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Conversation with David Horovitz

Founding editor of The Times of Israel in Westport, May 17

By Cindy Mindell

British-born Israeli journalist, author, and speaker David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel, a current-affairs website based in Jerusalem that launched in February 2012. He was editor of The Jerusalem Post from 2004 to 2011 and of The Jerusalem Report from 1998 to 2004.

Horovitz has also written from Israel for newspapers around the world, including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Irish Times and The Independent (London). He has been a frequent TV and radio interviewee on the Israel Broadcasting Authority, CNN, the BBC, and NPR, among other outlets. He is the author of Still Life with Bombers: Israel in the Age of Terrorism (Knopf, 2004) A Little Too Close to God: The Thrills and Panic of a Life in Israel (Knopf, 2000), and co-author of Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin (William Morrow, 1996).

In 1995, Horovitz received the B’nai B’rith World Center award for journalism for his coverage of the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. In 2005, he received the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee award for journalism on Israel and Diaspora affairs.

Horovitz will offer an insider’s perspective on recent developments in the Middle East and their impact on Israel’s safety and security, on Tuesday, May 17 at Temple Israel in Westport.

Recently, he gave the Ledger a preview of his upcoming talk.

 

Q: Americans are currently consumed by our presidential election-campaign season. What do Israelis think of the various candidates?

A: Israel’s following the campaign pretty closely. When Israelis look at American presidential candidates, I think they look at two things: one is a certain empathy for Israel. The second is an understanding of how ruthless this region can be — which is why, I think, when you had a choice between McCain and Obama, simply because McCain had learned, terribly, how evil men can be, whereas Obama, mercifully, had not, on a very personal level for Israelis that would have been an obvious “Let’s take the person who won’t need the learning curve” choice. In looking at this campaign, I think that those are the criteria for Israelis.

In polls, Israelis trend in the direction of Clinton. Sanders had every possibility to be liked and supported by Israelis: he’s the only candidate who’s Jewish; he spent time on kibbutz. I thought the speech he said he would have given via satellite if AIPAC had let him was very under-informed. Then he gave two interviews in which he threw around seven-times inflated numbers for the Gaza death toll, and a couple of days later, had not checked the corrected figure and was still giving an inflated figure for the civilian deaths by citing the overall death toll in Gaza. To assert that you support Israel and Israelis’ right to security, and then say that the security blockade on Gaza should be cancelled, when that blockade is to prevent Hamas from importing weaponry to fire at Israelis — it’s just not serious. I certainly have been disappointed by the lack of rigor in his positions on Israel and I suspect that Israelis who’ve looked closely have reached similar conclusions.

Regarding the Republican candidates, that is more a function of where you stand politically in Israel. The two most widely-read Hebrew tabloids in Israel are Yisrael Hayom and Yediot Ahronot. Yisrael Hayom, a free newspaper owned by Sheldon Adelson and for which Netanyahu can do no wrong, has been very gung-ho on Trump. Yediot Ahronot is the most-read for-sale tabloid for whom Netanyahu can do no right and it has been much less adulatory where Trump is concerned. There’s probably some wariness in Israel about Trump simply as somebody who has been extremely outspoken about minorities in the United States, and this is the Jewish state.

 

Q: Netanyahu recently announced that Israel will never give up the Golan Heights. Many countries – the U.S. included – rejected that claim. Why is he taking this stance now?

A: This was territory that Israel captured in the 1967 war, and it did something almost insignificantly different from what it did with the Old City of Jerusalem: it didn’t quite annex the Golan Heights. In the same way that the international community has not accepted Israeli annexation of Jerusalem and regards territory captured in 1967 as an issue to be resolved in any permanent accord, [so they regard] the case of the Golan Heights.

Why Netanyahu started asserting this now, is because apparently there’s some concern that, in the framework of a major-powers effort to formulate some kind of settlement for Syria, a clause — and possibly even the opening clause — is apparently set to state that the Golan is Syrian and must be returned to Syria. Therefore, Netanyahu is putting down a marker.

When Israel was revived in 1948, it did not control the Golan. It was attacked from the Golan from 1948 to 1967; it captured the Golan in 1967. It fought and had heavy losses on the Golan in 1973. As recently as seven years ago, Israel’s security chiefs were prepared to contemplate the notion of relinquishing the Golan for the possibility of peace with Syria, when Syria appeared to be stable and that also appeared to bring the promise of peace with Lebanon, and isolating Iran. In the last few years, as Syria as descended into anarchy and unpredictability and mass slaughter, I think a greater consensus has formed in Israel that, in the foreseeable future, at least, there can be no thought of relinquishing the Golan. So, Netanyahu talking about “forever” may be further that the consensus in Israel would automatically go, but Netanyahu asserting that Israel is not in the remote foreseeable future going to relinquish the Golan – that would be a near-universal position for Israelis now, I would say.

 

Q: UNESCO just passed a resolution ignoring any Jewish tie to the Temple Mount and calling the Kotel by its Muslim name. Recent actions on the Temple Mount by religious Jews, such as a ring-exchange ceremony by a couple have made the news. What do you think the impact of all this will be?

A: I don’t think any of those incidents are necessarily significant, unless people want to seize on the brief marriage ceremony as a pretext. I’m not sure they even prayed or how illegal it was, even under the laws and arrangements that Israel has. It didn’t make a big impact here yet. The UNESCO decision was as predictable as it is risible and ridiculous. It just discredits UNESCO, which is pretty discredited anyway, as are any of these UN forums that have automatic majorities that pass endless anti-Israel resolutions.

That’s not to say that any pretext can’t be picked up on. When Yasser Arafat came back from Camp David in 2000, he presided over a resort to terrorism and the Temple Mount was somewhere in that mix. In the last two months, when we’ve had, by our standards, relatively low-level terrorism, it has been incited over the issue of the Temple Mount: the Palestinian assertion that Israel was about to change the rules there, the stirring up of Palestinian hostility, including by social media – the Temple Mount was a pretext for a resort to violence. There is no shortage of pretexts, but the Temple Mount is one of the most potent.

Among the deeper problems is a trend among Palestinian Muslims and in parts of the Muslim world away from what used to be an axiomatic recognition that the Jewish temple stood on the Temple Mount. That was completely accepted in Islam a century ago. Unfortunately, things are moving in the opposite direction – at the will of and through the materials and speeches of the Palestinian leadership – to assert that there’s no Jewish connection to Jerusalem or the Temple Mount and to delegitimize Israel’s very existence here. You’ve now got another generation of Palestinian young people who’ve been brainwashed and told that the Jews have no connection here; and you’ve had, for several months, a kind of default “Let’s go and kill Israelis” as an instinctive response to almost anything. It’s ebbed a little bit, although of course, recently there was a bus blown up in Jerusalem, so I don’t think anyone should get carried away about assuming that anything has significantly changed. Things will significantly change when the Palestinian leadership says to its people, “The Jews do have history here too; they do have legitimacy here too, and we’re going to have to compromise, including over Jerusalem.” When you start hearing that, start to be optimistic. Until you hear that, any pretext – and the Temple Mount is a pretty evocative one – can be seized upon.

 

Q: The bus bombing in Jerusalem last month got very little international media attention. Why do you think this is so?

A: I think Israel has not been well-served by journalism. So here was an attack, and initially, there was some confusion as to what had caused it. The police ultimately concluded that it was an act of terrorism. I think there’s often a failure in international media to report things as fairly and as clearly and sometimes as prominently as they should be reported.

In Gaza 20 months ago, the combined multi-million-dollar, Pulitzer Prize-winning might of American journalism did not manage to film a single rocket being launched by Hamas. Only one Indian television journalist filmed one outside his hotel window. Why does Bernie Sanders have such a misimpression of what went on in Gaza? In part because he hasn’t looked very carefully; but in part because maybe he didn’t get good enough, prominent enough, contextualized enough media. To allege that Israel fought indiscriminately means that you haven’t looked closely. No honest and serious understanding of the Israeli-Hamas conflict could give you that conclusion. Only a superficial and under-informed person could reach that erroneous conclusion.

And so, did the bus bombing not feature as prominently as it should have? Well, no great surprise here. I saw it in some reports being described as “a street close to the West Bank.” Everywhere in Israel is close to the West Bank. This happens to be inside pre-1967 Jerusalem, quite close to the edge of pre-1967 Jerusalem, but this is meant to be non-disputed Israel. Hamas attack tunnels dug under the border into Israel are described in some reports as being “close to Gaza,” as though there’s some kind of forgiveness for the notion that a terrorist organization might be killing Israelis close to Gaza or close to the West Bank.

Our country is nine miles wide at its narrowest, politically-undisputed point. It’s a really small country and everywhere is really near to some disputed territory. We still should have the right not to be blown up while going about our business during the day inside our country. I think everybody should have the right not to be blown up going about their business pretty much everywhere, as long as they’re going about their humane business.

I think we’re ill-served too often in terms of coverage and prominence and relative prioritizing of coverage.

 

Q: Hamas has been threatening another war and continues to dig tunnels into Israel. Right-wing settlers have carried out violent acts on Palestinians. Is this an escalation of hostilities?

A: Hamas is openly committed to destroying Israel and it seized control of Gaza and now you have a quasi-terrorist government adjacent to Israel that is subverting all resources and condemning its populace to suffer because of that goal. It’s more complicated, but Hamas has a great deal of support in Gaza and, broadly speaking, you have an organization that runs a territory that is committed to wiping out the country next door as a strategic goal of a quasi-government. If they’re not going to do it next week, they’re gearing up to do it next month or next year. They didn’t stop digging tunnels after the 2014 war, they didn’t stop improving their rockets – they’re testing rockets all the time – and there’s only one address for those rockets. In exactly the same way, Hezbollah in southern Lebanon—another organization that vows to destroy Israel — probably has 100,000 rockets and missiles with only one address — Israel.

That’s our reality: we have Hamas to the south, we have Iran urging our destruction on an almost-daily basis, arming Hezbollah, arming and training Hamas, and up to all sorts of other demonic activities all over the region.

By contrast, I would say that the Israeli mainstream has an imperative to reach an accommodation. We know we have to send our kids to the army, and in the reality of Israel in the last few years, there is not a two- and three-year period when your kids are not going to be risking their lives defending their country. So, not merely are you sending them to the army, you’re pretty certain that there’s going to be some kind of war or major conflict in the course of their mandatory army service. You show Israelis a formula that will guarantee them tranquility for a reasonable period, at the price of a pretty significant compromise – in what I stress is a pretty small country – and I think you’d have a fairly wide consensus in Israel in support of an accommodation. Israelis do not want to be running the lives of the Palestinians; it’s not good for them or for us. Unfortunately, this region is so unpredictable and there is so much hostility, that it’s not easy. In the Middle East of 2016 it’s even harder than it was in the past, because you don’t merely now need a leader with whom to make peace, you also need to know that that leader is going to be there next week, month, or year, to honor the accord.

That said, we have had some extremist incidents in Israel, including the firebombing of the Palestinian home last year in which three members of a family were killed, allegedly by a Jewish terrorist who’s been charged with murder, and a minor accomplice who has also been charged. And there have been other cases. So there’s a minority of extremely troubling extremist incidents that we need to be sure to tackle effectively. The fact that the alleged firebomber of the Duma home of the Dawabsha family has been indicted for murder suggests that Israel is doing its best to grapple with extremists. Recently, the Israel Security Services announced the arrest of seven people in a Jewish terrorist ring who allegedly firebombed Palestinian homes without fatal consequences.

One of the barometers of a democratic, law-enforcing nation is how it deals with its extremists. It seems to me that Israel is attempting to effectively deal with its extremists. Therefore, although I would have no tolerance for acts of extremism, it’s a mistake to suggest any kind of equation. There are organizations and quasi-states and states around us that are essentially interested in destroying this country; and we in Israel have some extremists that we need to grapple with as we as a nation seek to ensure that we can live in peace and as much tranquility as this neighborhood allows.

 

Q: Do you think the U.S. and other Western countries should be taking a more active role in stemming the instability now shaking several Middle Eastern countries?

A: The free world makes a mistake if it thinks it can not engage very seriously with this region. Israel is obviously the only stable democracy in this part of the world and people need to internalize that we are on the front lines of war against various regimes and ideologies that are really death-cult regimes, regimes that are out to kill and be killed, as opposed to live and let live. There’s a danger in wanting not to get caught up in conflict – which is completely understandable – that the free world lets things heat up to a greater level. In 2009, you had people in Iran that were trying to oust their regime and had no intimation of support from the U.S.-led free world. Early in the Syrian civil war, when there was certainly a more influential secular and moderate aspect to the opposition, it got insufficient support. If you look at Egypt now, where you see a country teetering between maybe a more stable future and maybe a descent again into Islamic extremism, I wonder if the free world is doing enough to give the leadership there the chance to feed its own people and create some stability, when the alternative is the growing appeal in a bleak reality if Islamic extremism.

When we look at the refugee problem now facing Europe, part of it is that, if hundreds of thousands of your countrymen are being killed in Syria, at some point, you have to leave because you’re being massacred and nobody’s lifting a finger to help you. And as you leave in large numbers, some pretty bad people may come with you. Therefore, Europe has this terrible dilemma and the United States is starting to look at and internalize that dilemma.

The desire to stay out of Syria has boomeranged. Where it plays out now, I don’t know. Were there policies that could have been more effective? I don’t have a perfect formula. But as somebody much smarter than me has been given to say, “The Middle East is the dinner guest that won’t go home.” If you don’t internalize that, it’s going to be with you in an even more problematic way than if you try and grapple with it early in the processes. For example, having faced down the West, Iran is a regime entrenched in power, getting lots more money, that I think will just constitute a greater and greater problem because the nuclear deal, for example, did not tackle Iran in the way that I think that it could have done.

In Israel, we are obsessing about Iran. They test missiles with “Israel must be wiped out” written on them. This is a regime that has been emboldened by a deal that we’re convinced could have been better. Israel did not want military intervention; we think their nuclear program could and should have been dismantled, and we’re a little baffled as to where that went, because that’s what the world was supposed to be doing: it was going to neutralize and dismantle and it wound up freezing and inspecting and, we fear, not doing either of those effectively enough.

 

Q: What can American Jews do now to help Israel?

A: I certainly am concerned by the rising hostility to Israel on a growing number of American university campuses. Having spent my first 20 years in London, I can see a similar process, where it used to be one or two universities that you would be wary of sending your kids to, and then it became just a few where you would comfortably send your kids in Britain – I see a similar process potentially occurring in America and the students of today are the thought leaders, politicians, journalists, and so on of 10 and 20 years from now.

I don’t think Israel is perfect by any means but I think the more time one spends in Israel, the more one examines what Israel is up to, the more one empathizes with it. The British pop singer Elvis Costello cancelled a planned concert in Israel a few years ago because he said that he wouldn’t have been able to turn a blind eye to what Israel does to the Palestinians. My response was and would be, nobody wants you to turn a blind eye to anything. Come to Israel, spend two weeks in Israel, two weeks in the West Bank, two weeks in Gaza if you can do so safely, and I’m pretty convinced that by the time you end your trip, at the very least, you’ll say to yourself, “More complicated than I thought,” and more likely, you’ll say to yourself, “Actually, I really underestimated the challenges that Israel faces.”

I recently spoke to a group that came here from of anti-apartheid activists from South Africa on the last day of their trip. They had actually spent time in Ramallah and had met with Palestinian leaders, and they were really unimpressed by the people they had met on the Palestinian side, and they were pretty won over by the people they met on the Israeli side. These were people who came from a background that would have made them skeptical. I think the best advert for Israel is Israel. Come here, spend some time here, speak to people from across the spectrum, read and watch as widely as you can, from as many sources as you can. I think the more sophisticated your take on Israel, the more you will empathize with Israel. We need people who can offer an honest narrative of what’s going on here. So what can American Jewry do for Israel? Find out as much as you can and tell people about it.

“An Evening with David Horovitz:” Tuesday, May 17, 8 p.m., Temple Israel, 14 Coleytown Road, Westport, for information: (203) 227-1293 / tiwestport.org.

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