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Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

Category: Benjamin Netanyahu

ISRAEL: Trying classic, digital and celebrity diplomacy

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.Americasvoices

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.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem.

Video: "Israel Wants Peace- Friend Request Pending." Credit: YouTube

Photo: Kellan Lutz, left, Miguel Ferrer, Carolina La O and Didier Hernendez visiting Jerusalem. Credit: Yissachar Ruas

ISRAEL: Approval of 900 new homes in East Jerusalem draws ire

Israel's Interior Ministry gave the final green light Thursday to the construction of more than 900 new homes in a Jewish development built on land seized during the 1967 Mideast war.

Palestinians and anti-settlement groups said the Har Homa expansion, which has been working its way through Israeli regulatory agencies since last year, will occupy one of the last remaining undeveloped hillsides in the area and effectively cut off direct access between Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Palestinians hope to one day include both areas in a contiguous, independent state.

"This is very alarming because it will create a very big obstacle to the two-state solution," said Hagit Ofran of Peace Now, an Israeli group that tracks settlements.

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ISRAEL: Protest tents launch Israel's summer of discontent

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.

Israel1 "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.

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ISRAEL: Natural gas deposits stir waters with Lebanon


Five years after what Israel calls the Second Lebanon War, the border seems quieter than ever -- although this could always change.

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.

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ISRAEL: Is the Arab Spring spreading to the Jewish state?

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.

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ISRAEL: Benjamin Netanyahu's first interview on Arab network


"Everything is on the table; we just need to get to the table," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Al Arabiya TV in an exclusive interview airing Thursday evening.

According to advance excerpts from the 30-minute interview, the Israeli leader answered questions on a wide range of issues, including the peace process and regional regime changes.

It was Netanyahu's first appearance on an Arab television outlet.

Why now?...

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ISRAEL: Freedom Flotilla 2 determined to reach Gaza; Israel determined to stop it [Video]

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.

Icy relations between Israel and Turkey, once-tight allies, are thawing out these days. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated Turkish Prime Minister Tayyep Erdogan on his reelection, then deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon reached out to Turkish journalists and vice prime minister Moshe Yaalon was dispatched abroad for discreet talks with Turkish counterparts.

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

WEST BANK: Palestinians call on U.N. to implement 1967 borders proposal

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas expressed disappointment with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint meeting of Congress on Tuesday and said the Israeli leader's comments had dealt a blow to efforts to resume peace talks.

An emergency meeting of the Palestinian Authority was held Wednesday in response to Netanyahu’s speech and recent speeches by President Obama on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in which the president endorsed the idea of using 1967 borders between Israel and the Palestinian territories, with mutually agreed land swaps, as a basis to revive peace talks.

Though Netanyahu rejected the idea, Palestinians on Wednesday called upon the U.N. Security Council to accept and implement Obama's proposal.

Abbas said at the meeting he hadn’t given up on revival of talks with Israel but would not hesitate to go to the U.N. in September -- Palestinians’ deadline for progress -- to ask the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly to recognize a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, in spite of strong U.S. opposition to that move.

Abbas added that going to the U.N. was not “intended to isolate Israel or to de-legitimize it.”

-- Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank

ISRAEL: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on YouTube


Like U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the hot seat on YouTube's World View, and questions from around the world.

In a special broadcast paired with Israel's Channel 2 news, Netanyahu answered questions from Israelis before switching to English to answer questions from 90 countries around the world, including many throughout the Middle East.

Israelis were concerned about a host of local issues, including recent allegations that he accepted private funding for public travel (which Netanyahu dismissed as a slander campaign), and the decline in stature and caliber of Israel's political leaders, once modest -- frugal, even -- and far flashier today.  Citizens asked about Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held captive in the Gaza Strip for five years, about Israel's response to recent rocket attacks on its south and how approving settlement construction after the murders in Itamar would help matters.

Israel's policies, the peace process and regional upheaval were on everyone's mind. Will you negotiate returning the Golan Heights to Syria? Whose side do you take in the recent eruptions throughout the Middle East? Is Israel a strategic asset or liability to the U.S.? And why is Avigdor Lieberman the foreign minister?

Check out the video ( or view it at this link) for more questions and Netanyahu's answers.


-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem.



ISRAEL: As turmoil in Libya is expected to raise gasoline prices, officials urge breaking the oil addiction

As troubled regimes continue to go down, oil prices are moving up everywhere. The violent turbulence in Libya is expected to raise gasoline prices in Israel within the coming days.

The regional upheavals and energy issues barged into an open door in Israel, as gasoline prices have been a matter of public concern in recent weeks. A taxation tweak resulted in a series of price hikes that brought the price of gasoline to new highs in recent weeks and sent Israelis into a rage, with Facebook campaigns as well as less advanced modes of protest, such as a horse-and-carriage in the streets of one city.

It also put politicians on guard. After warnings that this could ultimately bring down the government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a perk-package to the public to offset rising prices and stave off the threat of a general strike. Now it looks like gasoline prices will go back up and Israelis will have to blame another leader for it.

The recent unrest throughout the region has made energy the topic du jour. The pipeline supplying Israel with natural gas from Egypt was shut down after it was sabotaged. To compensate for Egyptian gas -- 40% of Israel's consumption -- the country has doubled pumping from its one operational natural gas field, approaching depletion. If Egypt doesn't renew the gas supply, Israel will have to switch to other sources for energy, which will raise the price of electricity.

Between Egypt's gas-out and the Libya effect on oil, Israelis may soon be feeling the pinch as the price of instability makes its way up the food chain to transportation prices, commodities, airfares and the tourism industry.

The government has already been giving energy diversity much thought, with a national plan to develop alternative sources to wean transportation from its dependence on oil. Unlike electricity, largely produced oil-free, transportation in Israel relies nearly exclusively on oil.

In addition, Israel has its sights on producing 10% of the country's energy from renewable sources by the end of the decade. Next stop is solar energy, a logical move for a country with more than 300 sunny days a year.

The Renewable Energy Conference held this week couldn't have been a more timely opportunity to tie it all together.

Every time we stop for gas and pull out our wallets, part of our money goes to terror organizations, said Minister of National Infrastructure Uzi Landau at the conference Wednesday. "The money goes to Al Qaeda, Hamas and Iran," said Landau, equating buying fuel with fueling the enemy. But if part of the Arab world is hooked on the money, others must kick the habit. Oil is a powerful weapon in the struggle for the democratic world's future, and the way to win this battle is to become energy-independent.

Other officials have made a similar connection between turmoil and oil in recent days. This week, Minister for Regional Development Silvan Shalom said the real battle being waged is over hegemony in the Middle East and who gets to be the "landlord." The world needs to unite to prevent Iran from turning the Middle East into a hostile region and "taking over the world's oil reserves for the next 150 years," he said on radio.


"We all want to see freedom and democracy flourish in the Arab world," said Netanyahu this week. "We do not want to see tyranny that will trample human rights, block democratic reforms and threaten peace. Nothing would make us happier than advancing democracy in our area; this is good for peace, prosperity and security," he said. Supporters of democracy everywhere needed to be strengthened, including in Iran, which -- the prime minister warned -- might exploit the earthquake shaking the entire region to destroy any chance of democratic reforms "and turn out the lights."


-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem.




ISRAEL: NGOs must disclose foreign governmental funding, new bill says

A new bill passed Monday in parliament obliges Israeli non-governmental organizations to report funds received from foreign governments. The NGOs will have to provide updated information on a quarterly basis, post the information on their websites and state such funding in any public campaign.

The logic behind the new law, which enjoyed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's support, is the need for transparency, according to lawmaker Zeev Elkin, coalition chairman and co-sponsor of the bill. Elkin told Israel Radio it is the right of a democratic country and its public to know when foreign governmental elements pour money into groups with the intention of influencing policy and internal politics. It is also the right of the other countries' citizens to know whether their own tax money is going too, he said. According to NGO Monitor, governmental bodies such as the European Union pour millions into various Israeli groups. The money doesn't always go where it should and groups often overstep their stated missions.

As an example, Elkin said nearly all the Israeli bodies that provided "the false materials" for the Goldstone report received money from foreign governments, which were then quick to adopt the report they in fact funded. The Goldstone report resulted from South African jurist Judge Richard Goldstone's UN fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict. His report, submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in September 2009, found strong evidence that Israel had committed war crimes in the Gaza strip. The report was fiercely rejected and bitterly denounced in Israel.

However, the Israeli Defense Force itself has recognized on occasion the contribution of rights organizations to investigating misconduct

The law doesn't oblige NGOs to expose their private foreign funding, allowing private donors to remain private. Most hospitals, universities and charities rely on generous support. This comes from well-known philanthropists but also from people who do not want the publicity -- perhaps in keeping with the Jewish principle of matan baseter, or giving discreetly. But many wealthy individuals make considerable donations to other organizations that also seek influence on Israeli policy, and these will not be revealed.

Elkin said the bill is not political and the law will apply equally to NGOs from the right and left in Israeli politics. But critics balk at he apolitical claim, noting that most NGOs receiving funding from foreign governmental sources are liberal and left-leaning, while many bodies enjoying funding from private donors overseas are conservative or right-wing.

Yariv Oppenheimer, secretary general of Peace Now, said this new transparency will only apply to left-wing organizations, some of which are supported by foreign governments, but not to right-wing organizations like the Yesha Council, the settlers' umbrella group. "The logic behind the new bill is simple, to de-legitimize the left-wing organizations and portray them as foreign agents. But no one will ever know who's pulling the strings of foundations receiving far bigger support from evangelical organizations in the U.S. or tycoons like Irwin Moskowitz," Oppenheimer said in a radio interview. This is an attempt to use the right-wing domination of the Knesset "to silence political public debate," Oppenheimer said.

The controversial law obviates an even more controversial proposal. A few weeks ago, lawmakers pushed for a parliamentary investigation committee to look into the funding of Israeli rights organizations. The proposal, in mid-approval, was tabled by legislators from Yisrael Beitenu, headed by Israel's hawkish foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, and drew sharp criticism from both inside Israel and out. The opposition decried the move as a witch hunt against left-wing organizations and warned of deepening McCarthyism, but government elements sounded alarm bells too. Senior Likud ministers such as Benny Begin denounced the move. "It's dark here," said Begin, a vanishing breed combining a political hawk with a liberal democrat. Lieberman dismissed him and other Likud seniors ministers such as Dan Meridor as "feinschmeckers", a term he borrowed from Yiddish and meaning (in this case) finicky, high-browed fusspots.

But as more feinschmeckers presented themselves, the vote on the parliamentary investigation was postponed until it was side-swiped by Monday's vote on a bill that had been long in the pipeline. Earlier this week, Netanyahu reportedly told Likud faction members the parliamentary investigation bill would cause Israel more harm than good. Political commentators note that Netanyahu's support of the new law also plays into an ongoing political power struggle between him and Lieberman, as the two are increasingly locking horns on different issues. Many of the more controversial legislative initiatives in parliament this year -- on sensitive issues such as conversion, citizenship and loyalty -- have come from Lieberman's party, causing Israel no small amount of embarrassment.

According to media reports, the attorney general may decided in coming days to indict Lieberman -- subject to a hearing -- in a corruption investigation that has been dragging on for years. To this, a columnist in Yisrael Hayom, a free daily Hebrew newspaper, recently noted that a decision by the attorney general in Lieberman's case would have a calming effect on the legislative hyperactivity.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

ISRAEL: Egypt gas pipeline explosion raises energy concerns

Israel's quest for cleaner energy sources just got muddied, with the explosion in a pipeline supplying natural gas from Egypt. The explosion occured at a measuring station in Arish and damaged the line supplying Jordan. The line supplying Israel was shut down at first as a precaution. This proved wise as it turned out that the fire overheated the pipe and compromised the entire supply line. It will take several days to cool and for the supply to resume.

The Merhav group, the Israeli partner in the EMG consortium that exports Egyptian gas to Israel, said Saturday it could take up to a week. According to news reports, Israel buys about $10 million worth of gas a week from Egypt in many long-term deals. Meanwhile, it's been reported that Egyptian businessman Hussein Salem, who owns 28% of EMG, has fled to Dubai- with $500 million.

Israel produces about 45% of its electricity from natural gas that comes from two main sources: 60% domestically from a reserve off Israel's southern shore, and from 40% from Egypt. Israel was hoping to get about 70% of its electricity from gas by the end of the decade, for environmental reasons as well as economic. Its southern field has reserves thought to be enough to last until the end of 2013 but could be depleted a year sooner if Egyptian supply isn't resumed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held consultations Saturday morning with the ministries of national infrastructures and defense.  Israel is prepared for such a situation, Netanyahu said, and has the immediate possibility to switch to alternative energy and gas sources. National infrastructures minister Uzi Landau said that in coming days, the electric company could use gas, coal and even diesel if necessary to run its power plants. In the long run, extra costs could make their way down to the citizens, warn observers.

The Knesset's economics committee, the parliamentary body that oversees the issue, is scheduled to address related concerns Sunday. Committee chair Carmel Shama Hacohen told media Israel must take these scenarios into consideration, as well as possible terrorist threats to gas fields, exploration and energy facilities too. Security measures have been stepped up around all relevant facilities, now more clearly than ever a matter of strategic importance.

 Israel has large gas sources of its own — potentially, at least.

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