Last month, Israel’s attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, announced that he was closing a 12-year investigation into Avigdor Lieberman, who until mid-December was the country’s foreign minister. The investigation focused on the suspicion that the minister had used foreign corporations with fictitious owners to hide private funds that he had received while in office. “If brought to court,” Weinstein explained, “the case would likely end in an acquittal.” The attorney general did, however, decide to indict Lieberman for a relatively minor offence — breaching the public trust.
The effect that the indictment will have on Lieberman’s political career is still uncertain. If he were found guilty, the court would still have to make a special declaration that he acted immorally in order to force him to take a hiatus from political life. And for now, even though Lieberman resigned from his post as foreign minister, election polls still suggest that his right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, which merged forces with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and formed the Likud-Beiteinu list, will share the leadership of the next coalition government. Assuming he receives a mild verdict, Lieberman will yet again be a senior minister in the Israeli government.
Off the record, officials in the Ministry of Justice admit that the watered-down outcome of the Lieberman investigation is an alarming sign that law enforcement may be losing ground in the battle against corrupt politicians. “There are three types of Knesset members,” Mali Polishuk-Bloch, a retired Knesset member with a record of anticorruption activities, remarked recently. There are “those to whom envelopes with cash are offered and they take them, those who reject the offer, and those to whom no one dare make such an offer.” The two latter groups seem to be becoming endangered species. Last month, three parliamentarians to whom no one would think of proposing a bribe — Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, and Michael Eitan — were shoved out of political life in the Likud Party primaries.
Anxiety is increasing about the prospect of a desperate Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons against his rapidly proliferating enemies. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Assad that such chemical weapons use would cross a U.S. red line: “I’m not going to telegraph in any specifics what we would do in the event of credible evidence that the Assad regime has resorted to using chemical weapons against their own people. But suffice to say we are certainly planning to take action.”
This new level of anxiety was prompted by reports that Assad’s forces have been moving chemical weapons, according to David Sanger and Eric Schmitt in The Times. They report that one American official told them that “the activity we are seeing suggests some potential chemical weapon preparation,” though the official “declined to offer more specifics of what those preparations entailed.”
The U.S. is not the only country worried about the possible use of chemical weapons. Intelligence officials in two countries told me recently that the Israeli government has twice come to the Jordanian government with a plan to take out many of Syria’s chemical weapons sites. According to these two officials, Israel has been seeking Jordan’s “permission” to bomb these sites, but the Jordanians have so far declined to grant such permission.
More than 60 years after the founding of Israel precipitated two tides of refugees in the Middle East, the Israeli government has launched a campaign to persuade the world that it’s not just Palestinians who suffered in Israel’s early days.
Facing powerful forces that were reshaping the Middle East - including rising anti-Semitism, nascent Arab nationalism, and a strengthening Zionist movement - some 856,000 Jews from Morocco to Iran were compelled to leave their home countries. Most of them settled in Israel.
Partly because of draconian Arab laws issued after Israel declared independence in 1948, these Arab Jews left behind assets estimated at $700 million (about $6 billion today). According to one accounting, that’s roughly double the value of Palestinian assets lost.
Now, Israel is demanding that those losses be acknowledged and recompensed in some way. In doing so, the campaign touches one of Palestinians’ most sensitive wounds, harbored since Israel’s founding in 1948: their right to return to lands and homes left in 1948-49, when at least 750,000 either fled or were expelled by Israel.
When activist Anat Hoffman learned that the Israeli government had agreed to pay a state-funded salary to several non-Orthodox rabbis — something their Orthodox counterparts have been receiving for decades — she recited the Shehechiyanu, an ancient blessing of thanks that Jews intone on special occasions.
“This was the first time the government called a non-Orthodox person — or a woman —‘a rabbi’” said Hoffman, who heads the Jerusalem-based Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the activist arm of Israel’s Reform Jewish movement.
The government’s landmark decision on Tuesday (May 29) comes seven years after Hoffman’s agency petitioned Israel’s highest court to recognize Miri Gold, a Detroit-born Israeli Reform rabbi, as a bona fide spiritual leader.
Until now, Israel’s Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements, which together have about 250 rabbis and around 100 congregations, have received no official recognition of their leaders or institutions. In 2011, the government allotted the Orthodox movement $450 million; the Conservative and Reform movements received $60,000.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Wednesday that Israel should consider imposing the borders of a future Palestinian state, becoming the most senior government official to suggest bypassing a stagnant peace process.
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Mr. Barak’s statement urging consideration of what he and many Israelis call “unilateral actions,” without offering any specifics, echoed an emerging chorus of political leaders, analysts and intellectuals who have said that Israel needs to put in effect its own settlement to the Palestinian crisis. Though the Israeli government continues to call for negotiations toward a two-state solution, the drive for a one-sided approach also received a boost on Wednesday from the Institute for National Security Studies, a respected research center that is close to the military and security establishment.
Mr. Barak called for “an interim agreement, maybe even unilateral action,” during a conference sponsored by the institute here. Referring to fears that Jews will become a minority in their own state, he added, “Inaction is not a possibility.”
“Israel cannot afford stagnation,” Mr. Barak said. “It will be a difficult decision to make, but the time is running out.”
Calls for direct action are based on the arguments that negotiations are no longer feasible because of enduring political divisions on both sides and the changing dynamics inspired by the Arab Spring, which demand that leaders take more populist positions in line with anti-Israel public sentiment. But some advocates of this approach have also said that they believe the door should remain open to negotiations, suggesting that unilateral steps could be phased in over many years and be designed, in part, to give Israel a stronger hand in final status talks.
Several years after leaving government, I wrote a piece in the Washington Post titled “Israel’s Lawyer.” The article was an honest effort to explain how several senior officials in U.S. President Bill Clinton’s administration (myself included) had a strong inclination to see the Arab-Israeli negotiations through a pro-Israel lens. That filter played a role — though hardly the primary one — in the failure of endgame diplomacy, particularly at the ill-fated Camp David summit in July 2000.
Unsurprisingly, the piece was hijacked in the service of any number of agendas, especially by critics of Israel only too eager to use my narrow point about the Clinton years to make their broader one: America had long compromised its own values and interests in the Middle East by its blind and sordid obeisance to the Jewish state and its pro-Israeli supporters in the United States.
Here we go again. Election years seem to bring out the worst — not only in politicians, but in advocates, analysts, and intellectuals too. Nowhere are the leaps and lapses of logic and rationality greater than in the discussion of Israel, the Jews, domestic U.S. politics, and the Middle East. Once again, we’re hearing that a U.S. president is being dragged to war with Iran by a trigger-happy Israeli prime minister and his loyal acolytes in America.
Before we lose our collective minds (again), it might be useful to review some of the myths and misconceptions about domestic U.S. politics and America’s Middle East policies that still circulate all too widely in Europe and the Arab world — and sadly in the United States too. Here are a half-dozen of the worst ones.
1. The White House is Israeli-occupied territory.
The idea that American Jews in collusion with the Israeli government (and, for some time now, evangelical Christians) hold U.S. foreign policy hostage is not only wrong and misleading but a dangerous, dark trope. It coexists with other hateful — and, yes, anti-Semitic — canards about how Jews control the media and the banks, and the world as well. It’s reality distortion in the extreme, with little basis in fact. The historical record just doesn’t support it. Strong, willful presidents who have real opportunities (and smart strategies to exploit them) to promote U.S. interests almost always win out and trump domestic lobbies.
Indeed, when it counts and national interests demand it, presidents who know what they’re doing move forward in the face of domestic pressures and usually prevail. Whether it’s arms sales to the Arabs (advanced fighter jets to Egyptians or AWACS to Saudis) or taking tough positions on Arab-Israeli negotiating issues in the service of agreements (see: Henry Kissinger and the 1973-1975 disengagement agreements with Israel, Egypt, and Syria; President Jimmy Carter, Camp David, and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1978 and 1979; and Secretary of State James Baker and the 1991 Madrid peace conference), administrations have their way. The fights can be messy and politically costly, but that doesn’t preclude policymakers from having them.
Israel Thursday called on computer hackers not to take the law into their own hands to avenge attacks on Israeli credit card companies, and said the authorities were capable of countering all cyber threats.
“We call on Israeli citizens to abide by (the law). Just as the Israeli government has found answers for terrorism, we will find answers to this challenge … we call on Israeli citizens not to … act as vigilantes,” Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said in a statement.
Last week a computer hacker who said he was based in Saudi Arabia, published thousands of personal and credit card details of people apparently gleaned from commercial websites. It was one of the worst cases of hacking Israel has said it has faced.
In response, at least one Israeli hacker declared he had carried out a reprisal cyber-attack on Saudi credit card holders, although the scope of his action could not be verified.
Although the hacked details had apparently come from what analysts said were poorly secured internet shopping websites, the fact that the attack was aimed at Israel has led to fears that it was politically motivated.
Ayalon described the hacking as “a breach of sovereignty comparable to a terrorist operation, and must be treated as such.”
At an Iranian military base 30 miles west of Tehran, engineers were working on weapons that the armed forces chief of staff had boasted could give Israel a “strong punch in the mouth.”
But then a huge explosion ripped through the Revolutionary Guard Corps base on Nov. 12, leveling most of the buildings. Government officials said 17 people were killed, including a founder of Iran’s ballistic missile program, Gen. Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam.
Iranian officials called the blast an accident. Perhaps it was.
Decades of international sanctions have left Iran struggling to obtain technology and spare parts for military programs and commercial industries, leading in some cases to dangerous working conditions.
However, many former U.S. intelligence officials and Iran experts believe that the explosion — the most destructive of at least two dozen unexplained blasts in the last two years — was part of a covert effort by the U.S., Israel and others to disable Iran’s nuclear and missile programs. The goal, the experts say, is to derail what those nations fear is Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons capability and to stave off an Israeli or U.S. airstrike to eliminate or lessen the threat.
“It looks like the 21st century form of war,” said Patrick Clawson, who directs the Iran Security Initiative at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Washington think tank. “It does appear that there is a campaign of assassinations and cyber war, as well as the semi-acknowledged campaign of sabotage.”
Or perhaps not. Any such operation would be highly classified, and those who might know aren’t talking. The result is Washington’s latest national security parlor game — trying to figure out who, if anyone, is responsible for the unusual incidents.
For years, the U.S. and its allies have sought to hinder Iran’s weapons programs by secretly supplying faulty parts, plans or software, former intelligence officials say. No proof of sabotage has emerged, but Iran’s nuclear program clearly has hit obstacles that thwarted progress in recent years.
“We definitely are doing that,” said Art Keller, a former CIA case officer who worked on Iran. “It’s pretty much the stated mission of the [CIA’s] counter-proliferation division to do what it takes to slow … Iran’s weapons of mass destruction program.”
Iran insists that its nuclear program is for civilian purposes only.
Many Western experts are convinced that American and Israeli engineers secretly fed the Stuxnet computer worm into Iran’s nuclear program in 2010. The virus reportedly caused centrifuges used to enrich uranium to spin out of control and shatter. Neither the U.S. nor Israeli government has acknowledged any role in the apparent cyber-attack.
Nor did anyone claim responsibility after two senior nuclear physicists were killed, and a third wounded, by bombs attached to their cars or nearby motorcycles in January and November last year
The Israeli government has carried out a two-day exercise it says is aimed at boosting preparedness for any terrorist attack aimed at sparking an outbreak of a highly contagious disease. Israeli officials emphasize the biological weapons drill is routine, but it comes amid rising tensions in the region, particularly from Iran.
Ha-Emek Hospital in Afula, 100 kilometers north of Tel Aviv. Personnel are responding to a simulated biological weapons attack.
In this exercise no one knows what contagious agent has been used, anthrax, botulism or another deadly organism. The staff must identify the agent and within hours begin vaccinating the local population against it.
Israeli Assistant Defense Minister Ze’ev Snir is in charge of the program. He says the drill is held each year in a different part of Israel.
“This is a general preparedness that we are trying to work on,” said Snir. “I believe that our Ministry of Health is at a good level of preparedness. And this kind of drill will make us even better prepared.”
The exercise comes amid rising tensions in the region. Western governments last week tightened sanctions against Iran after the United Nations nuclear agency (IAEA) said it had evidence that Iran was trying to build a nuclear bomb.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for even tougher measures.