Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Israel Updates Soon

Upon returning to Washington DC there's been a number of items to take care of...such as starting another year of grad school, and writing an article about the Israeli tent protests which is soon to be published. Regular updates on the protests, Israeli-Egypt relations, and the UN Palestinian statehood bid will continue soon.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Tel Aviv Demands Social Justice

The protest camp on Rothschild boulevard runs nearly a mile long down the street. The park itself is actually a bike path with grass on both sides, and one can only imagine the ire of bikers who must contend with tourists and grad students snapping photos.

The signs on Rothschild are more diverse in their messaging than those in other camps, even Jerusalem's. The messages were also more partisan and slightly more obscure. Since the camp has so much publicity, organizations have sensed an opportunity for publicity and have set up shop at the camp. As an example, here is a flyer being held down with stickers from the socialist Hadash party.

This poster is about Scientology.

While references to the Arab Spring were few and far between elsewhere, this sign was prominent on Rothschild. It reads: "Rothschild, Tahrir corner."

Far from being a static display of signs, the camp is filled with people. There are those who have set up tents and are participating in the protest.

But the biggest difference from the other camps was the people walking through. Since Rothschild is a bike path in downtown Tel Aviv, the camp was pull of people out for their evening walk, parents teaching their kids about civic participation, and people with cameras snapping pictures. The feel of the camp was that of an exhibit like The Gates in Central Park. It spurred discussion among those who walked through, and it was not uncommon to see groups of people with no clear link to the protests sitting on the benches lining Rothschild engaged in thoughtful political discussion.

One of the most interesting moments in the camp was this one:

The woman pictured is an IDF corporal, judging from the two stripes on her upper arm. She was taking a picture of a drum circle being led by followers of Rav Nachman Me'uman. The moment was incredibly symbolic of the closeness between civilians and the military in Israel. While the woman pictured is in uniform, she carries a bright colorful backpack and has a sense of artistic curiosity about the protests. It strikes the viewer that even soldiers are taking an interest in the protests in their down time.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Jerusalem Demands Social Justice

Over the past few days, The Camel's Nose (TCN) visited three protest sites in Jerusalem. Many of the major cities in Israel have a central camp, and smaller satellite camps throughout the city. In Jerusalem, the headquarters of the movement is in Park HaSoosim.

Unlike many of the other protest sites, the protest in Park HaSoosim has glossy posters and flyers. In the center of the camp, an activist sits behind a table with papers and flyers on it, ready to answer questions and hand out material.

Down the street, there is a smaller protest camp.

This morning a number of protesters had gathered to hold a meeting. Unlike the protest camps in Beer Sheva and Haifa, this camp (as well as the one in Park HaSoosim) is inhabited by many youth. At least half of the activists were women, and there was one woman at the latter camp with two children.

Down the street, there is a camp in Gan Ha'Atzmaut, directly across the street from the American Consulate in Jerusalem.

The camp has a small kitchen and there were about 8 people there just before Shabbat began Friday afternoon. A head activist at the camp said that the camp had been cleared because of illicit behavior in the past few weeks. In response, he drafted a list of rules, which include no drugs, alcohol, or violence. The camp also has a daily schedule, hour by hour. Finally, it has a roster of slightly less than 20 people who live there 24/7.

The inhabitants of the camp at Gan HaAtzmaut and many other sites were slightly older than those at the other two sites. This reality differs, however, from some Beltway perceptions that this is a youth protest. While the youth have a strong voice in the protest and are vulnerable in the Israeli economy, they are not the only participants in the protests.

Friday, August 19, 2011

A Tense Weekend In Israel

The Jerusalem light rail system opened today after extensive delays. As the new trains roll up and down Yaffo street, they are absolutely packed with people, many of them young religious children. But the excitement about the system is tampered in the wake of yesterday's horrific attacks in Israel's south which killed eight Israelis.

Experiencing these attacks from within the country, one gets a sense of the domestic political considerations as well as the international ones most often the subject of discussion in Washington. The key point to keep in mind is that people here are not just "used" to terrorism. The attacks in Eilat yesterday were just as shocking as a complex attack in Fairfax, VA would be for residents of the nation's capital. As a result, people here feel afraid, and out of control. Their nightmares about the chaos in the region are, in the Israeli mind, becoming confirmed by an attack in which terrorists came from Gaza to Egypt and then into Israel.

The lack of control people feel here isn't something most Americans have felt in a very long time. That a rocket could come at any minute, that one's bus could suffer a shooting attack at any moment, is no way for people to live. Obviously, life in the Palestinian territories is far from a cake walk given the very difficult political and security situation there. But here in Israel, the Palestinian's problems are theoretical, while theirs are here and now. It is this immediacy which most strongly impacts the Israeli mentality.

As a result, Israelis become more likely to support harsh action in the Gaza Strip, even if those policies are not the most efficient options at Israel's disposal. Being able to pound targets and blow up terrorists is a way to regain some sense of control. Emotion is never the best guide for policymaking, but it is intrinsically a powerful influence. Being in the country now, it is very easy to understand why Israelis often support action which in the end contributes to an ongoing cycle of violence. The need to feel control, furthermore, has become exacerbated in a world in which Israelis feel they are targeted by all their neighbors in the region, and one in which they see the international community as complacent towards their well-being.

So what do these domestic political dynamics mean for US policymakers? There are three major guiding principles which can help shape a more effective approach towards advancing US interests with regards to Israel:

1) Avoid policies which frame Israeli leaders' choices as one of reassuring their people or reassuring the United States. Yesterday's comments from the White House Press Secretary are a perfect example of the successful execution of this principle. The US didn't give Israel a blank check, but did give it enough wiggle room to mount a response to those who perpetrated the attack.

2) Frame US policy preferences in terms which reassure Israelis and legitimize that they experience fear. Promote the idea that a tempered and intelligent response, and not falling into a terrorist group's mental trap, shows the strength of Israel and its people.

3) Understand that politics aside, everyone in this region is only human. For these citizens of the Middle East, the conflict isn't a heated discussion at a party or a conversation over catering from Corner Bakery. It's a situation which makes day to day life frustrating and difficult. The people in this region deserve better than that.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Haifa Demands Justice, Eilat Suffers Shock

Today TCN visited a protest camp in the Hadar neighboorhood of Haifa, in Israel's north. The camp is a bit smaller than the one in Beer Sheva.

Haifa is known for coexistence between Jews and Muslim Arabs, and the protest signs reflect this reality.

There were 5 or so protesters at the camp around 10:30 in the morning. While the camp in Beer Sheva had a clear student influence, the atmosphere in Haifa was a bit more serious. In both camps, it is not just youth who are participating. Noone at the camp in Haifa appeared under the age of 30.

One of the protesters at the camp mentioned the poverty in Hadar, noting that there were many religious and immigrant populations in the area, and that children were out on the streets at 2 or 3 in the morning. The poverty issue is particularly sensitive for the Hadar protest camp, one of three camps in Haifa.

Blogging plans have changed slightly in the wake of the attacks in Eilat earlier today. What were planned as protests have now become a vigil. TCN will still cover the protest camps, but not the Saturday night demonstrations which have been cancelled in the wake of the attacks.

The attacks, are a clear escalation of violence as of late, designed to make the evening news in Israel and around the world. In responding to the attacks, Israel will need to be careful to demonstrate strength without the overreaction for which those who perpetrated the attacks are hoping.

The United States has roundly condemned the attacks, saying it stands with Israel against terror. White House spokesman Jay Carney also said the administration hopes the perpetrators will be brought to justice quickly. This statement is a clear indication of the balancing act required by the US. On the one hand, the US needs to avoid giving Israel a blank check to maintain credibility with the Arab world. On the other hand, reassuring Israelis can come only by validating an Israeli right of response. The administration's statement achieves both these aims by allowing for a decisive response, but one which is focused only on those responsible for the attack.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Beer Sheva Demands Social Justice (With Pics)

The Camels Nose (TCN) visit to Beer Sheva came just days after a major protest in the city in which over 20,000 people participated. Beer Sheva is a city on the periphery both geographically and socially. The city's demographic is a combination of students, religious families, and immigrants from Russia, the former Soviet Bloc, and Ethiopia.

This was a major theme of the protesters' message in Beer Sheva. The large white sign below translates as "Bibi, there is a country outside of Tel Aviv!"

Most of the blue tents in the picture remain unoccupied throughout the day. Supporters generally come to the protests, outside Beer Sheva's Grinberg Center for Children on the city's main street, during the evening hours.

This morning TCN visited the camp to talk to some of the protesters.

There were about 10 people at the camp by 9:30am, ranging in age from their 20's to their 60's. There were only a few women, but the total number of people was too small to evaluate the gender balance of the protest movement itself. Despite being on the periphery, the protesters were passionate about what they were doing, and even expanding their efforts in unique ways. For example, this poster on the water cooler at the tent advertises "Biking for social justice."

The camp has a table with Nescafe and tea, and a kitchen as well. The refrigerator is powered by an extension cord going into the Grinberg Center.

The camp is across the street from Ben Gurion University of the Negev, one of Israel's seven major universities. The National Union of Israeli Students has become very involved with the protests and even has signs of its own which read "fighters for the home."

Some in the Bedouin community in and around Beer Sheva has also entered the protests. While the extent to which they've been accepted by the movement is unclear, the movement does seem to be promoting the idea of cooperation. The pink sign says "Social Justice for Everyone. The Bedouin are participating in the protest." The yellow sign, interestingly, says "Right to housing for all citizens. No to house demolitions." Demolition of Bedouin houses in unrecognized villages has been a key issue for the Bedouin community in the Negev desert.

Thus far, having spoken with a number of students, young professionals, and community members, common themes are arising. They are themes of which Washington DC analysts should take close note.

Theme 1: The protests did not just arise out of nowhere but grew from a "chain" of events over the past 20 years. That being said, they are unprecedented since at least the 1970's.

Theme 2: The Arab Spring is exciting, but the protests in Israel have almost nothing to do with them. Rather, they are closer to the protests in Greece and London. Two quick reactions to this point. 1) It's true, and 2) It's a good example of Israel trying to emulate Europe more than its Middle Eastern neighboors.

Theme 3: The government's reaction has been limited at best. Two representatives of the Trajtenberg Committee visited the camp. Protesters described it as "they listened..." indicating that the commission is not promoting a particular solution of its own at this point.

Finally, while there is in fact disagreement among the Israeli public as to the efficacy of the protests, many people TCN spoke with said they believe similar protests could happen in the United States, but that they hope it doesn't happen.

Whether or not this is valid, however, is the topic of a future blog post. Stay tuned...

For more pictures or information, please email

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Touchdown in Tel Aviv

Posting over the next week and a half will be a bit sporadic, as updates will be coming from various internet cafes and hostels around Israel. Readers can expect to see analysis of Israeli attitudes towards the US and the Obama administration, as well as analysis and interviews with participants in the housing protests.

Stay tuned, and Boker Tov!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Israel Values Democracy Over Stability

In an interesting development, both Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) and Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas) have spoken regarding the ongoing protests in Israel. Both have emphasized the idea that Israel remains a stable country despite the protests in which over 300,000 people participated last Saturday night. However, Yishai threatened to withdraw from the coalition if no solution is found, whereas Foreign Minister Lieberman has sided squarely with the government and attacked the media for being "one-sided" with regards to its coverage of the protests.

The comments indicate that the protests are having a real effect on coalition politics in Israel. While Lieberman and Yishai fall in different places with regards to the government's response, both have made statements which directly impact the stability of the current Israeli coalition. Yishai's comments deftly place Shas on the side of the protesters by exerting pressure on the coalition while simultaneously expressing confidence a solution will be found. Lieberman's comments indicate that, at least for the moment, he does not intend to dissolve the coalition over the protests.

However, both ministers miss a more fundamental point: Stability is not the issue. As a liberal democracy, Israel's institutions and political system are designed for protests. These protests are not the first, and surely not the last, protests over social issues in Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu, understanding the strength of Israel's institutions, has moved forward in setting up committees and offering policies to alleviate the source of grievances. Yet some in his coalition seem to have significantly less faith in the democratic process.

Democracy may be messy, but it is designed as such. That some in the Prime Minister's cabinet see protests and are concerned more with stability than the legitimate grievances of the Israeli people is indicative of where their priorities lie. That they should see a need for stability-related Hasbara in this case is ironic. The protests have done more to create international support for Israelis and Israeli democracy than any policy enacted by the current coalition.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has a tough month ahead. Between the UN Palestinian statehood vote and the protests, there is no shortage of issues which could collapse his coalition. However, the Prime Minister would be well-advised to listen to those who elected him rather than those who seem to lack faith in the very democratic government they represent.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Assad Crosses The Line

Syrian troops stormed two towns near the Turkish border today, expanding an offensive which has left scores dead and increasingly forced the hand of the international community.

The United States has been in a tough position regarding the Arab Spring. On the one hand, its stated commitment to human rights and freedom mandates intervention in the brutal repressive tactics which many states are using. On the other hand, intervention can easily become interference, generating negative sentiment and wasting money that the government doesn't have the freedom to spend. For this reason, US pressure on Syria has been primarily rhetorical.

However, President Assad's ongoing campaign of targeting his own citizens has shifted the cost-benefit analysis. It is one thing for the US to pick and choose its battles. It is another to blatantly ignore ongoing violent repression. For this reason, the US has now begun to ratchet up pressure.

Yesterday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited Syria to, in the words of Prime Minister Erdogan, send a "strong message" to Syria. The visit represents a confluence of interests between the US who needs to appear more active, and Turkey whose border stability is threatened by Syrian actions in Idlib province. Davutaglu's trip also comes on the heels of statements by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah this past Saturday that "there is no justification for the bloodshed" in Syria. The statements by both countries indicate the extent to which Syria is becoming a regional liability.

Given the increased regional pressure on Syria, at the behest or at least the tacit approval of the United States, the cost of US inaction is becoming increasingly higher. Reports are now surfacing that following a second UN Security Council resolution on Syria, the US may formally call for President Assad to step down. No doubt, this call will be a welcome development from a people who have faced the terror of being targeted by their own military. However, a more desperate Assad may also be a more dangerous Assad. The US must be clear about how it will handle the inevitable resistance the Syrian president will put up for calls to step down. It will need to walk the fine line between intervention and interference.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Give Israeli Youth A Voice In Government

Last night, about 300,000 protesters crowded Israel's streets. Protests in support of the demonstrators have arisen in New York City and Washington, D.C. as well.

Some can argue that the protests are the product of leftist agitation. Even if this is the case, it is no longer a relevant consideration. Protesters are a substantial constituency in both the center and periphery of Israel, and enjoy support from the Israeli public. They constitute a salient political entity with which the government must contend. What the protesters want more than anything, it seems, are alternatives to the status quo. Yet these alternatives cannot be created overnight, and governments must balance competing interests in designing them.

One of the key long-term considerations for these alternatives will be inclusion of the youth voice. Because Israel votes on a closed-list system and is only 63 years old, the status quo tends to remain the status quo. This system has allowed the grievances of protesters, many of whom are youth or at least not "old guard," to accumulate. Because of this, it would be unfair to blame Prime Minister Netanyahu alone for a generation-long failure to provide alternatives.

However, creating a change in the status quo requires creating a change in those legislating it. For too long, the concerns of the young generation have been underrepresented in Israeli politics. Taking steps to strengthen the youth voice would help to allay the current concerns of protesters, and prevent similar protests in the future. Inclusion of the youth would allow the government to preemptively identify and react to the political demands which are now putting the governing coalition in serious jeopardy. More importantly, a country whose politicians are constantly willing to reexamine the status quo are is a country who will be aggressive at providing for its citizens and serving its national interests. The people of Israel deserve nothing less.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Humanity Is The Story In Utoya

In the past week or so, articles have appeared regarding the political leanings of the summer camp in Utoya where Anders Breivik shot 68 civilians in a terrorist attack which has shattered Norway and the international community. The camp, run by the Labor Party in Norway, evidently held very liberal views with regards to Israel. It is a tidbit worth considering, but ultimately dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of the senseless human tragedy which occurred there.

Unless of course, you are the far right. Pamela Geller notes regarding the camp's political leanings that "Glenn Beck was not so far off when he compared it to the Hitlerjugend or Young Pioneers." since after all, "the day before the shooting, an pro-Palestinian rally was held."

Barry Rubin of the Jerusalem Post says the camp held a "pro-terrorist program," evidenced by the fact that it "was lobbying for breaking the blockade" and calling for an "immediate recognition of a Palestinian state." Rubin concludes the editorial asserting that "many Europeans will accept terrorism against Israelis or even Americans; very few will applaud terrorism against fellow Europeans."

Manfred Gerstenfeld of YNet concludes that the Norwegian Foreign Minister, "in calling for the dismantlement of the security barrier...was thus indirectly promoting terrorism against Israelis." Gerstenfield's editorial was later re-tweeted by the Government Press Office of the State of Israel.

To address these claims on the basis that they are reactionary, offensive, and without merit would be an exercise in futility. But more importantly, it would be disrespectful and beyond the boundaries of basic human decency.

The story in Norway is the senseless murder of innocent people. It is the children who swam for their lives as a gunman attacked them. It is the government workers who were trapped in bombed-out buildings. The mainstream media has not ignored the story about the camp's ideology because of bias. It has done so because this story is completely irrelevant in the face of such the cruel and senseless attack perpetrated against our fellow human beings.

There will be time aplenty to discuss the political implications of the attack. Breivik will likely stand trial, and the issue of terrorism is not likely to go out of vogue anytime in the near future. Thus, our duty for now must be to transcend our political leanings and show true compassion for the victims of the attack. This commitment to the value of respect for our fellow human being must transcend our commitment to petty ideological hackery.

Tolerance includes being tolerant of the intolerant. The far right need not change what it believes. But until the victims, their family and friends, and the country of Norway have had some time to grieve and some closure, giving it a rest is not a matter of politics. It is a matter of basic respect and decency.