The Palestinian plan to ask the United Nations for statehood recognition has preoccupied Israel's leaders and news media for months, making "September" a code word for trouble ahead. Public officials have sounded dire warnings, each with a metaphor describing what awaits, including "tsunami" (Defense Minister Ehud Barak), "iceberg" (lawmaker Isaac Herzog) and "wall" (President Shimon Peres).
Last-minute efforts continue to reach a compromise that could keep Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas from making what some commentators call a game-changing move, and spare the U.S. from resorting to exercising its veto power in the Security Council. One way or another other, "September" is here.
If classic diplomacy has limits, there's always Internet diplomacy. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon is one of the country's most social-media-minded officials. This summer he posted on the Web a video titled "The Israel-Palestinian Conflict: The Truth About The Peace Process." It gained plenty of views but not so much traction.
Now lay practitioners of hasbara, or public outreach, are joining the ranks of the digital diplomats. The latest video making the rounds to illustrate Israel's position is "Israel Wants Peace - Friend Request Pending" (above). We're in a Facebook era, "like" it or not. Not everyone will agree with the video's message but most will understand its language.
While Netanyahu intends to present "Israel's truth" at the U.N., clever Internet presentations try to show Israel's softer face. And just for fun (and for art, for art!) mass-nude photographer Spencer Tunick showed some other parts over the weekend.
Joining the classic and the digital, there's "celebrity diplomacy" too.
The America's Voices in Israel program brings media and entertainment personalities to Israel for first-hand experiences, sight-seeing and briefings with government officials, to see for themselves and spread the word back home that Israel's a country, not just a conflict. Actor Miguel Ferrer, a member of the program's latest delegation, said he'd commit to offering positive messages on behalf of the people of Israel. "Twilight" star Kellan Lutz, visiting for the second time, noted that people are "not really informed" about Israel.
Israel's airport security is widely admired but its stringent passenger screening has been criticized by other countries -- and by the Israeli supreme court. On Monday, some Israelis got a glimpse of what it's like on the receiving end of a harsh security inspection when they were forced to undress by personnel at an airport in Turkey.
The incident came days after relations between Israel and Turkey reached an all-time low when Turkey announced a further downgrade of diplomatic ties, including expelling the outgoing Israeli ambassador to Turkey and suspending military and economic dealings. The Turkish moves followed Israel's rejection of a Turkish ultimatum for Israel to apologize for last year's deadly flotilla raid.
Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor told Israel Radio on Monday that he hoped Turkey and Israel could find a way to fix the damage to their relationship but said that would not be easy. Once a strong strategic ally of Israel, Turkey now seeks closer ties with Egypt, another regional asset threatening to slip away from Israel.
Some defense analysts speculated that the rift could hinder Turkey's fight against Kurdish militants. Turkey has recently acquired substantial military gear from Israel, including armored vehicles, upgraded tanks and unmanned aerial vehicles. That equipment already has been delivered but the usual post-sale agreements for maintenance and parts are now iffy.
-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem
Photo: A Turkish Airlines jet. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Israel is the next country to allow Google Street View to map its roadways, although not without concerns. Even before the funny-looking vehicles hit the streets of Israel, they've been in for a bumpy ride. Since being approached about a year ago, Israeli authorities mulled over the various defense, legal and privacy issues, and even opened the topic to public discussion on an open government platform.
Since launching the service in 2007, Google Street View has stirred controversy, mostly over privacy concerns, as the service recorded people's faces, license plates and captured them in compromising situations. After the service was found to collect personal data while mapping out wireless networks, Google was forced to apologize, saying it was a mistake. A number of countries have imposed conditions for continuing running the project, and last year Israel was among 10 governments that sent Google a letter demanding better enforcement of privacy regulations.
Even without being caught with their pants down, many resent the potential invasion of their privacy, although they probably enjoy the many practical aspects of the service that has put the world at everyone's fingertips. When the subject came up, a blog titled "The big invasion of your privacy has begun" offered Israelis tips on how to handle the "threat," including mooning cameras (as done in Germany) and harpooning a vehicle (as in Norway).
Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem -- reportedly the first city to be photographed and mapped -- are likely to do neither, of course, although the sometimes-insular community that often protects itself fiercely from prying eyes is not going to like going global and might put up a fight, according to local media.
In the past, Israel has voiced security concerns as secret bases and other sensitive installations were brought out of the shadows, thanks to Google Earth. A few years ago, military experts complained that the service compromised top-secret sites with images that were a boon to terrorists. Other experts dismissed this, saying the images were neither real-time, not otherwise unobtainable, or posed no genuine threat.
Being "outed" by technology is a two-way street. Last year, reports claimed Google Earth revealed a denied Scud missile cache, the subject of potentially dangerous regional tensions. Satellite imgaery of Israel is restricted and intentionally downgraded in resolution by American-based commercial satellite companies, in compliance with the U.S. National Defense Authorization Act from the late 1990s. Russia, too, degrades its imagery of Israel.
Israel's approval comes with conditions. The Justice Ministry's Law, Information and Technology authority gave its consent on a number of terms, including advance publishing of the route the cameras will take when photographing public places and providing a mechanism for people to ask their faces, license plates and homes to be blurred after uploading if this isn't done automatically. There are also legal conditions obliging adherence to Israeli law in case of legal proceedings.
While apprehension continues regarding risks to security and privacy, some see this as an opportunity. Political activists plan to use the service to promote demonstrations against the occupation, according to a news report that says a Facebook group will work on coordinating the demonstrations with the vehicles' routes, which Google promised to make known in advance.
-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem.
Photo: Google Maps camera car in California in 2010. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Two weeks into Israel's housing protest, demonstrations are sweeping the country. More than 150,000 people took part in protests nationwide calling for socioeconomic change and demanding "social justice." And what started with the odd tent has become the summer of Israeli discontent.
Young Israelis feel they are victims of the country's strong economy and decades of security-heavy priorities. The Israeli economy boomed, but its young middle class has bombed, caving under price hikes, taxation and increasingly privatized public services such as health, education and child care. The leadership admits there are problems but say protesters' complaints are exaggerated.
The economic trend was no accident, protesters say, but a calculated economic ideology coupled with conservative politics. Decentralizing Israel's economy was necessary but privatization has run amok, critics say, with the government outsourcing its commitments to the majority of its citizens, who now demand government reaffirm its vows to the greater public.
"Re-vo-lu-tion!" cries bounced off walls in Tel-Aviv, Beersheva, Haifa and other towns Saturday night.
So here's a Revolution 101, an incomplete dictionary to the cousin of the Arab Spring: the Israeli Summer. Naturally, there are millions of possible definitions.
A is for Arabs. It took some time, but Arab citizens of Israel joined the protests. Chronic under-budgeting has left many in the lower rungs of the country's socioeconomic ladder with more than half below the poverty line and a shortage of 60,000 housing units in the sector comprising 20% of Israeli society. A rare opportunity to join a social cause striving to be inclusive, not exclusive.
B is for Babies. Baby products and child care are too expensive, keeping women from professional development and young families in constant debt. Thousands marched with strollers and baby carriages last week, demanding, among other things, work schedules that are better synchronized with child-care calendars so parents can actually work.
C is for Competition. There is none, protesters say, that's why prices are high. 80% of the nation's economy is controlled by a few dozen powerful family empires who prevent real competition.
So the peace process is in a sorry state, pushing the Palestinians to seek statehood recognition from the United Nations and Israel scurrying around the world to prevent the move or at least detract from its significance.
Meanwhile, efforts to renew negotiations are still on, and both sides say they are willing, so long as they agree on a few ground rules. The latest efforts made by the Mideast Quartet -- representing Russia, the United States, European Union and United Nations -- concentrated on reaching a formula that would incorporate the principles listed by President Obama in his Middle East speech in May.
Their attempt to jump-start the talks failed, according to media reports, due to disagreement over Israel's demand that Palestinians recognize it as a Jewish state. This report quoted a Western diplomat, who said the goal was to give each side something it held important. "The Palestinians were supposed to get 1967 borders with land swaps and the Israelis wanted to receive in return the recognition of Israel as the Jewish homeland," but there was no agreement on the matter, the diplomat said.
The dread digits 1-9-6-7 were in the eye of the storm in the days between the policy speeches delivered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama in the U.S. in May. Israel objects to this baseline for security reasons, arguing it is indefensible. However, "1967 borders with land swaps" also- maybe mostly-means settlements, as in which ones Israel removes and how much land it swaps in return for those it seeks to annex. And Israel's demand for recognition as the Jewish homeland has its logic in obviating the Palestinian demand of the Right of Return, while some see this relatively new demand as another monkey wrench in the peace process machinery.
But where some see obstacles, others see opportunity.
The latest episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" has Larry David in the world's best chicken place, a Palestinian restaurant named Al-Abbas, coincidentally or not calling to mind the name of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Marveling over the best chicken they've ever eaten, David and his friend have a brainstorm. "You know what? They should send this chicken over to Israel. Yeah, for the peace process. They'd take down all those settlements in the morning," they say.
Surveying the "Freedom for Palestine" posters and figuring no Jew had or ever would set foot there, the two figure it's the perfect place for Jewish people to cheat on their spouses, as they'd never be caught in the Palestinian restaurant. Eyeing a Palestinian woman, a frequent patron, David puts the recognition-of-Israel conundrum plaguing the peace process to "good" argument. "You're always attracted to someone who doesn't want you, right? Well, here you have someone who not only doesn't want you but doesn't even acknowledge your right to exist.... That's a turn-on," he says.
(OK, so most Palestinians do recognize Israel's right to exist; it's the Jewish homeland bit they have issue with. But it's still funny.)
The episode gets better -- or worse -- depending on one's politics and sense of humor.
-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem.
Video: "'Curb Your Enthusiasm' -- Palestinian Chicken Place" Season 8, Episode 3. Via YouTube.
The war prompted the Israeli military to dust off routine drilling of forces and other things neglected due to budget cuts and the assumption that "those kinds of wars" were gone. It also showed that the civilian population was the new front line, after a third of the country was pinned down in bomb shelters for a month.
Hezbollah has turned a corner too, Israelis observe, improving its capabilities and replenishing its arsenal above and beyond what it had in 2006, which calls into question the effectiveness of U.N. Security Council resolution 1701, which ended the war and was supposed to curb such armament.
Fifty tons of explosives could be dropped on Israel in the next war, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told a parliamentary committee recently, quickly adding that Israel could retaliate with 1,500 tons of its own extremely precise ammunition.
But at present, Israel and Lebanon are fighting a different kind of war -- over maritime borders and economic issues. If past maritime disputes were mostly about fishing rights, today's squabble concerns a far bigger matter -- billions of dollars worth of natural gas.
When the protest for affordable housing began, some dismissed the campaign as a "Woodstock" of college kids on vacation. By the time Saturday night rolled around, tens of thousands demonstrated in Tel-Aviv and what started as a students' summer protest became a nationwide push for change and a political headache for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
A few months back, citizens' protests targeted the pricing of specific commodities like gasoline, water and cottage cheese. Now, protest is everywhere. Students are camping out in the streets in tents. Dairy farmers are blocking roads with cows. Doctors are striking, the head of Israel's medical association is on a hunger strike. The latest is a Facebook call not to show up for work on Aug. 1.
Israel's economy is strong, the public is constantly told; the country has money, the economy is growing.
Then why is everyone angry? First of all, because they can be. A quick look around the neighborhood has reminded people they have power and can use it to rework priorities and redistribute resources.
Beyond that, some numbers (from a story by Sever Plocker, a financial journalist): Over the last five years, the average income in Israel has increased by 17% and food prices by 25%. Water rates have gone up 40% and gasoline by 23%. The average apartment price has gone up 55% and rent by 27%.
That last item, housing, sparked the protest sweeping the country. But it's not only the last five years, Plocker writes. Real wages haven't increased since 2000, while companies traded on the stock exchange have grown by 300%. The rich are getting richer, the middle class is treading water and "this unusual prosperity has passed it by," Plocker noted.
A young woman turns up dead. Her husband is held for a few days, then released. Police have no other suspects. Murmurs of "family honor" are heard -- and the news races on, reluctant to deal with a painful issue: the killing of women in Arab society.
A few years ago, Duah Fares was within reach of a dream as a finalist in a local beauty pageant. Not everyone was proud of the groundbreaking model who changed her name to the less ethnically conspicuous "Angelina." As the swimsuit stage of the competition neared, displeasure over the break from tradition became heavy pressure and Fares withdrew from the competition when it became clear that her life was in danger.
Her younger sister, Jamila, was also an aspiring beauty pageant contestant; she too changed her name to the more cosmopolitan "Maya" before taking a safer path of marriage and a job in a shop. It wasn't safer. Maya, 21, is the last statistic in a grim tally.
Most of the 35 women murdered in Israel since the beginning of 2010 were killed by close relatives. Sixteen of them were Arab women, sadly over-represented given that their community makes up 20% of Israeli society.
As the peoples of the region wage protests over rights and distribution of resources and power, young adults in Israel have also been taking to the streets in recent days. And they're staying there, they say, until somebody does something about the cost of rental housing.
In Tel Aviv, the only thing more scarce than legal parking is affordable housing. Coveted by students and many other young Israelis, the seaside culture and business hub is overflowing with people looking for a place to live. Buying is out of the question, and the cost of renting is as high as the flats are small and scarce.
Last week, students took to the streets to protest the housing shortage and high prices, turning Tel Aviv into a huge campground as dozens of tents were set up, complete with makeshift facilities, kitchens and, of course, a lot of media attention.
Maybe it's that protest is in the regional air. Or maybe members of the usually blase public were emboldened by a recent campaign to boycott cottage cheese that succeeded in bringing powerful dairy companies to their knees and lowering prices. Either way, tent towns are sprouting up all over, along with demands for a housing solution.
Hundreds of Sudanese and other African asylum seekers and migrants celebrated the independence of South Sudan in Israel on Sunday, flocking from all ends of the country to a southern neighborhood of Tel Aviv, the home away from home for many migrants.
Israel has long been keen to curb the influx of African and other foreign migrants through legislation, occasional repatriation and the sealing of its border with Egypt. The issue generates frequent public debate that touches raw nerves in a society constantly counting heads and beads on a big demographic abacus. And although its treatment of asylum seekers is often criticized by organizations inside and outside the country, Israel is still considered the best deal in the neighborhood.
A year and a bit after the ill-fated interception of the Mavi Marmara that headed last year's flotilla to Gaza, Israel is bracing for another one. This time around, say authorities, they are more prepared, having learned the lessons from operations to public relations and media. (We'll get back to that second point later.)
Israel launched a diplomatic, legal and bureaucratic offensive to prevent the flotilla well in advance and for months has been appealing to governments to block their citizens' efforts to participate, with a certain degree of success. Easing restrictions on goods entering Gaza certainly helped, as has the recent Egyptian decision to open the Raffah crossing, which Israel did not like but quickly recognized as advantageous in this context.
The ships are supposed to rendevous in the Mediterranean and then sail to Gaza but some of the likely candidates in the region are dropping out. Cyprus has announced it will not let the ships in, Greece will let them in but is stalling them with red tape at Israel's request, activists complain. Greece has its own issues this week and will have limited energy to spend on this, one way or the other.
Elsewhere in Europe, delegations met with problems as insurance companies were reluctant to issue policies for the ships and their passengers, after an Israeli legal group, Shurat Hadin, sent letters to the world's leading marine insurance companies advising them they could be held accountable for damages and complicit to violating the law. Other initiatives seek to block satellite communications services to the ships.
The Turkey-based IHH was to be the biggest contingent of the flotilla, its massive passenger ship the largest by far of the dozens of vessels originally slated to sail. Last week the organization announced the ship was staying home.
With Syria's troubles spilling into its backyard, Turkey may have bigger fish to fry at this time -- and both countries seem keen to work things out in advance of the United Nations report on the 2010 flotilla. Turkey was not impressed with the early draft and Israeli media suggest the final report, currently due early July, is still pretty critical of Turkey. And Israel, for its part, always needs all the friends it can get.
In recent weeks, the military completed a series of comprehensive drills for intercepting the next flotilla. Netanyahu is determined to uphold the naval blockade, which Israel says aims only to prevent gunrunning to Hamas-ruled Gaza and not against Palestinian civilians. On Monday, the security cabinet approved the operational plan presented by the army.
Israel has reached understandings with Egypt about the ships docking in El Arish and inspecting the cargo before transfer to Gaza by land in case participants decline Israel's invitation to dock at its Ashdod port -- as expected. There's no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, repeat Israeli spokespeople, who call the flotilla a provocation.
The organizers and activists are equally determined to sail for Gaza and are undeterred by the difficulties. And if Israel has eased up some on Gaza, well, if anything, this just proves flotillas work, says the Free Gaza movement . At a news conference in Athens on Monday, organizers said the 10 ships taking part in the voyage would gather at sea toward the weekend before heading to Gaza.
Meanwhile, until any encounter at sea, the skirmish is being waged on YouTube and all sides are uploading fast and furious -- some straightforward, others kind of clever.
And back to that media lesson learned. One of the main problems Israel had getting its message across last time (besides the message) was the long delay in releasing timely visual images and information from the scene while the operation was still ongoing, leaving the media stage to activists and semi-professionals and an anti-Israeli angle. For weeks, Israeli officials have been stressing the importance of the media battlefield and assuring outlets that professional and credible material will be much more timely.
That's good. Less good was the letter from Government Press Office director Oren Helman on Sunday, warning foreign press they could be deported and banned from working in Israel for 10 years if they participated in the flotilla. Besides infuriating both local and international media, the move seems to have embarassed Netanyahu, who ordered the directive be rethought.
-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem
Video, from top: An Israeli Defense Forces video explains the Gaza naval blockade from the official Israeli perspective; activist Yonatan Shapira, an Israeli combat pilot who has become an outspoken critic of his county's policies, discusses his reasons for joining the flotilla. Credit: YouTube