19 February 2013
Prisoner X and the Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight
By Gwynne Dyer
Ben Alon, Ben Allen and Benjamin Burroughs are dead. So is Benjamin Zygier, an Australian Zionist who moved to Israel in the 1990s and became an Israeli citizen. He then adopted the curious custom of flying back to Australia at fairly frequent intervals to change his name (Australia lets its citizens change their names once every twelve months). And every time, Zygier would take out an Australian passport in his new name.
The reason, it turns out, was that he had been recruited by Mossad, the Israeli external intelligence agency, to supply it with Australian passports for use in its foreign operations. So far, nothing new. Israel has been compelled at various times to apologise to the British, Canadian and Australian governments, among others, for using the passports of Israelis with dual citizenship in its various clandestine operations abroad.
But then the Israeli government arrested Zygier, and held him in solitary confinement until he committed suicide in his cell in late 2010. It has taken until now for the story to get out because Zygier’s imprisonment without trial was treated as a state secret.
Even his jailers were not allowed to know the name of “Prisoner X” or the reason he was being held – and after his death the Israeli government went to extreme lengths to keep the whole affair secret, even threatening Israeli editors with fines or jail if they reported on it. What could he have known or done to merit such treatment?
Maybe he had stumbled across some apocalyptic secret that would change everything if it got out. Maybe Israel doesn’t really have hundreds of nuclear weapons, or even any. Maybe all the Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory are just Potemkin villages. But it seems improbable, doesn’t it?
The likely answer is that the Mossad hit team that murdered Palestinian leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in January, 2010 used one or more of Zygier’s passports, and he started to get cold feet. Especially since around the same time the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation woke up and had a little chat with him about his multiple name changes.
So did Zygier just lose his nerve and confess the passport scam to the ASIO? That would annoy his Israeli employers, but not so much that they would turn him into “Prisoner X”. The Australian government would complain through diplomatic channels, the Israeli government would solemnly promise not to do it again, and Mossad would just carry on as if nothing had happened.
Israel regularly spies on the United States, its greatest ally, and then shamelessly lobbies Congress to get its convicted spies released, so it’s obviously not going to worry about offending the Australians. But what if the ASIO turned Zygier into a double agent, and pumped him for information on Israeli “black” operations?
If he had real information about those operations and started passing it to the Australians, that would explain the great anger of the Israeli authorities and the extreme secrecy that surrounded his case.
Whatever. The point is not Zygier’s personal tragedy, or even Israel’s misuse of the passports of its friends and allies in its black ops. It is rather that all this Boy’s Own cloak-and-dagger stuff is profoundly foolish. Or at least the dagger part is.
When Mossad occupies itself in gathering intelligence and doing strategic analysis, it does good work. For example, it has been successful so far in its attempts to talk Binyamin Netanyahu’s government out of launching an extremely ill-advised attack on Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons ambitions. But Mossad’s assassination programme is a long-running disaster.
Sometimes it kills the wrong person, as when it murdered an innocent Moroccan waiter in Norway whom it mistook for one of those responsible for the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. But what enemy of Israel was deterred, what further attack on Israel was prevented, by Mossad’s success in hunting down and killing more than a dozen other people whom it suspected of being involved in that atrocity?
When five Mossad agents, travelling on Canadian passports, poisoned Khaled Meshaal, then head of Hamas’s political bureau, in Amman in 1997, it nearly wrecked Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel, and in the end Israel had to come up with an antidote for the poison. Canada even withdrew its ambassador from Israel for a time.
And when it murdered Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai three years ago, just three days after the first-ever visit by an Israeli cabinet minister to the United Arab Emirates, it put a promising detente between the two countries into the deep freeze indefinitely.
The whole wig-and-fake-passport nonsense is worse than a distraction from Mossad’s real job. It is self-indulgent and counter-productive. And often, when innocent bystanders are killed in these operations, it is criminal. You know, like those US drone strikes that kill innocent bystanders every month.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 9. (“Maybe…doesn’t it?); and (“If he…case”)
16 January 2013
By Gwynne Dyer
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was once seen as a right-wing figure. Now he’s widely considered to be a moderate. But it’s not Netanyahu who has changed; Israel has. His governing coalition will certainly win the largest number of seats in the Knesset (parliament) again in the election on 22 January, but his new government will contain lots of people who make him look very moderate indeed.
Consider, for example, Moshe Feiglin, one of the ultra-right-wingers who recently displaced the remaining moderates in internal elections in Netanyahu’s own Likud Party. “You can’t teach a monkey to speak and you can’t teach an Arab to be democratic,” Feiglin told the New York Times recently. “You’re dealing with a culture of thieves and robbers….The Arab destroys everything he touches.”
Last October, when Likud merged with its hard-right coalition partner, Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home), it was hailed as Netanyahu’s political masterstroke. Opinion polls predicted that the new alliance would win 47 seats in the new Knesset, compared to the 42 seats they won separately in the last election. But even with Likud-Beitenu’s lurch to the right, it’s still not right-wing enough for many Israeli voters.
Just in the past month, a new party that is even farther to the right, Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home), has surged in the polls, and now Netanyahu’s alliance is predicted to drop to only 34 seats, while the upstart party gets 15. And what is Bayit Yehudi’s leader like?
Naftali Bennett is the 40-year-old son of American immigrants to Israel, a religiously observant man who made a small fortune in software development before going into politics. And he has no intention of wasting his time “babbling about Israel and the Palestinians.” His solution to the problem is for Israel to annex about 60 percent of the West Bank, including almost all the land occupied by Jewish settlers, and to rule the rest forever.
“There is not going to be a Palestinian state within the tiny land of Israel,” he said in an interview with The Guardian. “It’s just not going to happen. A Palestinian state would be a disaster for the next 200 years.” So in the 40 percent of the West Bank left to them, in Bennett’s version of the future, 2.5 million Palestinians would live under some kind of “autonomous” authority, permanently supervised by the Israeli intelligence services.
Most of the issues being debated in this Israeli election are domestic questions about the economy and the social welfare net, as in any other country, but there is no doubt that the rise of the right has been fuelled primarily by its hard line on security and territory. What needs to be explained is why so many more Israelis are attracted by those policies nowadays than they were twenty years ago.
The founding generation of Zionists in Israel in 1948 were mostly secular and socialist, and most of them voted for the Labour Party, which dominated Israeli politics until the 1980s. But the Israel of 1948 contained only two-thirds of a million Jews. Today’s Israel has six million Jews, and most of them are neither secular nor socialist in their outlook. Nor, in most cases, are they descended from that founding generation.
The early post-independence waves of immigrants were mostly “oriental” Jews, primarily refugees from Arab countries, who were religious and conservative in their outlook. They were numerous, and had much higher birth-rates than secular Jews. Then, from the 1980s onwards, came the Russians and other post-Soviet Jews, who had no sympathy at all for socialism. Together, they have transformed Israeli politics.
About 50 percent of Israeli Jews now identify themselves as traditional, religious or ultra-Orthodox. Only 15 percent describe themselves as secular. And both the religious and the post-Soviet Jews are mostly on the right politically – in the case of the ultra-Orthodox, 79 percent of them, compared to only 17 percent of secular Jews. The new Israel is capitalist, religious and, in many cases, ultra-nationalist.
Did the “peace process” die because Israelis were becoming more right-wing, or did the failure of the peace process push Israelis to the right? That may sound like a chicken-and-egg question, but in fact Israel was already moving right for demographic reasons at least a decade before the peace process began. By now it has traveled a long way in that direction.
Together, Netanyahu’s Likud Beitenu alliance and Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi will win around 50 seats in this election, which puts them within easy range of a majority in the 120-seat Knesset. Just bring in a couple of the minor parties (some of which are also quite far over on the right), and they will have a strong right-wing coalition. Netanyahu will still be prime minister, but he will have to bring Naftali Bennet and other hard-right leaders into the cabinet.
And then life in the Middle East will get even more interesting than it is already.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“There is…services”; and “Did…direction”).
5 December 2012
Dead, Dead, Dead: The Middle East “Peace Process”
By Gwynne Dyer
It’s as if the world’s leaders were earnestly warning us that global warming will cause the extinction of the dinosaurs. They’ve actually been dead for a long time already. So has the Middle East “peace process”.
As soon as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced that Israel will build 3,000 homes on “East One” (E-1), the last piece of land connecting East Jerusalem with the West Bank that is not already covered with Jewish settlements, the ritual condemnations started to flow. Even US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that “these activities set back the cause of a negotiated peace,” and others went a lot further.
The British minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, warned that “the settlements plan…has the potential to alter the situation on the ground on a scale that threatens the viability of a two-state solution.” France called in the Israeli ambassador and told him that “settlements are illegal under international law…and constitute an obstacle to a fair peace based on a two-state solution.”
Even the Australian government summoned the Israeli ambassador and told him that Israeli plans to build on the land in question “threaten the viability of a two-state solution.” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said that the plan would be “an almost fatal blow” to the two-state solution, as if it were still alive. And Netanyahu, secure in the knowledge that they wouldn’t actually do anything, just stone-walled and smiled.
In almost all the media coverage, the Israeli announcement is explained as an angry response for the United Nations General Assembly’s vote last month to grant the Palestinian Authority permanent observer status at the UN, which is tantamount to recognising Palestine as an independent state. As if Netanyahu were an impulsive man who had just lost his temper, not a wily strategist who thinks long-term.
Building in the “E-1” area, which covers most of the space between the Jewish settlements that ring East Jerusalem and the huge Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim in the Palestinian West Bank, is definitely a game-changer. It effectively separates the West Bank from East Jerusalem, the city that the Palestinians see as the capital of their future state. It also almost cuts the West Bank in two. But it’s not a new idea.
The Israeli government declared its intention to build on this land fourteen years ago, when Netanyahu was prime minister for the first time. The plan was frozen in response to outraged protests from practically all of Israel’s allies, who had invested a great deal of political capital in the two-state solution. But it was never abandoned.
Successive US Presidents were assured by various Israeli governments that construction would not proceed there, but most of those governments went on preparing for the day when a pretext to break the freeze would present itself. The land is still deserted today, but there are street lights, electric cables and water mains.
Now a pretext has arisen, even if the UN General Assembly’s recognition of a Palestinian state makes little practical difference. Netanyahu has seized the opportunity, as he undoubtedly always planned to. And you can’t kill the “two-state solution.” To Netanyahu’s considerable satisfaction, it is already dead.
Creating two independent states, Israeli and Palestinian, separated by the “green line” that was Israel’s border until it conquered the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 war, was the goal of the 1993 Oslo Accords. That’s what the “peace process” was all about, but it was really doomed when Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister signed the Oslo deal, was assassinated by a right-wing Jewish fanatic in 1995.
Netanyahu was elected prime minister after Rabin’s death, and spent the next three years stalling on the transfers of land and political authority to the Palestinian Authority that were required under the Oslo Accords. Meanwhile, he supported a vastly expanded programme of Jewish settlement in the West Bank, although it was obvious that this would ultimately make a Palestinian state impossible.
After a two-year interval when the Labour Party under Ehud Barak formed a government and seriously pursued a final peace settlement with the Palestinians, the Israeli right recovered power in 2001 and has relentlessly pursued project of settling Jews on Palestinian territory ever since.
The number of Jews living in the West Bank has doubled in the past twelve years, and they now account for one-fifth of the population there. Jewish settlements, roads reserved for Jewish settlers, and Israeli military bases and reservations now cover 40 percent of the West Bank’s territory. But to retain US support, Netanyahu still has to pretend that he is really interested in a two-state solution.
That’s why he had to wait for the right excuse before building on “E-1” and sealing East Jerusalem off from the West Bank. But he always intended to kill off the “peace process,” and in practice he succeeded long ago.
Why do his Western allies in the United States and elsewhere put up with this fraud? Because they cannot think of anything else to do.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 7 and 12. (“Even…smiled”; “Successive…mains”; and “After…since”)
19 November 2012
Gaza: Another Pre-Election War?
By Gwynne Dyer
Let’s be fair: there does seem to be some sort of pattern here, but it is not very consistent. Five times in Israel since 1980 a right-wing government has called an election WITHOUT launching a complementary military operation. The right lost two of those elections outright (1992, 1999), more or less tied two others (1984, 1988), and won only one of them decisively (2006).
On the other hand, critics of Israel point out, three times since 1980 right-wing Israeli governments have combined an election campaign with a major military operation against some Arab or Palestinian target. And this combination, it has been argued, yields decisive electoral success for the right.
Menachem Begin’s government won the 1981 election three weeks after carrying out a dramatic attack on the Osirak research nuclear reactor that France had sold to Iraq. In the view of most outside observers, the reactor, which was closely supervised both by the French and by the International Atomic Energy Agency, was not suited to the large-scale production of enriched uranium and posed no threat to Israel, but the attack was popular in Israel.
Ehud Olmert’s coalition launched the “Cast Lead” onslaught against the Gaza Strip in December 2008-January 2009. The three-week campaign of massive bombardments and some ground incursions left 1,400 Palestinians and thirteen Israelis dead. The election was held a month later, and Binyamin Netanyahu emerged as the leader of a new right-wing coalition.
So here we go again, perhaps? Netanyahu is still the prime minister, and the next elections are due in January. What better way to ensure success than to go and bash the Palestinians again? A week later, with eighty-six Palestinians and three Israelis dead, his reelection is assured: Israelis overwhelmingly support the current military operation.
That’s the case that is made against Israel. Does it hold water? Well, actually, no, it doesn’t.
Begin’s attack on the Osirak reactor in 1981 may well have been an electoral stunt, although he was clearly paranoid about the possibility of a nuclear weapon in Arab hands. But Ehud Olmert, though undoubtedly a man of the right, was not leading a right-wing government in 2008. He was the leader of a new centrist party, Kadima, that had been formed by defectors from both the right-wing Likud Party and left-wing Labour.
Moreover, Olmert had already resigned in mid-2008 over a corruption scandal, and was merely acting as interim prime minister by the time the “Cast Lead” operation was launched in December of that year. If it was an electoral ploy despite all that, it didn’t work. It was the right that actually won the election in early 2009, and formed a government led by the Likud Party’s Binyamin Netanyahu.
It is equally hard to believe that Netanyahu is seeking electoral gain by attacking Gaza this month. Every opinion poll in Israel for months past has been saying that he is going to win the January election hands down. For him, all the risk of “Operation Pillar of Defence” is on the downside: a major loss of Israeli lives in the campaign, while unlikely, could only work against him.
So why is this happening now? Historians traditionally split into two camps: those who see purpose and planning and plots behind every event, and those who think most events are just the random interaction of conflicting strategies, imperfect information and human frailty. This latter approach is known in the historical trade as the “cock-up theory of history,” and it is very attractive as an explanation for the current situation.
Netanyahu, cruising home to an easy electoral victory in January, had absolutely no need for a little war with the Palestinians. Indeed, his strategy of continuously shouting “wolf” about Iran and its alleged nuclear weapons programme has succeeded in distracting international attention from the Palestinians, leaving him free to expand Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank unhindered.
Similarly, the Hamas leaders who ruled Gaza had no interest in triggering a military conflict with Israel. They had every reason to believe that the sweeping political changes in the Arab world were strengthening their position internationally, and they had no need to remind Arabs of their plight. So how did this idiocy happen? Another cock-up, of course.
Hamas has been trying to maintain calm in Gaza and extend a ceasefire agreement with Israel, but it has little control over various radical jihadi groups who build popular support by making utterly futile rocket attacks on Israel. Even if they kill a few Israelis, so what? How does that serve the cause?
Hamas faces the permanent political danger of being outflanked by more extremist rivals, so it cannot crack down too hard on the jihadis. Israel, fed up with their pinprick attacks, was looking for somebody to punish, and since it couldn’t locate all the jihadi leaders it decided to assassinate Ahmed al-Jabari, the head of the military wing of Hamas. Even though that was bound to end the ceasefire.
So then Hamas fired a few of its own rockets into Israel, and Israel retaliated massively, and we were off to the races once again. A complete cock-up, and a pointless waste of lives.
But since the mini-war doesn’t really serve the purposes of any major player, it will probably be shut down again fairly soon.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 13, 14 and 15. (“Hamas…lives”)