First fratricide, then fracture

The attack on an IDF patrol by settler thugs that Haaretz is reporting today would merely be the latest in a long string of such deplorable acts, including several recent but relatively harmless acts of “price tag” vandalism.

The story inspires several thoughts. Here are four:

1) These kids are nothing but thugs — and morons, if they think that this kind of thing will bring them anything positive.

2) There are people here who excuse violence against the state and its agents by Arab citizens, on the grounds that they feel targeted and discriminated against. Those people would never apply that same argument to settlers or haredim — and for that, I call them out as hypocrites. All three of those sectors have very similar feelings toward the state, and very similar reasons for having them. Excusing only one group’s thuggery while excoriating the other two exposes a failure of intellectual rigor, or of moral fiber, or both.

3) Related to the second point: None of those sectors is justified in its actions toward the state in response to those feelings; none, in fact, deserves anyone’s defense of their violence. The estrangement that each group feels from the state is much more a result of their own twisted policies of rejection of the state than any (fictitious) policy the state has of rejecting them.

4) Related to the third point: Feelings of shock and disgust at the settlers’ attack on soldiers are meaningless without the recognition that the only way to prevent such acts in the future is for the government to stop allowing and encouraging the situation in which every special interest group in this country exploits the state and undermines it in order to establish its own private authority, answerable to no one.

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Goldstone in Afghanistan?

Israelis still fuming over the Goldstone Report will only fume more if they pay attention to events in Afghanistan.

The major joint NATO-Afghan offensive there against the Taliban is beginning to net some senior Bad Guys — but at a cost. Once again, civilians are paying the ultimate price in the war to wrest their country from the hands of thugs.

This, of course, was to be expected. Since 2001, tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in the Afghan war.

So, when can we expect to see a Goldstone Report on the Afghan war?

Probably never.

Let’s recall, too, that thousands of civilians were killed last year when Sri Lanka essentially destroyed the Tamil Tigers after a 26-year civil war. A significant portion of them died in what many called “indiscriminate shelling” on the part of the government forces (who, it is only fair to point out, were fighting terrorists who used civilians as human shields).

So, when can we expect to see a Goldstone Report on the Sri Lankan war?

Again, probably never. (The United Nations last year rejected a call to establish an international inquiry into the very creditable claims of violations of human rights on both sides of the fighting in Sri Lanka.)

What does this mean? Perhaps it means that the world’s highest-profile human rights organization doesn’t consider Afghans and Sri Lankans human, and is therefore not concerned with their rights? Or, perhaps it isn’t really concerned with human rights in the first place.

While Abbas crashes and burns

While everyone is busy grilling Mahmoud Abbas these days over the Palestinian Authority’s decision (i.e. his decision) to let the Goldstone Report die, and preparing to eulogize him for all the rage that is being directed at him for it, let’s not forget who benefits from this circus — Hamas. After all, the more intense the criticism of Abbas, the less attention is paid to the Hamas leaders who:

1) lauded, authorized, ordered and/or paid for the firing of Kassam rockets at Israel from amongst the homes and backyards of Gazan civilians;

2) goaded to the point of begging Israeli infantry to stomp through the crowded streets of Gaza City;

3) forced civilians to house or hide armed fighters in their homes;

4) mined schools, a zoo, playing fields and countless alleyways with explosives that any child could have triggered by accident;

5) hid in and fired from mosques;

6) looted internationally funded humanitarian aid packages of food and fuel for their own wealthy elites;

and more.

Reaching the endgame

It isn’t often that I agree with the Jordanians and Saudis, but they’ve gone and forced my hand.

On Monday, after meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington, Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh articulated his country’s complaint against the plodding pace of the peace process.

“In the Middle East,” Judeh said, “there has been in the past an over investment perhaps by the parties in pursuing confidence building measures, conflict management techniques, including transitional arrangements, and an over emphasis on gestures, perhaps at the expense of reaching the actual endgame. As His Majesty the King puts it, Madame Secretary, there has been too much process and too little peace, a situation that most certainly is no longer sustainable. And what is required now and needed more than ever is to achieve peace…

“Tried, tested, failed formats, as have been discussed here during His Majesty the King’s visit in April, should also be avoided, including piecemeal approaches that never lead to peace, and that have proven repeatedly to be confidence eroding rather than confidence building. This time, the restoration of faith and the creation of the appropriate environment can only be achieved through clearly highlighting the endgame and skillfully guiding the parties to expeditiously crossing the finish line.”

Just a few days earlier, Prince Saud al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia told Clinton essentially the same thing, saying:

“Incrementalism and a step-by-step approach has not and – we believe – will not achieve peace. Temporary security, confidence-building measures will also not bring peace. What is required is a comprehensive approach that defines the final outcome at the outset and launches into negotiations over final status issues: borders, Jerusalem, water, refugees and security.”

Both men, of course, decried Israeli settlement building and insisted on the same maximalist demands as usual, chief among them a full Israeli withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 lines. Obviously, they glossed over the brutal terrorism that has made the very notion of peace laughable. And undoubtedly their words were at least partially motivated by a desire to once again portray Israel as the party that is blocking rather than advancing peace.

Looking beyond that, though, the most important aspect of these two men’s comments is their insistence on calling a spade a spade regarding the hopeless charade that has been the Israeli-Arab peace process. That incrementalism has not achieved peace and will not achieve peace, and that the piecemeal approach has been tested and failed, has been so glaringly obvious, yet so dangerously ignored, for far too long.

Can there be any question that the endless confidence building measures of the past 15 years have failed to build confidence or bring our peoples any closer to a true and lasting peace? Is it even possible to deny the futility of continuing on this fruitless course of inaction, which perpetuates the conflict by keeping a final settlement constantly at bay, in some vague and ever-elusive future?

What Judeh called reaching the endgame is not just a desperate move to end a wearying conflict, it is the only way to resolve the conflict in the foreseeable future. Let’s be clear: There can be no peace without a resolution, first and foremost, to the question of borders. All other issues – all other issues, including security arrangements, division of water sources and resettlement of refugees – are merely derivatives of the overarching issue of borders. For a generation, we have talked about having “us over here, and them over there”. Without a clearly defined border, however, we can not know where “here” ends and “there” begins. With one, everything else falls into place.

That’s the main reason why the Obama administration’s obsession with a settlement freeze is folly: because it’s irrelevant. The only issue worth pressing all sides for now, and pressing really hard, is the issue of borders. You can’t have a Palestinian state, or a secure and democratic Israeli one, for that matter, without them.

We’re not used to taking advice from Jordan and Saudi Arabia, but it’s time to make an exception. Negotiating for a final status agreement now, with no more dithering over confidence building measures, is the only alternative to many more years of “too much process and too little peace.”

Explaining war

“Let the general in,” she says with a smile.

The Armored Corps brigade commander is tall and broad-shouldered, radiating experience and machismo with a trim grey beard covering a strong jaw. He’s the third general to come to this office this week seeking guidance.

The woman sitting behind the desk is several years his junior and a few ranks below him, too – yet when the brigade commander sits down, it is Avital Leibovich who is giving the orders. Fox News wants an interview with a senior officer who can explain what happened in the alleyways of Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, and it is Leibovich’s job to make sure the journalists hear what the IDF Spokesman wants them to hear.

“Every question they ask you, answer with an example from the field. Describe what you have seen with your own eyes, what you and your soldiers have experienced. Be as descriptive as possible,” she says.

“It bothers me that they’re talking about soldiers abusing Palestinians (during the operation), wrecking homes and whatnot,” the general says. “For every ugly story like that, I can give two stories that are the total opposite. I’m talking about reservists sending letters of apology to the families whose homes they commandeered, sending them money and leaving them food, that sort of thing.”

Leibovich looks the commander in the eye. “That’s exactly what they need to hear,” she says.

And now he’s ready to go.

This is today’s IDF: coordinated, rehearsed, media savvy. Perhaps even more significantly, it is an army in which its spokesmen play a larger role than ever before – for better and for worse.

THE MEDIUM is the message, as communications theorist Marshall McLuhan famously said. Just in case, though, the IDF Spokesman’s Office now controls both. The foreign press liaison unit, as the face and voice of Israel’s army to the entire world, is the gateway through which information flows (or, often, does not flow), and it has transformed from something of an afterthought into a major part of the military’s arsenal. As wars are increasingly fought on the virtual battlegrounds of television and the Internet, the soldiers of the IDF Spokesman’s foreign media liaison unit are a new breed of pressed-uniform commandos.

Leibovich’s highly motivated crew includes recent immigrants like Lee Hiromoto, a 26-year-old Yale graduate from Hawaii, Harvard graduate Arie Hasit, 25, and Aliza Landes, 26, a McGill grad.

“The North American desk must be one of the best educated units in the IDF,” Landes says only half-jokingly.

It was Landes and Hiromoto who came up with the idea, a day into the fighting of Operation Cast Lead at the end of December, to launch a youtube channel with material from the IDF Spokesman’s Office. It quickly became the most viewed channel in the world.

Here, initiative is the name of the game. Another recent immigrant on Leibovich’s staff of 20, Devora, called up one of the top military journalists in her native Belgium and offered to introduce him to Belgian Jews serving in combat units. He’s due in Israel soon to produce a lengthy feature for television that will be distributed across Europe.

“We’re proactive. We no longer wait for someone to come to us with a request, we are now the initiators. We suggest stories to journalists, instead of the other way around,” says Leibovich, who was just promoted to lieutenant-colonel. “Since each area has its own unique characteristics, and its specific areas of interest, we provide each ‘audience’ with what it needs,” she adds. “We tailor information and stories for North America, for Europe, for Russian-language media, for Arabic media, and for Latin America and the Far East.”

Whereas interaction with the Spokesman’s Office once meant long delays and garbled armyspeak, there is now a greater focus on productivity and efficiency, of providing what journalists need.

“I send out SMS messages to 400 reporters each day,” Leibovich says. “If someone wants to know how many Kassams fell in 2008, they can call me and get an answer within five minutes.”

And if the phone is busy, journalists can simply pop in. After several years based in Tel Aviv, the foreign press liaison unit returned to Jerusalem a few months ago – setting up shop in the Jerusalem Capital Studios building that houses the offices of some of the most important foreign media companies.

“The fact that we’re here at JCS is significant,” Leibovich says. “As soon as something happens, we can respond and brief them immediately. So they don’t have to start running around, calling up people in Gaza, asking, ‘What’s going on? What are you hearing? What can you report?’ We tell them, ‘We’re attacking here and here, because Hamas did this and this.’ They get all the information they need from us. So there’s much less spin.”

“The IDF is very adept at ensuring that its message gets out there, and gets out there quickly – and I don’t say that as a smart-ass remark,” says ABC Australia correspondent Ben Knight.

“During the war, it didn’t take much effort to get people into the office at short notice and hear their side of things. We never wanted for comment from the IDF, and we never had to wait too long. So they are obviously very well aware of the importance of doing it and very well practiced at getting their point of view out there. The Australian army does things quite differently, I can tell you that.”

WHERE THE unit once was distant, today it seeks out contact with foreign correspondents.

“I have learned that if you don’t take a journalist out to see things with his own eyes, you just won’t get through to him,” Leibovich says. “But once you do…!”

One example of the positive effects of taking journalists into the field has been in coverage of the West Bank security barrier. In its early days, inefficiency at the roadblocks and transfer points meant lengthy waits, exposed to the weather, for Palestinians. More recently, improvements in procedures and infrastructure have significantly eased the situation, and showing that to the world helps reduce pressure on Israel.

“Back in 2003, all you saw were stories about the unbearable wait at roadblocks and all that. But things are so much better now, so much more efficient,” she says. “I take journalists out there all the time to inspect roadblocks. I tell them, ‘However long you want to wait here, I’ll wait with you.’ So they stay there for two and three hours, and they can’t believe what they see – that it only takes a few seconds to check a car and let it through. One Scandinavian group waited hours in the sun, turning red, expecting to see trouble that never came.”

(Some journalists respond, however, that while the army is eager to show them these improvements, it is loath to let journalists review the multitude of roadblocks and barriers throughout the West Bank that restrict the movement of Palestinians.)

Whereas visiting journalists may have once been treated with some disdain, the IDF now sees them as vehicles for getting its message abroad.

“We’re dealing, in many cases, with foreign correspondents who are flying in from Washington, or from Zimbabwe, or from Finland. They’ve had so little time to digest what’s happening here – they’ve heard a little, they’ve read a little – so that any chance we have to show them what is really going on, and help them put it in context, we have to take it.”

Leibovich has plenty of stories to offer: articles on technological advances in the army, which portray the IDF as a professional organization; on krav maga; on the ongoing development of the Merkava IV tank; on the increase in women serving in combat roles; on new immigrants in uniform, etc. – any chance to present the IDF as something other than just a fighting machine.

“We believe that the IDF has nothing to hide,” Leibovich says. “I’m not taking journalists on secret missions or anything like that, but I have no reason to hide a squadron of fighter jets. So, just the other day I brought the staff of 30 media outlets to an air force base to see the technology used in our F-15Is, our attack helicopters, and more.”

The army has invested in improving the quality of photos it sends out, and it sends out many more of them now than before. During the Gaza war, it made colorful, readable maps available to its reservists who escorted foreign journalists, so they could appreciate the seriousness of the rocket threat to the western Negev. And every morning, Leibovich sends out a report on the amount of humanitarian aid the army allows into Gaza. In the information war, then, the IDF is holding its own.

“We showed Palestinians setting up rocket launchers next to schools, or using civilian buildings as weapons storage facilities,” Leibovich says. “What did the other side show, except for people with their faces covered, making statements?”

The unit doesn’t take its work for granted, though, monitoring the foreign press to measure the tone of coverage on the IDF and to see whether the army’s perspective is reflected in that coverage. Soldiers even scan blogs, twitter, and all manner of new media to gauge the effectiveness of their work.

“I want to know whether our message got through,” Leibovich says. “If we’re trying to get across that we’re not targeting innocent civilians, for example, I want to see that that message comes through in the media.”

During the war, Leibovich enlisted the help of those outside the Spokesman’s Office who could make Israel’s case credibly.

“It’s very important for us to have commanders tell the stories of what they experienced personally,” she says. “Also, we had briefings almost every day, with an artillery expert, or an expert on weapons and international law. It wasn’t me speaking, it was outside experts. After that, when you read the wires, you read the quotes of those experts.”

Despite the experts, and the photos, and the SMS messages and the maps, however, there were still plenty of media outlets that chose not to present those materials.

“You know,” Leibovich says with a sigh, “sometimes there are correspondents here who ‘get it’ and file fair stories, but their editors back home change the stories. I can only send out the information, I can’t make them use it,” she says. “But I’m not going to just throw up my hands and give up. We’re not defeatists.”

NO, THERE are no defeatists in Leibovich’s office. But, for all the improvements in the functioning of the IDF Spokesman’s Office, there remain certain elements that are self-defeating. Take IDF Spokesman Brig.-Gen. Avi Benayahu, for example. At a toast with foreign journalists shortly before Pessah, celebrating the liaison unit’s move to the JCS building, Benayahu gave a speech that was more a lecture on the evils of Hamas than a welcome speech to professional journalists. He talked at the journalists, not to them, and his tone suggested he sees himself not as the “national explainer” that the popular former IDF spokesman Nachman Shai was, but as the army’s chief propagandist.

The journalists largely ignored Benayahu anyway, instead sharing with each other their frustrations about his unit’s apologetics, denials, and stonewalling on sensitive issues. It was just one sign of how, despite doing many other things right, the army still doesn’t completely “get it,” either.

While the world saw images of deprivation in Gaza, Benayahu and others insisted that there was no humanitarian crisis there.

“Of course there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza!” Leibovich says, incredulously. “Look, there’s a difference between having only pita to eat but at least having something to eat, and having nothing at all. Now, lots of trucks are going into Gaza every day – every day – with humanitarian aid…”

For European viewers sympathetic to the Palestinians, though, answering the cry, “It’s terrible there!” with the angry retort, “No, it’s not terrible, it’s only very bad” does not help Israel’s case.

What would help is more photos of terrorists operating in civilian areas – photos that the IDF had in spades both before and during Operation Cast Lead, but failed to release in time.

“I can tell you that our response time this time around, in comparison to the Second Lebanon War, was vastly improved,” Leibovich counters. “During the Gaza war, we distributed video four times a day.”

As the death toll in Gaza climbed, and Palestinians claimed most of the dead had been innocent civilians, the IDF countered that the vast majority had indeed been involved in the fighting or members of armed groups. Yet, even when it later produced a report claiming the final death toll was lower than the Palestinian figure by several hundred people, it refused to release the names on its list so journalists could investigate the differences between Israel’s claims and the Palestinians’.

The army’s response was essentially that identifying bodies was not its job. Its insistence on refuting Palestinian claims, but not substantiating its own, turned the death toll issue into a he said-she said argument that, ultimately, Israel lost.

Leibovich’s response – “The asymmetrical warfare that Hamas wages is not limited to the streets of Gaza. It extends to the press as well. In the end, the Palestinian narrative comes from unreliable sources” – typifies a “they’re wrong, and that’s the end of it” approach that makes many correspondents bristle.

Leibovich adds: “Our list of names went through a very lengthy verification process that included extensive intelligence gathering. We won’t release the names because we do not wish to harm our intelligence sources.”

Be that as it may, without the names, no journalist could take the IDF’s numbers at face value – although that’s exactly what the army expected of them. Of course, foreign journalists could have investigated on their own, had they been allowed into Gaza. But they weren’t. Despite the painful lessons from the spurious reports of a “massacre” in Jenin in 2002, Israel did not allow foreign journalists into the Gaza Strip during the fighting.

The ban was part of a general restriction on information, that came in response to the army’s much more open approach during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and it damaged Israel in two ways: it deeply frustrated many foreign correspondents who might have been made to see the war from Israel’s perspective, and it left the reporting to Palestinian and Arab media stationed in Gaza. This, in turn, allowed those reporters to allege various Israeli war crimes that no Western media could later disprove.

As one correspondent, speaking to The Jerusalem Post on condition of anonymity, notes, “When the IDF keeps quiet, it gives the other side an advantage.”

CLEARLY, NOT all foreign journalists share the enthusiasm of ABC’s Knight. The IDF Spokesman’s Office, says the anonymous correspondent, “is terrible about getting us information.”

“Oh, sure,” he says, “they’ll call us up and offer us the chance to talk with the first female officer in the canine unit, or something like that. But when it comes to the army’s use of white phosphorous or war crimes [allegations] – nothing.”

Investigating claims, and sharing the results of those investigations openly and quickly, is another sore spot.

“I don’t say that the IDF is all pure and white, that we never do things that aren’t right. But when something happens, we admit it. We learn from it, and we make sure things get better,” Leibovich says. “Well,” answers a correspondent, “it’s a problem that they’re the ones investigating themselves. It seems like they never find themselves guilty of anything.”

That perception is inaccurate – but since perception is reality, the IDF needs to combat it better.

The controversy over war crimes allegations leveled at the IDF from within its own ranks illustrates the point. A few weeks after the fighting, two veterans of the conflict told others gathered at the Rabin Pre-Military Academy that their comrades had shot and killed unarmed women inside Gaza. It took the army several days to investigate the claims – and while they were ultimately exposed as false, they did tremendous damage in that time to the IDF’s mantra that it is the most moral army in the world.

Another complaint, says a journalist, is that access to senior officers is often highly restricted, “and when we can meet with them, they either don’t say anything of substance because the lawyer sitting next to them tells them not to, or they tell us things that become worthless as soon as they forbid us from revealing their identity.”

Another correspondent complains that the IDF is “very amateurish about important things,” such as providing findings of official investigations but forbidding all reference to them as such. “They just don’t seem to know about, or care about, our rules of attribution.”

Additionally, both note with frustration, stories about which they have inquired without receiving a response often turn up in the Hebrew press – and then, when they call for a comment on the Israeli reports, the IDF refuses to even acknowledge that the story has already been published.

“We understand that the army has to limit information based on security concerns,” says the first correspondent. “But so much of this has nothing to do with security. Too often, they’re hostile to us, or they act like they just don’t care about us.”

“Ultimately,” Leibovich answers, “the IDF is my client, not the media.”

That, of course, is absolutely true. The IDF Spokesman’s Office is tasked with furthering the interests of the army, and those interests are bound to conflict with the interests of journalists sometimes.

“We have to explain why we’re right, why we’re fighting,” Leibovich says with genuine conviction. “And we have to contend with the image of the Palestinian underdog versus us as the larger, stronger force. It isn’t easy, but we’re doing our best. And I promise, we’ll continue to get better.”

Durban II? Yawn…

For the record, I don’t care one whit about Durban II. What I do care about is Bushehr, Natanz and Isfahan. Everything else is just a sideshow, and a waste of time.

One lie about two states

Countless times in the past few weeks, foreign reporters and commentators have stated, as fact, that Binyamin Netanyahu is not committed to the two-state solution. That’s bogus.

Here is an exerpt from the speech that Netanyahu delivered to Congress shortly after he won the prime ministership in 1996:

Perhaps our most demanding joint effort has been the endless quest to achieve peace and stability for Israel and its Arab neighbors. American presidents have joined successive Israeli governments in an untiring effort to attain this peace.

The first historic breakthrough was led by Prime Minister Begin and Presidents Carter and Sadat at Camp David. The most recent success was our pact with Jordan under the auspices of President Clinton. These efforts, I believe, are clear proof of our intentions and our direction. We want peace. We want peace with all our neighbors. We have no quarrel with them which cannot be resolved by peaceful means. Nor, I must say, do we have a quarrel with Islam. We reject the thesis of an inevitable clash of civilizations. We do not subscribe to the idea that Islam has replaced Communism as the new rival of the West, because our conflict is specific. It is with those militant fanatics who pervert the central tenets of a great faith towards violence and world domination. Our hand is stretched in peace to all who would grasp it. We don’t care about their religion. We don’t care about their national identity. We don’t care about their ideological belief. We care about peace, and our hand is stretched out to peace.

Every Israeli wants peace. I don’t think there is a people who has yearned, prayed and sacrificed more for peace than we have. There is not a family in Israel that has not suffered the unbearable agony of war and, directly or indirectly, the excruciating, ever-lasting pain of grief. The mandate we have received from the people of Israel is to continue the search for an end to wars and an end to grief. I promise you: We are going to live up to this mandate. We will continue the quest for peace, and, to this end, we are ready to resume negotiations with the Palestinian Authority on the implementation of our Interim Agreement.

I want to say something about agreements. Some of you speak Latin, or at least studied Latin. “Pacta sunt servanta” – we believe agreements are made to be kept. This is our policy, and we expect the Palestinian side to abide by its commitments. On this basis, we will be prepared to begin final status negotiations as well.

That was not the first time that he made such statements, and it was not the last. His remarks are not hidden, nor are they kept solely in Hebrew. Anyone willing to do 5 minutes of research can find them. Which means that anyone who says Netanyahu is not committed to the creation of a Palestinian state is either a fool, or a liar.