Balak, Balaam and the Israelites– Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

Moab is the mountainous tract of land on the east side of the Dead Sea currently in Jordan. In the Torah, Moab was the product of incest of Lot with his oldest daughter. (Ammon was the product of incest of Lot with his youngest daughter.) (Genesis 19:37-38) King Sihon, the ruler of the warlike Amorites, drove the Moabites south of the river Arnon. It is there that God renewed his covenant with the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land and it is there that Moses died.

Before the Israelites took on the Canaanites, they made sure their rearguard was protected and, without entering Moab, “they traveled through the wilderness, skirted the land of Edom and Moab, passed along the eastern side of the country of Moab, and camped on the other side of the Arnon.” (Judges 11:18) The Israelites conquered Sihon’s Amorite kingdom.

It is no wonder that the Moabite king was wary of the Israelites even though they were distant cousins and spoke a variation of the same Semitic language. Further, not many years earlier, the Egyptians conquered Moab (the huge statue at Luxor erected by Rameses II lists Moab as a conquest in the 13th century BC). It is possible that the Moabites regarded the Israelites as an advance guard for the Egyptians. “Behold, there is a people come out from Egypt; behold, they cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against me.” (Numbers 22:5) However, the Israelite God had forbidden an Israelite conquest of Moab. The Israelites merely wanted safe passage across the Moabite territory.  

Balak was the king of the Moabites. He feared for his own kingdom given that the Israelites had defeated a much more powerful enemy. In fear and dread, he called together the elders of Midian. Needing divine help, Balak summoned the prophet Balaam telling him that the Israelites were arrayed against him. He asked Balaam to curse the Israelites who were too mighty for Balak, for whomever Balaam blessed is blessed and whomever Balaam cursed is cursed.

Balaam asked God’s counsel. “God said unto Balaam: ‘Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people; for they are blessed.’” (Numbers 22:12) When Balaam refused Balak’s request, the latter sent his envoys a second time promising Balaam great honours. This time, without even consulting God, Balaam outright rejected the entreaties of the plenipotentiaries of Balak. The latter upped his game and for a third time sent a request carried by the most honourable members of his kingdom promising great rewards and requesting that he curse the Israelites. Once again, and without consulting God, Balaam not only rejected the request but clearly stated that he could not and would not accede to the request for ALL the gold and silver in the kingdom. However, he did agree to seek instructions from God and invited his guests to stay overnight. Thus, he revealed his weakness. He had already been given clear instructions by God.

“And God came unto Balaam at night, and said unto him: ‘If the men are come to call thee, rise up, go with them; but only the word which I speak unto thee, that shalt thou do.’” (Numbers 22:20) Balaam did as he was told and mounted his ass in the morning to travel to see Balak. The three incidents with the ass followed. Except, something came in between. God had initially given his conditional permission. But then, “God’s anger was kindled because he went; and the angel of the LORD placed himself in the way for an adversary against him…”(22:22) If God permitted Balaam to go in the first place, why did He get angry when He did. Why did His angel get in the way of the ass?

23 And the ass saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field; and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way.

24 Then the angel of the LORD stood in a hollow way between the vineyards, a fence being on this side, and a fence on that side.

25 And the ass saw the angel of the LORD, and she thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall; and he smote her again.

26 And the angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left.

27 And the ass saw the angel of the LORD, and she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with his staff.

Three times the ass refused to go forward, first going sideways into the field, then crushing Balaam’s leg against a wall when the ass tried to squeeze forward and a third time the ass simply squatted on his haunches. Each time Balaam beat his ass, but to no avail.

30. And the ass said unto Balaam: ‘Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden all thy life long unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto?’ And he [Balaam] said: ‘Nay.’

The ass said that she did not deserve a beating. Balaam contended that she did because he had been humiliated, so much so that if he had had a sword, he would not just have beaten the ass; he would have killed her.

31. Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and he bowed his head, and fell on his face.

32. And the angel of the LORD said unto him: ‘Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? Behold, I am come forth for an adversary, because thy way is contrary unto me;

33. and the ass saw me, and turned aside before me these three times; unless she had turned aside from me, surely now I had even slain thee, and saved her alive.’

The ass had turned away from the angel with the sword and saved Balaam’s life.

34. And Balaam said unto the angel of the LORD: ‘I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me; now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back.’

35. And the angel of the LORD said unto Balaam, ‘Go with the men: but only the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak.’ So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.

Balak now felt humbled rather than humiliated. If you want me to, he said to God, I will return and abandon my mission. N0, God, said, go forth and repeat only the words I tell you to say.

Why did the ass see the angel but Balaam did not? How could an ass speak and Balaam not be taken aback? And why three incidents in which the opportunities for the ass to move grew narrower and then impossible to traverse? Why did Balaam finally see the angel after he struck the ass three times? What is the meaning of the ass’s reprimand of Balaam? Why, when God instructed Balaam to only say what God told him, did the instruction have to be repeated at least three times?

Assuming that critical theory is correct and that the story of Balaam and his ass is an insertion into an older story, the questions still remain. It is not as if the contradiction between the two tales did not stand out.

One explanation is that the second story of Balaam and his ass was needed to cut Balaam down to size, to expose him, not as a trusted prophet of God who happened not to be a Hebrew, but an individual not able to see an angel that his ass could see. Balaam, the famous foreign prophet, was totally incapable of understanding God’s intent, only his words. Hence, he was cruel to that ass and needed the message to be reinforced a second time.

But why? One further explanation: the two stories belong to two different periods of the history of Israel, as attested by the linguistic differences, the first to a confident, imperial, universalist and humanist period of David and Solomon and the second to a xenophobic inward gazing Israel of the Second Temple Period.

I suggest that there is more to the juxtaposition of the two tales. The first is a tale in the old manner of a prophet who hears and is instructed by God and is willing, even in the face of a royal command, to do God’s bidding. The second is a satire of the first tale, akin to the Jonah story, in which Balaam, the interpreter of dreams who can hear oracles and prophesy, cannot even see what an ass can see. He who would disobey his king cannot now even get his ass to obey him. How would or could he ever have the strength of character to curse a nation that had just defeated the most powerful king in the region or, in turn, be worthy of blessing that nation?

There was a dynamic change; Balaam learned that he was ignorant, that he was human-all-too-human and could finally understand why he had to obey God’s orders. This issue is not simply the different cultures that may have been the source of the two stories or the contradictory intentions of the two stories when they are parsed apart, but the meaning when the two are conjoined. Balaam learns his lesson from his own ass which he was ready to kill.

Three times Balaam is asked to go on a mission for the king. Three times Balaam urges his ass to go forth and beats the ass when she does not. Now, three times will Balaam be asked by the king to curse the Israelites as the two stood together on the height overlooking the Israelite encampment. Three times did Balaam offer a sacrifice, even though Balaam clearly told the king that he could only speak the words God put into his mouth. Three times in three different locations Balaam blessed them instead.

“How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed? And how shall I execrate, whom the Lord hath not execrated.” (23:8) The second time, “Behold, I am bidden to bless; and when he hath blessed, I cannot call it back.” (23:20) But the third time, the spirit of God came upon him, Balaam’s eyes were opened and instead of being a ventriloquist’s puppet, he said, “How goodly are they tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel.” (24:5) “God who brought him forth out of Egypt is for him like the lofty horns of the wild-ox; he shall eat up the nations that are his adversaries, and shall break their bones in pieces, and pierce them through with his arrows.” (23:8) Further, Balaam reversed the target and said that anyone who cursed the Israelites would themselves be cursed. Even when that enemy was his own king.

Balaam thus was transformed from a reputed prophet, but one who could not see God’s messenger nor refrain from beating his ass out of frustration, and became a true prophet who cursed the enemies of Israel. Further, he could now truly prophecy.

“I watch him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh; there shall step forth a star out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite through the corners of Moab, and break down all the sons of Seth.” (24:17)

But there was a cost to the Israelites as well. They intermarried with the Moabite women and began to worship Baal as well. Thus, what turned around and cursed Balak when he wanted the other cursed, now turned around and cursed the Israelites who had been blessed by an Other.

The Israelites had still not learned to take responsibility for themselves even though they had travelled in the wilderness for forty years – even as a foreigner had moved from celebrity but not divinely inspired prophet to one humiliated and proven an ass by his own donkey and then into a redeemed prophet who was inspired by the spirit of the Lord and could engage in true prophesy.

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Resurrection of Racism and the Erection of a Wall Part I: Donald Trump’s Racist Tweet

I have tried to put Donald Trump back in the closet where he belongs by focusing on other issues, mostly historical and theoretical. The main topic had to do with various views of Jews beginning in the sixteenth century. Why, then, should I think of Trump when, just moments ago, looking over the Georgia Strait from the front deck, I was watching a very young deer traipse over the rocks and plunge into the cove for a swim. Donald Trump won’t stay in the closet. If even someone as inconsequential to his role as myself dares to ignore him, he seems to up his game. But nothing he has said thus far, including such obscene beliefs as grabbing women by their pussies, has outraged me more than his recent tweet on four Democratic congresswomen.

By now, I am sure that everyone in the world is aware of what he said, but I reprint his tweet here as a reference.

On Sunday morning, Trump tweeted,

“So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run.”

Unlike Lindsay Graham, Trump did not call them communists. Further, as even a few Republicans embarrassingly noted, the first proposition is an outright lie. However, even the vociferous Trump critic, former Ohio Republican governor John Kasich, simply called the comments “deplorable and beneath the dignity of the office” but did not brand them as lies and racist.

Three of the four women, of course, were born in the U.S.A.: Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) was born in New York – her parents are from Puerto Rico, part of the United States; Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) was born in Detroit of Palestinian-American parents; Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), an African-American, was born in Cincinnati. Ilhan Omar (Minn.) is the only one who was born abroad, in Somalia. She came to the United States as a young child and was made a citizen as a teenager. The parents of two of the four were born in America. All four are members of the Democratic Socialists of America and together are referred to as “The Squad”.

Once upon a time in America there was a widespread belief that it did not matter where you or your parents came from. If you were a citizen, you were entitled to all rights as a citizen. You were entitled to criticize the government, to put forth different ideas and to engage in debate about the future of the country. Once upon a time in America, and continuing into the present, it does matter if you are black or Latino. Despite progress, discrimination based on race remains widespread. Only racists say, “Go back to where you came from.” “Making America Great Again” means getting rid of browns and blacks, or, at the very least, denying their rights and returning the United States to its deeply racist past.

Trump does not, however, seem to be offended by Asians. After all, as Marc Short, Vice-President Mike Pence’s Chief of Staff, said on “Mornings with Maria” on Fox News in response to a question about Trump’s offensive tweet, “Trump can’t have “racist motives” because he appointed Elaine Chao as Secretary of Transportation.” Chao is a naturalized American from Taiwan who arrived in the United States at 8 years of age. The fact that she served as Secretary of Labor in Bush’s cabinet, the fact that she has had a distinguished career in government – she previously served as Deputy Secretary of Transportation under Ronald Reagan – as well as the private sector, the fact that she is married to Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, since 1993, may have nothing to do with her appointment. What counts for Marc Short is that she is a non-white in a cabinet consisting mainly of white old men.

Responding to the storm Trump had produced by his remarks, at least among Democrats and Independents, on Monday Trump did what he usually does, project his worst failings on others. On Monday morning, he tweeted, “When will the Radical Left Congresswomen apologize to our Country, the people of Israel and even to the Office of the President, for the foul language they have used, and the terrible things they have said. If Democrats want to unite around the foul language & racist hatred spewed from the mouths and actions of these very unpopular & unrepresentative Congresswomen, it will be interesting to see how it plays out.” He spews racism and accuses those whose criticisms he would stifle as racists.

Further, Trump justified his racism by his support for Israel and to deflect critics. Not only has he achieved a new level of explicit racism, but he also raised the politicization of Israel to a dangerous height. By using support for Israel as an excuse for racist comments and to deflect criticism from his vile tweets, he set a new marker for the politicization of Israel in American politics. Israel was turned into a code word for evoking criticism of the other from his supporters. As disagreeable as I found the comments of a member of “The Squad” on Israel – for example, Tlaib supports BDS and unfairly criticized Senators Marco Rubio and Jim Risch for their anti-BDS legislation telling Rubio and Risch that they “forgot what country they represent” – the comments were not antisemitic. However ill-informed, they were well within the bounds of civil discourse and disagreement. Trump’s comments were not.

Trump portrayed the Congresswomen as “unpopular and unrepresentative.” The truth is that all four are very popular and very representative of their districts. They are unpopular and unrepresentative of the Republican Party. These were the results for each of the Congresswomen in the midterm elections:

Congresswoman % of vote Firsts re Congress
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez         78.2 youngest woman ever elected
Ilhan Omar 78%  first Muslim, along with Tlaib
Ayanna Pressley 98.3% first black elected in Mass.
Rashida Tlaib 84% first Palestinian-American

In the Democratic primaries, both Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley defeated long-serving progressive male Democratic members of Congress, Joseph Crowley and Michael Capuano respectively.

Pressley called Donald Trump “a racist, misogynistic, truly empathy-bankrupt man.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: “It is unfortunate that he feels the way he feels about people of colour in this country, about immigrants in this country, naturalised citizens or not, and it’s time to move on from him and his conception of an America that we have tried to move past for a long time.” Rashida Tlaib’s uncle, Bassam Tlaib, who lives in the West Bank, called the president’s comments “a racist statement meant to target Rashida because she has Palestinian roots.”

Ilhan Omar explained Trump’s bigoted rhetoric as an effort at distraction from much larger issues, like “the constant human rights violations and the policies that are detrimental to our existence in this country and the harm that he is causing on a daily basis to our constitution.” Others suggest that the monsoon of tweets on the subject was designed to shift eyeballs away from the Jeffrey Epstein investigation and prosecution. Katie Johnson accused Donald Trump and Jeffrey Epstein of having solicited sex acts in 1994 from her at sex parties held at the Manhattan homes of Epstein and Trump back when Johnson was just 13 years old. There are rumours that in the raids on the Jeffrey Epstein estates, the photographs and videos obtained implicate Trump in child sex activity. Tiffany Doe evidently corroborated Jane’s allegations. She has allegedly given sworn testimony that she met Epstein at Port Authority; she was hired to recruit other young girls for his parties. Trump, who in 1994 had known Epstein for seven years, attended those parties. Trump knew that Doe was only thirteen. 

Others assert that the US president believes that divisive and nativist rhetoric is his best chance of clinging on to the White House. Ben Rhodes, a former national security adviser to Barack Obama, tweeted, “Trump launched his political brand 8 years ago saying the first African American President was born in Africa. It has always been about racism, and the fact that this has ever been a controversial thing to say is part of the problem.” Trump launched his presidential ambitions on the birther allegations by questioning Obama’s birthplace.  

Eugene Scott of The Washington Post opined yesterday morning that, “his campaign will feature the same explosive mix of white grievance and anti-immigrant nativism that helped elect him. Trump’s combustible formula of white identity politics already has reshaped the Republican Party, sidelining, silencing or converting nearly anyone who dares to challenge the racial insensitivity of his utterances. It also has pushed Democratic presidential candidates sharply to the left on issues such as immigration and civil rights, as they respond to the liberal backlash against him… At the core of the strategy is Trump’s consistent drumbeat of equating the white European immigrant experience with the American ideal, setting those on his side of the divide against the politically correct elites, outsiders, immigrants or non-whites who he implies are unfairly threatening what is good about the country.”

David Brooks of The New York Times gave the latter theme priority of place. The target was not consolidation in the Republican Party – already achieved – but defining the Democratic Party as radical. “Trump has a vested interest in keeping the progressives atop the Democratic Party, and he powerfully influences that party. When Pelosi tried to marginalize the squad, Trump issued a racist tweet against the squad’s members. Democrats responded predictably, and the squad was back as the party’s defining element.”

Whatever the explanation for the vile and reprehensible torrent of tweets, at the core, telling a fellow American to go back to her own country is overt, conscious and deliberate racism and not simply subtle and unconscious conditioned behaviour. It does appeal to his racist base – mainly white, male, ageing, and generally lacking any post-secondary education. Trump is simply an educated and rich racist.

The House of Representatives Tuesday evening properly condemned Trump for his racist tweets. By a 240-187 vote, split largely along party lines, the House “strongly condemns President Donald Trump’s racist comments that have legitimized and increased fear and hatred of new Americans and people of color.” The outrage and the vote evidently had NO impact of Trump’s overall approval rating according to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll.

To Be Continued – Part II: Trump’s Historical Record on Racism

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Yoke of Sacrifice: Parashah Chukkat Numbers 19:1 – 22:1

Why did the Israelites have to spend 40 years in the wilderness? I was brought up to believe that the reason was that they still were drenched in the slave mentality that they had when they were in Egypt. It took two generations to wash out the residue of a sense of submission and dependency and thus enable them to take on the tribes of the Promised Land and defeat them.

This macho explanation seems on the surface to make psychological and sociological sense. Further, such an interpretation is consistent in many ways with this week’s parashah. After all, God instructs Moses and Aaron to obtain a red unblemished cow “upon which no yoke was laid.” Those who must offer their bodies and blood in the war that is inevitably coming must not have experienced the yoke of slavery. Instead of a golden calf to be worshipped by the mentally enslaved, this rare and perfect specimen must be burned and sacrificed and its ashes kept as “a keepsake for the congregation of the children of Israel for sprinkling water used for cleansing.”

Why do the Israelites have to cleanse themselves this way? Why does contact with a corpse make them unclean, whether it be the corpse of someone who died a natural death, died of a disease or whether the individual was slain in battle? “If a person becomes unclean and does not cleanse himself, that soul shall be cut off from the congregation, for he has defiled the Sanctuary of the Lord; the sprinkling waters were not sprinkled upon him. He is unclean.” (Numbers 19:20) So instead of the golden calf being an idol of worship, the ashes of a red heifer “shall be for the Israelites a perpetual statue.” 

Why have ashes of a pure red heifer that has never been yoked to a plough serve as a statue rather than a golden calf? Precisely to get men to face their humility rather than their pride. For from ashes dost thou come and to ashes wilt thou return.

This is the backdrop of the portion which continues in chapter 20 on a seemingly very different subject – the complaints of the Israelites to their leader Moses about the scarcity of water. We read the same refrain – why did you bring us here into this wilderness without water so that we and our cattle may die? The wilderness is an evil place without seeds, fig trees grapevines or pomegranate trees. Then we read of the famous scene where Moses takes his staff, hits a rock and from it water gushes forth. And the equally famous rejoinder of God to Moses, “Since you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them.” (20:12) Moses will not be allowed to lead his people into the Promised Land. What was Moses error? He asked the congregation, not whether God would let water flow from the rock but whether we (Moses and Aaron) can draw water from the rock.

One additional issue became clear; the Israelites were not a strong enough and disciplined military force to take on the Edomites who refused to allow Israel to cross through their territory. The evidence piles up that time was needed in the wilderness to turn them from slaves into a fighting force.

Further, Aaron too will die in the desert because he did not acknowledge God as providing the water. Moses stripped Aaron of his priestly garments and gave them to his son, Eleazar; Aaron died on Mount Hor. Then the Canaanite king of Arad warred on the Israelites and took a captive. However, the Israelites prayed to their God and He destroyed the Canaanite cities and consecrated them for the Israelites.

As the Israelites march on and complain bitterly of their situation, God this time sent a plague of snakes, serpents to bite them and they died. But Moses made a rod with a snake wound around it that bore a striking resemblance to the rod of Asclepius which is used to cure a bitten Israelite from a bite.

Their wandering continued – from Oboth to the wasteland that faced the Moabites, to the stream of Zered and on the other side of the Arnon. Again, the Israelites sent a message to Sihon, king of the Amorites, asking for permission to pass through their lands. Again, they were turned down. But Sihon went a step further and attacked the Israelites. This time, the Israelites turned on the Amonites and slew them and captured their cities.

Does this not seem proof enough that the tour of duty in the wilderness was intended to turn the Israelites into a formidable fighting force? The Israelites went on from victory to victory.

The dilemma with this interpretation is that it leaves too many puzzles unexplained. First, why is the scene where Moses strikes the rock with his staff to bring forth water followed by the explanation that the Israelites were too weak as a military force to engage in a conflict with the Edomites who would not let the Israelites cross their territory? However, this was their 40th year of their sojourn in the wilderness. If not then, when? Further, immediately after they go on the war path, they beat one tribe after another.

There is an explanation. This story did not take place in the 40th year but in the first year when they began their sojourn in the desert. The story of Moses striking the stone with his staff to bring forth water was told before – in Exodus (17:1-7). Then, the people complained to Moses over escaping slavery only to bring them to a desert where they would die of thirst. If this were the fortieth year of their wandering, why would they still be complaining about being misled in their escape from slavery? The wilderness of Zin would appear to be the wilderness of Sin referred to in Exodus. Further, the place where the water gushed forth was named “Waters of Quarrel” (Mei Meribah) [or “Testing of Quarrel” in Exodus] symbolizing the Israelites quarrel with Moses.

Why tell the story again here? It is to make a different point. The issue is not simply that Moses and Aaron this time were punished for taking the credit for bringing forth the water. Moses and Aaron broke faith with God. (Deuteronomy 32:51) They took credit. They stood on their own feet instead of simply following orders. And they paid the ultimate sacrifice for their disobedience, but a sacrifice necessary if the Israelite army was to act independently, creatively and as a unified force. For the Israelites were now powered by a self-confidence and morale based on a unified polity.  

The story is about giving birth to a new kind of Israeli as symbolized by the breaking of a membrane and waters gushing forth as when a woman is ready to give birth. Miriam died at the beginning of the story with no comment on the significance of her life and death. Moses and Aaron were left to die in the wilderness without entering the Promised Land. This in itself suggests that the Israelites were about to embark on a new cultural order, not dependent as before on absolute rulers. The old order dies and gives way to the new. Did it mean that they were no longer dependent of an absolute patriarchal order?

Rashi explained the repetition of the event (and not just the story) as arising because Miriam had died and it was because of Miriam, the one who saved her brother by floating him on the water, that the Israelites had water. When she died, once again water became scarse. I do believe Miriam has a key role in interpreting the portion, but not as an explanation why water became scarce. She did die in the wilderness of Zin where the miracle of the water gushing from the rock took place.  

The overwhelming evidence suggests that this was the same story about the same event, but one given a very different twist when the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land. And it will be about a feminine principle and not about the need to socialize men to be macho rather than slavish. Further, they battle unlike any army I have read about. They politely ask for permission to pass through a territory and guarantee that they will not steal a single animal. They engage in war only when passage is denied. They not only surrender the greatest strategic benefit of all – surprise – but they clearly signal that they do not want war. Not very macho!

Further, this portion continues the pattern of the Torah of giving very short shift to the death of heroines and almost no attention to their burial in contrast to how the tales of the great men’s deaths and burials are recorded and, as well, in contrast to post-biblical accounts of women’s deaths, such as those told by Philo and Josephus.

Finally, it is questionable whether the Israelites had a slavish personality in the first place. In fact, I would claim that a major theme running from Exodus to Numbers about the Israelites’ forty years in the wilderness is about their grumbling and complaining, about their dissent and willingness to say it as it is rather than buckle under and simply obey the commands of their authoritarian leaders and God. The story of the snakes offers another example.

“YHWH sent saraph serpents against the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites died.” (Numbers 21:6) The people surrender and express once again their regret. In criticizing Moses and God, they were out of line. Once again Moses is asked by his people to intercede with God. Once again, God relents. He tells Moses to make a sculpture of a serpent coiled around a rod. It can be used to heal people who are bitten. It is the same icon that the Israelites will have come to worship in the time of King Hezekiah (Kings 18:4) but one that Hezekiah would destroy. (But that is another story. How did a symbol of health and healing become an object of idol worship to which sacrifices were offered?)

In Egypt, serpents were symbols of life and healing, of monarchial rule and protection. In ancient Greece, Asclepius, the son of Apollo, was rescued by his father from the womb of his mother Coronis before she died. Asclepius was identified by the staff he held with the serpent wound around it that became the symbol of medicine. The story told in this week’s portion links the Garden of Eden story where the serpent of poisonous tongue is reduced to a slithering figure on the ground. Contrast this with the resurrection of the snake to a position among the gods and rulers to serve the most humanitarian of purposes, bringing life back to a person on the verge of death.

I suggest that this tale of fertility, of healing, of the resurrection of the snake from being regarded as a sinful danger, of sexual temptation, offers a critical element in interpreting the portion. Moses is transformed before he dies from a ruler who governs by division and divination to one who serves as a healer bringing the people he led together. This is what made the Israelite army powerful. It was unified and not divided by factions. It was not a murderous band, however much destruction it brought, but its goal was civility and peace. In sum, it was not a macho army.

Like Asclepius, Moses was a baby rescued from death. The Israelites were on the verge of entering the Promised Land. However, they were suffering from a serious problem of morale. The root of the problem – dissent was not tolerated. The leadership did not recognize others with a different voice and perspective as worthy of respect, as worthy of a hearing. How better to heal this deficiency than by telling the same story from a different perspective, but this time where the ultimate dissent and sacrifice was paid by the two highest leaders.

Eve recognized sex. Eve was not just a material projection of Adam’s body but an independent being. Adam had to learn that he was embodied, that he was not simply an instrument to continue God’s role in creation by naming and classifying things. Adam needed a heart. It is at the end of the wilderness tale that the Israelites finally come to recognize they have a heart, that their survival depends much more on their feelings towards one another than any military prowess. Further, it was Eve through procreation that ensured the continuity of human life. Yet that role in procreation was seen as punishment for she brought forth new life in pain.

Like Asclepius, Moses too would learn the art of healing, of bringing together by recognizing and listening to the other just as Asclepius acquired his medical knowledge and wisdom by observing the snake. Moses would give the Israelites his final lesson – the importance of willing sacrifice if a powerful and creative polity was to develop.

Attending to the inclusion of Marion as the foundation of the parashah, attending to the symbolic meaning of the twist of bringing water from a rock by striking it with one’s staff, allows the punishment of both Aaron and Moses for not recognizing God as the exclusive source of everything, to make real sense. Moses and Aaron effectively rebelled. They had to be punished. However, their sacrifice made all the difference in transforming the Israelites.

Hence the importance of the red unblemished cow “upon which no yoke was laid.” Its ashes must be kept as “a keepsake for the congregation of the children of Israel for sprinkling water used for cleansing,” as a perpetual statue. Dirty water as a perpetual statue!!! Further, how can dirty water be used to purify another? And why is that other made impure by contact with death and with dirty water?

Aaron and Moses lose their purity by getting their hands dirty. They take responsibility onto themselves and suffer the consequences. Just as the clothes in a washing machine are cleaned by making pure water dirty, so do Moses and Aaron become dirty in order to cleanse the Israelis and turn them into a unified polity. They remove dissension by becoming the dissidents themselves. Thus, they teach the Israelites what it really means to both recognize another as other yet deeply and truly invest in and sacrifice for that other.

This is what the process of expiation, cleansing and purification is about. That is how sins are really washed away. It is we who must sacrifice for the mess God left, for it is God, who is disembodied, who had not yet learned what it meant to be embodied and to love another, and how that reciprocal love was so very critical to creating an effective polity. Moses and Aaron serve as the scapegoats to pass along this lesson. After all, the red heifer is a female. No more blaming others. Recognize others and take responsibility for what you do. Water is the means to wash away our mindblindness even if it means that the water of purification becomes dirty in the process.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part II: Annexation versus Expanding Sovereignty in the West Bank

Is the extension of sovereignty identical with annexation? Further, since settlers as Israeli citizens are subject to Israeli law and most of the territory is already under Israeli administrative and security control, what difference would the initiative make? What effect will the initiative have on the American Peace Plan? A number of other questions follow. What are the variations in any extension of the sovereignty initiative? How would the initiative be received by:

  1. Palestinians;
  2. Egypt and Jordan which have peace agreements with Israel;
  3. Other Arab, particularly Gulf, states;
  4. The coalition of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah in opposition to the Gulf Arab states, with some support from Turkey;
  5. Moderate Arab states such as Morocco;
  6. Europe;
  7. Russia;
  8. China;
  9. Middle powers like Canada;
  10.  The international legal regime?

There is a difference between annexation and the gradual extension of sovereignty. Most importantly, annexation cannot be gradual. It usually follows occupation and entails the unilateral joining of a conquered territory to the territory of the conqueror. “Conquest and annexation are not synonymous either. The latter term is used within and outside (my italics) the context of armed conflicts, to designate a unilateral decision adopted by a state in order to extend its sovereignty over a given territory. In many cases, the effective occupation of a terra nullius was followed by a declaration of annexation in order to incorporate the territory under the sovereignty of the acquiring State. In the context of armed conflicts, annexation is the case in which the victorious state unilaterally declares that it is henceforth sovereign over the territory having passed under its control as a result of hostilities.” (See Marcelo G. Kohen’s 2017 essay, “Conquest” published in the collection edited by Frauke Lachenmann and Rűdiger Wolfrum, the editors of The Law of Armed Conflict and the Use of Force.)

Complete sovereignty follows annexation. Annexation asserts legal title. But extending sovereignty does not entail annexation. Sovereignty may be extended by degrees and over time. In contrast, either a territory is annexed or it is not. The unilateral annexation of territory of another state, whether it was Bosnia Herzegovina in 1908 by the Austro-Hungarian Empire or Ethiopia by Italy in 1936, is generally regarded as illegal. But what if the territory has not been allocated to a recognized state? And what if the territory annexed was not conquered as such but acquired in a defensive war?

Under Israeli constitutional law, Israeli law, and, therefore, sovereignty, can be extended to new territories via:

  1. Ministerial decree if the land is located within mandatory Palestine/Eretz Israel – the Israeli cabinet decided to annex East Jerusalem in 1967, a decision ratified in 1980 in “Basic Law: Jerusalem the Capital of Israel;”
  2. Legislation if the land never was part of Mandatory Palestine, as was the case with the Golan Heights in 1981, which, unlike Bibi’s April election pledge, applied to the whole geographic area of the Golan, including all the Druze villages, as distinct from the extension of sovereignty over the West Bank that presumably would apply only to specific Jewish municipalities.

On the other hand, the extension of sovereignty can be gradual. When one country conquers another, the conquering nation exercises sovereignty over the conquered territory. No annexation need occur. The degree of sovereignty extended is variable. Extending Israeli law to cover Israeli citizens living in the West Bank is an extension of Israeli sovereignty. That is already the case with residents of “legal” settlements and certainly all settlements in Area C. Extending Israeli domestic security to cover Areas B and C is another extension of Israeli sovereignty. Extending Israeli domestic administration to cover Area B and C is a further extension of Israeli authority. Israel already controls the external security over the whole of the West Bank and effectively over Gaza, though only with respect to the control of air space, access by water, limitations on fishing rights and access by land from Israel.

Extending sovereignty is usually carried out by an executive decision though it may be backed up by legislation. Annexation requires legislation. Bibi did not promise to annex Israeli blocs in the West Bank but gradually increase Israeli sovereignty over the blocs. While extension of sovereignty over blocs in Areas A and B makes sense in the meaning that it can be comprehended, what could the extension of sovereignty mean in the case of Area C if not annexation?

Between 2016 and 2018, a number of private bills in the Knesset attempted to extend the application of Israeli law to: a) specific settlements; b) the Jordan Valley; c) all settlements. In other words, shifting from a cabinet decision to legislation entails a gradual increase in sovereignty even if there are no changes on the ground. The difference is that legislation unequivocally translates the gradual extension of sovereignty approaching virtual annexation through de jure and not merely de facto action, even when de facto decisions actually extend Israeli law. Extending laws by legislation sends a message of permanence. It is very significant in symbolic terms.
 
But it is not only symbolic. If areas are annexed by legislation, it is incumbent upon the party that exercises sovereignty to offer citizenship to the residents of the area. Israel did this with the Druzim living on the Golan Heights. Bibi’s announcement, even though unarticulated, makes if fairly clear that there would be no offers of citizenship extended to Palestinians, if only because the targeted areas for extending sovereignty include only Jews who are already citizens of Israel.

 
Why did Bibi not include all of Area C which is 60% of the West Bank? After all, of the original 500,000 Palestinians that were living there in 1967, there are likely less than 150,000, perhaps only 100,000, left. Offering citizenship to up to 150,000 Palestinians might be perceived as good public relations, but it would clearly put a one-state solution totally on the table.

More significantly, the gradual extension of sovereignty does not explicitly contravene the Oslo Accords, which specifically forbids changes in the permanent status not agreed to by both Palestinians and Israelis. If Israel, through unilateral legislation, effectively annexed Israeli-occupied municipal enclaves, it would be an official declaration that Oslo was dead. Oslo may no longer even be on life support, but no authority has yet declared that it is brain dead. Creeping annexation, an oxymoron, is really another name for the gradual extension of sovereignty, even though it is not annexation per se. However, the salami method of extending sovereignty reveals that the end goal is annexation. If Israel does not change the status of any areas in the West Bank by legislative acts, then Israel could continue the pretence that there has been no annexation. Further, even if the extension of sovereignty takes place as a result of legislation, Israel could argue, not very convincingly, that the Palestinians living next to these municipal areas still could theoretically create their own state even though their mobility rights might be very restricted.

But why at this time? Unlike the Golan, Israel cannot explain the move to be a result of war – there is no intifada currently underway in the West Bank – or even a significant security threat as existed in the Golan. One reason might be that the move for extending sovereignty would engage wide domestic support and muted international opposition while outright annexation might arouse both the international community as well as a very significant part of the Israeli electorate.
 
Did Bibi concede in advance the demand of the Union of Right-Wing Parties representing all the settlers, especially the national-religious ones (Shas and UTJ), that extending sovereignty gradually would be part of a deal to form his government? Bibi’s extension of sovereignty initiative was widely viewed as an effort aimed at galvanizing support among his nationalist base and right-wing allies, which it evidently did, but possibly at the expense of Bennett. In the negotiations with his allies in the new prospective government, it is not clear what promises he made to them concerning this issue, but the extension of sovereignty was certainly believed to be one of the promises that he made. When asked in that TV interview on 6 April on Israel Channel 12 why he had not annexed Israeli settlement blocs, most specifically Maale Adumim and Gush Etzion, Bibi replied, “Yes. We will go to the next phase to graduallyextend Israeli sovereignty in the areas of Judea and Samaria.”
 
That answer stirred up greater consternation among part of the Israeli public and around the world. Bibi added that, “I will impose sovereignty, but I will not distinguish between settlement blocs and isolated settlements.” Bibi added three further clarifications. “From my perspective, any point of settlement is Israeli, and we have responsibility, as the Israeli government. I will not uproot anyone, and I will not transfer sovereignty to the Palestinians.” He also added, “We will control all of the area west of the Jordan River.”

The plan in outline then included:

  • Imposing sovereignty on outlier settlements as well;
  • There would be no uprooting of anyone, either Palestinian or Israeli;
  • There would be no transfer of sovereignty to the Palestinians, even in Area A where the Palestinian Authority (PA) is responsible for administration and domestic security and Area B where the PA is responsible only for internal administration;
  • Israel would continue to control the whole of the West Bank.

Why the surprise? Variations of this had always been the policy of the Likud. On 31 December 2017, 1,500 delegates to the Likud Party Congress unanimously required Likud elected officials to “take action to facilitate unlimited construction and to apply the laws of Israel and its sovereignty over all the liberated settlement zones in Judea and Samaria.” 

Bibi’s announcement was immediately (mis-?)interpreted by Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki as an intention to declare sovereignty over the whole of the West Bank. He held out the prospect that this would be a move to a one-state solution which would mean that Bibi would be faced, in Malki’s words, with “the presence of 4.5 million Palestinians.” But Malki’s figure included Palestinians in Gaza; the announcement did not include any intention to extend sovereignty over Gaza.

Palestinians in East Jerusalem previously annexed by Israel have been eligible for Israeli citizenship since it was annexed decades ago, even though, in the last few years, bureaucratic obstacles have been placed in the way of Palestinians applying for such citizenship. The actual number of Palestinians affected by Israel extending sovereignty into the West Bank would only be 2.8 million. Bibi ruled out ethnic cleansing since he promised that no one would be uprooted.

The announcement implies the extension of sovereignty only over Israeli blocs rather than a specific territory, even the whole of Area C. In depicting “outlier” settlements, this seemed to include Israeli settlements in territory under Palestinian security and administrative control. But what about the roads and infrastructure that link the settlements to one another and to Israel?

Whatever the interpretation re the extent of the sovereignty, it is widely believed that any effort in this direction would put the final stake in the possibility of a two-state solution because the move would make the creation of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state impossible, especially since Bibi announced that no sovereignty would be transferred to the Palestinians, which he claimed would “endanger our existence.”
 
Given that Donald Trump had recognized a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty and, much more recently, Israel sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a further assumption was made by many that Bibi had conferred with Trump on the extension of sovereignty plan and, further, that Trump had promised his support.

Perhaps Putin as well had extended his quiet endorsement given Russia’s need to gain greater support for its own initiatives in annexation.

 
To be continued

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part V: The Palestine Economy

By the Palestine economy, I refer primarily to the West Bank and only to the parts of the West Bank under the control of the Palestinian Authority. Gaza will receive only a cursory attention. As suggested in yesterday’s blog, that economy is under severe strain. Each and every individual in the West Bank is affected. The impact can be illustrated by a story that appeared in the Times of Israel yesterday.

Ahmad, a 31-year-old resident of Nablus, is a member of the Palestinian Authority security forces. He is a father of two. In June, his salary totaled US$700. This was after Israel decided in February to withhold tax rebates equivalent to the amounts the PA paid the families of security prisoners and terrorists killed by the IDF and border police. Abbas decided to shoot itself in the foot by refusing all tax revenues collected by Israel on behalf of the PA until the cuts were restored. Those revenues totalled half of the income of the PA. The effect on Ahmad – a decline in his salary by 20% or US$140 per month. For others in less critical roles, salary cuts may have been as much as 50%. Jafar Sadaka, a reporter for the PA’s official news outlet Wafa, said Ramallah cut his salary from NIS 4,000 to around NIS 2,000 or US$560 per month. There are insufficient funds even to pay rent and put food on the table.

Add to these indicators the rise in unemployment, especially among the young, the decline in manufacturing and retail sales that have put many businesses on the brink of bankruptcy, and it is an understatement to say that there is an economic crisis in Palestine.

Another factor in the decline in revenue to the Palestinian Authority has been the cut in monies allocated to the PA and Palestinian refugees by the Trump administration. When the U.S. recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017, PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas boycotted President Donald Trump, Jared Kushner and special envoy Jason Greenblatt. However, diplomatic efforts are currently underway to bridge the rift between the U.S. and the PA. Majid Faraj, head of PA security services, is leading the rapprochement following backroom exchanges. Economic pressure has forced the PA to come on bended knees to restore communications with the U.S.

Whatever the failures of the Bahrain workshop for American diplomacy, this might be counted as a success. For the results in Bahrain were far worse for the PA as it was clearly deserted and left to stew in its own juices by its major Arab allies and supporters. The gloom that resulted added to the previous despair that was a product of the abandonment of militancy since efforts to protest the Israeli occupation were met with harsh responses; the protests set the Palestinians back even further. Meagre achievements did not justify the loss in human lives.

Greenblatt’s message to the Palestinians: “The Palestinian leadership must internalize that the success of the conference in Bahrain shows that there are those who believe in peace and in the ability of the Palestinian people to create a good and prosperous economy with the help of many investors. This is an opportunity that the Palestinian leadership must not miss.” Will they or won’t they?

Given that the Europeans have been political pygmies in advancing economic peace in the Middle East, the EU has tried to offset its political weakness with large investments in infrastructure. One project to use wind farms to both generate electricity as well as solve the serious shortage of water has entailed investing 100 million euros ($112.8 million) over the last three years in this project. As the EU has stated its goal: “this project aims at ‘supporting the Palestinians’ right to water. Water is a right just like dignity and freedom. We choose to stand by this right, and we choose to be with the Palestinians in their long journey until we reach an independent Palestinian state.”

France and the EU may try to stand tall on a pile of euros, but the reality is that there has been a decline of 50% in economic aid to the Palestinians over the last six years. |In any case, a political resolution must go in tandem with economic initiatives and cannot be viewed as a separate goal. Otherwise, the EU is making the same mistake as the Trump administration.

In spite of Bahrain, temporary relief might be coming from the Gulf States. In May, Qatar promised to send $50 million in grants and $250 million in loans to the PA over the next 12 months. However, a finger in a dike will not prevent a flood, contrary to myth.

What a contrast to the early optimism and economic improvement following the Oslo Accords! What happened? For the following, I have relied on some Israeli economists, but mostly on the report of Dr. Mohammed Samhouri, a former senior economist of the Palestinian Authority and fellow at Brandeis University in the Crown Center for Middle East Studies. (“Explaining Failure: How Palestinian economic potential was denied during Oslo”, July 2019)

The PA is just 25 years old. Samhouri traces the stages of the increasing economic anemia of the West Bank. Last year, Palestine had a very meagre economic growth (0.9%). This year, there will be a severe decline. Oslo was premised as much on economic development as on the political negotiations. In fact, the stability of PA political institutions was seen as a magnet for attracting economic investment when combined with the negotiated economic arrangement between Israel and the PA known as the Paris Protocol.

Samhouri argued that it was not the economic plan that was faulty. Instead, he located the failure in the “wider political, security and territorial context.” There were three: “(1) the restrictive nature of the political and territorial arrangements t. Instead, he at were negotiated between Israel and the PLO; (2) the deterioration in political and security conditions during the 1994-2019 period; and (3) the Israeli system of constraints, complex and multilayered, that was imposed on the access and movement of Palestinian people and merchandise trade in and out of WBG.”

Israeli security was premised on restrictions and control. Palestinian economic development was premised on the free flow of capital, labour and goods. The two premises were incompatible. The most obvious example was not only the tripartite division of the West Bank under Oslo with Areas A, B and C under different or combined authorities, but the division of the areas under PA control into a fragmented economic terrain of disconnected towns and villages.

Further, according to Oslo II (Chapter 2, Article XI.3.c), Israel’s temporary control over Area C did not end in July 1997 as intended. Instead of a gradual transfer of responsibilities and authority to the PA, the creeping extension of Israeli sovereignty began, initially to control the movement of people and goods in part in response to the series of suicide bombings in Israel in 1996, but also through the confiscation of private Palestinian land, ostensibly for security purposes, the expansion of Israeli settlements and the building of Israeli-only road connections.

By 2000, the tipping point had been reached with the failure of the Camp David Summit. The Palestinian economy began its downward spiral, propelled by the outbreak of the Second Intifada in September 2000. By 2002, Israel occupied all of Area C and began the construction of the separation barrier largely on West Bank land. Israeli unilateral withdrawal from Gaza completed in September 2005 led to the election and coup by a radical Palestinian political party, Hamas. Israeli and Western reprisals followed and reinforced a deep schism in the Palestinian polity. The faith of Israelis in the peace process, never very hardy at any time, began a downward slide to match that of the Palestinian economy.

Three wars with Gaza, 2008-2009, 2012 and 2014, followed as Gaza became a base for rocket attacks on Israel and the latter responded with a tighter and tighter economic squeeze involving the closure of commercial crossings and the shrinking of the sea areas in which Palestinians could fish. The economic blockade was eased when Hamas prevented its militias and that of other groups from engaging in terrorist acts and tightened when missiles and, more lately, fire balloons were sent across the border against Israel. For twelve years, the economic blockade of Gaza was either enforced or eased in response to the behaviour of the radical leadership in Gaza. Gaza, thus, also served as an object lesson for the West Bank Palestinians and the international community as well as Israel.

The election of Hamas in Gaza was followed by the effort to reignite the peace process in a summit in Annapolis Maryland in November 2007, an EU-led pledging conference that committed $7.7 billion for investment in the West Bank, the strengthening of security coordination between the PA and Israel and the easing of Palestinian movements between West Bank urban centres. However, the economic improvements were feeble and short-lived. A West-Bank first policy became just another in a long series of failed efforts to solve political problems with economic band aids.

The West Bank economy remained structurally weak with an overloaded and inefficient public sector, endemic corruption and a dependency on outside aid that soon began to decline. A one-third unemployment rate would sometimes be offset with joint Israeli-Palestinian entrepreneurial partnerships, but never in sufficient amounts to offset the economic disruptions of a dysfunctional Palestinian governing apparatus and Israeli settler expansion and additional fragmentation of the intra-Palestinian transportation and communication systems.

As Samhouri documented, the economic indicators are terrible:

  • decline in manufacturing by about one-half
  • severe drop in agricultural productivity by more than two-thirds
  • decline in private investment
  • private investment largely goes into residential construction, retail trade and services
  • decline in internal capital formation by two-thirds
  • decline in merchandise exports by 20% while remaining concentrated in low value-added products
  • increased dependency on the Israeli economy; 83% of exports go to Israel
  • use of foreign aid to offset budget deficits versus capital and infrastructure projects.

Samhouri traced the decline to:

  • Military occupation
  • A faulty foundation in the Paris Protocol that resulted in a lopsided pattern of dependency and restrictions
  • General insecurity for economic investment resulting from an unresolved military conflict
  • Singular dependency on Israel

“After researching the Palestinian economy for several years, we are convinced that its links with the Israeli economy were the most important factor in determining the course of its economic development. The formation of these links and the nature of the labor, goods, and capital flows between the Palestinian and Israel economies, were determined almost exclusively by Israel.” Israeli economists Arie Arnon, Israel Luski, Avia Spivak, and Jimmy Weinblatt

  • Restrictions on mobility resulting largely from Israeli constraints that reduced supply capacity and increased transportation costs while preventing economies of scale
  • Limitations on access and utilization of Palestinian land and water resources and on the ability to, import raw materials and machinery
  • Inability to freely reach regional and international markets 
  • Lack of access to resource-rich Area C (60% of the West Bank) at an estimated cost of $3.4 billion and $800 million in tax revenues
  • Lack of access to the Jordan Valley where the development of agriculture could create 100,000-200,000 new jobs
  • Lack of access to the resource rich Dead Sea
  • The construction and expansion of Israeli settlements where employment opportunities were offset by further restrictions
  • The construction of the Separation Barrier that created a seam zone (9.4% of the West Bank) of agricultural land inaccessible to Palestinian farmers
  • Restrictions on the use of modern telecommunication equipment
  • An absence of Palestinian fiscal, monetary, exchange rate, and trade policy tools
  • The severe restrictions on decision responsibility that will cramp any enterprise, whether private or public sector

This past record provides an object lesson in why one cannot separate transactional initiatives from solid progress on the political and military fronts and, further, why political agreements must be properly thought through to assess the impact of agreements on the economic sector. The lesson posed by Greenblatt’s challenge is that even if the PA submits to the behemoth of the U.S.-Israeli partnership, no significant breakthroughs will be forthcoming on the ground unless political and economic approaches are viewed synergistically. Further, it is crucial that the right formula for their marriage be found and that the mistakes of Oslo not be repeated.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part IV: The Palestinian Response to the Extension of Sovereignty

On 22 December 2014, a new non-partisan movement called Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS) was founded. It represented more than 150 retired high-ranking security officials from the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), Mossad, Shin Bet and the National Police. CIS called upon the Israeli public to encourage Israel’s political leadership to embark on a regional effort in cooperation with the Arab Peace Initiative in order to advance a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict based on the principle of “two states for two peoples.” Recently, this group seemed most concerned about the impact of the extension of sovereignty promise of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the current cooperation between the Israeli and the Palestinian security services.

In 2014, former Mossad Director Tamir Pardo worried about “the threats against us on the one hand, and the government’s blindness and political and strategic paralysis on the other.” He continued: “Although the State of Israel is dependent upon the United States, the relationship between the two countries has reached an unprecedented low point. Europe, our biggest market, has grown tired of us and is heading toward imposing sanctions on us. For China, Israel is an attractive high-tech project, and we are selling them our national assets for the sake of profit. Russia is gradually turning against us and supporting and assisting our enemies.”

Five years later, how the situation has radically changed. The relationship between the USA and Israel has reached an unprecedented peak of cooperation at the same time as Israeli policy shifted further to the right and bolder right-wing initiatives were undertaken that were backed by the USA. In spite of that, there are no EU sanctions in the works. In fact, the EU is desperately seeking ways around enhanced American sanctions against Iran. Israeli cooperation with both China and Putin’s Russia has grown. 

Five years ago, Pardo added, “Our public diplomacy and public relations have failed dismally, while those of the Palestinians have garnered many important accomplishments in the world.” In fact, the reverse has turned out to be true. Israeli diplomacy has secured unprecedented successes with Egypt and the Gulf states. European voices have remained relatively muted. And Russia has served as a mediator between Israel and Syria and between Israel and Turkey. At the same time, the influence of Palestinian diplomacy has stalled in most places and declined precipitously in Washington. Although the Palestinian Authority achieved a number of breakthroughs in the United Nations and within international agencies, for the last few years progress on the Palestine project has stalled.

However, the voices of both the PLO and Hamas have grown on university campuses in the West, particularly in the U.S. “They are hothouses for the future leadership of their countries. We are losing the fight for support for Israel in the academic world. An increasing number of Jewish students are turning away from Israel. The global BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) against Israel, which works for Israel’s delegitimization, has grown, and quite a few Jews are members.” On the other side, in official political circles on both the state and federal level in America, efforts to advance the BDS agenda have been made illegal.

What is clear and less controversial is that the Oslo process, instead of moving both sides towards a resolution of the conflict based on two states for two peoples, has been undermined and inverted to serve as a cover for practices that disempower Palestinians in the West Bank. The Oslo Accord has more recently been interpreted as a “capitulation agreement” given the consequences that followed the signing. Israeli dominance has increased and the sovereignty accorded the Palestinians, though increased in some respects, has diminished overall.

The reason the Oslo Accords are now interpreted as a failed framework is because the steps taken on the ground have advanced Israeli sovereignty without penalty or consequences. Palestinians have become more politically vulnerable as the security situation in the Middle East has pushed greater cooperation between Israel and a number of Arab states. At the same time, both Europe and the international community have demonstrated the relative impotence of the members of these two groups. Distorted and mis-applied language, such as the French ambassador to the U.S. depicting Israel as an apartheid state, and denunciations that misdescribe and miss their target, such as the objections to Bibi’s policy of expanded sovereignty as annexation, are all signs of desperation rather than avenues for a more constructive approach.

Nothing recently has signified the impasse that has developed as much as the recent Bahrain conference ostensibly designed to push the parties towards an agreement, but revealed as an empty gesture, especially since neither the Israeli government nor the Palestinian Authority was in attendance. Under the cover of pseudo-diplomacy, Israeli efforts to extend sovereignty in areas of the West Bank have proceeded unimpeded. Ever since 1948 when a transactional approach was first proposed as the foundation for resolving the Palestinian refugee situation, and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) was created to use economic development initiatives to resettle the Palestinian refugees in Iraq, America continues to push unrealistic solutions for a problem that seems impervious to either a two state solution or a one state resolution with the recognition of two nations with equal rights as part of a single state. Disconnected dreams and possibilities disguise and cloud the reality of an unbreachable chasm. Americans once again dream of replacing political with economic leadership for both the Palestinians and the Israelis.  

It is a fantasy. Interests can never substitute for resolving questions of a collective good, especially when the good envisaged by one side is so out of synch with the good imagined by the other side. What happens then? Israelis out of ideological conviction or strategic exhaustion now continue their march towards enhanced sovereignty leading to annexation of Area C of the West Bank while protecting settlements outside Area C. Palestinians fight a rearguard action to resist accepting a state truncated in its geographic base and its sovereign range and that seems more akin to a reserve for indigenous people in North America than a true sovereign state based on the self-determination of its people.

Palestinians know the situation is getting worse and worse for them as they try different options for coaxing the genie out of its bottle. They can read the polls that show the right wing almost certainly destined to retain control of the Israeli polity in the next election. Even if Trump is defeated in 2020, advances will have gone too far for any significant reversal. And no one in the Israeli peace camp has anything but utopian visions to deal with a conflict deeply rooted in realpolitik. It does not help the Palestinian cause when Israeli breaches of human rights pale in comparison to the Palestinian Authority detaining 1,600 peaceful protesters during the last twelve months alone and Hamas arresting another 1,000 in just one month, March of 2019, in a context in which even a peaceful protest is virtually impossible.

The Palestinians in Israel cannot be left out of the analysis. At the same time as a Palestinian Israeli has become the head of one of Israel’s major banks, Arab Israeli members of the Knesset continue to demonstrate their absolute opposition to Israel as a Jewish state. Even Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran, a Christian Arab, refused to sing the national anthem at the 2012 swearing-in of Justice Asher Grunis. Jewish Israelis will not recognize that they live in a bi-national state and Palestinians will not recognize the rights to a Jewish state while demanding absolute sovereignty for a Palestinian state. The contradictions are not just daunting. They seem insurmountable.

There is another factor serving as a propellant for the enhanced energy and determination of the Israeli right. The rise in antisemitism in Europe has not only pushed many French Jews into moving to Israel, it has strengthened the cause of ensuring that Israel remains a Jewish state dedicated to providing a home for Jews fleeing insecurity elsewhere. American Jews continue to remain relatively immune to this fear, even though there has also been a rise in antisemitism in North America. 73% of Jewish Americans feel Jews have become less secure since Trump, a champion of Israel and a Bibi lackey, assumed office in these past two years. Antisemitic rhetoric and actual attacks on the ground have increased. The attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on 27 October 2018 leaving 11 parishioners dead now serves as a symbolic signpost. Six months later this past March, an attack on a Chabad synagogue killed another Jewish worshipper.

These attacks and shouts of “Jews will not replace us” at Charlottesville, reinforced by many more incidents of antisemitic vandalism, may have increased Jewish support for Trump even though he has been an apologist for the far right. However, these vents have not as yet enhanced resettlement numbers in Israel from America. But it has clearly put Israel as a sanctuary in a new light, especially with the rise in radical rhetoric attacking Israel from the left.

How can Palestinians cope with the tactic of Israel expanding sovereignty by small installments? How have they responded to the offer in the new Kushner initiative of 22 June 2019 of $50 billion and presented as a formal offer in Manama, Bahrain on 25-6 June? The monies would be dedicated to Palestinian economic improvement with the bulk of the funds allocated to the Palestinian territories and much of the rest used by Jordan and Lebanon in return for offering citizenship to Palestinians who lack such recognition but live within those states. With only mid-level bureaucrats rather than Ministers of Finance from the European states, and even low-level ministers from Egypt and Jordan, the Bahrain meeting lacked gravitas to match its glossy promotional rhetoric.

In May, the Palestinians had already announced that they would boycott the workshop, a boycott with the unprecedented backing of virtually all sectors of Palestinian society, most importantly in this case, in addition to all political parties and civil society organizations, business and trade associations as well as unions. The Palestinians could have attended and placed strenuous conditions on accepting the monies and perhaps influenced the shape of the political part of the peace plan to be announced this fall. But they had lost faith in the good faith of the U.S. The Palestinian Working Group on Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon also rejected the offer. So did the Lebanese government which also refused to join the workshop. On 26 June, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced its rejection in Lebanon’s parliament. On 27 June before the Council of Ministers, Hariri declared, “Our constitution is clear and forbids resettlement and emphasizes the right of return.”

Why was Lebanon opposed? For the same reason it never offered the vast majority of Palestinian refugees citizenship over the past seventy years. Lebanon feared the political and social consequences of such a demographic shift and the threat to the sectoral balance among Christians, Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims. Further, implied offers to resettle some of the Palestinian refugees seem far vaguer than previous proposals and represent an even weaker base of burden sharing. The $6 billion offered was just not worth the risks to the fragile stability of Lebanon, even though the expenditures would improve Lebanon’s transportation infrastructure, trade network and tourism sector. Further, since $4.6 billion of that $6 billion came in the form of debt that would further escalate Lebanon’s ballooning indebtedness (currently 150% of GDP), the incentive seemed to be magical trickery rather than a genuine offer of aid. This was especially true since the rumour that had previously circulated was that Lebanon’s debts would be forgiven in return for offering most of the Palestinians citizenship. In any case, only 5 of the 179 economic projects proposed were for Lebanon.

The demographic fear seemed to be confirmed when Jared Kushner in a conference call with Arab media on 3 July said, “I also think that the Palestinian refugees who are in Lebanon, who are denied a lot of rights and don’t have the best conditions right now, would also like to see a situation where there is a pathway for them to have more rights and to live a better life.” The reality: the offer was far too meagre and too inconsequential and spread over too many years to offset the demographic risks. Kushner did not even seem to be able to make transactional diplomacy meaningful.

The Democrats do not have anything much better to offer. They simply seemed to be fixated on re-establishing the status quo ante. It is highly unlikely that they would reverse Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but the cuts to the PA and UNRWA might be restored as well as special funds for East Jerusalem hospitals and Jewish-Palestinian co-existence programs. In the American Senate in April, the Senate Democrats introduced a resolution to restore humanitarian funding for Palestinians. Democratic and Republican members of Congress met with top Israeli officials to push the two-state solution based on a demilitarized Palestinian state and direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Unfortunately, events on the ground seem to have bypassed traditional rhetorical references and processes as well as Kushner’s fancy brochures.

The reality is that there cannot even be any economic progress for the Palestinians as an independent polity unless transportation, communication, fiscal and trade restrictions imposed by Israel are lifted. Further, the February 2019 Israeli government decision to deduct part of the Palestinians’ tax revenues that Israel collects on their behalf that is used to support the families of terrorists combined with the subsequent refusal of the PA to receive any tax money unless Israel reverses n trade. bankruptcy.  

Economic initiatives to promote peace appear as a mirage for Palestinians.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Part III: The American Response to the Extension of Sovereignty

Last week, David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, together with White House so-called peace envoy, Jason Greenblatt, appeared together in the bowels [well, not really the bowels, but I write this metaphorically) of the earth below Jerusalem, more specifically, below a Palestinian village, Silwan, just outside the walls of the Old City. Symbolically, Friedman and then Greenblatt smashed through the remaining rock membrane protecting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Using a sledgehammer (actually, it was a small 10 pound yellow-handled one with a sharp edge used by archeologists), they broke through the last stone obstacle on the dig uncovering the ancient Pilgrimage Road to Jerusalem.

Needless to say, the wall remaining was deliberately left very thin. Trump, though recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, though specifically not recognizing all of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, smashed any claim of Palestinians to the Old City as well as the neighbourhoods abutting it, at least very symbolically and with the world watching. Friedman, to prove that he was as learned about history and archeology as well as contemporary conflicts as his boss, Donald Trump, pronounced that the existence of the Pilgrimage Road, “lays all doubts to rest” of the Jewish claim for the entirety of Jerusalem. So much for the assurance by the Trump administration that recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital did not pre-judge the outcome of which side would have sovereignty over the whole city.

To focus on the contemporary political significance, I avoid commenting on the scientific authenticity behind the archeological dig. The Pilgrimage Way was not only about Jewish rights in Jerusalem, but about the “spiritual underpinnings” and “the bedrock of principles” underlying the political foundation of America according to Friedman. Music for the ears of Trump’s evangelical base! 

This sensational photo-op said more than a thousand diplomatic pronouncements. The smashing of the peace process was deliberate and blatant and lacked any indication of subtlety. It was intended to mark the recognition of the extension of Israeli sovereignty to all of Greater Jerusalem. Further, given the timing, the photo-op also signalled the American preparation for recognizing the extension of Israeli sovereignty to settlements in the West Bank. Would it be only the settlements in Area C or would the application of Israeli law also extend to Israeli settlements in Areas A and B, or, as the right prefers to call them, cities and neighbourhoods in Judea and Samaria?

Recall that at the time of Friedman’s confirmation hearings on 1 March 2017, tens of thousands of American Jews, hundreds of rabbis and major groups like the Reform Movement joined with J Street and all but two Democratic senators in making clear that Friedman’s right-wing views were dangerous and totally out of step with American values and decades of U.S. foreign policy. However, when David Halbfinger of the New York Times recently explicitly asked Friedman about American support for annexation, the latter responded: “Under certain circumstances, I think Israel has the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.” The evidence was overwhelming: extending sovereignty salami-like is understandably confused with annexation, though de facto annexation of Area C in the West Bank may be in the works.

In a letter to President Donald Trump, the Israel Policy Forum along with eight other Jewish American organizations, including five from the Reform and Conservative movements (the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Union for Reform Judaism, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, its Rabbinical Assembly, and MERCAZ, the Zionist Conservative affiliate, as well as the Anti-Defamation League, Ameinu and the National Council of Jewish Women), urged the administration to oppose West Bank annexation (my italics) in the face of a pledge by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to annex West Bank territory. However, Netanyahu made no such pledge. Decoys should not be confused with real targets warranting comment and criticism.

The actual American diplomatic direction was confirmed by Jared Kushner. The author of the “Deal of The Century” and the organizer of the Bahrain Conference indicated unequivocally that the reference to “two states” will not be in the language of any proposed peace deal. “If you say ‘two states’ to the Israelis it means one thing, and if you say ‘two states’ to the Palestinians it means another thing. So we said, let’s just not say it. Let’s just work on the details of what that means.” And what it means, for Jared, is a very truncated state geographically for the Palestinians. What it means is a very truncated sense of sovereignty for a prospective Palestine.

The Democrats, at least those on the left of the party, were understandably critical. Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley drafted a resolution that was co-sponsored by U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders, Tammy Duckworth, Elizabeth Warren, Dianne Feinstein, Tammy Baldwin, Tom Udall and Dick Durbin: “the policy of the United States should be to preserve conditions conducive to a negotiated two-state solution,” not a unilateral one-state solution abutted to a mini- and semi-Palestinian state. “Unilateral annexation of portions of the West Bank would jeopardize prospects for a two-state solution, harm Israel’s relationship with its Arab neighbors, threaten Israel’s Jewish and democratic identity, and undermine Israel’s security.”

The problem is that there are no plans for annexation, unilateral or otherwise, of even parts of the West Bank. To repeat, the creeping extension of sovereignty is not annexation, but those efforts move inexorably towards annexation. Since there is no longer a two-state solution that is envisaged that would currently be acceptable to both the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority, there is no two-state solution in the traditional sense to harm.

Paradoxically, each of Israel’s steps at increasing sovereignty can be correlated with improved relations with many Arab, especially Gulf, states. Hence, the declaration that such moves will “harm Israel’s relationship with its Arab neighbors” rings hollow. Further, as far as these Arab states are concerned, Israel’s political moves have not seemingly harmed the country’s security. If anything, common security concerns vis-à-vis Iran have brought Israel and the Gulf states into closer security cooperation. And Israel’s democratic identity? Without full annexation, Israel is not inheriting a Palestinian population to which it is obligated to offer citizenship.

How can Israel’s extension of sovereignty to settlements in all areas of the West Bank be perceived as a threat if they do not amount to annexation? By mis-describing the problem, the criticisms miss their mark and the impact is significantly diminished. Focusing on the ostensible ultimate goal rather than the salami sovereignty expansion strategy, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer led a campaign to discredit the resolution as the above members of the Democratic Party misleadingly claimed that Netanyahu had promised to annex the West Bank. Misunderstanding the politics undermines intentions considered laudable by the left.

These Senators were not the only ones to misinterpret the Israeli government’s strategy and Netanyahu’s promise three days before the last election. Democratic Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg warned that, “if Prime Minister Netanyahu makes good on his promise to annex West Bank settlements, he should know that a President Buttigieg would take steps to ensure that American taxpayers won’t help foot the bill.” The exaggerated claim was matched with the promise of a feeble punishment that does nothing to alter facts on the ground.

There has also been pushback from Republicans who reiterated their support for a two-state solution. That opposition ranges from strong supporters of Donald Trump, such as Lindsey Graham, to Republican Party critics, such as Mitt Romney. As the critics have said, “The incessant push for annexation [note, not actual annexation itself] has political consequences, and it is entirely the fault of the pushers, who won’t be satisfied until they have brought the calamity to pass.”

Dr. Michael J. Koplow, the Director of the Israel Policy Forum in Washington, callsthe salami method of extending sovereignty “partial annexation,” meaning that the moves taken are partial steps towards a goal of annexation. Rather than clarifying the muddle, I prefer to avoid characterizing what is taking place as annexation, however qualified, for when annexation is not in the immediate works, the likelihood is that the criticism will be compromised. Nevertheless, Koplow is correct in concluding that each new step in expanding sovereignty creates more obstacles to reversing the process. “Turning back the clock on the new political realities is going to be next to impossible.”

The nine sponsors of the letter to Trump of 19 April 2019 referred to above, though incorrect in focusing on annexation of the whole of the West Bank, were quite accurate in anticipating that the Netanyahu announcement will “lead to greater conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, severely undermine, if not entirely eradicate, the successful security coordination between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and galvanize efforts such as the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement that are intended to isolate and delegitimize Israel,,,It will create intense divisions in the United States and make unwavering support for Israel and its security far more difficult to maintain.”

There are two clear results of the effort to expand sovereignty to West Bank settlements, interpreted as stages in the move towards annexation. Such steps, even the promise of taking such steps towards annexation, undercut the bipartisan support for Israel. Second, these initiatives also divide the Jewish diaspora.

What seems clear is that the dividing line between right and left has become a chasm. The problem arises from the intention of extending sovereignty to settlements in Areas A and B in the West Bank. Area C is de facto almost under the complete sovereign control of Israel. However, extending Israeli law only to settlements in Area C would signal that Israel is ready to cede full sovereign control of Areas A and B, except for security, to the Palestinians. Netanyahu is explicitly unwilling to do this. Such a step would be a definite pause in the incessant expansion of sovereignty towards annexation. That is now unequivocally and undeniably a central plank of the Likud-led government. With the aid of Donald Trump, those efforts have been accelerated.

If true, it also means that the issue is no longer land for peace, but a choice between Israeli and Palestinian sovereignty. For Jews on the left unwilling to make such a choice, this will mean they will either withdraw from the struggle or adopt a resigned critical position as a marginal movement. Except in America. BDS will be able to increase its recruitment of North American Jews, especially on college campuses. And most American liberal Jewish academics will be torn as America’s unanimous legislative support for Israel, already displaying fissures, begins to develop a deep fracture line.

On the other side, the Israeli right is not stupid. The majority on the right recognize that they have little to gain by engaging in wholesale annexation. The risks are too well known and the benefits too few. That is why a continuation of salami tactics of extending sovereignty rather than legislating outright annexation can be expected.

However, if efforts are made to extend Israeli law to settlements in Area A and B, the political left is not stupid either. It can read the writing on the wall. As the goal comes nearer and the breaches of red lines more obvious, extending Israeli law to settlements in Areas A and B may serve as the tipping point to initiate a much larger process of American and American Jewish alienation from Israel. If, as expected, the Democrats are elected to both the presidency and even the Senate, the pitch of criticism of Israel can be expected to rise a number of decibels and cooperative arrangements threatened. This prospect may, in turn, fire up the right to provide even stronger support for Donald Trump and even convince some conflicted Jewish Americans to vote for him.

Obviously, there are far too many factors in play to engage in any reasonable kind of prediction. But the various possible scenarios are more or less clear. Profound events, depending on their character, could shift the weight easily from one side to the other. The right is probably prepared for such an opportunity. Is the left? In the absence of a Palestinian Authority deeply committed to peace, except possibly on terms unacceptable to most Israelis, the left lacks both direction as well as a set of strategies and tactics to reach that objective.

One final point. The imminence of a possible and even likely Republican defeat may embolden the right to take advantage of an American regime that is so fully onside. I suspect the issue to heat up considerably over the next year. I also suspect that the issue will cause tears in the fabric of the American Democratic Party as strong supporters of Israel in the party try to mute criticism while the activist base revs up for a more outspoken confrontation with Israel. It is possible that the support for BDS will spread beyond Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. Watch the path that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez takes. Watch as the strident tone within both parties increases.

To be continued.

With the help of Alex Zisman