Tag Archives: Israel

Was that the Next Palestinian President You Just Banned, Mr Trump?

Hanan Ashrawi, Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee Member, speaks to journalists at UN Headquarters. (UN Photo/Evan Schneider)

Grandma Ashrawi is more than a match for Israel’s stooges in the White House and whatever ‘deal of the century’ they have cooked up for the Holy Land

So the Trump administration will no longer allow Hanan Ashrawi into the US even though she’s a top diplomat, has family there and visits regularly. Why?

A US State Department spokesperson told Haaretz that “visa records are confidential under US law; therefore, we cannot discuss the details of individual visa cases”, adding that the law “does not authorize the refusal of visas based solely on political statements or views if those statements or views would be lawful in the United States.”

Ashrawi is reported as saying, in her forthright way, that refusal to let her in was a political act and full of “pettiness and vindictiveness.”

Ashrawi, a Palestinian Christian, is something of a hot potato. She was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council representing Jerusalem in 1996 and again in 2006. She has been a member of the Executive Committee of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) for 20 years, becoming the first woman to hold a seat in the highest executive body in Palestine. It is recognised as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people by the 137 states with which it has diplomatic relations. Ashrawi’s father, a physician, was a founder of the PLO.

She has a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Literature from the Department of English at the American University of Beirut and completed her education with a PhD in Medieval and Comparative Literature from the University of Virginia. She is also an Honorary Fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford.

Ashrawi has been an official spokes of the Palestinian delegation to the Middle East peace process starting with the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991. In 1996, she was appointed as the Palestinian Authority Minister of Higher Education and Research. Before that she was Dean of the Faculty of Arts at Birzeit University.

In 2003 Ashrawi received the Sydney Peace Prize, an award praised by, among others, Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State. Albright called Ashrawi “a brilliant spokeswoman for her cause”.

Ashrawi, now 72, is a grandmother, and several of her grandchildren live in the United States. So why is America hostile towards her?

Israeli occupation “a most pervasive form of oppression, dispossession and denial”

In a recent article in Al Jazeera, Marwan Bishara reminds us that for the past year and a half Trump and his administration have been showering Benjamin Netanyahu and his apartheid regime with anti-Palestinian ‘gifts’…. like recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv, ending US assistance to UNRWA (the agency that supports millions of Palestinian refugees), quitting the UN Human Rights Council and shutting down the PLO’s office in Washington.

As if that wasn’t enough the Trump administration has stopped describing the West Bank and East Jerusalem (which are Palestinian) as “occupied” and instead calls them “Israeli-controlled”. This gives Netanyahu all the encouragement he needs for expanding Israel’s illegal settlements and pledging to annex them. To cap it all Trump then delivered Netanyahu a splendid election present in recognising Israel’s illegal annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights. Of course, whatever Trump says that territory is still Syria’s.

Western media, when providing ‘balance’ to news on the Israel/Palestine conflict, usually wheel in a Palestinian spokesperson who is unintelligible. Israeli spokespeople on the other hand are media trained and sound very British/American, giving them a huge advantage. Ashrawi has perfect English and is a highly articulate and persuasive woman – an unrivaled expert in Middle East affairs — and capable of reducing Trump and his entourage to mincemeat in any broadcast encounter. Therefore she poses a clear and present danger to their hopes of putting across and maintaining the false narrative that sustains Israel’s rogue dominance in the Middle East.

Haaretz reproduces some of Hanan Ashrawi’s recent tweets. In one she says:

I despise hypocrisy, misogyny, absolutist fundamentalism, populism, racism of all kinds, exclusivity, arrogance & condescension, power politics & militarism, cruelty in any form, & any sense of entitlement & exceptionalism…

In another:

Most of all, I have no tolerance for the Israeli occupation in all its manifestations as a most pervasive form of oppression, dispossession & denial; I have no respect for the enablers of this inhuman condition nor for its apologists…

She tells it straight. And in her tweets she adds:

I’ve met (and even negotiated with) every Sec. of State since Shultz, and every President since George H. W. Bush (present administration excluded); I’ve been a vocal critic of this administration and its underlings; I believe in freedom of speech.

This is one formidable lady! I have her down as the next Palestinian president, head and shoulders above any male candidates. But will the good people of Palestine have a say in the matter? The presidency of Mahmoud Abbas, the quisling loser, should have ended in 2009. But the corrupt system he presides over has allowed him to cling to power indefinitely, to his people’s great detriment.

Modern Merchants of Death: The NSO Group, Spyware and Human Rights

Arms manufacturers of old, and many of the current stable, did not care much where their products went.  The profit incentive often came before the patriotic one, and led to such dark suspicions as those voiced by the Nye Committee in the 1930s.  Known formally as the Special Committee on Investigation of the Munitions Industry, the US Senate Committee, chaired by US Senator Gerald Nye (R-ND) supplies a distant echo on the nature of armaments and their influence.

The Nye Committee had one pressing concern: that the United States might fall for the same mistake it did in 1917 in committing to a foreign conflict while fattening the pockets of arms manufacturers.  As Chairman Senator Nye promised, “When the Senate investigation is over, we shall see that war and preparation for war is not a matter of national honour and national defence, but a matter of profit for the few.”

Despite the current sophisticated state of modern weaponry, along with modern offshoots (cybertools, spyware, the use of malware), the principle of ubiquitous spread is still present.  Companies in the business of developing malware and spyware, modern merchants of disruption and harm, face charges that their products are being used for ill, a nastiness finding its way to hungry security services keen to monitor dissent and target contrarians.  While the scale of their damage may be less than those alleged by Nye’s Munitions Committee, the implications are there: products made are products used; the ethical code can be shelved.

The NSO Group, a tech outfit based in Herzliya, a stone’s throw from Tel Aviv, specialises in producing such invasive software tools as Pegasus.  The reputation of Pegasus is considerable, supposedly able to access data on targeted phones including switching on their cameras and microphones.

NSO’s spyware merchandise has now attained a certain, viral notoriety. When Mexican investigative journalist Javier Valdez Cárdenas was butchered in broad daylight on a street in Culiacán, the capital of the Mexican state of Sinaloa, something reeked.  The killing on May 15, 2017 had been designated a cartel hit, an initially plausible explanation given Valdez’s avid interest in prying into the affairs of organised crime in Sinaloa.  But the smell went further.  As Mexican media outlets reported in June 2017, the government of former president Enrique Peña Nieto had purchased the good merchandise of Pegasus.  Three Mexican agencies had purchased spyware to the tune of $80 million since 2011.

Since then, Canadian research group Citizen Lab, in collaboration with Mexican digital rights outfit R3D and freedom of expression group Article 19, have made the case that the widow of the slain journalist, Griselda Triana, became a target of Pegasus spyware within 10 days of her husband’s death in 2017.  According to the report, she was also targeted “a week after infection attempts against two of Valdez’s colleagues, Andrés Villareal and Ismael Bojórquez.”  The group behind the infection attempts, named RECKLESS-1, is alleged to have links with the Mexican government.

Canadian-based Saudi dissident Omar Abdulaziz can also count himself amongst those targeted by Pegasus.  In 2018, he claimed that his phone was tapped by NSO-made spyware, leading to a gruesome implication: that the Saudi authorities would have had access to hundreds of messages exchanged with the doomed Saudi journalist and fellow comrade-in-dissent Jamal Khashoggi.

In December, a suit was filed in Israel by Abdulaziz’s representatives Alaa Mahajna and Mazen Masri, alleging that the NSO Group had hacked his phone in the service of Riyadh.  In court papers, it was alleged that the dissident was harangued by the same individuals behind Khashoggi’s murder, insisting that he pack his bags and return to Saudi Arabia.

Buried in the court documentation was the receipt of a text message purportedly tracking the shipment of a package; instead, it masked a link to the NSO Group.  Once clicked, the link installed the spyware, turning the phone into an effective agent of surveillance.  Soon after this took place, Abdulaziz’s family home in Jidda was raided by Saudi security forces.  Two brothers were subsequently detained.

Last January, Maariv, an Israeli daily, investigated reports about telephone spyware supposedly used to bug the phone of the murdered Khashoggi.  Khashoggi’s ending at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, facilitated by a death squad, was not handiwork NSO wanted to be associated with.  The group had been, according to a statement in December, “licensed for the sole use of providing governments and law enforcement agencies the ability to lawfully fight terrorism and crime”.  Misuse of products would lead to investigation and, depending on appropriate findings, a suspension or termination of the contract.

Shalev Hulio, the company’s CEO, was clear to emphasise his humanity, before distancing himself and his company from the killing.  “As a human being and as an Israeli, what happened to Khashoggi was a shocking murder.”  Hulio was also adamant that “Khashoggi was not targeted by any NSO product or technology, including listening, monitoring, location tracking and intelligence collection.”  Could such precise denials be inadvertent confessions?

The cooperative umbrella for Israel is broadening. It seeks allies, or at least some form of accommodation with regional powers, to counter common enemies.  With Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, one common foe remains a constant: Iran.  The Israeli state’s licensing of such companies as the NSO Group implicates the policy of permitting the distribution of Pegasus and such products.  License their use; license their consequences.  Molly Malekar, of Amnesty International’s Israeli office, puts it simply: “By continuing to approve of NSO Group, the Ministry of Defence is practically admitting to knowingly cooperating with NSO Group as their software is used to commit human rights abuses.”  Monitoring and killing dissidents and intrepid journalists tend to be nasty by-products.  They, in a sense, have become the modern merchants of death, whose clients remain unsavoury regimes.

Jerusalem Cable Car Project Passes Over Objections from Many Quarters

East Jerusalem has received new impetus from the rise of the Israeli far right and Washington’s decision to move its embassy to the city. But if completed, critics say, the long-running proposal would contribute to erasing the visibility of Palestinians in the city they hope to make their capital.

Planning for the $55 million tourism project continues despite unifying archaeologists, architects, Palestinians, and a tiny community of Jews against it – in a sign of Israel’s ever-growing confidence in making unilateral moves in occupied parts of Jerusalem.

Critics say the cable car will help hide the local Palestinian population from the roughly 3 million tourists who visit Jerusalem each year, turning the city into a “Disneyland” focused on promoting Israeli interests.

“The advantage for Israel is that visitors can be prevented from having any dealings with Palestinians,” said Aviv Tartasky, a researcher with Ir Amim, an Israeli organisation that campaigns for equal rights in Jerusalem.

“The local population will be largely erased from the experience of visiting Jerusalem. Tourists will pass over Palestinian residents, via the cable car, and then pass under them via tunnels.”

Israel’s Ministry of Tourism dismissed the criticism. In a statement to The National, the ministry said the cable car project was “a significant milestone in the promotion of Jerusalem and the strengthening of its status as a world tourism capital”.

Settler-run tours

The cable car, the largest project of its type undertaken by Israel, could be completed as early as in two years, its destination the slopes in occupied East Jerusalem just below the Old City, next to Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Some 72 cabins have the capacity to ferry up to 3,000 visitors an hour above mainly Palestinian homes.

Tourists will be channelled from the cable car into a visitor centre run by Jewish settlers in the heart of the crowded Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan. They will be led by settler-approved guides underground, through tunnels under Palestinian homes to the foot of the Western Wall.

Blueprints show that visitors will be able to shop in the tunnels, bypassing local Palestinian traders in the Old City market who have long depended on tourism. Israeli officials accelerated the project by bypassing routine planning procedures, even though urban planning specialists warn that it will damage the Jerusalem skyline and archaeological sites revealing the origins of modern civilisation.

Equally important, critics say, the Benjamin Netanyahu government and settler groups view the cable car as helping block any possibility of a Palestinian state emerging with East Jerusalem as its capital. They have been emboldened by President Donald Trump’s 2017 decision to transfer the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“It should set off alarm bells that a huge state project like this is being intertwined with a private settler organisation, physically forcing visitors to go through its visitor centre, channelling them into its attractions and activities,” Mr Tartasky said.

He said the cable car was one of the ways Israel was connecting disparate settler compounds in the Palestinian neighbourhoods of occupied Jerusalem.

“It will physically strengthen these settler areas, and mean their organisations have an even greater influence on Israeli authorities.”

Encircling Al-Aqsa

The project has been forcefully promoted by the Israeli tourism ministry, headed by Yariv Levin, an ally of Mr Netanyahu, and Jerusalem’s mayor, Moshe Lion. Tenders will be issued as soon as the National Planning Council approves the project, which is expected to be a formality.

In violation of international law, Israel has treated East Jerusalem as annexed territory since it occupied the city in 1967. More than 200,000 Jewish settlers have moved there over subsequent decades

Hanna Swaid, a Palestinian planning specialist and former member of the Israeli parliament, said the cable car was illegal because international law allows major changes in occupied territory only out of military necessity or for the benefit of the population under occupation.

“Even in its own planning justifications, the Israeli authorities are clear the cable car is designed only for the benefit of tourists, Israeli developers and the settler groups overseeing it, not the local Palestinian population. In fact, it will serve to actively harm Palestinians in Jerusalem,” Mr Swaid said.

“It will parachute tourists to Jewish sites like the Western Wall, and marginalise Muslim and Christian sites,” he added.

Palestinians are concerned that the cable car will serve to tighten Israel’s control over access to the Al Aqsa mosque compound, the highly sensitive holy site in the Old City. For decades Israeli authorities have moved to weaken the control of Islamic religious authorities, the Waqf, on Al Aqsa, contributing to repeated clashes at the site.

Jews believe the mosque is built over the ruins of a major Jewish temple. The Western Wall, which supports the mosque compound, was originally a retaining wall of the long-lost temple.

“The cable car looks suspiciously like another means for encircling Al Aqsa, for laying siege to it,” Mr Swaid said.

Tunnels under Palestinians

According to official plans, dozens of cabins will run hourly along a 1.5-kilometre route from West Jerusalem, inside Israel’s recognised borders, to the occupied Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan, just outside the Old City walls and in the shadow of Al Aqsa.

Tourists will disembark in Silwan into a large visitor centre, the Kedem compound, to be run by a settler organisation called Elad that has close ties with the Israeli government.

The Kedem centre is the latest venture in the City of David complex, an archaeological site that the settlers of Elad have been using for more than two decades as a base to seize control of the Palestinian neighbourhood.

Visitors will be taken on tours to explore Jerusalem, moving through ancient sewage tunnels that run under Palestinian homes and reach to walls of Al Aqsa.

Additional plans will eventually see the cable car alight at other sites in East Jerusalem. Among them are the Mount of Olives, which includes an ancient Jewish cemetery; the Church of Gethsemane, at the reputed site where Judas betrayed Jesus; and the Pool of Siloam, a bathing area referred to in the Old and New Testaments.

Yonatan Mizrahi, the director of Emek Shaveh, a group of Israeli archaeologists opposed to the misuse of archaeology and tourism by Israel, said: “The purpose is to offer tourists a one-dimensional narrative about Jerusalem and its history. They should see all layers of the city’s rich history. Instead they will hear only the parts that relate to Jewish history.”

Mr Mizrahi has been among those leading the criticism of the project. “No other historic city in the world has built a cable car – and for very good reason,” he said.

Jerusalem ‘not Disneyland’

In March about 30 international architects – some of whom have worked on projects in Jerusalem – wrote to Mr Netanyahu urging him not to pursue what they called short-term interests.

“The project is being promoted by powerful interest groups who put tourism and political agendas above responsibility for safeguarding Jerusalem’s cultural treasures,” the letter said.

The letter followed a statement by 70 Israeli archaeologists, architects and public figures against the cable car in November, when the project was speeded up. They said: “Jerusalem is not Disneyland, and its landscape and heritage are not for sale.”

A French firm, Safege, which worked on the initial feasibility study, pulled out in 2015, reportedly under pressure from the French government over concerns that the project violated international law.

In an apparent bid to ensure the project would go through, the previous Netanyahu government changed planning laws to remove the cable car from local and regional oversight. It also ensured the public could not submit objections.

Instead the scheme is being treated as a “national infrastructure” project, similar to a new railway line or gas pipeline. The National Planning Council offered a curtailed period for organisations to lodge reservations that ended on March 31.

Mr Swaid, who is the director of the Arab Centre for Alternative Planning, drew up a list of reservations on behalf of the Supreme Religious Council of Muslims in Israel.

Other critical comments were submitted by lawyers for the Silwan neighbourhood, the archaeologists of Emek Shaveh, the planning group Bimkom, a Palestinian merchant association in the Old City, and a tour guides group.

The Karaites, a small Jewish sect whose ancient cemetery lies in the path of the cable car, in the Biblical Hinnom Valley, said the project showed “contemptuous disregard for the dignity of the deceased and the Karaite community in general”.

Benjamin Kedar, a former chairman of the Israel Antiquities Authority, lodged a protest too.

Loss of all privacy

One of the Silwan homes in the path of the cable car belongs to the Karameh family. The cabins may pass only four metres above the flat roof where toddlers play and the family of 20 hang their washing. Support columns for the cable car may end up being driven into the family’s garden, one of the few green spots in Silwan.

“Nowhere in Israel do cable cars travel over houses, let alone a few metres above,” said Mr Mizrahi. “It seems clear why in this case. Because the houses belong to Palestinians.”

Samer Karameh, a 24-year-old lorry driver, said everyone in Silwan was opposed to the cable car, as it would be helping settler groups like Elad trying to take over their neighbourhood. But he was shocked to learn that it would pass so close to his house.

“We’ll lose all privacy. We won’t be able to open the windows without being seen by thousands of strangers. And it can’t be safe to have these cars travelling just over the heads of our children,” Mr Karameh said.

“We know we won’t be the beneficiaries,” he added. “The authorities won’t give us a permit to build anything here, so all the business will go to the settlers.”

• A version of this article first appeared in The National

Saudi’Israeli’a

Only a few years ago this geo-political portmanteau would have seemed fanciful to farcical.  Saudi Arabia, that theocratic monarchy, and Israel, a Western-styled democracy?  But times have changed, and all signs point to a confluence of interest between these two ideologically opposed, Middle Eastern states.  Moreover, this curious confluence flows through the Mesopotomac swamp of Washington, D.C.

As a sign of things to kingdom come, President Trump’s first foreign foray was to Riyadh (not Moscow), for some symbolic sword-dancing and weird orb-touching.  From there, Trump dutifully flew to Tel Aviv. Trump’s trip was a tip of the hat to what his regime’s foreign policy would be:  Saudi’Israeli’a First.

Since then, the Trump Folks have gone rogue by declaring Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital, in accordance with Israeli wishes, and, most recently, recognizing Israel’s illegal 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights.  Besides such signs of fealty to a foreign power, as there was no public American call for these moves in defiance of international consensus, the Trump Team is quite recently on record defending atrocities by both its Saudi and Israeli partners.

Indeed, on the very day that the United States “recognized” Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (May 14, 2018), Israeli Defense Forces shot up and massacred 60 Palestinians protesting in Gaza, leaving over 2,000 others bullet-wounded.  Bizarrely, Nikki Haley, then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, responded to this mass murder by indignantly accusing the Palestinians themselves of provoking Israel’s right to self-defense against the stone-throwing; or, what’s a Goliath to do against so many Davids?  Shoot to kill, apparently.  The U.S. Press won’t ask too many questions later; neither will the Saudis, for that matter.

Speaking of the Saudis: in the case of Jamal Khashoggi (or, What the Bone Saw?!), Trump’s handlers have provided exceptional cover for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s exhibition of gangsterism. Despite some pushback from Congress (even Saudi loyalist Senator Lindsey Graham cried “Heavens to Betsy Ross!” while washing Khasoggi’s blood off his face in a huff…), the Trump regime has used the assassination to re-affirm its supporting role in Saudi Arabia’s illegal war against Yemen.  In the Death Star eyes of Team Trump, the lives of Palestinians and Yemenis are equally irrelevant, evidently.

Of course, the ongoing Guernica in Yemen has been framed as a proxy war against Iran.  For reasons known only to Jared Kushner and that weird orb, perhaps, the Trump, Saudi, and Israeli regimes are all being confluenced by some otherworldly threat from the Islamic Republic.  This state of affairs naturally poses the real-world question: What threat, Iran?  None, as far as any reasonable eye can far see.

In terms of military spending alone, the Iranian juggernaut is dwarfed by the expenditures of its “regional superpower” rivals. Moreover, while the United States heavily subsidizes the Saudi’Israelians, it sanctions Iran, further enhancing this Middle Eastern imbalance of power.  It is also notable that Saudi Arabia currently spends more on its military than any country except for China and the USA, while Israel is the only Middle Eastern state with the complete suite of WMD–a fact rarely mentioned. In this context, the very real irony emerges that Iranian defense spending is literally for the defense of Iran.

So, Iran is back in the cross-hairs of the Regime Changelings.  There’s a new “Axis” in Southwest Eurasia, as Uncle Samson strains to maintain the Twin Pillars of American Middle Eastern policy–Saudi Arabia and Israel–while hurling hoary epithets toward Iran at the behest of these two “client states”.  Things go “Bump!” in the Arabian night, but does anyone seriously believe there’s an Iranian devil in the woodpile?  In Riyadh, Tel Aviv, and Wahhabington. D.C., the answer is an emphatic, fundamentalist, “Yes!”

This USA-KSA-Israel “Axis of Roguery” certainly presents a peculiar spectacle on the world stage.  The petrodollar system–or financialization of Oil–underpins the U.S.-Saudi relationship, while an irrational enmity toward Iran binds Israel and the Kingdom, despite the fact they don’t even have official relations.  Enter the con-man Trump, who fronts for neocon-men, to grease this unlikely–and possibly rickety–wheel.  As Trump unkosherly hogs the spotlight (Wart of the Deal?), the Saudi’Israelian true believers weave new war in the shadows of Trump’s tweets.

In the neologistical case of “Saudi’Israeli’a?”, then, I think we can safely drop the question mark.  However, we should keep in mind that this geo-political symbiosis is as inherently unstable as it is real–and really whipping the U.S. War Chariot into a renewed Crusade against the recycled villain du jour, Iran.

As the Israel Lobby in the US Weakens, its UK Counterpart Grows More Fearsome

For decades it was all but taboo to suggest that pro-Israel lobbies in the United States like AIPAC used their money and influence to keep lawmakers firmly in check on Israel-related issues – even if one had to be blind not to notice that that was exactly what they were up to.

When back in February Ilhan Omar pointed out the obvious – that US Representatives like her were routinely expected to submit to the lobby’s dictates on Israel, a foreign country – her colleagues clamoured to distance themselves from her, just as one might have expected were the pro-Israel lobby to wield the very power Omar claimed.

But surprisingly Omar did not – at least immediately – suffer the crushing fate of those who previously tried to raise this issue. Although she was pressured into apologising, she was not battered into complete submission for her honesty.

She received support on social media, as well as a wavering, muted defence from a Democratic grandee like Nancy Pelosi, and even a relatively sympathetic hearing from a few prominent figures in the US Jewish community.

The Benjamins do matter

Omar’s comments have confronted – and started to expose – one of the most enduring absurdities in debates about US politics. Traditionally it has been treated as anti-semitic to argue that the pro-Israel lobby actually lobbies for its chosen cause – exactly as other major lobbies do, from the financial services industries to the health and gun lobbies – and that, as with other lobbies enjoying significant financial clout, it usually gets its way.

Omar found herself in the firing line in February when she noted that what mattered in US politics was “It’s all about the Benjamins” – an apparent reference to the 1997 Puff Daddy song of the same name – later clarifying that AIPAC leverages funds over Congressional and presidential candidates.

The claim that the pro-Israel lobby isn’t really in the persuasion business can only be sustained on the preposterous basis that Israeli and US interests are so in tune that AIPAC and other organisations serve as little more than cheerleaders for the two countries’ “unbreakable bond”. Presumably on this view, the enormous sums of money raised are needed only to fund the celebrations.

‘A one-issue guy’

Making the irrefutable observation that the pro-Israel lobby does actually lobby on Israel’s behalf, and very successfully, is typically denounced as anti-semitism. Omar’s comments were perceived as anti-semitic on the grounds that she pointed to the canard that Jews wield outsized influence using money to sway policymaking.

Allegations of anti-semitism against her deepened days later when she gave a talk in Washington DC and questioned why it was that she could talk about the influence of the National Rifle Association and Big Pharma but not the pro-Israel lobby – or “the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country”.

That pro-Israel lobbyists – as opposed to Jews generally – do have dual loyalty seems a peculiar thing to deny, given that the purpose of groups like AIPAC is to rally support for Israel in Congress.

Casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a key backer of Republican candidates for the presidency, has never hidden his passion not only for Israel but specifically for the ultra-nationalist governments of Benjamin Netanyahu.

In fact, he is so committed to Netanyahu’s survival that he spent nearly $200 million propping up an Israeli newspaper over its first seven years – all so he could assist the prime minister of a foreign country.

Similarly, Haim Saban, one of the main donors to Democratic presidential candidates like Hillary Clinton, has made no secret of his commitment to Israel. He has said: “I’m a one-issue guy and my issue is Israel.”

Might Saban and Adelson’s “Benjamins” have influenced the very pro-Israel – and very anti-Palestinian – positions of Democratic and Republican presidential candidates? You would have to be supremely naïve or dishonest to claim it has not.

‘No Bernie-like approach’

This point really should be beyond doubt by now. This month the New York Times published an unprecedented essay in which author Nathan Thrall quoted political insiders and lobbyists making plain that, as one would expect, the pro-Israel lobby uses its money to pressure Congressional candidates to toe the lobby’s line on Israel.

Some of the lobby’s power operates at the level of assumption about what Jewish donors expect in return for their money. According to the NYT, some three-quarters of all donations over $500,000 to the major political action committee supporting Democratic nominees for the US Senate race in 2018 were made by Jews.

Though many of those donors may not rate Israel as their main cause, a former Clinton campaign aide noted that the recipients of this largesse necessarily tailor their foreign policy positions so as not to antagonise such donors. As a result, candidates avoid even the mild criticism of Israel adopted by Bernie Sanders, the Democratic party’s challenger to Clinton in the 2016 presidential race.

“There’s no major donor that I can think of who is looking for someone to take a Bernie-like approach,” said the aide. Sanders raised his campaign funds from small donations rather these major funders, leaving him freer to speak openly about Israel.

Fight for donors, not voters

Other insiders are more explicit still. Ben Rhodes, a former confidant of Barack Obama, says the lobby effectively tied Obama’s hands domestically on efforts to promote peace. “The Washington view of Israel-Palestine is still shaped by the donor class,” he told Thrall, adding: “The donor class is profoundly to the right of where the activists are, and frankly, where the majority of the Jewish community is.”

Joel Rubin, a former political director at lobby group J Street and a founding board member of the centrist Jewish Democratic Council of America, concurred: “The fight over Israel used to be about voters. It’s more about donors now.”

All of these insiders are stating that the expectations of major donors shape candidates’ US foreign policy positions in line with Israel’s interests, not necessarily US interests. It is hard not to interpret that as reformulation of “dual loyalty”.

Out of the shadows

What’s so significant about the NYT article is that it signals, as did the muted furore over Omar’s comments, that the pro-Israel lobby is weakening. No powerful lobby, including the Israel one, wants to be forced out of the shadows. It wants to remain in the darkness, where it can most comfortably exercise its influence without scrutiny or criticism.

The pro-Israel lobby’s loyalty to Israel is no longer unmentionable. But it is also not unique.

As Mondoweiss recently noted, Hannah Arendt, the Jewish scholar and fugitive from Nazi Germany, pointed to the inevitability of the “double loyalty conflict” in her 1944 essay “Zionism Reconsidered”, where she foreshadowed the rise of a pro-Israel lobby and its potential negative impacts on American Jews. It was, she wrote, “an unavoidable problem of every national movement of a people living within the boundaries of other states and unwilling to resign their civil and political rights therein.”

For that reason, the US-Cuban lobby has an obvious dual loyalty problem too. It’s just that, given the Cuban lobby’s priority is overthrowing the Cuban government – a desire shared in Washington – the issue is largely moot.

In Israel’s case, however, there is a big and growing gap between image and reality. On the one hand, Washington professes a commitment to peace-making and a promise to act as an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians. And on the other, the reality is it has offered full-throated support for a series of ultra-nationalist Israeli governments determined to destroy any hope of peace and swallow up the last vestiges of a potential Palestinian state.

Doing the Lord’s work

It’s important to point out, however, that advocates for Israel are not only Jews. While the pro-Israel lobby represents the views of a proportion of Jewish Americans, it is also significantly comprised of Christians, evangelicals in particular.

Millions of these Christians – including Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – can be accused of dual loyalty too. They regard Israel’s role in Biblical prophecy as far more important than the future of the US, or mankind for that matter.

For many of these evangelicals, bringing about the end of the world by ensuring Jews return to their Biblical homeland – triggering a final reckoning at the Battle of Armageddon – is the fulfillment of God’s will. And if it’s a choice between support for Washington’s largely secular elites and support for God, they know very definitely where they stand.

Again, the NYT has started to shine a light on the strange role of Israel in the US political constellation. Another recent article reminded readers that in 2015 Pompeo spoke of the end-times struggle prophesied to take place in Israel, or what is often termed by evangelicals as “The Rapture”. He said: “We will continue to fight these battles.”

During his visit last month to Israel, he announced that the Trump administration’s work was “to make sure that this democracy in the Middle East, that this Jewish state, remains. I am confident that the Lord is at work here”.

Divorced from reality

If the debate about the pro-Israel lobby in the US is for the first time making a nod to truth, the conversation about the pro-Israel lobby in the UK is becoming more and more divorced from reality.

Part of the reason is the way the Israel lobby has recently emerged in the UK – hurriedly, and in a mix of panic and damage limitation mode.

Given that for decades European countries largely followed Washington’s lead on Israel, pro-Israel lobbies outside the US were much less organised and muscular. European leaders’ unquestioning compliance was assured as long as Washington appeared to act as a disinterested broker overseeing a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. As a result, Europe was in little need of vigorous pro-Israel lobbies.

But that illusion has now been shattered, first by the explicit Greater Israel ideology espoused by a series of Netanyahu governments, and latterly by Donald Trump’s occupancy of the White House and his vehement backing of Israeli demands, however much they violate international law.

That has left European policy towards Israel – and its enabling by default of Netanyahu and Trump’s efforts to crush Palestinian rights – dangerously exposed.

Conflating Jews and Israel

Popular backlashes have taken the form of a rapid growth in support for BDS, a grassroots, non-violent movement promoting a boycott of Israel. But more specifically in Britain’s case, it has resulted in the surprise election of Jeremy Corbyn, a well-known champion of Palestinian rights and anti-racism struggles generally, to lead the opposition Labour party.

For that reason, Jewish leadership groups in the UK have had to reinvent themselves quickly, from organisations to promote the community’s interests into vehicles to defend Israel. And to do that they have had to adopt a position that was once closely identified with anti-semitism: conflating Jews with Israel.

This, we should remember, was the view taken 100 years ago by arch anti-semites in the British government. They regarded Jews as inherently “un-British”, as incapable of assimilation and therefore as naturally suspect.

Lord Balfour, before he made his abiding legacy the 1917 Declaration of a Jewish “national home” in Palestine, helped pass the Aliens Act to block entry to the UK of Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. Balfour believed Jewish immigration had resulted in “undoubted evils”.

A lobby cobbled together

Also significantly, unlike the US, where the pro-Israel lobby has maintained fervent support for Israel as a bipartisan matter over decades, the need for an equivalent pro-Israel lobby in the UK has emerged chiefly in relation to Corbyn’s unexpected ascent to power in the Labour party.

Rather than emerging slowly and organically, as was the case in the US, the British pro-Israel has had to be cobbled together hastily. Israel’s role in directing this immature lobby has been harder to hide.

Most of the UK’s Jewish leadership organisations have been poorly equipped for the task of tackling the new sympathy for Palestinian rights unleashed in the Labour party by Corbyn’s rise. The Board of Deputies, for example, has enjoyed visible ties to the ruling Conservative party. Any criticisms they make of the Labour leader are likely to be seen as having an air of partisanship and point-scoring.

So unusually in Britain’s case, the chief pro-Israel lobby group against Corbyn has emerged from within his own party – in the form of the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM).

The JLM is trumpeted in the British media both as a venerable Jewish group, more than a century old, and as one that is widely representative of Jewish opinion. Neither claim is true.

Revived to deal with Corbyn

The JLM likes to date its origins to the Poale Zion organisation, which was founded in 1903. A socialist society, Poale Zion affiliated itself not only with the British Labour party but also with a wide range of anti-Palestinian Zionist organisations such as the World Zionist Organisation and the Israeli Labour party. The latter carried out the ethnic cleansing of the vast majority of Palestinians in 1948 and the party’s leaders to this today publicly support the illegal settlement “blocs” that are displacing Palestinians and stealing their land.

But as the investigative journalist Asa Winstanley has shown, before the unexpected ascent of Corbyn to the Labour leadership in 2015, the JLM had largely fallen into dormancy.

It was briefly revived in 2004, when Israel was facing widespread criticism in Britain over its brutal efforts to crush a Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories. But the JLM only really became active again in 2015.

According to a covert recording of a private JLM event in late 2016, its then chair Jeremy Newmark said he and other activists had agreed to reform the group in September 2015 in response to “the rise of Jeremy Corbyn” and “Bernie Sanders in the States”. Corbyn has been elected Labour leader only days previously.

According to the transcript, Newmark told the other activists that it would be the “start of a struggle and a battle we will all be engaged in for months and probably years ahead of us”. He added that the JLM would be a suitable vehicle for their work because of the “rights and privileges” it enjoyed as a Labour party affiliate organisation.

Front for Israeli embassy

The motive behind the JLM’s resuscitation was also revealed by an undercover documentary made by Al-Jazeera, aired in early 2017. It showed that the JLM was acting as little more than a front for the Israeli embassy, and that the mission it set itself was to weaken Corbyn in the hope of removing him from the leadership.

Early on, the JLM and other pro-Israel lobbyists within the party realised that the most effective way to damage Corbyn, and silence solidarity with the Palestinian cause, was to weaponise the charge of anti-semitism.

Support for Palestinian rights necessarily requires severe criticism of Israel, whose popular, right wing governments have shown no interest in making concessions to the Palestinians on self-determination. In fact, while westerners have debated the need for urgent peacemaking, Israel has simply got on with grabbing vast tracts of Palestinian land as a way to destroy any hope of statehood.

But pro-Israel lobbyists in the UK have found that they can very effectively turn this issue into a zero-sum game – one that, in the context of a British public conversation oblivious to Palestinian rights, inevitably favours Israel.

Identifying with Israel

The thrust of the lobby’s argument is that almost all Jews identify with Israel, which means that attacks on Israel are also attacks on Jewish identity. That, they claim, is a modern form of anti-semitism.

This argument, if it were true, has an obvious retort: if Jews really do identify with Israel to the extent that they are prepared to ignore its systematic abuse of Palestinians, then that would make most British Jews anti-Arab racists.

Further, if Jewish identity really is deeply enmeshed in the state of Israel, that would place a moral obligation on Jews to denounce any behaviour by Israel towards Palestinians that violates human rights and international law.

And yet the very Jewish leaders claiming that Israel is at the core of their identity are also the ones who demand that Jews not be expected to take responsibility for Israel’s actions – and that to demand as much is anti-semitic.

Could there be a clearer example of having your cake and eating it?

‘Institutionally anti-semitic’

Nonetheless, the JLM has very successfully hijacked the debate within Labour of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to silence criticism. It has worked hard to impose a highly controversial new definition of anti-semitism that conflates it with criticism of Israel. Seven on the 11 examples of anti-semitism used to illustrate the new definition relate to Israel.

Arguing, for example, that Israel is a “racist endeavour”, the view of many in the growing BDS movement and among Corbyn supporters, is now being treated as evidence of anti-semitism.

For this reason, the JLM has been able to file a complaint against Labour with the Equality and Human Rights Commission arguing that the party is “institutionally anti-semitic”.

Labour is only the second political party after the neo-Nazi British National Party to have been subjected to an investigation by the equality watchdog.

Counterweight to the JLM

Despite its claims, the JLM does not represent Jewish opinion in the Labour party. The JLM says it has 2,000 members, though that figure – if accurate – includes non-Jews. Attendance at its annual general meeting this month could be measured in the dozens.

As one Jewish critic observed: “There are some 300,000 Jews in Britain. The Jewish Labour Movement claims to represent us all. So why were there fewer people at their AGM [annual general meeting] than at my Labour Party branch AGM?”

Many Jews in the Labour party have chosen not to join the JLM, preferring instead to act as a counterweight by creating a new Jewish pressure group that backs Corbyn called Jewish Voice for Labour.

Even a new JLM membership drive publicised by former Labour leader Gordon Brown reportedly brought only a small influx of new members, suggesting that support for the JLM’s anti-Corbyn, pro-Israel agenda is very limited inside Labour.

Speaking for ‘the Jews’

The re-establishment of the JLM has one very transparent aim in mind: to push out Corbyn, using any means at its disposal. At its annual general meeting, the JLM unanimously passed a motion of no confidence in Corbyn, describing him as “unfit to to be Prime Minister”. The resolution declared that “a Labour Government led by [Corbyn] would not be in the interests of British Jews”.

One Jewish commentator derisively noted the JLM’s arrogance in speaking for all British Jews at a time of Conservative government-imposed austerity:

“I would not presume to proclaim what is in the interests of ‘the Jews’, but I really cannot imagine that the person who drafted this resolution had any real experience of meeting unemployed Jews, Jewish pensioners and single mothers just scraping by, or Jews who are struggling as they use under-resourced mental health services.”

Scoring Labour candidates

In other circumstances, a group of people operating inside a major political party using underhand methods to disrupt its democratic processes would be described as entryists. Some 2,000 pro-Israel fanatics within Labour are trying to overturn the overwhelming wishes, twice expressed at the ballot box, of the Labour membership, now numbering more than 500,000.

Nonetheless, last week the JLM started to show its hand more publicly. It has been noisily threatening to disaffiliate from the Labour party. In the circumstances that would at least be an honourable – if very unlikely – thing for it to do.

Instead it announced that it would begin scoring local and national Labour politicians based on their record on anti-semitism. After the JLM’s frantic lobbying for the adoption of the new anti-semitism definition, it seems clear that such scores will relate to the vehemence of a candidate’s criticism of Israel, or possibly their ideological sympathy with Corbyn, more than overt bigotry towards Jews.

That was underscored this week when a senior Labour politician, Richard Burgon, the shadow justice secretary, came under fire from the JLM and Board of Deputies for comments he made in 2014, during Israel’s attack on Gaza, that only recently came to light. He was recorded saying: “The enemy of the Palestinian people is not the Jewish people, the enemy of the Palestinian people are Zionists.” He had previously denied making any such comment.

Mike Katz, the JLM’s new chair, responded: “Insulting a core part of their [Jewish people’s] identity and then dissembling about it is shameful behaviour from a senior frontbencher in our party, let alone someone who aspires to administer our justice system.”

Marginal prejudice

According to the Labour party’s own figures, actual anti-Jewish prejudice – as opposed to criticism of Israel – is extremely marginal in its ranks, amounting to some 0.08 percent of members. It is presumably even less common among those selected to run as candidates in local and national elections.

The JLM has nonetheless prioritised this issue, threatening that the scores may be used to decide whether activists will campaign for a candidate. One might surmise that the scores could also serve as the basis for seeking to deselect candidates and replace them with politicians more to the JLM’s liking.

“We have got elections coming up but we are not going to put that effort in unless we know people are standing shoulder to shoulder with us,” said Katz.

Need for vigorous debate

Paradoxically, the JLM appears to be preparing to do openly what pro-Israel lobbyists in the US deny they do covertly: use their money and influence to harm candidates who are not seen as sympathetic enough to Israel.

Despite claims from both US and UK pro-Israel lobby groups that they speak for their own domestic Jewish populations, they clearly don’t. Individuals within Jewish communities are divided over whether they identify with Israel or not. And certainly, their identification with Israel should not be a reason to curtail vigorous debates about US and UK foreign policy and Israeli influence domestically.

Even if the vast majority of Jews in the US and UK do support Israel – not just in a symbolic or abstract way, but the actual far-right governments that now permanently rule Israel – that does not make them right about Israel or make it anti-semitic for others to be highly critical of Israel.

Chipping away at democracy

The overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews support a narrow spectrum of politicians, from the militaristic right to religious fundamentalists and fascists. They view Palestinians as less deserving, less human even, than Jews and as an obstacle to the realisation of Jewish rights in the whole of the “Land of Israel”, including the Palestinian territories. Does that make them right? Does their numerical dominance excuse their ugly bigotry towards Palestinians? Of course not.

And so it would be the same even were it true that most Jewish members of the Labour party supported a state that proudly upholds Jewish supremacism as its national ideology. Their sensitivities should count for nothing if they simply mask ugly racist attitudes towards Palestinians.

Lobbies of all kinds thrive in the dark, growing more powerful and less accountable when they are out of view and immune from scrutiny.

By refusing to talk frankly about the role of pro-Israel lobbies in the UK and the US, or by submitting to their intimidation, we simply invite Israel’s supporters and anti-Palestinian racists to flex their muscles more aggressively and chip away at the democratic fabric of our societies.

There are signs that insurgency politicians in the US are ready for the first time to shine a light into the recesses of a political system deeply corrupted by money. That will inevitably make life much harder for the pro-Israel lobby.

But paradoxically, it is happening just as the the UK’s Israel lobby is pushing in exactly the opposite direction. British politics is being plunged into a stifling, unhealthy silence on the longest example of mass human rights abuses, sanctioned by the west, in modern history.

• First published at Mondoweiss

Notre Dame of Gaza: Our Mosques and Churches are Also Burning

As the 300-foot spire of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris tragically came tumbling down on live television, my thoughts ventured to Nuseirat Refugee Camp, my childhood home in the Gaza Strip.

Then, also on television, I watched as a small bulldozer hopelessly clawed through the rubble of my neighborhood mosque. I grew up around that mosque. I spent many hours there with my grandfather, Mohammed, a refugee from historic Palestine. Before grandpa became a refugee, he was a young Imam in a small mosque in his long-destroyed village of Beit Daras.

Mohammed and many in his generation took solace in erecting their own mosque in the refugee camp as soon as they arrived to the Gaza Strip in late 1948. The new mosque was first made of hardened mud, but was eventually remade with bricks, and later concrete. He spent much of his time there, and when he died, his old, frail body was taken to the same mosque for a final prayer, before being buried in the adjacent Martyrs Graveyard. When I was still a child, he used to hold my hand as we walked together to the mosque during prayer times. When he aged, and could barely walk, I, in turn, held his hand.

But Al-Masjid al-Kabir – the Great Mosque, later renamed Al-Qassam Mosque – was completely pulverized by Israeli missiles during the summer war on Gaza, starting July 8, 2014.

Hundreds of Palestinian houses of worship were targeted by the Israeli military in previous wars, most notably in 2008-9 and 2012. But the 2014 war was the most brutal and most destructive yet. Thousands were killed and more injured. Nothing was immune to Israeli bombs. According to Palestine Liberation Organization records, 63 mosques were completely destroyed and 150 damaged in that war alone, oftentimes with people seeking shelter inside. In the case of my mosque, two bodies were recovered after a long, agonizing search. They had no chance of being rescued. If they survived the deadly explosives, they were crushed by the massive slabs of concrete.

In truth, concrete, cements, bricks and physical structures don’t carry much meaning on their own. We give them meaning. Our collective experiences, our pains, joys, hopes and faith make a house of worship what it is.

Many generations of French Catholics have assigned the Notre Dame Cathedral with its layered meanings and symbolism since the 12th century.

While the fire consumed the oak roof and much of the structure, French citizens and many around the world watched in awe. It is as if the memories, prayers and hopes of a nation that is rooted in time were suddenly revealed, rising, all at once, with the pillars of smoke and fire.

But the very media that covered the news of the Notre Dame fire seemed oblivious to the obliteration of everything we hold sacred in Palestine as, day after day, Israeli war machinery continues to blow up, bulldoze and desecrate.

It is as if our religions are not worthy of respect, despite the fact that Christianity was born in Palestine. It was there that Jesus roamed the hills and valleys of our historic homeland teaching people about peace, love and justice. Palestine is also central to Islam. Haram al-Sharif, where al-Aqsa Mosque and The Dome of the Rock are kept, is the third holiest site for Muslims everywhere. Yet Christian and Muslim holy sites are besieged, often raided and shut down per military diktats. Moreover, the Israeli army-protected messianic Jewish extremists who want to demolish Al-Aqsa and the Israeli government has been digging underneath its foundation for many years.

Although none of this is done in secret; international outrage remains muted. In fact, many find Israel’s actions justified. Some have bought into the ridiculous explanation offered by the Israeli military that bombing mosques is a necessary security measure. Others are motivated by dark religious prophecies of their own.

Palestine, though, is only a microcosm of the whole region. Many of us are familiar with the horrific destruction carried out by fringe militant groups against world cultural heritage in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Most memorable among these are the destruction of Palmyra in Syria, Buddhas of Bamyan in Afghanistan and the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul.

Nothing, however, can possibly be compared to what the invading US army has done to Iraq. Not only did the invaders desecrate a sovereign country and brutalize her people, they also devastated her culture that goes back to the start of human civilization. Just the immediate aftermath of the invasion alone resulted in the looting of over 15,000 Iraqi antiquities, including the Lady of Warka, also known as the Mona Lisa of Mesopotamia, a Sumerian artifact whose history goes back to 3100 BC.

I had the privilege of seeing many of these artifacts in a visit to the Iraq Museum only a few years before it was looted by US soldiers. At the time, Iraqi curators had all precious pieces hidden in a fortified basement in anticipation of a US bombing campaign. But nothing could prepare the museum for the savagery unleashed by the ground invasion. Since then, Iraqi culture has largely been reduced to items on the black market of the very western invaders that have torn that country apart. The valiant work of Iraqi cultural warriors and their colleagues around the world has managed to restore some of that stolen dignity, but it will take many years for the cradle of human civilization to redeem its vanquished honor.

Every mosque, every church, every graveyard, every piece of art and every artifact is significant because it is laden with meaning, the meaning bestowed on them by those who have built or sought in them an escape, a moment of solace, hope, faith and peace.

On August 2, 2014 the Israeli army bombed the historic Al-Omari Mosque in northern Gaza. The ancient mosque dates back to the 7th century and has since served as a symbol of resilience and faith for the people of Gaza.

As Notre Dame burned, I thought of Al-Omari too. While the fire at the French cathedral was likely accidental, destroyed Palestinian houses of worship were intentionally targeted. The Israeli culprits are yet to be held accountable.

I also thought of my grandfather, Mohammed, the kindly Imam with the handsome, small white beard. His mosque served as his only escape from a difficult existence, an exile that only ended with his own death.

Annexation may provide the Key to Unlocking Netanyahu’s Legal Troubles

After winning the Israeli election with a slim majority, in a campaign that grew more sordid and vilifying by the day, Benjamin Netanyahu is poised to begin his fifth term as Israeli prime minister.

The culmination of his dirty tricks campaign was an election-day stunt in which his Likud party broke regulations – and possibly the law – by arming 1,200 activists with hidden cameras, to film polling stations in communities belonging to Israel’s large Palestinian minority.

Netanyahu justified the move by saying it would ensure the election was “kosher”. Yet again, Israel’s prime minister made it clear that the country’s 1.7 million Palestinian citizens were unwelcome interlopers in what he regards as an exclusively Jewish political process.

The PR firm behind the stunt admitted another motive. The goal was for the cameras to be quickly discovered by police and thereby scare the one in five citizens who are Palestinian into staying home. A low turnout by Palestinian voters in Israel would ensure a stronger parliamentary majority for Netanyahu’s coalition.

In fact, slightly less than half of the minority cast a ballot, although the reason was probably as much down to their exasperation at a series of ever more right-wing Netanyahu governments as it was a fear of surveillance at polling stations.

When coalition negotiations this week are complete, Netanyahu is likely to head the most ultra-nationalist government in Israel’s history – one even more extreme than his last one.

His coalition, comprising settler factions and religious fundamentalists, will even include a party hosting political refugees from the previously outlawed Kach party – anti-Arab racists banned in the US as a terror organisation.

The official opposition will be the Blue and White party led by a group of hawkish former generals – assuming Netanyahu doesn’t try to lure former army chief of staff Benny Gantz into a national unity government of the right.

In Washington, Netanyahu can rely on the full-throated support of Donald Trump’s administration.

In other words, Netanyahu will face no serious domestic or international obstacles as he implements the agenda of the right. He will entrench control over the last fragments of what was once assumed to be an emerging Palestinian state and he will step up attacks on the rights of Israel’s Palestinian citizens, in line with the Nation-State Basic Law he passed last summer.

The biggest trouble facing Netanyahu once he forms a new government will not be political but legal.

During the election campaign, Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, announced that Netanyahu would soon be indicted on a series of corruption charges.

The delay is largely a formality, giving the prime minister a final chance to defend himself at a special hearing. In the meantime, Netanyahu hopes he can find a way to ride out the charges.

One option is simply to drag out any trial, insisting it be deferred indefinitely on the grounds that he needs to focus on pressing matters of state. At the same time, he can rile up supporters and intimidate the judiciary by claiming that the courts are trying to overturn the will of the people.

The other option is to arm-twist his coalition partners into agreeing a retroactive immunity law making it impossible for prosecutors to indict the prime minister while in office. Some of his coalition partners are already on board.

How he might achieve this feat is through an “annexation for immunity” deal. In other words, Netanyahu gives the far-right and the settlers what they want – annexation of parts or all of the West Bank – and in return, they back immunity legislation.

That was why Netanyahu made an unexpected statement in favour of annexation shortly before polling.

Asked about the pressure for annexation from his coalition partners, he told the media: “We will move to the next stage. I am going to extend [Israeli] sovereignty and I don’t distinguish between settlement blocs and the isolated settlements.”

Netanyahu has previously rejected formally annexing the West Bank, but not on moral or ideological grounds.

He demurred largely because annexation would bring him grief in western capitals and risk provoking a Palestinian civil rights struggle that might attract global sympathy. In any case, he regards such a step as unnecessary, given that Israel has already annexed the West Bank in all but name.

Nonetheless, Netanyahu would prefer to stay out of the dock. And of late, the stars have been aligning in favour of some kind of annexation.

The world is losing interest in the Palestinian cause, given that it has been presented as intractable by western leaders and there are battles closer to home for many of them.

Trump has shown he will sanction just about any Israeli violation of Palestinian rights if it panders to his Christian evangelical base. And the US president has set a useful precedent for Netanayhu in recently recognising Israel’s illegal annexation of the occupied Golan Heights. The principle of victor-takes-all has been established in Washington.

The question, therefore, is increasingly not whether, but what kind of, annexation Netanyahu plans.

It will most likely be done in stages and not referred to as annexation but rather, “extending Israeli sovereignty”. Large settlements close to Jerusalem such as Maale Adumim and the Gush Etzion bloc might be first.

But ultimately, Netanyahu’s political allies want most of Area C, the two-thirds of the West Bank designated in the Oslo accords as under temporary Israeli control.

This is the most prized territory, including water aquifers and agricultural land. And better still for the Israelis, after decades of administrative ethnic cleansing, it has few Palestinians left there.

Trump was shameless in helping Netanyahu during the election campaign and there is no reason to believe he will get tougher now. His so-called peace plan, if it is finally unveiled after the election, as promised, might make annexation of parts of the West Bank its centrepiece, dressed up as a solution to final-status issues.

Was the Golan Heights debacle a warm-up act, laying the groundwork for an even more audacious move from Trump to save Netanyahu’s skin? We may find out soon enough.

• First published in The National

Why Is This Seder Different From All Other Seders?

The idea of making a different type of seder came about because of my discomfort with a ceremony that in many ways glorifies many unattractive aspects of American Jewish culture and also serves as a justification for the Israeli dispossession and suppression of the Palestinian people and their culture.  Passover now appears to me to be the most Zionist of all Jewish holidays, and its celebration, the reading of the Hagada, the Hebrew text which defines the seder, clearly reflects this fact.

The first problem comes at very beginning of the ceremony when the host declares that God chose the Jewish people above all other peoples. This type of exceptionalism is very much out of favor with many these days, as it should be, whether it is applied to Jews, Israel or to American foreign policy.

Secondly, there is the glorification of God’s horrible vengeance upon those who have wronged the Jews or those who do not believe in their God.  God’s killing of Egyptian innocent children is awful even as a symbolic tale.

After drinking the third of the four cups of wine, the host instructs the presumably tipsy guests to rise and pour a fourth cup.  Referring to God, he then recites:

Pour out Thy wrath upon the nations that know Thee not, and upon the kingdoms that call not upon Thy name; for they have consumed Jacob and laid waste his habitation.  Pour out Thy rage upon them and let Thy fury overtake them.  Pursue them in anger and destroy them from under the heavens of the Eternal.

A bit over the top, no?  Especially, when the present-day real God of many American Jews, Israel and its mighty army, has laid waste to Gaza in a succession of criminal assaults which continue today as a brutal siege and a weekly massacre at the eastern Gaza border.  The first seder this year takes place on a Friday, which is the day of the week most of the border killings occur.

Oh, and one more thing, the Hebrew word for “nations that know Thee not” is “goyim,” which is also the derisive name Jews call non-Jews in their common vernacular.  Who wants to say that, even if all your guests speak no Hebrew and may not hear the “g” word?

Thirdly, I recoil at the allusion to the perpetual victimization of the Jewish people which is uttered with only the fortification of one cup of wine.

For more than once have they risen against us to destroy us; in every generation they rise against us and seek our destruction.  But the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hands.

This, for me echoes the recent false claims of anti-Semitism from which we are protected, not so miraculously, by the smears of pro-Israel lobby operatives directed at people such as Rep. Ilahn Omar, Jeremy Corbyn or anyone else who criticizes Israel and its apartheid government.

And lastly but very importantly, is the oft-quoted declaration toward the conclusion of the reading of the Hagada of “next year in Jerusalem.”  This phrase is frequently and ludicrously cited as proof of the long-time (2000 year) Jewish longing for return to their homeland, and it is employed as a justification for the entire Zionist enterprise.

This is ironic because the “telling” (hagada) of the exodus story is especially irksome since most people actually believe in its veracity as recorded history even though this story has absolutely no basis in fact. There is actually zero historical evidence that the Jews were ever slaves in Egypt.

Passover, as with all Jewish celebrations in Israel, means “closure” for the Palestinians under occupation.  That entails restricted travel and other prohibitions which make the lives of the Palestinians even more difficult than normal.

As they say in another context in the Hagada, “dayenu?” or “is that not enough?” to explain why an alternative seder may be in order. For me it is more than enough.

So here is what I have come up with as a replacement.

My seder is called a seder lo b’seder, or loosely translated, a seder that is not right or not OK.  It sounds better in Hebrew.  It is held on the second day of Passover and may serve as an antidote for guests who have participated in a traditional seder the previous evening.  Seder means arrangement or order and lo means not.  So this is a seder with no order, the opposite of the meaning of seder and the tradition of doing the ceremony in a proscribed manner.

My motto is “skip the (traditional) seder, do a seder lo b’seder.” The Hebrew verb for skip is the same as the name of the holiday.  Just as Passover; i.e., pass over, in English, is synonymous with skip.

Thus there is no order in which the meal is to be eaten.  All foods from soup to dessert will be available to the guests throughout dinner.  All can eat what they want when they want and just as importantly not eat what they do not desire.

Some usual Passover foods will be available.  They include gefilte fish, matzoh (a cracker that is central to the symbolism of Passover), red wine and grape juice.  Also, charoset which is a mixture of nuts, dried and fresh fruits, nuts and honey because it tastes really good.  Bread and shrimp (prohibited by Jewish law during Passover) will also be available and are placed in close proximity to the matzoh and gefilte fish, respectively.

Italian food which is a popular cuisine in my upstate New York community, since there is a large Italian-American presence here, will be featured. The main courses will be a vegetarian lasagna and Utica greens which is a popular indigenous local dish invented by my sister-in-law’s cousin.

Instead of the traditional not consumed glass of red wine for the prophet Elijah, a glass of wine will be placed on the table in memory of my dear departed friend and neighbor, Bruce, who would have been a willing enthusiastic participant in this seder.

The only restriction placed on the food that is acceptable at this seder is that it is not wholly or partly produced at Israeli Jewish companies.  This seder is officially and proudly designated as a pro BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) event.  Luckily, neither this seder nor anything I or my wife do is funded by the State of New York because the New York State governor, Andrew Cuomo, has bowed to the pro-Israel lobby, or as it is known in Israel, the Jewish lobby, and cut state funding to all supporters of BDS.

The only part of the typical seder that is included in the seder lo b’seder is the performance of the song Chad Gadya which ends the festive meal.  In my seder the song is performed both before and after dinner.  Prior to eating, the guests are invited to listen and view a video (with English subtitles) of the Chava Alberstein version of this iconic Passover song which she recorded at the height of the First Intifada in 1989.  In this rendition, which is sung mostly in Hebrew instead of the more traditional Aramaic, Alberstein added protest lyrics in response to the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. Echoing the words of the Hagada she sings,

And what has changed for you?
What has changed?
I myself have changed this year
And on all nights, on all nights
I have asked only four questions
Tonight I have another question:
How long will the cycle of horror last?
… Hunter and hunted, beater and beaten
When will this madness end?

Alberstein’s protest song roiled much of the Jewish Israeli population and it was banned from the radio despite or maybe because of the enormous popularity and artistic reputation of the singer.  Younger readers will take note that the suppression of speech critical of government policy, especially in relation to what goes on in the territories, did not start with Netanyahu.

A couple of weeks ago I came across a video of the Rana Choir performing an Arabic/Hebrew version of the Alberstein Chad Gadya at a 2016 Arab-Israeli Remembrance Day Ceremony.  The choir is a group based in Jaffa, composed of Palestinians and Jews, which is unusual in Israel.  I am usually rather skeptical about joint ventures in the apartheid reality of Israel which are derisively and understandably termed “normalization” by many Palestinians.  Most end up with members of the stronger group, the Jews, setting the agenda, and ironically reproducing the unequal power relationship of the occupation.  A majority of the singers appear to be Jewish and I have been told that the Arabic is almost unintelligible.  However, despite all this I will present this version to my guests as a possible source of hope.  This beautiful and haunting once censored protest song is, at least, still being performed.

As in the “normal” seder, the meal and ceremony concludes with the host, me, singing Chad Gadya with the guests invited to join in. They are especially encouraged to, at the very least, sing the chorus.  The song in our seder is sung in Aramaic as is usual.

I like this song because it arguably is understood as having no significant meaning and as being pure melody and wordplay.  In other words free of the cant, rant or any political significance of which I may find objectionable but ever present in the normal seder.

So that is the outline of my planned Passover meal.  It is an attempt to quietly declare that Zionism is not tenable or moral and the practiced Judaism which supports Israel is also defective.  I do not mean my seder to be offensive to any of my fellow co-religionists, but if it is so be it.

In our American culture those who renounce Catholicism are not generally censured by the general population, but those that criticize the practice of Judaism are.  Why is that?

Unfortunately, my seder will not happen this year due to family commitments having nothing to do with Passover. However, I plan to do it next year.  The guests will include my 94-year-old mother-in-law and her daughter, my wife’s sister, both of whom attended my initial alternative seder two years ago. My wife and her family are not Jewish; however, all told me they had a wonderful time.  I already have three dear friends who are pro-Palestinian activists committed to the event.  Two of them will be recovering from the previous night’s first Seder.  All three have been falsely accused of anti-Semitism by the local Jewish Federation in response to their political activity.

Zionism means dispossession of 700,000 indigenous Palestinian people and their future descendants.  Today it means the ever-expanding Judaization of Jerusalem, the oppression of the Palestinian people including the brutal siege of Gaza and the continual killing of Gazans at the border protests.

That is why I say, “Next year in upstate New York, I will have a seder that will be lo b’seder.”

CIJA: Zionist Lobbying and Hate Crimes

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs’ response to the horrific attack on two mosques in New Zealand highlights tensions between promoting the most aggressive ongoing European settler colonialism and Jewish Canadian concern over hate crimes.

Forty-eight hours after the killings in Christchurch the Toronto Star published letters by the heads of CIJA and Toronto’s Jewish Federation under the headline “Jewish Canadians stand with Muslims.” CIJA’s quick response to the mosque attack no doubt reflected genuine horror as well as an understanding that as a minority religious group disproportionately victimized by hate crimes Jews have an interest in building solidarity against such violence. But, it also represents a cynical ‘get out ahead of the story’ type of public relations from a group that regularly demonizes Muslims in defence of Israel’s subjugation of Palestinians. CIJA, which is the lobbying arm of Canada’s Jewish Federations, claims Israel is “fighting against the Palestinian shackles of international Islamism that has been wreaking absolute havoc all over the world.”

CIJA regularly hypes “Islamic terror”. In response to a 2017 truck attack in Nice, France, CIJA declared “Canada is not immune to… Islamist terror” and in 2018 they highlighted “those strains of Islam that pose a real and imminent threat to Jews around the world.” At the time CIJA also aligned with the xenophobic backlash against the term “Islamophobia in bill M-103, which called for collecting data on hate crimes and studying the issue of “eliminating systemic racism and religious discrimination including Islamophobia.” In a BuzzFeed article titled “Zionist Groups in Canada Are Jumping On The ‘Creeping Sharia’ Bandwagon” Steven Zhou detailed CIJA, B’nai Brith and other pro-Israel groups backlash to M-103 and “how Muslim Canadians define Islamophobia.”

In a bid to deter organizations from associating with the Palestinian cause or opposing Israeli belligerence in the Middle East, CIJA constantly targets Arab and Muslim community representatives, papers, organizations, etc. To prove that Muslim Canadians financed “Hamas terror”, CIJA pushed to proscribe Muslim charity IRFAN (International Relief Fund for the Afflicted and Needy) as a terrorist entity because it supported orphans and a hospital in the Gaza Strip through official (Hamas controlled) channels. (The federal government considers Hamas a terrorist organization but Palestinians and most of the world consider it a political/resistance organization.) The Jewish group’s press release about the first Canadian-based group ever designated a terrorist organization alludes to ‘foreign Muslims taking advantage of Canadians’. It noted, “Canadians will not tolerate the abuse of their generosity by those who seek to bankroll terrorists.” In 2017 CIJA demanded Ottawa rescind the charitable status of the Islamic Society of British Columbia because the Vancouver-area mosque allegedly offered support for Hamas.

While quick to attack Arabs and Muslims’ support for “terror” or “anti-Semitism,” CIJA clams up when explicit Jewish Islamophobia is brought to their attention. In 2012, the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-CAN) asked for CIJA’s help with an aggressively anti-Muslim textbook used at Joe Dwek Ohr HaEmet Sephardic School in Toronto. It described Muslims as “rabid fanatics” with “savage beginnings,” but CIJA refused to respond.

Last summer lawyer Dimitri Lascaris repeatedly called on CIJA to disassociate from a number of individuals it aligned with at a protest who made anti-Muslim remarks and death threats against mostly Muslim and brown politicians in a video about the rally. CIJA responded by orchestrating an unprecedented smear campaign against the prominent pro-Palestinian activist.

CIJA Québec failed to respond to my request for comment about the Jewish Public Library in Montréal, a constituent agency of the city’s Jewish Federation it officially represents, hosting anti-Muslim activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali next month. Among a slew of extremist statements, Ali said “violence is inherent in Islam—it’s a destructive, nihilistic cult of death. It legitimates murder.”

CIJA has stayed mum about the recent scandal over the head of the Toronto Hebrew School Teachers Federation, Aviva Polonsky, escorting a class from the Community Hebrew Academy to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington. Polonsky posted photographs of her and students meeting with noted Islamophobe Sebastian Gorka and wearing “Make America Great Again” hats.

CIJA ignores Islamophobia by groups it defends or represents. It also stokes anti-Muslim sentiment as part of its bid to defend Israeli colonialism and violence. On the other hand, Canadian Jewry, which CIJA claims to represent, has a strong self-interest in building broad opposition to hate crimes.

Which side is this organization on? Is it always against perpetrators of hate-crimes, so-called “White nationalists” and governments that favour one religion or ethnicity over others? Or does it make exceptions for its supporters and Israel?

Netanyahu Reigns Supreme, and all Opposition has been Crushed

Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party emerged from Tuesday’s Israeli election tied with the Blue and White party, led by Benny Gantz and other high-powered generals. Although each party has 35 seats in the 120-seat parliament, Netanyahu is now firmly in the driving seat.

The small far-right and religious extremist parties that are needed to make up a parliamentary majority lost no time in declaring their support for Netanyahu. That will allow him to establish his fourth consecutive government.

Netanyahu now enjoys the luxury of choosing between a narrow government of these far-right parties, and a right-wing national unity government embracing Gantz. The latter option would potentially command four-fifths of the seats in the Israeli Knesset.

Whatever his decision, Netanyahu is now set this summer to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, beating the record set by Israel’s founding father, David Ben Gurion.

Demand for “immunity” law

The only obstacle on the horizon – a set of corruption indictments against Netanyahu, announced by the attorney-general during the campaign – is certain to be swept away once Netanyahu has been formally installed as head of the next government by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.

Netanyahu’s coalition partners are already insisting on the passing of special “immunity” legislation – which would make it impossible to indict a sitting prime minister – as a condition for their support.

Bezalel Smotrich, of the far-right Union of Rightwing Parties, said such a law would “build trust among coalition members that the next government can rule for a full term”.

They understand that Netanyahu, given his track record, is their best meal ticket to a long-term place in government.

And Netanyahu’s own voters have demonstrated that they care not a whit whether he is corrupt, as long as he continues to promote a Jewish supremacist agenda.

Extolling Gaza rampage

Gantz’s success in matching Netanyahu’s tally of seats is impressive, given that he presided over a brand new party whose only policy seemed to be: “It’s time to get rid of Netanyahu.”

That showed there is a significant section of Israeli society fatigued by a decade of Netanyahu rule and the political and personal corruption he embodies.

But it also emphasised the continuing veneration by Israeli Jews of the army and their desire to find exclusively military solutions to political problems – not least, how to reach an accommodation with Palestinians and their claim to statehood.

It certainly does not, as some observers have claimed, signify an appetite among Israeli Jews for left-wing politics. Gantz and his fellow generals are not doves of any kind.

After all, the Blue and White party’s main selling point was Gantz’s pulverisation of Gaza in 2014, when he was army chief of staff overseeing a military operation that killed more than 500 Palestinian children.

Collapse of opposition

Netanyahu’s victory is underscored by the two most dramatic trends of the election. Those relate to the collapse of the opposition to the right – both among the Jewish electorate, and among voters belonging to the Palestinian minority, a fifth of Israel’s population.

In many ways, the most shocking result is the diminishment of the Labor Party, which founded Israel and ruled it for decades, to just six seats. That turns it into a marginal, special-interest party.

Combined with the four seats of the dovish Meretz party, that reduces what is commonly referred to in Israel as the “centre-left” to just 10 seats. According to a recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, only about 12 percent of Israeli Jews are still prepared to describe themselves as left-wing.

It is hard to see Labor ever recovering. If the trend continues, Labor and Meretz may need to merge in future elections to ensure they pass the polling threshold.

The ‘leftwing threat’

The mistaken description of Labor as belonging to the left is a legacy of its early connections to European socialist parties and its development of a centrally planned economy in Israel’s first decades.

Labor’s emphasis on ethnic politics and communal segregation – the idea that Jewish and Palestinian citizens should live and learn apart – would have earned it a classification as an ultra-nationalist party anywhere but Israel.

Nonetheless, Labor has in the past signalled that it wants to separate from parts of the occupied Palestinian territories, chiefly as a way to ensure that an expanded Israel – one that includes some of the larger, illegal settlements – remains overwhelmingly Jewish. Its policies have also been constrained, relative to the right, by concerns about Israel’s image abroad.

By shifting the political centre of gravity ever further rightwards, however, Netanyahu has clearly established the idea in most Israeli voters’ minds that Labor is an extremist left-wing party that threatens to bring about the end of a Jewish state.

‘Eliminating the Israeli state’

That was highlighted in the previous election, when Netanyahu not only fearmongered among Jewish voters that Palestinian citizens were coming out to vote “in droves”, but falsely blamed the left for “bussing” them to polling stations.

This process reached new levels of absurdity – and danger – in the current election campaign.

Netanyahu repeatedly warned that Gantz’s party – dominated by generals and extolling its security record in crushing Palestinians – was part of the centre-left.

Netanyahu argued that a vote for Gantz would result in Israeli-Palestinian parties acting as kingmakers in the next government and thereby help to “eliminate” the state of Israel.

Historic low turnout

The four Palestinian parties in the election race, running this time on two slates rather than as a single Joint List, have also struggled. They looked set to scrape through with between six and 10 seats, down from 13 in the last Knesset.

That is because turnout among Israel’s Palestinian citizens hit a historic low in this election, hovering around the  50 percent mark. This was the most lacklustre campaign ever seen in Palestinian communities in Israel.

The polling figures contrast sharply with voting rates among the minority of close to 90 percent back in the 1960s, and of 75 percent just two decades ago, as well as a turnout of 85 percent in local authority elections just a few months back.

The collapse of the vote marks the minority’s near-complete disillusionment with Israeli national politics, and their conclusion that a fundamental and irreversible rift has taken place with the Jewish majority.

Hidden cameras spy on voters

That was made clear last summer, when Israel passed the nation-state law, which made explicit that Israel was a state belonging exclusively to Jews, rather than to all Israeli citizens – thereby cementing the minority’s status as unwelcome spectators in a “Jewish democracy”.

As one Palestinian analyst noted to the daily Haaretz newspaper, Israeli politics is now like a perverse football game, in which there are two Jewish teams and Palestinian citizens serve as the ball. “Everybody’s kicking us and neither team wants us,” he said.

Netanyahu underscored that point on election day itself, when he pulled another of his incitement stunts against the Palestinian minority. He sent more than 1,000 activists armed with hidden video cameras to monitor polling stations in Palestinian communities.

It was a gross violation of Israel’s election laws. But publicity over the cameras’ confiscation by police was another coup for Netanyahu’s fear-based politics. He defended the move as ensuring the election’s conduct was “kosher”, the term used to denote food that accords with strict Jewish dietary laws.

Like his earlier “droves” comment, it sent a clear message that the very presence of Palestinian voters subverts a democratic process intended for Jews only, and that the extreme right he represents is uniquely prepared to take the necessary action to defend a Jewish state.

Palestinian parties ostracised

Netanyahu, however, cannot be solely blamed for this state of affairs. Previously the Labor Party, and now Gantz’s party of generals, actively conspired in Netanyahu’s carefully crafted narrative, presenting Palestinian citizens as a fifth column.

Gantz repeatedly distanced himself from the Palestinian parties in response to Netanyahu’s incitement, vowing to sit only with “Jewish and Zionist” parties.

Effectively, with that promise, he not only shot the Palestinian minority in the head, but himself in the foot. It meant he never stood a hope of having enough seats to provide an alternative government to Netanyahu.

Now, it seems, Israel’s 1.8 million Palestinian citizens have fully absorbed the lesson: that all the Jewish parties, bar the four-seat Meretz party, have stripped them of a legitimate claim to political rights inside a Jewish state.

Haggling over annexation

There are a few other significant take-homes from the results.

Religious extremist parties are now the kingmakers on the right. Between them, they won more than a sixth of the parliament. Netanyahu will almost certainly need them in the government, and they will demand socially influential ministries, further accelerating the shift to religious fundamentalism in Israel.

In the run-up to the coalition-building negotiations, one such party representing religious settlers has already demanded that it be given the education and justice ministries.

Netanyahu is also in a weak position to resist – assuming he wished to – the demands of the far-right parties to begin the process of formally annexing significant parts of the West Bank.

Media reports are already suggesting that post-election haggling will focus on demands from these far-right parties for some form of annexation, in return for their agreeing to pass immunity legislation to shield Netanyahu from corruption indictments.

That explains his comments in the last days of the campaign, in which he promised to annex swaths of the West Bank where the settlements are located.

As Netanyahu’s hold on power became clear on Tuesday, he made a speech encapsulating his style of speaking with a forked tongue. He told the crowds: “I intend to be the prime minister of all the citizens of Israel, right and left, Jews and non-Jews.”

To outsiders, it may have sounded conciliatory. To those in Israel who know Netanyahu, it sounded more like a threat from a man who understands that there is no one in Israel – right or left, Jew or non-Jew – in a position to resist his dictates.

• First published in Middle East Eye