New blog at Times of Israel

Featured

I sent over my latest blog post and not only was it accepted at Times of Israel, but they invited me to become a TOI blogger. Here it is, updated with the events that have unfolded since the operation began. Titled “Waiting for a final ceasefire,” I ask the question on many of our minds: What will bring a moderate, two-state oriented leadership to Gaza?

Any of your thoughts, comments, and shares would be most appreciated. Thank you to everyone who’s reached out to me since the operation began: hoping for it to end as soon as possible.

Photo of Iron Dome intercepting a rocket. Courtesy of Creative Commons.

In the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Everything Can Change in a Moment 

Featured

I may be a journalist, but I am not a fortune teller. This is why I am glad I did not appear on the BBC Friday evening: I did not expect Israel to launch a military offensive in Gaza, which it did this morning.

Early Friday afternoon, the BBC’s World Have Your Say TV program asked if I would like to speak on their show as the “Israeli journalist.” They were interviewing several journalists to fill this one slot, including me. For 10 minutes, a producer talked with me over the phone to get a sense of what I would say on the program. 

The BBC journalist, sitting at a desk in London, asked me, “Do you think the violence will escalate?” 

On Friday, the funeral of Mohammed Abu Khdeir — the Palestinian teen kidnapped, burned, and murdered as a possible “revenge killing” for the kidnap and murder of Israeli teens Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach, and Naftali Fraenkel by Hamas — was taking place in the East Jerusalem neighborhood where he lived. At that time, Jewish extremists were suspected of murdering Mohammad, and riots erupted near the funeral and in other areas around Israel in reaction to these allegations. 

Meanwhile, five rockets and two mortar shells had hit Southern Israel from Gaza Friday morning. Since the IDF started Operation Brother’s Keeper to find the Israeli teens kidnapped on June 12 and to weaken Hamas, dozens of rockets from the Gaza strip had hit Israel. But many questioned whether Israel’s incursions, arrests of hundreds of Hamas operatives, and restrictions of movement in the West Bank and Gaza constituted “collective punishment” against the Palestinians, or were necessary to deter Hamas, whose terrorists were responsible for killing the three Israeli teens. 

Courtesy of Abed Rahim Katib/Flash90

Yet, amidst all of this, there was talk about an Egyptian-mediated ceasefire possibly taking place. 

This is the information I knew when the BBC called me early Friday afternoon.

So I told the British journalist, “Assuming that no other large, harmful incident takes place, I don’t think Israel will launch an operation in Gaza. It doesn’t have the international backing, and I don’t think it would be strategically wise.” 

In the end, I did not appear on the show — and my predictions were wrong. 

Early this morning, Israel launched a military offensive in Gaza, titled “Operation Protective Edge.” During the four days between the phone call and the present moment, scores of rockets have hit Southern Israel, including 100 in the last day alone. On Sunday, our worst nightmare was confirmed that Jewish extremists did kill Mohammad Abu Khdeir, burning him alive. Riots have ignited across the country. Now, it’s looking more like the beginning of a third intifada than a deescalation. 

Strangely, a memory from Operation Pillar of Defense, the last time Israel started a military offensive in Gaza, gives me hope. On November 21, 2012, a bomb exploded on a bus in Tel Aviv, wounding 15 people. This was the first bus bombing in Tel Aviv in more than six years. 

Courtesy of REUTERS/ARIEL BESHOR

Courtesy of REUTERS/ARIEL BESHOR

The bombing occurred only a mile away from the Jerusalem Post’s office, where I was working. I immediately got calls from my partner to check if I was okay, and I wrote on Facebook that I was fine. Everyone called anyone they knew that could be close to the bombing, which was a lot of people. It reminded my Israeli colleagues of the horrific years during the second intifada. 

I was really scared. Not only was the bus bombing close by, but it could also intensify the operation. 

Instead, hours later, Israel and Hamas reached a ceasefire agreement, ending the eight-day operation. Both a bus bombing and a ceasefire occurred within the same day: That’s Israel for you.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict can often feel intractable. It increasingly is. 

But everything can change here in a moment, for the better or the worse. I just hope that this operation ends as quickly as possible and we can get back to the real work that needs to be done: making peace. Israeli President Shimon Peres almost made peace with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in 2011: I’m just waiting for that moment to come back. 

‘We are like this’ – 6 Jews suspected of killing Palestinian teen in revenge attack

Featured

Our worst fears have come true: Six Jewish extremists are suspected of kidnapping and murdering Palestinian teen Muhammed Abu Khdeir as a revenge killing for the kidnap and murder of Israeli teens Gilad, Eyal, and Naftali.

This disturbing turn of events makes me remember a powerful quote from the Laramie Project, a play about Matthew Shepard – who was killed for being gay – and his town’s response. “Someone got up there [at Matthew’s vigil] and said, ‘C’mon, guys, let’s show the world that Laramie is not this kind of a town.’ But it is that kind of a town. If it wasn’t this kind of a town, why did this happen here?… And we have to mourn this and we have to be sad that we live in a town, a state, a country where shit like this happens. .. I mean, these are people trying to distance themselves from this crime. And we need to own this crime. I feel. Everyone needs to own it. We are like this. We ARE like this. WE are LIKE this.”

Yes, Jews are like this too. So what are we going to do about it? 

Poster depicting 16-year-old Muhammed Abu Khdeir during his funeral in Shuafat. Courtesy of CBC.

The Israeli Palestinian peace talks spark a few glimmers of hope

Featured

Photo courtesy of hromedia.com

Yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced in Jordan that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have “established a basis” for resuming direct peace negotiations. Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, Israeli chief negotiator Tzipi Livni, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s special envoy Isaac Molho are expected to begin initial talks. They will meet with Kerry in Washington in the next week or so.

Most reports of this initial breakthrough focus on the expected challenges of these negotiations: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s political weakness; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative coalition; the split between Hamas and the West Bank; the Israeli public’s increasing domestic concerns. Then, they focus on the longstanding grievances that hold up most peace talks: borders, settlements, Jerusalem, and Palestinian refugees.

Additionally, few believe that Abbas and Netanyahu can make real progress towards ending the Israeli Palestinian conflict. In a poll published earlier this month in The Jerusalem Post, “68% of Israelis and 69% of Palestinians view the chances of an independent Palestinian state’s formation in the next five years as low or nonexistent.”

Interestingly, although both groups are pessimistic that peace negotiations will succeed, the majority of Israelis and Palestinians still support a two-state solution. The poll states that “62% of Israelis and 53% of Palestinians” say they “support a two-state solution.”

Even though many analysts still claim the chances of the negotiations’ success are slim, there are several key distinctions in the beginning of these peace talks that may make them more feasible. First, The New York Times reports that Kerry won “concessions on the new framework, which American, Israeli and Palestinian officials said would allow Washington to declare the 1967 prewar borders as the basis for the talks — along with the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state — but allow Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas to distance themselves from those terms.” (As of the last New York Times report, it is unclear whether the framework explicitly declares the 1967 prewar borders as the basis for talks.)

Kerry was partly able to separate Netanyahu and Abbas from these potentially controversial terms by commencing the talks with their negotiators instead of the two men themselves. This way, the leaders can’t be blamed at the outset, and the initial negotiations are more likely to stay behind closed doors. Kerry asserts that the best way to ensure the talks’ success is to “keep them private.” Ynet, the leading Israeli online news site, echoed this sentiment, with a top headline reading “Without them [Netanyahu and Abbas], talks have more of a chance” (article in Hebrew).

Additionally, both sides made concessions. Israel will free some Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture before talks. The Palestinian leadership gave up on previous demands for a settlement freeze before entering talks. NPR relays that Palestinian officials “wanted guarantees the 1967 lines would be the basis for talks, saying that if Israel accepts that, it would make most of the settlements illegitimate.” Although there is no public settlement freeze, The Times of Israel reports that Kerry promised Abbas there would be a de facto settlement freeze.

The Palestinian leadership may have felt more able to make such a public concession because of the Arab League’s support for Kerry’s talks, which was announced on Wednesday. This came after a substantial diplomatic breakthrough in late April, when the Arab League stated for the first time that it would back a peace plan that allows small land swaps based on the 1967 prewar borders. Previously they had only supported an agreement based on these borders, without land swaps. This change in policy would allow Israel to keep some of the largest settlement blocs in exchange for largely Arab-populated areas within Israel that would become part of a future Palestinian state.

Kerry’s intensive diplomacy, and more importantly, changes in the region likely influenced the Arab League to change their stance. Since the last peace talk attempts, which broke down in 2010 within three weeks, the Syrian civil war and Iranian threat have deeply concerned the 22-member Arab League. They may view a solution to the conflict as a strategy to gain needed backing from the United States for their security concerns.

Increasingly, European and Israeli top officials have criticized the intransigence of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. This week, the EU released a harsh rebuke of Israel’s settlement policy, insisting that all future agreements with Israel exclude Jewish territories in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Golan Heights, which were captured in the 1967 Six Day War. Furthermore, The Guardian reports that, “EU guidelines will prohibit the issuing of grants, funding, prizes or scholarships unless a settlement exclusion clause is included.” Palestinians and their supporters applauded this move.

Also this week, Yuval Diskin, a former chief of the Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security service), wrote a highly critical op-ed in The Jerusalem Post about Israelis’ complacence with the conflict. He declares in its opening paragraph, “We are approaching a point of no return regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, it may be that we have already crossed it.” Earlier this year, six former Shin Bet chiefs profiled in the Oscar-nominated documentary The Gatekeepers profess that “the occupation is immoral and, perhaps more important, ineffective,” urging Israel to withdraw from the West Bank like it did in Gaza in 2005. In May, former prime minister Ehud Olmert revealed details of his peace plan with Mahmoud Abbas in 2008, putting pressure on Netanyahu to come back to the negotiating table.

One important question is how much Kerry will be able to influence negotiations moving forward. Many critics have been skeptical of how much Kerry can individually impact talks, including Barak Ravid, a leading columnist for Israeli paper Haaretz. Two months ago, Ravid wrote that Kerry was naive, “that instead of conducting himself as the United States’ chief diplomat, he is acting as a lone ranger who still thinks he’s a senator, propelled by messianic zeal and the belief he was sent by the gods to bring peace to the Middle East.” Now, he admits that, “Kerry deserves the applause… The U.S. secretary of state managed to end the impasse of more than three years in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy with the power of his will.”

Another important factor is if Saeb Erekat and Tzipi Livni, who both led negotiation teams in 2008 between Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, can produce better results this time around with Kerry. If they can stay at the negotiating table for at least six months, as has been agreed upon, that will be an improvement from 2010. Can they come up with a final status agreement? That answer is for more elusive.

On the Online Front: ‘Jerusalem behind the headlines’

Featured

It looks like my next piece just got published. I think this Jerusalem Post Metro piece, titled “On the Online Front,” will be interesting for those interested in learning about Israel’s PR behind the scenes, both the good, bad, and complicated aspects of it. What is also unique about this piece is that the group, called Ambassadors Online, consists of a number of Arab students, which are usually underrepresented in such public diplomacy activities. Without further ado, here is the article (beyond the paywall). As always, let me know what you think.

_ _ _ _ _

On the online front

A diverse group of University of Haifa students gains skills in new media and learns about ‘Jerusalem behind the headlines’ to represent Israel in the Internet age.
By LAURA ROSBROW
Haifa University students
Photo by: Ifat Segal

‘I’m an Israeli citizen, and many things are said about Israel that are not true. I want to show a true picture of Israel. It’s not all protests.”

Ayat Rahal does not fit the typical profile of a pro- Israeli hasbara, or public diplomacy, activist. She is a Muslim Beduin student at the University of Haifa from Rumat al-Heib in the Galilee. For her, participating in Ambassadors Online (Shagririm Bareshet), which trains students to represent Israel as unofficial ambassadors in the international arena, is crucial for promoting coexistence. “As a Muslim, I think [doing hasbara] is important for coexistence. People don’t understand that we live together, we study together, and do everything together. I want to show what life is really like here.”

Rahal, several Druse participants, a Polish exchange student, a Jewish new immigrant from Venezuela and 25 Jewish Israelis make up Ambassadors Online’s second cohort. The students were chosen from over 60 applicants, with more applicants in this round than the first group last year.

Ambassadors Online’s goal is to train students in new media skills, such as social media, blogging and filmmaking, so they can defend and represent Israel online. David Gurevich, a PhD candidate in the Department of Archeology at the University of Haifa and the program’s director, founded the program last year with Prof. Eli Avraham, a senior faculty member in the Department of Communications. The project is co-sponsored by the university, its student union and the ISEF Foundation. Although the cohort was supposed to begin in the fall semester, it was delayed to the spring semester because of a lack of funds.

Gurevich says the group’s diversity reflects the range of students that are passionate about representing Israel: “You can see that we have totally various populations here. What unites everyone is they feel connected to this country and want to stand for it.”

He also says that Ambassadors Online does not have a political orientation. “We’re saying, ‘Guys, you can be Left, you can be Right.’ The idea is we have a lot more in common here as Israelis, and that we can represent that common ground for the world.”

Several Jewish students wanted to participate because they feel Israel is misunderstood abroad. Maya Zaliuk- Sharabany says, “I wanted to be in this project because whenever I go abroad, it is hard for me to talk about Israel, to answer people’s questions. I’m glad to take a course that prepares me to do that.”

For Maya Beinin, the rationale behind Israel’s actions is obvious. But she does not think this understanding translates to foreign audiences. “Israel’s hasbara is really bad. The world doesn’t understand us.”

Perhaps Adam Asad, a master’s student in international relations who wants to become a diplomat, will improve Israeli hasbara in the future. Like Rahal, he also does hasbara in part to promote coexistence. “I really want to represent Israel from my point of view as Arab, as Druse, from Israel. I want to show the Israeli side. It’s not understood in the world that there are Arabs in Israel and they can represent Israel… I believe in coexistence.

I believe in interfaith dialogue inside and outside of Israel. That’s why I attended this program.”

To familiarize participants with the central issues that make up headlines about Israel, Gurevich leads a tour called “Jerusalem behind the headlines.” In the tour, the group visits controversial places in the Jerusalem area – such as the Temple Mount and Ma’aleh Adumim – as well as the Foreign Affairs Ministry. Gurevich hopes the tour shows “how complicated the situation is, and some information about the solutions so each one can go home and decide for himself.” This reporter had the privilege to join the tour.

On the two-and-a-half-hour bus ride from Haifa to Jerusalem, Gurevich lectures almost the entire time.

He covers many of the main aspects of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, providing facts that defend Israel or complicate one’s views towards solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For most of the participants on the tour, it is their first time visiting the Temple Mount. Many smile, rush to take pictures of the golden dome and pose with friends as Gurevich guides.

Later in the tour, the group visits the intersection where Ma’aleh Adumim borders E1, a hotly contested territory adjacent to east Jerusalem. Although Gurevich says that E1 “does create a territorial sequence for Israel,” which some claim threatens the feasibility of a contiguous future Palestinian state, “that it prevents territorial continuity in the Palestinian state, that is just not true factually… What it does is prevent connecting east Jerusalem to that future Palestinian state… Right, not right, smart, not smart, that’s the situation. But it’s important to know the facts. The fact is that building in E1 does not prevent a two-state solution.”

Gurevich first statement that it is important to know “the facts,” and his further statement that building in E1 does not prevent a two-state solution illustrates part of the tour’s perspective.

The next stop is the Foreign Ministry, where officials present Israel’s hasbara strategy to Ambassadors Online. Ilana Stein, ministry vice spokeswoman, discusses hasbara’s “creative energy” strategy, which focuses on topics such as start-ups, the arts, and “cool” events taking place in Israel. The goal is for more people to engage with Israel through positive, non-political channels. She also encourages Ambassadors Online participants to write about fun experiences on social media sites so that peers can relate to Israel. Her motto for participants is, “Be truthful, authentic, say things that are fun.”

Although Stein’s advice is helpful, this reporter wanted to hear from the ministry about how it deals with the most difficult arguments against Israel.

When Eliya Rubinstein Benditovich, the ministry’s head of new media, is asked what the hardest question she ever found on the Internet was, she says, “The hardest questions are about delegitimization.

‘Why are you doing this?’ And it’s hard to answer because sometimes, yes, we’re doing this.” She then talks about what the office does during times of conflict.

This makes her reflect on Israel’s most recent operation, Pillar of Defense, which ended after a week of strikes between Gaza and Israel in November. “If the state had decided to continue with [the operation], our duty is to go along with it, to represent it.”

Therein lies hasbara’s greatest challenge: to make the case for all of Israel’s actions to audiences abroad.

Already, Ambassadors Online participants have organized a hasbara conference and created videos, blogs and pro-Israeli Facebook groups. Only time will tell if these students are up to the tough task of representing Israel. •

Rating the News: ‘How would Obama’s speech play in Ramallah?’ – The Jerusalem Post

Featured

How would Obama’s speech play in Ramallah?,” which was written by Jerusalem Post Senior Correspondant Herb Keinon shortly after Obama’s speech yesterday in Jerusalem, captures a lot of my feelings and lingering questions about his visit. So, I’m just going to repost it here

Rating: Sh*t is complicated.

I’d love your thoughts on this piece and Obama’s visit in general.

Photo by Ariel Shasha, a student at Bar Ilan University.

Photo by Ariel Shasha, a student at Bar Ilan University that attended Obama’s speech.

Obama’s visit to Israel and the West Bank in Pictures

Featured

As I’ve been scouring the news the last few days, eagerly anticipating Obama’s visit, I’ve been affected by the photos. They show how differently Obama is perceived in Israel in comparison to the West Bank.

Here are photos of Obama flags in Israel before the visit:

Photo from Your Jewish News

In Jerusalem: “Unbreakable Alliance, President Obama in Israel, 2013.” Photo from Your Jewish News

Students in Israel make an image of President Obama from chocolate. Photo from Ariel Schalit/AP

Students in Israel make an image of President Obama from chocolate. Photo from Ariel Schalit/AP

And here are the first photos of Obama in Israel. Around 1,000 people came to greet him at the airport, including a military band, politicians, and a whole lot of journalists:

The whole scene at the airport as Obama arrives. Photo from Camilla Schick, Jerusalem Post

The whole scene at the airport as Obama arrives. Photo from Camilla Schick, Jerusalem Post

President Shimon Peres, President Barack Obama, and Prime Minister Netanyahu. They all wore blue! Photo from Ben Hartman, Jerusalem Post

President Shimon Peres, President Barack Obama, and Prime Minister Netanyahu. They all wore blue ties! Photo from Ben Hartman, Jerusalem Post

Meanwhile, this is what has been going on in the West Bank.

Palestinian protestors against Obama. Photo from REUTERS/Ammar Awad

Palestinian protestors against Obama. Photo from REUTERS/Ammar Awad

Photo from AP

Photo from AP

Photo from EPA

Photo from EPA

Obviously, many Palestinians are not pleased with Obama coming.

Obama’s already done quite a charm offensive to Israel, saying some words in Hebrew and describing the Jewish people’s 3,000-year-old connection to the land.

What will Obama do when he meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas? It’s hard to imagine Obama being able to sweet talk his way out of these hostilities. Honestly, I have no idea what that kind of charm offensive could look like.