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.
Amnesty International officials claim they have evidence that Moammar Kadafi's guards killed detainees at two Tripoli military camps this week.
The London-based human rights group released a statement Friday relating what they had been told by men who escaped the camps, and demanding an end to the killings.
Here's what one of them said, according to Amnesty:
Hussein Lafi, 40, of Zawiya, claimed he was among those who escaped from the Khilit Ferjan camp in southwest Tripoli. He had been held there since June with his three brothers as punishment for supporting the opposition, he said.
He said guards shot at about 160 detainees as they attempted to flee the converted metal hangar, hurling grenades at them.
“I was standing by the door when I spotted two guards. They immediately opened fire, and I saw one of them holding a hand grenade. Seconds later, I heard an explosion, followed by four more," he said.
Libyan opposition supporters have apparently been bringing their families over to the luxurious Tripoli home of Moammar Kadafi's daughter, Aisha. Among other things, they come to take a dip in the pool.
The video could not be independently verified. However, note the:
-- Kadafi poster-turned doormat;
-- Apparent cannonball contest underway in the deep end;
Five Palestinians have been killed over the last two days by Israeli airstrikes, including attacks Wednesday against a sports club and a tunnel at the Gaza-Egypt border, security and medical sources said.
The airstrikes came as a fragile two-day cease-fire appeared to be breaking between Israel and Gaza militants.
Early Tuesday a top Islamic Jihad member and another man were killed in an Israeli airstrike. After the killing, the militant group took credit for several of the rocket and mortar attacks against Israel over the last week.
Gaza militants responded with a volley of rocket attacks against southern Israel, causing some injuries and damage.
Another Israeli airstrike hit a sports club in the town of Biet Lahiya , where two people killed and 15 others were injured.
A tunnel worker was killed in a separate strike and other workers are missing, security sources said.
Dr. Ghazi Hamad, the deputy minister of foreign affairs for Hamas, warned that Hamas -- which controls Gaza -- "cannot stand idle as Israel violates the truce."
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.
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.
Abbas Wednesday summoned his Palestine Liberation Organization’s Central Council, a 120-strong legislative body in exile, to ask its blessings for his plans.
He complained that he had tried every avenue possible to resume negotiations, stressing that negotiations was his first and foremost option for resolving the decades old Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But when everything failed, he was left with no other choice but to go to the U.N.
“We tried, at U.S. persistence, to relaunch negotiations on Sept. 2 [in Washington] but we were not successful. Then we went to Sharm el-Sheik [in Egypt] and to West Jerusalem, but again we did not succeed. The reason was always because [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] did not want to discuss anything other than security,” Abbas said.
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.
At the conclusion of a 16-month-long trial concerning the 2003 death of their daughter, the parents of American activist Rachel Corrie accused Israel's military of failing to turn over key surveillance video taken at the Gaza Strip field where Corrie was run over by an Israeli military bulldozer.
At a news conference Monday in Jerusalem, the Corrie family -- which is pursuing a civil lawsuit against Israel -- said the military has only provided the court with one black-and-white video, depicting events before and after Corrie was killed.
But the family says other video exists, including color images that were released by an Israel Defense Forces official and used in an Israeli television documentary. The family also obtained a third video.
"There's more video out there that needs to be turned over," said Sarah Corrie Simpson, Rachel's sister.
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