA Ben Alon, AKA Ben Allen, AKA Prisoner X – a dual Australian-Israeli national who apparently worked for the Mossad and committed suicide in an Israeli jail after “something went terribly wrong” during his clandestine service. Unlike Australian journalists, who first broke the story, I am likely not going to be able to conduct any meaningful reporting on this story. There are just too many layers of security-mandated silence around it, most of them probably totally justifiedAnd unlike the Israel Security Agency, which has a spokesperson, all queries addressed to the Mossad must go through the Prime Minister’s Office, which as a matter of course, does not answer queries addressed to the Mossad.

So in lieu of coming up with answers, at this time, I’d like to point out some of the questions I would ask the Mossad if I were able to:

The most intriguing of all: What did he do? Did he betray, or was he about to betray, the Mossad? And how? With what information?
If he did betray the Mossad, what made him do it?
How was he picked up and from where? [Some reports say he went into hiding? Was he abducted abroad, like Mordechai Vanunu was?]
Why was he held for so long in solitary confinement in the most secure prison in Israel?
What were the charges laid against him?
Was the evidence against him shown to his legal team?
How did he manage to commit suicide in a suicide-proof cell? [And who in the Prisons Service will answer for this?]
Was the fact that he changed his name four times in Australia after he had already moved to Israel not a dead giveaway that he was up to something? And if so, can the Mossad be so amateurish in its tradecraft?
If Israel told Australia about Zygier’s arrest, but not the charges against him, why not?
To what extent has the relationship, both on the intelligence and diplomatic levels, between Israel and Australia [and New Zealand, England and Canada for that matter] been harmed by Israel’s use of the passports of friendly nations over the past few years?
How much damage to Israeli security [and the citizens of foreign friendly nations traveling in the Middle East] has been caused by Israel’s use of the foreign passports of friendly nations without authorization?
How much damage has been done to Israeli security by the revelation of this story in the Australian media?
Why did the Mossad need to ask the Israeli courts to gag all Israeli media reportage of the already-broadcast report by the Australian Broadcast Corporation?
If all the Mossad got was 24 hours in which to assess the damage the broadcast caused before the gag order was lifted, did the Mossad not know about the Foreign Correspondent report beforehand?
How much damage control can the Mossad have carried out in the 24 hours the gag order was in place, that it could not have carried out in the months leading up to the ABC report?
And if the Mossad [the Prime Minister’s Office] did know about the report, and about its date of broadcast, why did it act with such panic, and call in the chief editors of all the major media outlets to ask for their cooperation in not reporting on the Australian report? [in short, why was the Mossad surprised by this report, if it in fact was?]
And if the Mossad was aware of the Foreign Correspondent report, which took months to prepare, and knew that the publication of Zygier’s photo could potentially place assets in the field [people he met with] in danger, did Mossad try and get ABC not to run the piece? If not, why not? And if yes, what reasons did ABC give for ignoring the request?
Will the State of Israel look after Zygier’s Israeli wife and children, or do they not get any state assistance due to his alleged betrayal and suicide?

Questions I would ask Ben Zygier if I could. 

What made you do it? Do you regret it? What happened?
You cooperated with the state when you were in detention, you spoke to your lawyers, you even considered a plea bargain. So why did you give up hope?

What was it like for you toward the end? Did the Mossad not train you to withstand months of solitary confinement and isolation, and perhaps even to withstand torture? Or can nobody ever prepare you to be tortured by your own?

You killed yourself in the bathroom of a supposedly suicide-proof prison cell. You must have been thinking about how to do this for quite some time; you couldn’t have just woken up on the last morning of your life and suddenly come up with a way of killing yourself. This takes thought, premeditation, planning. Did you lose hope in ever redeeming yourself, or were you a double agent on orders to kill yourself if you felt you were being broken? Did the Mossad teach you how to take your own life in case you were trapped and had no way out?

Did they give you someone to talk to during your eight months of incarceration? Did you ask to speak to someone?

Did you know that your daughter was born four days before you took your own life? Did someone tell you that your wife was about to give birth? Had you known, would you have still gone through with it? Did you even know that your wife was pregnant?

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The Nine Lives of Benjamin Netanyahu

The political attacks on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the past month seem to now be taking their toll, as polls published Wednesday show the joint Likud-Beytenu list sliding to some 33 Knesset seats.

From the start of its campaign, Likud-Beytenu has placed Netanyahu front and center in its campaign, arguing that only Netanyahu is able to deal with the serious security and diplomatic challenges that Israel faces.

So it is no surprise that Netanyahu’s foes have focused their attacks on him. Throughout the campaign, the ad hominem hits on Netanyahu have been coming thick and fast, and their pace and ferocity are escalating the closer we get to elections.

1. First, popular Likud minister Moshe Kahlon announced he was quitting, ostensibly to “take a time out” from politics, but really because he figured Netanyahu was not going to promote him to finance minister in the next government. Kahlon lashed out at Netanyahu, saying he was disappointed with the prime minister’s economic plans.
2. Next, at the end of December, the Bibitours case cropped up again, which accused Netanyahu of irregularities in non –government financed trips abroad.
3. Netanyahu doesn’t have anyone but himself though for his “disproportionate force” attacks on Naftali Bennett, whose party has been siphoning off voters from the Likud at a steady pace. Netanyahu turned Bennett into the underdog and himself into a bully, as well as making Bennett a household name.
4. Then there was former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin’s vicious attack, saying in an interview with Yediot Aharonot that Netanyahu didn’t have a ”trustworthy, hard core and placed his personal interests above the interests of the nation”  – essentially attacking Netanyahu’s principle campaign message: that Netanyahu is a strong and responsible leader.
5. After Diskin came an attack from former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who accused Netanyahu of spending vast sums of money on Iran ” “harebrained, megalomaniac adventures” attack plans that were never going to be carried out.
6. At around the exact same time, president Shimon Peres attacked Netanyahu in an interview in the New York Times, essentially accusing the prime minister of not being interested in peace with the Palestinians. “If the people of Israel heard from the leadership that there is a chance for peace, they would take up the gauntlet and believe it. He may do nothing, but that doesn’t mean that things won’t be done. This idea, that history is a horse that can be held by the tail, is a foolish idea, ” Peres said.
7. Next came Amos Oz, who said Netanyahu’s government was the most anti-Zionist in the country’s history because it was killing the two-state solution. “”In my mind, the Netanyahu government is the most anti-Zionist government Israel has ever had. It is doing everything so there will be not two states here, but one,” said Oz.
8. Next came the terribly timed – for Netanyahu anyway – report by the Finance Ministry that Israel’s deficit was in fact double what Netanyahu’s government had planned for. Netanyahu was slammed for this and the message of fiscal irresponsibility is exactly what he’s trying to avoid. Netanyahu has been struggling to get his version out: that the deficit was expected, and that no new taxes will have to be levied to address it.
9. And finally, there was Obama, who dropped possibly the biggest bomb of them all. “Netanyahu is a political coward that is leading his country to near-total isolation. Israel doesn’t know what its own interests are,” the US President was  quoted as saying. There is very little that the average Israeli fears more than total international isolation. We live in a frightful neighborhood, where the vast majority of people hate us [even Egypt's new president says we are all descendants of apes and pigs].

This is a very strange elections indeed. It has been mostly centered around personalities, not issues – there is no binary “war or peace” or “capitalism or socialism” ideological battle – despite the best attempts of some to make it so – the Israeli population isn’t in the mood for either war or peace, outright capitalism or outright socialism.

Just as importantly, there is no real contender against Netanyahu for the top position. So most of the attacks against him have come from outside the official political system: Olmert is not running, and neither are Diskin and Peres.

So, despite the recent ad hominem attacks on the prime minister, Netanyahu is still very likely to be elected for a third term. The cumulative effects of the attacks against his leadership won’t change that, but as we are seeing from the polls, they are chipping away at his party’s electoral strength.

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Israel down the line: Not Jewish, not Democratic?

I’ve changed the headline on this piece because a lot of people are misrepresenting what I actually wrote, and I think I may have chosen a headline that doesn’t properly reflect the piece itself.  The original headline was “Israel: Not Jewish, not Democratic” and the piece itself looks ahead at what is likely to happen to Israel’s character should a two-state solution not come about.

Here’s the article:

Let’s call a spade a spade, shall we?

Looking ahead at 2013 and beyond, there are two distinct trends which I see that are coalescing into one unmistakable reality: Israel is not going to be either a Jewish or Democratic state down the line.

In the absence of a two-state solution, we’re not going to be democratic, and to me there looks to be very, very little chance we’re going to have a two-state deal with the Palestinians. And that means that we’ll be heading into a different reality – either a binational state, or some other form of solution where an entity of “Palestine” is not recognised by us and the Palestinians don’t recognise our “Jewish state.”

The way things are shaping up, our next government will likely be the most right-wing we’ve ever had here and its common denominator will be the annexation of large areas of the West Bank and the ratification of a report which says that Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria are legal under international law – the Levy Report. Whether you agree with this worldview or not, the fact is that most members of the next government are going to work to make this a reality.

The Palestinian leadership in the West Bank is the most “moderate” we’re likely to have here – and what’s depressing about that is that even the maximum that a moderate Israeli government is willing to give isn’t anywhere near the minimum the Palestinians are willing to accept. That’s how “moderate” Abbas and his associates are – they’ve been offered everything and they still refused. And since we’re not going to have a moderate government here for at least the next four years, the Palestinians are not going to get their demands. And after the ‘moderate’ Palestinians go, their successors will be much more extreme, if that’s even possible to imagine.

So there won’t be peace and there won’t be two states.

A few weeks ago I reported that in a closed meeting Avigdor Lieberman said that when the day comes, and it will come, when Israel has to choose between being either a Jewish or Democratic state, the government will choose Jewish over democratic. Lieberman argued that since Israel is the ‘only Jewish state in the world’ that this trumped being ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’.

There will not be a two state solution with the Palestinians in our generation, and possibly the one after that as well, Lieberman said. And he knows what he’s talking about.

So, in the absence of a two-state solution, in essence we are looking at an Israel that controls about 4 million Palestinians and doesn’t give them the full rights of self-determination as enshrined in international law. No matter how justified our claims are to the places of our ancestral birthright [Shilo, Hebron, Beit El], and they are justified, without a deal with the Palestinians, the world is just not going to accept the rules of the game as we set them. The only game the world is ready to accept is a two-state solution that gives rise to a Palestinian state alongside a Jewish and Democratic Israel. There is no other game in town for them, and here I’m talking about our friends like America, Canada, England, France, Germany and Australia. I’m not even talking about the Arab countries, nor Indonesia, Russia, Brazil, China, India and many others – they couldn’t care less about our legitimate rights in this land. But our next government is going to hunker down and take on the world – and the world will oblige.

So instead of trying to remain a democracy in a situation of no-peace and no solution, maybe we should just let it go and lower the world’s expectations? Many settlers I’ve spoken to believe this is the correct path too. What’s more important than living in a democracy, they say, is living in the only Jewish state in the world.

We never really were the only democracy in the Middle East, I’m sorry to say, but its true. Our democracy stops at the Green Line, and in any case is being challenged on this side of the line too.

Ok so it looks like we won’t be a democratic state. But we’ll be a Jewish state so that’s good enough, right?

But will we be a Jewish state?

In 2010 one-third of Israeli marriages happened overseas because these lovebirds didn’t want to deal with the Israeli rabbinate. What’s more, 90% percent of the roughly 300,000 Israelis who immigrated here under the Law of Return (and then told that they were not Jewish enough) aren’t interested in undergoing state sanctioned conversion. So they and their offspring – close to one million souls –  won’t be considered Jewish by the state.

Add to that the West Bank Palestinian, Arab Israeli, Israeli Druze and Bedouin birthrate staying as it is now, and well, let’s just say they won’t be converting to Judaism anytime soon, so in a situation of no two-state solution, their numbers will have to count.

The soaring haredi birthrate and their continued stranglehold on the institutions of religious power increasingly alienate a majority of secular Israelis – many of whom, especially the young, are considering emigrating. Even modern orthodox Israeli Jews are not Jewish enough for the hardcore Haredim, whose number is increasing exponentially.

“We are fast approaching a situation where one half of the country doesn’t recognize the Jewishness of the other half,” says Rabbi David Stav, a leading modern-Orthodox rabbi and candidate for the post of Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi in the Chief Rabbinate.

So if half of the Jews here don’t recognise the other half, and the millions of non-Jews here won’t be recognised under a one-state solution and given full rights, how can we be a Jewish state?

We can’t.

The fact is that if there is no two-state solution [because neither the Palestinian Authority nor the Israeli government wants it] and no structural reform of state religious institutions in Israel takes place, not only will Israel not be a democratic state  - it won’t technically be a Jewish state either.

And that’s why I’m not excited about this election. There’s no binary outcome here, no ‘either or’, no alternate realities to choose from. It’s not about war or peace. It’s not about deep reform or status quo. The result is predetermined; this is our fate, whether we want it or not. And, according to the left-right Knesset political blocs calculus, it looks like we do want it.

And in that case I suggest a dose of realism. Instead of holding onto time-worn platitudes and slogans, I say we start calling ourselves what we truly are: a state in the unmaking, neither fully Jewish nor fully democratic and heading away from both.

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Abandon illusions all ye who enter here.

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For Netanyahu and Barak, the knives come out

Ehud Barak is fighting for his political future. And if there’s anyone in Israel who knows how to fight against impossible odds, it’s him. Israel’s most decorated soldier of all time, the legendary commander of the IDF’s most elite unit, the man who spent most of his life biting on a dagger between his teeth – is now facing a hopeless battle for political survival. Hopeless because, apart from a fistful of nondescript members of Knesset, the defense minister has no political base, no allies in any of the other parties, and has been finally precluded from an assured place on the next Likud list. With no real political home [his Independence Party is not polled to clear the electoral threshold] and nowhere else to go, the warrior is cornered. And now he’s doing what all good warriors are trained to do: fight their way out, by all means possible, take no prisoners, no holds barred.

First, Barak went after Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a former nightclub bouncer who knows a thing or two about scrapping. After Lieberman launched into Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ for his speech at the United Nations General Assembly [in which Abbas labeled Israel an Apartheid state carrying out ethnic cleansing of Palestinians], saying that Abbas should be removed from power, Barak issued a statement saying that Lieberman “should not be formulating his own private diplomatic policy with the Palestinians, should not be calling for the removal of Abbas, and in any case does not represent Israeli government policy.”
Ouch. In other words, Barak was saying: “you can visit Bosnia and Tonga, but let the big boys handle the real diplomacy with America and the Palestinians.” It was not a shot across the bow; it was an invitation to a knife fight. So far, Lieberman hasn’t accepted, yet. And he might not have to.

For just as Barak was wiping Lieberman’s blood from his dagger, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was once under Barak’s command in The Unit, dropped a bomb on his own minister of defense. In leaked comments to Channel 2 television, the most widely viewed prime time news show in the country, Netanyahu was reported to have told Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz that Barak was “stoking conflict” between Jerusalem and the White House, and then presenting himself as the “savior” of the crucial alliance.

Steinitz, who has never seen a day of battle in his life, has been directing sniper fire at Barak for months, mostly over Barak’s obstinate refusal to cut the defense budget but also over Barak’s demand to be included on the Likud list in the next election. Two weeks ago Steinitz traded his sniper rifle for an RPG when he publicly warned Netanyahu to be wary of Barak’s “treacherous nature.”

But on Tuesday night, the hand-held weapons were put down in favor of much bigger munitions. Netanyahu and Steinitz were ostensibly meeting to discuss the severe, and necessary, cuts to the 2013 national budget, and the trouble they’re going to have passing it through their coalition partners. But what came out of the meeting instead of a balanced budget was a blistering political attack on Barak, accusing him of the worst possible treachery.

“He traveled to the US to stoke the conflict between us and the Americans in order to come off as the savior – the moderate party that reconciles between the sides,” Netanyahu said, according to a source who was present at the meeting.

Barak must have been stunned by the shockwaves, but regained his footing and responded quickly.

In press releases to the media, both on the record but mostly off, Barak intimated that it was Netanyahu’s clear and public preference for Mitt Romney and his pressure on the Obama administration to take action on Iran which was causing serious fires in the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem. Furthermore, Barak seemed to be saying, it was the minister of defense who was trying to put those fires out. Barak’s media statements left no room for doubt: Barak was the guardian of the most strategically valuable asset the State of Israel has: its bipartisan support from both sides of the aisle in Congress; guarding it against Netanyahu, who was recklessly placing that support in grave danger. Barak’s media briefing is a burst of well-aimed cover fire.

But Barak is hopelessly isolated and outgunned. He has no friends in any of the center-left parties; certainly none in Labor, which he abandoned and tried to dismember. He has no friends in Kadima or in Yair Lapid’s new party. Barak has taken the word ‘Independence’ – the name of his party – to an entirely new level. He may as well call it ‘Completely Alone.”

But Barak is not the only one pinned down and taking fire from several directions. Netanyahu’s attack on his defense minister is an indication that the prime minister finds himself in an impossible situation regarding the 2013 state budget. Netanyahu has to pass a particularly austere budget and has to find some 15 billion shekels of cuts in it. When he looks to make cuts to Shas’ child and housing alliances, he hits a wall of rejection. Cuts to child allowances and housing benefits spell catastrophe for the ultra-Orthodox sector, so Shas will fight them tooth and nail. Netanyahu doesn’t want to lose their electoral support though, which comes in at about 18 Knesset seats, all told [together with the UTJ].

When Netanyahu looks to make cuts to the bloated civil service, he runs into the powerful Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini, who can threaten to flood the streets with protesting workers. The one thing Netanyahu doesn’t want to see going into elections are streets full of protesting blue-collar workers, and definitely not people setting themselves on fire, as was a brief trend here recently. I’m not the bad guy, Netanyahu says, I’ve governed responsibly and spent responsibly. But deep cuts are necessary. So if Netanyahu can’t cut from the haredim, and he can’t cut from the government workforce, and he can’t raise taxes any more than he already has, the only other place he can get such a big chunk of change is the defense budget. Hence his need to weaken Barak, who has stood firm against cuts to the military’s finances.

Netanyahu confidants said Barak has decided to separate himself from the prime minister due to electoral considerations and that Barak is hoping that the Independence party, which he founded in 2011 after he left Labor, will earn enough votes in the next elections to surpass the threshold required to receive seats in the Knesset.

If this is really what Barak hopes to achieve, his fight with the prime minister might not get him there, as Netanyahu remains popular, and has recently moved to lower the volume in Israel’s tempestuous relationship with the Obama administration. The sad and ironic fact is that, more than Israel has become a wedge issue in the American election, America has become a wedge issue in the upcoming Israeli elections. All options remain on the table, but the tables have definitely turned.

Weep, you’re on Egyptian candid camera

This is the sickest, most disturbing news I’ve seen coming out of Egypt since the gang raping of western female journalists in Tahrir Square.

What you basically have here is an Egyptian candid camera show, where Egyptian celebrities are invited to appear on what they are led to believe is a German TV show.

Once on air however, the guests are told that they are actually on an Israeli TV channel [Channel 2 Shalom Shalom]

The subsequent outbursts of anger and hate are disturbing, and sad, as the guests lash out at the ‘Israelis’ – with physical violence quite prevalent. [A presenter and crew member are attacked]

What’s even more sad here, for me anyway, is that this concept even came up for discussion, production, and was ultimately broadcast. This would not happen in Israel.

Imagine if your average Israeli Jewish celebrity was invited onto a TV show and told, half-way through the broadcast, that they were on a Palestinian TV channel. I very much doubt we would see the sort of outburst seen in the Egyptian version [cue left-wingers to hit me on this]

Watch, and weep

They want nothing to do with us

Interesting Israel Radio interview with a haredi man from the extreme fringes of haredi society, the Eda Haredit, at a protest against haredi army enlistment on Monday:

“It states quite clearly in the Torah that if everyone studied Torah then there would be no need for anyone to protect us. The seculars don’t learn Torah; they have nothing to do, so they should enlist into the army. The Eda Haredit is not at all interested in the existence of the State of Israel, so it doesn’t make sense to draft its sons into the Israel Defense Forces. Continue reading

Analysis: Don’t panic over Egypt, yet

What does the future hold for the Israel-Egypt relationship? Will Egypt become increasingly, openly hostile? Will the Camp David Peace Accords between the two neighbors hold? Will Egypt provide diplomatic and security cover for Hamas in Gaza? How will the central government in Cairo, whoever it turns out to be, handle the growing lawlessness of the Sinai Peninsula?

These are just some of the important questions people are asking themselves regarding the important relationship between Israel and Egypt since the overthrow of the Mubarak regime. They are coming up again today as the Egyptian national gas company unilaterally terminated its contract with Israel. Continue reading

In Europe, perceptions of Israel colored by anti-Semitism

European Flightilla activists scrawled a Swastika on their holding cell. Anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic.

More than 70 percent of Polish people believe that Jews seek to benefit from their forebears’ suffering during the Nazi era, a new report on racism and xenophobia in Europe shows. Continue reading

False Flag

Here’s a quote which caught my eye this week from a Haaretz story about IDF units preparing for another possible round against Hezbollah:

When you stick an [Israeli] flag [on enemy territory], there’s no question who won,” says a high-ranking officer who requested anonymity. “You need to seize a geographic space. This is the only way the concept of victory can be established.”

I couldn’t disagree more. Continue reading