Q. ...Is the government complying this time with the Court's ruling (to dismantle the Ulpana Illegal Outpost)?
Q. The Independence Day weekend in Israel seems to have invited rather outspoken assessments by prominent Israeli security figures regarding Iran's nuclear program and the Netanyahu-Barak policymaking duo. What does this tell us...?
Q. Why elections so soon? What is happening to trigger them?
Q. Last week you mentioned a High Court directive to dismantle the Ulpana neighborhood in the settlement of Bet El as a possible cause of the disintegration of the Netanyahu coalition. Is the government complying this time with the Court's ruling?
A. The Netanyahu government has taken an extraordinary step in its relations with the High Court. For the first time in the annals of High Court rulings on West Bank land issues, the government is asking the tribunal not simply to postpone dismantling unauthorized or illegal settlement construction (a frequent request), but to completely set aside its decision regarding the Ulpana neighborhood. The government seeks, it told the Court, to "reevaluate the situation", because "priorities for enforcement cannot be set in Judea and Samaria without seeing the whole picture". Bet El, the government said, reflects the "need for an updated policy".
Ostensibly, the Netanyahu government is arguing that destroying the homes of 30 settler families in Bet El opens up a Pandora's box because so many other settlements, outposts and parts thereof are, like Ulpana, built on illegally appropriated private Palestinian land. At a more practical level, the government realizes it cannot comply with the High Court's ruling without collapsing due to the opposition of so many settler-oriented parties and individuals associated with the coalition.
In legal terms, Netanyahu's request from the High Court to back off from its own ruling and absolve the government of its earlier pledge to implement that ruling and demolish Ulpana is totally without precedent. As Attorney Michael Sfard, who pursued the case in the courts, stated, the government has "declared war on the rule of law". Peace Now's Yariv Oppenheimer added that the government had decided "to satisfy a few thousand settlers who are members of the Likud Central Committee."
The High Court responded on Sunday by freezing the Ulpana demolition for 60 days, in order to hear the government's argument. But it must be clear that this petition has more to do with the rule of law in Israel and the fate of Netanyahu's coalition than with the fate of the settlement movement per se. As noted last week, this is a pro-settlement coalition that would break up, precipitating elections, if obliged to take any serious step regarding settlements or a two-state solution.
Here some background information is in order concerning the status of private and public land in the West Bank. The root of virtually the entire settlement movement is the High Court's ruling, shortly after the Six-Day War, that Israel could settle its citizens on "public" or "crown" land in the West Bank and Gaza, i.e., land that is in the public domain and is not privately owned. As elsewhere in the world, the term public land describes most of the land in the West Bank. Had the Court ruled, for example, that public land in the West Bank should be set aside for use by the residents of the West Bank prior to Israel's 1967 occupation--not an unreasonable notion at all and one far more in conformity with international law--then the settlement project would essentially have not been possible. In this sense, the Court's record regarding settlements is not nearly as level-headed or liberal as it sometimes looks.
Be that as it may, the Court clarified in the mid-1970s in the Elon Moreh case that expropriation of private Palestinian land for any Israeli needs other than security was illegal. Menachem Begin, prime minister at the time and a fervent supporter of the settlements, bowed to the Court's jurisdiction ("There are judges in Jerusalem"). Hence the only settlements built on private land in the West Bank are those involving purchase of the land by private Israelis, land whose ownership is disputed, and out-and-out theft of the land by settlers and their supporters in the government.
The Ulpana neighborhood belongs to the latter category.
Q. The Independence Day holiday weekend in Israel seems to have invited rather outspoken assessments regarding Iran's nuclear program and the Netanyahu-Barak policymaking duo by prominent Israeli security figures, serving and retired. What does this tell us about Israel's leadership?
A. Interviewing security figures is a favorite pastime of the Israeli media for Independence Day. In recent years, a long line of retired heads of Israel's intelligence agencies has used such opportunities to level heavy criticism at the functioning and integrity of the political leadership. Last week produced two interviews that, following in the footsteps of ex-Mossad Head Meir Dagan and former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, poured more fuel on the fires of learned criticism of the Netanyahu-Barak approach to Iran's nuclear project.
IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, speaking to Haaretz, insisted on characterizing the Iranian leadership as "very rational" and assessed that it had not, to date, decided to develop nuclear weapons. Then Yuval Diskin, who retired a year ago from directing the Shin Bet (or "Shabak", Israel's internal security and intelligence organization, with responsibility for the Palestinian issue), told a group of former security officials, on camera, "I have no faith in the current leadership", meaning PM Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak. Diskin went further, calling them "two messianists" whom "I wouldn't want to have holding the wheel" in the event of war with Iran. Diskin amplified: "They tell the public that if Israel acts, Iran won't have a nuclear bomb. . . . Actually, many experts say an Israeli attack would accelerate the Iranian nuclear race."
Barak was quick to respond to Gantz, characterizing the Iranian leadership as "not rational in the western sense of the word". Both Barak's and Netanyahu's entourages poured scorn on Diskin, who, they noted, should early-on have resigned his post under Netanyahu (he was appointed by PM Ariel Sharon) had he really found Netanyahu and Barak so unsuitable for office. They assessed that Diskin was resentful at not having been selected by Netanyahu to head the Mossad when Dagan retired. Diskin, it must be noted, has no notable professional background in dealing with Iran-related issues.
At the strategic level, these two interviews, like similar views expressed repeatedly by Dagan in particular, raise the following dilemma or contradiction regarding the Iran policy pursued by Netanyahu and Barak. One school of analysis argues that the two political leaders are really hell-bent on attacking Iran and that Netanyahu truly believes the Holocaust comparisons he frequently makes in the Iranian nuclear context. Another school argues that they fully recognize the constraints on, and doubtful advisability of, an Israeli military response to Iran, but don't trust the security heads to "play the game". Meanwhile, they can take credit for escalating the international pressure on Iran with their threats, to the extent of achieving the current sanctions and negotiations, and argue that only by maintaining the pressure can they, hopefully, deliver a peaceful solution.
Dagan, Diskin and Gantz have spent many hours discussing Iran with Netanyahu and Barak. The former don't appear ever to have been reassured by the latter that "we're just bluffing; we really agree with your more moderate assessments regarding Iran; just play along". Hence the extreme concern voiced by the retired Diskin and Dagan, to the extent of feeling a need to warn the Israeli public even if this appears to undermine the Netanyahu-Barak strategy in international and Iranian eyes. Gantz's difference of opinion with Barak appears more nuanced, but still significant, coming as it does from the chief of staff who would be called upon to lead an attack on Iran's nuclear project.
Diskin was more credible (since he held the Palestinian intelligence file until a year ago and was for years the government's principal emissary to the Ramallah leadership) in addressing Netanyahu and the Palestinian issue. The Netanyahu government, he claimed, "is not talking to the Palestinians because this government has no interest in talking to the Palestinians. I was there until a year ago, I know from up close what's happening." Were Netanyahu to talk to the Palestinians, "his coalition would break up". Dagan has made similar statements.
These comments once again direct us to Netanyahu's pro-settlement, anti-two-state solution coalition. Can the coming elections in Israel, which increasingly look set to take place in the late summer or fall, again focus on the Palestinian issue? On the other hand, even if Netanyahu keeps them focused on Iran (and, if he has no alternative due to renewed social justice protests this summer, the economy), will the wave of harsh criticism of his and Barak's Iran policy by the security establishment erode away at their credibility in the eyes of the Israeli public?
Q. Why elections so soon? What is happening to trigger them?
A. It's not yet official, but in the last few days speculation regarding elections this year has dominated the media. The Knesset is about to enter its summer session, and coalition parties are submitting legislation (for example, Yisrael Beteinu demanding conscription for ultra-orthodox and Arab citizens of Israel) guaranteed to disrupt the coalition, while opposition parties are introducing legislation to mandate early elections in an open challenge to the coalition. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who until now had insisted (despite having held a surprise Likud leadership primary earlier this year) that elections would not be held until their mandated time, late 2013, has joined the speculation. In the Israeli experience, as the speculation and the election-related legislation snowballs, elections become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The triggers are multifold. One is clearly economic. We have already mentioned the social and economic issues that are anticipated to return this summer in the form of mass demonstrations. The government clearly does not have the money to satisfy reformist demands without removing the entitlements of the ultra-orthodox and the settlers; accordingly, it would apparently rather postpone the next budget in favor of elections. A second is the attacks on Netanyahu's integrity and credibility; better to nip them in the bud before something disastrous happens with Iran or the Palestinians to ratify them.
A third trigger of elections is growing secular-ultra-orthodox tension as personified in the issue of national service that is championed by Netanyahu's secular rivals on the right (Avigdor Lieberman) and the center-left (Shaul Mofaz). In this connection, Netanyahu presumably seeks at the tactical level to catch both Lieberman (who anticipates being indicted) and Mofaz (who is freshly elected and has not yet consolidated his leadership of Kadima) off-guard with early elections. Then, of course, there is the virtually unsolvable issue of High Court demands to dismantle settlement construction: compliance by the government will in any case bring down the coalition.
Finally there is a factor pointed out in these virtual pages many months ago: the linkage between the American presidential elections, the Palestinian issue, and the way the Israeli public judges its prime minister. Netanyahu presumably realizes that President Barack Obama has a good chance of being reelected and that, in a second term, Obama might be far tougher on the Israeli prime minister regarding the Palestinian issue than he has been so far. Netanyahu learned in the 1999 elections, when he was perceived to be "non grata" with President Bill Clinton over the Palestinian issue and lost to Ehud Barak, that the Israeli public punishes a leader who can't get along with the American leadership (see also Yitzhak Shamir's electoral defeat in 1982, after President George H. W. Bush famously banged on the podium).
Better, Netanyahu presumably reasons, to get himself reelected before the US elections so he will have a solid mandate to oppose anticipated American pressure without having to risk a public test of his ability to get along with Obama.