Monday, June 15, 2009

Over to you, Mr. Abbas

Jun. 14, 2009

For the two-and-a-half months since he was sworn in for the second time as prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu has been uncharacteristically quiet, making few speeches of substance and generally eschewing interviews. On Sunday night, at Bar-Ilan University, he reminded a local and international audience of his articulacy, with an address that will have pleased neither the Palestinians and the Arab world, nor the most ardent supporters of the settlement enterprise, nor the firm Israeli Left - but wasn't principally aimed at any of them.

His goal, rather, was simultaneously satisfying the Israeli consensus and the Obama administration, and in that, he is likely to have largely succeeded.

Notably speeding up his delivery when he got to the sections of his speech most unpalatable to the hard Right, he first vaguely committed his government to all previous international agreements, but then emphatically espoused the vision of a Palestinian state living at peace alongside Israel, precisely as the new American president would have wished, and reaffirmed that Israel would build no new settlements and take control of no more West Bank land.

His hawkish critics will accuse him of capitulation and of selling out. Netanyahu, after all, is the man who publicly declared in 2002 that a state for the Palestinians would spell the end of a state for the Jews.

But the speaker of 2009 set out two critical caveats. Israel, he made plain, could countenance Palestinian statehood only if, philosophically, the Palestinians publicly acknowledged Israel's essence as the homeland of the Jewish nation and, practically, if Palestine were demilitarized.

"We don't want missiles on our cities," he said simply. "We want peace."

And therefore, Palestine would have to be denied an army, the right to import arms, air sovereignty and the capacity to sign military treaties with the likes of Iran.

In a sense, this was a classic display of Netanyahu's longstanding insistence on reciprocity. You want Israel to support statehood for the Palestinians? he was saying to the Americans. Well, then, give me the guarantees that their independence will not come at the expense of ours.

The demand can hardly strike Washington as unreasonable, and by prefacing it with that support in principle for Obama's efforts to change our region for the better, Netanyahu at a nuanced stroke lobbed the peacemaking ball back into the Palestinian court. And he moved himself a long way, if not perhaps all the way, from Obama's list of unsavory "obstacles to progress," to the place where Israel need always belong, among the potential "facilitators of progress." Over to you, Mr. Abbas.

The prime minister's refusal to halt natural growth at existing settlements still leaves him in direct conflict with Washington. But Netanyahu will have privately explained to the Americans that meeting that restriction would not merely counter his own outlook, but also doom his government, and his Sunday night mention of the Gaza disengagement served as a timely reminder of Israel's demonstrable willingness to dismantle even entire settlement communities - albeit, in Netanyahu's view, for entirely misconceived reasons.

When Israelis went to the polls in February, many in the mainstream were torn between the conviction that maintaining a Jewish, democratic Israel would require separation from the Palestinians, and the sorry assessment that no such viable separation was possible given abiding Palestinian hostility to the very notion of our sovereign presence here.

Netanyahu's Sunday night address will have resonated with that Israeli middle ground. And it also corrected some of the lacunas in the Middle East vision expressed in the US president's June 4 "new beginning" overture to the Muslim world - most especially regarding Obama's misrepresentation of Israel's legitimacy as stemming from centuries of Jewish persecution culminating in the Holocaust.

A much anticipated speech, then, that probably achieved much of what Netanyahu hoped it would. But, of course, still only a speech. As Obama will doubtless now be saying to both sides, let's see some action.
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Zvi Hendel rejects blame on Gaza evacuees for pullout woes

Jun. 14, 2009

"The climate created by the government was to break the Gaza leadership and not to talk to us," former MK Zvi Hendel said Sunday, in testimony before the State Commission of Inquiry on the Handling by the Authorized Authorities of the Evacuees from Gush Katif and Northern Samaria.

Hendel, who served as head of the Gaza Shore Regional Council in the early 1990s and was elected to the Knesset in 1996, was one of the most outspoken foes of the disengagement. He lived in the Gaza Strip settlement of Ganei Tal from 1977 until the unilateral withdrawal in August 2005.

Hendel told the members of the committee, retired Supreme Court Justice Eliahu Mazza, Shimon Ravid and Prof. Yedidya Stern, who have been holding hearings in Jerusalem, that he had asked to appear before the commission because he was stung by accusations leveled by Yonatan Bassi, the first head of the Disengagement Administration (Sela) at a commission hearing.

Bassi had charged that the reason the evacuees' resettlement program was taking so long was because the settler leadership had not known what it wanted and had refused to cooperate with the government before the withdrawal.

Hendel denied the charges.

He said he had regularly attended the meetings of the Knesset Finance Committee as it prepared the Evacuation-Compensation Law to deal with all the issues involved in the disengagement, including compensation for the Gaza residents.

Furthermore, he had been involved in the establishment of the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel, which supervised the legislative process on behalf of the settlers and participated in Knesset committee meetings dealing with the law.

Hendel charged that prime minister Ariel Sharon, who until then had been on close terms with him, cut off all contact and refused his requests to meet.

In contrast, during government negotiations with the Palestinians over the Gaza-Jericho First agreement ("Oslo I"), Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had been very open to Hendel and arranged for the deputy chief of General Staff at the time, Amnon Shahak, to meet with him every Friday for an hour to discuss the negotiations.

Hendel also rejected Bassi's claim that the Gaza leaders did not know what they wanted. He said he had proposed allowing the entire population of Gush Katif to resettle as one community in the sand dunes between Ashkelon and Ashdod.

Hendel said he knew that the only way the settlers could be spared some of the emotional trauma of the withdrawal was by sticking together as a community.

But Bassi opposed the move and those ministers who originally supported it, changed their minds in accordance with the "climate" created by the government.

In the end, the project fell, said Hendel.

"The members of the community would have supported it but because of the government, it was not realized. Had the project been offered to the entire community, it would have worked."

Asked why he had refused to meet with Bassi in the period leading up to the withdrawal, Hendel retorted angrily, "The person who is about to be hanged does not negotiate with the hangman."

Hendel urged the commission to recommend changes in the Evacuation-Compensation Law that would improve the benefits given to the former Gaza residents.

"I would have expected the government to embrace the settlers," he said. "If it had done so, we would not be angry at Sela and the government. [But] the law was not meant to compensate the uprooted but to do the minimum, to finance the recreation of what had been destroyed.

"This is not 'compensation.' Compensation is what is given for the damages caused" to those who were forced to uproot themselves.
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