May 15, 2015
Number 05/15 #05
This Update features pieces analysing aspects of Israel’s narrow new governing coalition and cabinet – sworn in overnight. It also includes an important comment on the recent “Breaking the Silence” NGO report on Gaza, which has received so much international publicity, including in Australia.
First of all, we offer a list of the new cabinet members and their backgrounds from the Times of Israel. While much of the cabinet was known due to the coalition deals finalised last week, there was notable uncertainly over last minute appointments particularly involving ministers from Netanyahu’s own Likud party, who were reportedly still wrangling over what portfolios would go to whom right up until the swearing in. Surprises include the exclusion of Likud No. 2 Gilad Erdan, who apparently did not accept the post he was offered, and the naming of Likud veteran Silvan Shalom as interior minister, former IDF spokesperson Miri Regev as culture minister and young Likud firebrand Tzipi Hotovely getting the job of deputy foreign minister – which will be an important post with Netanyahu keeping the foreign minister’s portfolio for himself for the time being. For all the details, CLICK HERE.
Next up is veteran Washington mediator and insider Aaron David Miller, who attempts to address and hose down claims that this narrow centre-right government is heading for a major confrontation with the Obama Administration in Washington. He says that the US Administration’s priority will be an Iran deal, and re-assuring the Gulf states about Iran, and picking a fight with Israel will not help either goal. He particularly argues that there are “productive” and “unproductive” fights between US administrations and Israeli governments – that is those which achieve a foreign policy purpose for the US and those which do not – and he cannot see any such purpose being served by picking a fight over the remaining year and half of the Obama Administration, given current regional realities. For his full discussion of likely future US-Israel relations under this government, CLICK HERE.
Finally, veteran Associated Press correspondent Matti Friedman – who has written extensively about problems with media coverage of Israel and the Palestinians – dissects the most recent report by the Israeli-staffed but European-funded NGO “Breaking the Silence”. He notes that despite the way the report was hyped, except for a very few cases, the actual accounts from soldiers in it do not support the claims being made about them by the NGO, which seemed determined to draw certain conclusions regardless of what soldiers told them. He concludes that “activists from Breaking the Silence arent journalists, and their report is intended not to explain but to shock. Its propaganda” – yet journalists continue to treat this report and others like it as proof of Israeli wrongdoing, which is part of a larger problem with media coverage of Israel. For his full discussion, CLICK HERE. For those who didn’t see it, Dr. Gerald Steinberg of NGO monitor also commented on the Breaking the Silence report in the Canberra Times.
Readers may also be interested in:
- A report on how Netanyahu strongly left the door open to expanding his government to include Zionist Union/Labor in his Knesset speech.
- Israeli blogger and journalist Shmuel Rosner comments sensibly on the controversy over the change in Israeli law required to allow the current cabinet to have 20 ministers instead of the previously mandated 18.
- A good article on the controversy over new Justice Minister Ayalet Shaked, a critic of judicial activism, expected to attempt to reform the current judicial system.
- Herb Keinon of the Jerusalem Post on why the appointment of Likud hardliner Tzipi Hotovely as deputy foreign minister isn’t likely to be popular internationally.
- AIJAC’s statement on the recent formal Vatican recognition of a “State of Palestine”. More on this from the Jerusalem Post and Jonathan Tobin.
- AIJAC’s Ahron Shapiro on yet more evidence of politicisation and other problems at al-Jazeera – which the ABC and SBS continue to disregard as they make use of al-Jazeera material and reports.
A rundown of the distribution of portfolios in the new cabinet
Presented below is the makeup of Israel’s 34th government, as approved by the Knesset on May 14, 2015.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) is beginning his third consecutive term (fourth overall) as the countrys leader, a position he has held since 2009. Netanyahu also currently holds the Foreign Affairs and Communications portfolios.
Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon (Likud) will continue to lead Israel’s defense establishment as he has done since 2013. Yaalon is a former military chief of staff who left the service in 2005 and joined politics three years later.
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu) is a former Likud member who took a break from politics in 2012 before forming his own party in the recent election, running on a socio-economic platform. During his time as communications minister Kahlon enacted a much-celebrated reform in the cellular market which led to drastic price cuts for consumers. He has promised to combat skyrocketing housing prices and the high cost of living in the new government.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home) is a former high-tech entrepreneur who served as Netanyahus chief of staff in 2006 before quitting the job and winning the leadership of Jewish Home in 2012. He served as economy minister in the previous government. He also held the portfolios of Religious Affairs and Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home) is a first-time minister who has been a member of Knesset since 2013. A secular woman from Tel Aviv, she stands out from the party’s largely religious base.
Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud) has been in the Knesset since 1998. He has served as transportation minister since 2009, but has now been boosted to deal with security issues as well, including membership in the security cabinet.
Interior Minister Silvan Shalom (Likud) will also serve as deputy prime minister. Shalom was minister for the development of the Negev and the Galilee in the previous government. He has been a member of Knesset for 23 years and served as finance minister and foreign minister in the governments of Ariel Sharon.
Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) will be the de facto health minister (UTJ party members do not assume top ministerial positions on ideological-religious grounds), a position he held between 2009 and 2013. Litzman also chaired the Knessets Finance Committee in the past.
Construction and Housing Minister Yoav Galant (Kulanu) ranks second behind Kahlon in Kulanus roster. He was a top military commander, serving as head of the IDF Southern Command between 2005-2010. He came a hairs breadth from being appointed chief of staff in 2010, before a scandal involving improper construction permits at his home in the rural community of Amikam cost him the job.
Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev (Likud) is a first-time minister who has seen a meteoric rise through the ranks of Likud, from the 27th spot during her first stint in the Knesset in 2009 to the number 5 spot in the most recent elections. Regev served as IDF spokesperson between 2005-2008 (including during the disengagement from the Gaza Strip), and was previously the chief military censor.
Economy Minister and Minister for the Development of the Negev and the Galilee Aryeh Deri (Shas) served as interior minister from 1988 to 1993. In 1999 he was convicted of accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust and served two years in prison. He recently won a drawn out battle for control of the ultra-Orthodox party from former leader Eli Yishai.
Energy and Infrastructures Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud) has been in the Knesset since 1999. He has served as finance minister and in the most recent government as intelligence minister.
Absorption Minister and Strategic Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin (Likud) immigrated from Ukraine in 1990 and was first elected to the Knesset in 2006. He has served as deputy foreign minister and coalition chairman, as well as chairman of the powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
Science and Technology Minister Danny Danon (Likud) has been involved in politics since 1996 and entered the Knesset in 2009. In the previous government he served as deputy defense minister. He was fired by Netanyahu during 2014s Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip due to his outspoken criticism of the governments handling of the war while it was still underway.
Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel (Jewish Home) is the leader of the Tkuma party which along with the National Religious Party makes up Jewish Home. In the previous government he served as housing and construction minister and was a strong proponent of settlement construction and expansion. In the new government, part of the funding and planning of settlement construction has been handed to Ariel.
Environmental Protection Minister Avi Gabai (Kulanu) is not a member of the Knesset. He helped Kahlon form the Kulanu party and coordinate its campaign. He served in the past as the CEO of the Bezeq telecommunications company.
Minister of Gender Equality, Minorities and Senior Citizens Gila Gamliel (Likud) will head a mouthful of a ministry, a combination of what were once the Senior Citizens Affairs Ministry and the post of Minorities Minister. Gamliel has served in the Knesset since 2003, though this is her first stint as minister. She previously served as deputy agriculture minister and as deputy Knesset speaker.
Religious Affairs Minister David Azulai (Shas) has been a member of Knesset since 1996 but is a first time minister. He served in the past as deputy interior minister.
Minister without portfolio Benny Begin (Likud) has been in and out of the Knesset over the past 28 years. The son of prime minister Menachem Begin, he has served in the past as science minister as well as a minister without portfolio and a member of Netanyahus security cabinet. He is considered a trusted advisor to Netanyahu on major strategic issues.
Welfare Minister Haim Katz (Likud) is also the head of the Israel Aerospace Industries Workers Union. He has served in the Knesset on-and-off since 1999.
Public Security Minister and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud) has been in the Knesset since 2009. He has served as coalition chairman and as head of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
Minister without portfolio Ofir Akunis (Likud), a longtime ally of the prime minister and former Netanyahu spokesman, was expected to be given a ministerial post in the Communications Ministry, making a minister in the ministry, but leaving the post of communications minister free for any future expansion of the coalition. But Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has made clear that there was no such position as a minister in a given ministry who is not that ministrys minister or deputy minister. Akunis was left as the governments second minister without portfolio.
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) deserves special mention in the list of ministers because she will be the de facto foreign minister until Netanyahu manages to hand the top diplomatic post to a new coalition partner. Netanyahu is technically the serving foreign minister, but it is Hotovely who will manage the ministrys day-to-day staff work and make any major decisions affecting Israels diplomatic corps.
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Israel watchers have been expecting icy relations between Obama and Bibi to worsen — but the post-election period may offer an unexpected thaw.
Foreign Policy, May 12, 2015
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The Israeli NGO won international attention last week for claiming to expose IDF malfeasance in Gaza. It exposed something else.
New report details how Israeli soldiers killed civilians in Gaza: There were no rules.
This report is worth dwelling on because there will be more rounds of fighting in Gaza, and more reports like this one, and more reporting of this kindand because, for all observers of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, it is important to understand the sources of information that shape our thinking.
Lets look first at the report itself. Breaking the Silence, usually identified as an organization of Israeli veterans, says its goal is to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories. In recent years, expanding that mandate to Israeli warfare in general, it has released numerous reports. For this one, which was published in both Hebrew and English, the groups staff interviewed over 60 soldiers. There are no dates or names. In most cases we are given a rank and the section of the army (infantry, armored corps) to which the soldier belongs; in a few cases there is no identification at all.
The soldiers accounts, presented in short excerpts, are interesting, offering a gritty, personal, and frequently awful look at the kind of combat that has become common in this century, and at its toll on combatants and civilians. A reader of the English report notices that in some places the translators and editors could have been more knowledgeable or careful: there is confusion between mortars and artillery (in the Israeli military, these are considered different classes of weapons and are employed by different units), and between a platoon and a division, and one editor believes that an M16 rifle is a weapon mounted on a tank.
More seriously, having promised to reveal the secret of the civilian death toll in Gaza in the form of systematic Israeli misdeeds, and having selected, with that purpose in mind, the most incriminating segments from much longer interviews, the report fails to deliver. Perhaps that is why, instead of letting readers examine the interviews and decide for themselves, the activist-editors of Breaking the Silence felt compelled to add a heated introduction announcing that their report exposes the true face of the Gaza operationnamely, its disturbing and unprecedented violence directed at civilians by the Israeli military. This is probably also why each testimony opens with a headline like If you shoot someone in Gaza its cool, no big deal, or Those guys were trigger-happy, totally crazy.
The editors seem to want readers to believe there were no rules in Gaza, and that the IDF acted without taking civilian life into consideration. In fact the interviews themselves show the army taking numerous steps to avoid harm to civilians. The soldiers regularly mention warning leaflets, roof-knocking rockets, phone calls, warning shells, warning shots, lists of protected sites like UN facilities, and drones vetting targets for civilians before an airstrike. All of the action we encounter in the report is happening in areas where the army had already warned Gazan civilians (and, of course, Hamas guerrillas) that soldiers were about to arrive. Indeed, what is truly striking is that the soldiers simply take all of these steps for granted, as if they were obviously part of warfare, when in fact many are unique to Israeli military practice.
We encounter good behavior, ugly behavior, and two or three instances that would warrant prosecution. One, in which a soldier describes firing with his tank at civilian vehicles and a bicyclist for no reason at all, should result in a lengthy jail term. If its true, that is, and this incident strikes me as less credible than any of the othersnot because I doubt a teenage soldiers capacity for thoughtless cruelty but because its unlikely that a tank gunner could fire multiple shells and machine-gun bursts at easy targets and miss every time, as he claims. But even here no one is reported killed. In fact, nowhere in the entire report are there rapes, massacres, or anything similar, or a single incident in which a civilian is shot in circumstances that could not be defended as either warranted or as a legitimate error on a battlefield where even a grandmother could have been (and, in 2006, was) a suicide bomber.
The activists from Breaking the Silence arent journalists, and their report is intended not to explain but to shock. Its propaganda. Thats fine if you understand what youre reading, but I suspect most people dont. Equally important, at least to me, is the question of whether the soldiers who cooperated with Breaking the Silence understood what kind of use would be made of their stories abroad. I cant ask them because none of them is identified. But as someone who knows many combat soldiers, who was a combat soldier himself and still serves as one in the reserves, and who has both heard and expressed criticism of the army as a civilian and as a soldier, I am willing to guess that in many or most cases the answer is no: these soldiers did not fully understand whom they were talking to, or what they were participating in.
If I believed the activists from Breaking the Silence were merely trying to complete or correct the picture presented to the Israeli public about service in the Palestinian conflict, I would be supportive of their efforts, and have been in the past. Like any corporation or government agency, the army is fully capable of lying in its public statements, at least by omission, and much information goes unreported.
But there is, to borrow a phrase from the groups own report, a yawning gap between what Breaking the Silence says it is and what it actually is. For a group ostensibly trying to influence Hebrew-speaking Israelis, why invest so much to produce, at considerable expense, an English translation of all 237 pages of this report? We learn from the news item filed by the Washington Posts Jerusalem correspondent that Breaking the Silence arranged a meeting for him with one of the soldiers. Are Israeli ex-pats the people Breaking the Silence is trying to influence in Washington, D.C.?
The list of the groups current donors includes the Danish Lutheran organization Dan Church Aid, the French Catholic group CCFD-Terre Solidaire, the governments of Norway and Switzerland, and many others along similar lines, none of them Israeli. This, too, raises questions. Do Norwegian taxpayers fund an organization that encourages, say, British soldiers to reveal British army wrongdoing to the international press? Does Switzerland try to get Hamas soldiers to open up about things theyve done?
Funding is not a technical detail. Were the Israeli army to adopt what Breaking the Silence appears to recommendthat is, to act with less force and expose soldiers to greater riskHamas would have an easier time fighting Israel and more Israelis would die. Lets say the Israeli death toll was doubled, and the Hamas death toll halved. Israelis of nearly all political persuasions would agree that this is a negative outcome. But is it a negative outcome for Dan Church Aid? What about the Norwegian government?
Breaking the Silences money is foreign, not Israeli, and the primary customers for its product are foreign, not Israeli. At its extensive English website, Jewish soldiers are presented for international consumption as a spectacle of moral failure, a spectacle paid for by Norwegians, French Catholics, and Germans. This being so, it is completely reasonable for Israelis to wonder what exactly this group is and which side it is on.
In analyzing trends in the press I have found it most helpful to keep an eye on the mainstream and avoid extreme cases. So lets look again at the Washington Post, a good U.S. paper, to see how a report of this kind becomes major international news.
The Post receives a document about Israel’s conduct in the 2014 Gaza war that has been produced in English by a group of Israelis funded by European organizations and governments. The papers correspondent, recently arrived in Jerusalem from a posting in Mexico, takes at face value that this is an Israeli organization and also an organization of veterans, perhaps not grasping that, because Israel has a mandatory draft, the term is quite meaningless; most people can plausibly claim to be veterans.
The correspondent then selects some of the most egregious examples in the report, summarizes them, and presents them as representative not only of the report but of the entire Gaza operation. He takes the words of people whose identity is not known to him, who have been interviewed by people whose identity is similarly not known to him, the interviews edited and redacted in a process not known to him, and pastes them into his article. As a reporter, you wouldnt be able to get away with publishing purely anonymous testimony that you have collected, but it is one of the peculiarities of Israel-related journalism that you are allowed to use anonymous material if it has been pre-packaged for you by a political NGO.
To set up the story, the reporter suggests that Israels rules of engagement in Gaza were permissive, without comparing them with those of any other army, and also that civilian casualties were high, without comparing them with any other conflict. He duly notes that the information in the report is impossible to independently verify. And then, the gods of ethical journalism having been placated, he writes not one but two articles in which he treats the whole thing as completely true.
The idea that there has been silence about Israels actions in its conflict with the Palestinians cannot be taken seriously; over the past two decades, probably no international story has been covered more than this one. But there are important silences at work, and the frenzy surrounding this latest Breaking the Silence report offers a good opportunity to point them out.
For years prior to last summers war, Hamas was busy building an impressive network of tunnels under residential areas in Gaza, some of them leading under the border into Israel; stockpiling rockets; and raising and training a large fighting force, including a naval commando unit. That meant thousands of people, mostly Gazans, were about to die. The local contingent of the international press, one of the worlds largest, was silent about this.
As presented openly in its charter, Hamass ideology holds that Jews control the United Nations and the world media, were responsible for both world wars as well as the French and Russian revolutions, and sabotage societies through the Freemasons and the Rotary Club. It also asserts that God wants Jews to be murdered. The unwritten rule of the press corps requires silence about this. For a good example, take a look at the charter and then at this summary of it once published by the Associated Press.
The vast media coverage devoted over the past week to this little piece of agit-prop from a little countryits claims parroted without proof, shorn of context and comparison, and presented as journalism to people around the worldmust lead us to ask what, exactly, is going on. What is motivating all of this? No one observing our planet of violence and injustice in 2015 can claim any longer that Israel is covered the same way other countries are covered; that the coverage is proportional to the scale of events; or that the tone of moral condemnationgrowing in its hysteria, and crawling from the fringes deeper and deeper into the mainstream pressis in the realm of reasonable reportage.
In all the talk purporting to be about the Gaza war, many are beginning to see more clearly the outlines of another war entirely. What is the nature of this war? That is where the real silence lies.