“Mr. Sanders has to say that if he will be the president, he will demand that the Palestinians stop playing games and to say once and for all that they accept the formula of two nation-states, change the PLO charter as they are obliged to do, and cut the bullshit.” — Kobi Michael, former Israeli national security official
Given presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ controversial comments about Israel this month, we present a timely Q&A with Kobi Michael. From 2009-13, he served as Deputy Director General of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs (where he also ran the Palestinian desk).
Today he is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a prestigious think tank in Israel. He’s published 12 books and monographs about peacekeeping operations and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as more than 50 articles and book chapters on the subjects. We put ten questions to Mr. Michael — but first, here’s a bit of background that may be helpful for Mideast Dig readers.
In some ways, it’s understandable that Bernie Sanders has been getting a lot of things wrong lately about the Israel-Hamas war of 2014 (Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge”). Like so many Americans, he may have gotten his information from a majority of the major media outlets that had reporters on the ground in Gaza at the time.
Behaving at times more like stenographers than reporters, many big news outlets received their information from the UN, which had received its information from anti-Israel NGOs — which, in turn, had received their information from a health ministry run by terrorists (Hamas). That was revealed, sadly, in great detail in our exposé titled “The Media Intifada” (first published at Forbes.com in August 2014).
Similarly, AP’s investigation into civilian casualties during the war was exposed as deeply problematic in “Associated Mess” (first published as a cover story in the New York Observer in 2015).
But as a candidate today for the U.S. presidency, Mr. Sanders surely has no excuse when it comes to finding out the real facts on a subject of such global import. He seems, however, stubbornly resistant to learning, and appears not to have foreign affairs experts to at least gather the facts for him.
For example: In a meeting earlier this month with the editorial board of the New York Daily News, he stated that his “recollection” was that “over 10,000 innocent people were killed in Gaza.” That’s almost five times the 2,310 people that even the Hamas’ Ministry of Health placed the total number of deaths at. (The ministry won’t break its figure down into combatants vs civilians).
Some math may be needed here:
For its part, the Israel Defense Forces has long stated that the number of total deaths [innocent civilians, as well as terrorist operatives] was 2,155. The IDF puts the ratio of deaths at 44% terror operatives (or 936 individuals) versus 36% civilians (771 individuals). The Israeli military adds the caveat that another 20% of the dead, or 448 individuals, still remain unidentified. (Worth noting: After Israel’s 2008-9 war in Gaza, nearly two years passed before a Palestinian minister inadvertently let slip that the IDF figures for that war were correct.)
Hamas itself has not published an overall authorized list of all the Palestinians killed in the more recent (2014) war. Sources affiliated with Hamas published several lists with the names of about two-thirds of all those killed. Those lists were used as the database — to examine the names of Palestinians killed — by the highly-regarded, independent Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (mentioned in both the “Associated Mess” and “Media Intifada” stories cited above). Probing one name at a time over many months, the center found that 48.7% were terrorist operatives, while non-involved civilians constituted 51.3%.
In an email to Mideast Dig, the center’s director, Reuven Erlich, adds that his research team could not adequately identify 39% of the dead in order to determine if they were civilians or combatants. “Therefore, our final assessment is that about half of the Palestinians killed in Operation Protective Edge were terrorist operatives and half were uninvolved non-combatant civilians.”
Erlich adds: “I can easily, either myself or in the name of the ITIC, invite Bernie Sanders and brief him when he comes to Israel. The ITIC will receive him with all the honor and respect due him. Alternatively, I would like to suggest that one of his aides read the reports issued by both the ITIC and other institutions regarding the number of Palestinians killed in Operation Protective Edge… Not even Hamas could dream up a figure as outrageous as 10,000.” (Mr. Sanders has since acknowledged that his estimate was wrong, but he’s sticking to his guns about his other allegations against Israel.)
Along with terror groups under its auspices, Hamas had fired more than 8,000 rockets into Israel from 2005 — when Israel evacuated from the Gaza Strip — until the launch of Israel’s 2014 counteroffensive. In a debate two days ago with rival Hillary Clinton, Mr. Sanders maintained that Israel’s 2014 response to Hamas attacks from Gaza was “disproportionate and led to the unnecessary loss of innocent life.” There is compelling evidence to the contrary.
Case in point: The assessment of retired Colonel Richard Kemp, the former commander of British troops in Afghanistan, who says he carefully studied Israel’s tactics in Gaza. In an email to Mideast Dig’s editor a year ago, he wrote:“IDF has taken greater steps than any other army in the history of warfare to minimise harm to civilians in a combat zone … But media organizations, such as AP, politicians, UN leaders and human rights groups that falsely accuse Israel of war crimes, risk having blood on their own hands. These biased comments validate Hamas’s tactics and encourage terrorist groups around the world to continue and even intensify their violence.”
Indeed, in a groundbreaking study in 2014, a prominent group of American public health experts found that civilian casualties constituted 85% to 90% of the 248 armed conflicts in the world since the end of World War II. While even one civilian casualty in Gaza is a tragedy, Israel’s ratio in the 2014 war — especially given the ‘human-shielding’ that Hamas utilized at the expense of its own population — is viewed by many non-Israeli military experts as a model for future warfare.
Several months after the IDF’s 2014 counteroffensive in Gaza, U.S. General Martin Dempsey — then the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — echoed Kemp’s assessment of whether “disproportionate” force was used by Israel. “I actually do think that Israel went to extraordinary lengths to limit collateral damage and civilian casualties,” stated Demsey. “They [the IDF] did some extraordinary things to try and limit civilian casualties to include..making it known [in advance] that they were going to to destroy a particular structure.”
Finally, Mr. Sanders dug himself deeper into a hole on the subject when he told the Daily News that “Hospitals, I think, were bombed.” What he neglected to add was that it was actually a wing of a hospital in Gaza that was bombed — and only after it was empty of patients and medical staff (and no casualties were reported in the bombing). The Israeli army said that the building was being used as a Hamas terrorist command center and a launching site for rockets.
Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., has demanded the candidate issue an apology for what Mr. Oren calls a “blood libel” against Israel. Mr. Sanders has not apologized.
With no further delay, our Ten Questions for Kobi Michael:
1. Mr. Michael, if you could sit with Bernie Sanders today for a few minutes, what would you like to tell him about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that he may not know?
I would read together with him the Palestinian charter [a covenant, last revised in 1968, that calls for the destruction of Israel] and we will watch together some samples of incitement videos. Then we will analyze together some surveys regarding the Palestinian public discourse and positions regarding Israel and armed struggle.
2. The Palestinian charter [first written in 1964 and revised in 1968] clearly doesn’t recognize Israel and calls for its destruction. However, in a 1996 letter to Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, PLO chairman Yasser Arafat wrote that the charter had been amended to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Moreover, in a letter two years later to U.S. President Clinton, Mr. Arafat wrote that the PLO was “committed to recognize the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security.”
This speaks exactly to the dual language and standards of Palestinian leaders. Go to Article 2 in the letter to Shimon Peres and read it carefully. The Palestinians assigned their legal committee to redraft the charter, but this committee has never accomplished its mission — actually, they have not met even once as a committee. Therefore, the only version that exists and still appears in different Palestinian webs is the original version without a single change or amendment. They didn’t intend to implement their obligation in 1996 and blurred it in 1998.
[Elaborating on his point, Mr. Michael provided the Dig with this new report from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. It focuses on what it calls ‘Mixed Messages’ from PA president Mahmoud Abbas from 2014-2016. Worth adding: The late Richard Chesnoff, a former executive editor of Newsweek, and a prize-winning veteran reporter who focused much of his career on the Middle East, wrote in 2012 that “If there was an Oscar given for doublespeak, the Palestinian political leadership would win it, hands down.” At the time, Mr. Chesnoff was referring to a study entitled “Deception: Betraying the Peace Process” by a Jerusalem watchdog group named Palestinian Media Watch.]
3. Mr. Sanders said recently that, while Israel has the right to live in peace and defend itself, “to the degree that they want us [the U.S.] to have a positive relationship, I think they’re going to have to improve their relationship with the Palestinians.” Could you comment on this?
What does he mean by referring to the Palestinians? Hamas [which controls Gaza] or the Palestinian Authority [which controls the West Bank] — or both? How exactly does he think that these relations can be improved? What will be considered as improvement? It looks that he has no idea about the recent history of the political process. What exactly happened after Olmert’s proposal [former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s 2008 peace offer]? What happened after the Palestinians rejected [U.S. Secretary of State] Kerry’s proposal the first time and the second time [2013-14]?
How exactly can you improve the relations with one who refuses to recognize your right for self-determination — and incites against you? How can you improve relations with one who rejects negotiation and prefers a one-sided, unilateral strategy that leads to the internationalization of the conflict in order to impose on Israel the establishment of the Palestinian state without paying the price they should pay in negotiations?
Ask him [Mr. Sanders] just one simple question: If the Palestinians really seek to improve their relations with Israel and they really prefer negotiation and are willing to reach a political solution, why haven’t they yet changed the Palestinian charter?
Ask him if he has any idea about this charter and its content. Ask him to ask the most moderate Palestinian leader he knows (if he knows any) if he/she accepts the idea of a two-nation solution. Actually he doesn’t have to bother himself. There is not a single Palestinian leader who accepts the idea of a two-nation-state model because there is no Palestinian leader who believes that there is a Jewish people. For them there is only a Jewish religion, and therefore there is no right for a nation-state.
If he is still willing to answer questions, ask him how exactly he suggests one improves the relations with those who glorify the terrorists who murdered your people and refuses to condemn such a brutality.
And yet, there are things that can be done and should be done. The GOI [goverment of Israel] could be more generous with regard to economic and civilian improvements and initiatives that will ease the lives of many Palestinians and will bring more relief, but all of that will cause only minor changes in the general mood. It will not be a breakthrough.
4. Mr. Sanders recently stated that America could no longer be “one-sided” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “As someone who is 100% pro-Israel, in the long run, if we are ever going to bring peace,” he said, “…we are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity.” He added that there will come a time when America will have to admit that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu “is not right all of the time.”
Netanyahu is not always right as no other political leader is always right, but the problem is not Netanyahu; the problem is that Sanders doesn’t get the essence of the conflict. Let’s assume that Netanyahu is making wrong decisions from time to time, what about the Palestinian response to his right decisions? How exactly did the Palestinians respond to the decision Netanyahu made to freeze the building in the settlements for ten months [2009-10]?
But let’s leave Netanyahu. Ask Sanders how exactly the Palestinians responded to [Prime Minister Ehud] Barak’s proposals at Camp David in 2000. (Arafat launched the Second Intifada.) And then we have the Palestinian response to the Road Map and so on. To make the long story short, Mr. Sanders has to say that if he will be the president, he will demand that the Palestinians stop playing games and to say once and for all that they accept the formula of two nation-states, change the PLO charter as they are obliged to do, and cut the bullshit.
Netanyahu is not an angel, he makes mistakes, but he is not the problem; the continuing refusal of the Palestinians to recognize the existence of a Jewish people and its right to have a nation-state is the problem. The other side of the coin of this problem is the Palestinian refusal to give up on their “right of return” demand. There is no Palestinian leader that will be ready to make this compromise and this is the direction that Mr. Sanders has to concentrate on.
5. Regarding the 2014 Israel-Hamas war, in a recent interview Mr. Sanders used Gazan civilian casualty figures that are provided by the UN. Are they reliable numbers?
They cannot be reliable figures due to three main reasons:
* Most of the figures are provided by Hamas, which has its interest to manipulate the figures.
* UNRWA [the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East] and the other UN agencies are totally dependent on Hamas and its goodwill. They can do nothing without Hamas and therefore they have to cooperate with them. More than 80% of UNRWA’s employees are local Gazans totally loyal to Hamas because Hamas determines who will work there.
* UNRWA has become part of the problem instead of part of the solution. They run most of the schools and educate the young generation’s Hamas curriculum. UNRWA is part of the indoctrination system and military trainings and camps are part of this curriculum.
In addition, it is important to understand the broader context. Let’s assume that the UN figures are close to accurate, do you think that UNRWA will accuse Hamas of abusing UN facilities for terror purposes? Do you imagine that UNRWA will admit publicly that Hamas occupied UN facilities, including clinics and schools, in order to store, hide and launch rockets, or to hide their people — understanding that the IDF will avoid attacking these facilities? UNRWA is forced to collaborate with Hamas and serves as a sort of humanitarian shield.
In many cases, UNRWA identifies a victim as a citizen or even as its employee, but it doesn’t mean that this citizen or employee is not a Hamas member at the very same time. Therefore, many casualties identified as innocent citizens are indeed Hamas members/activists/operatives.
6. Mr. Sanders also stated the following recently: “My understanding is that a whole lot of apartment houses were leveled. Hospitals, I think, were bombed. So yeah, I do believe and I don’t think I’m alone in believing that Israel’s force was more indiscriminate than it should have been.”
Ask him to ask American generals and military experts about the measures taken by the IDF in order to prevent casualties. I don’t know about any hospital attacked by the IDF. I do know about one case of a clinic that was attacked because it was used for launching rockets. There is so much evidence about the way Hamas abused public facilities, including hospitals and clinics in order to hide weapon and terrorists and to launch rockets. Israel knew that most Hamas leaders were in Al-Shifa hospital and it would have been a piece of cake to enter the hospital and to catch or kill them. It was easier to bomb the hospital and it would have been according to international law, but Israel didn’t do it because it knew what might be the consequences. Israel avoided eliminating Hamas leadership in order to save innocent people.
7. Were there IDF soldiers who breached orders?
Yes, of course, and they were investigated and tried. But we have to remember, what were the general instructions, how were decisions made, and the fact that the war lasted 51 days in the most-populated area in the world where the enemy (Hamas) doesn’t respect international law and abuses in the most cynical way its population as a human shield. And manipulating the media by introducing casualties in a staged manner and preventing citizens from evacuating their place according to IDF’s instructions given to them by several means. Hamas wanted dead people, and as much as possible because it serves their purpose and their false victimhood narrative.
8. Mr. Sanders says that “foreign aid [for Gaza] should go to housing and schools, not the development of bombs and missiles.” To what extent is this happening, and how can his idea become a reality?
Most of the money/aid that was promised for the reconstruction of Gaza has not arrived due to the rift between Hamas and the PA. The condition that was made by the donating countries was that the money will go through the PA but Hamas refuses, and the PA has no capacity to enforce itself. Eventually, Israel remained the only player that does something that can be considered significant. Israel increased the numbers of trucks in Kerem Shalom [a crossing on the Gaza Strip-Israel-Egypt border managed by Israel’s government]. You can read all the details and figures at the COGAT website [Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories].
Israel also facilitated the establishment of a special mechanism for monitoring the double use materials and cement that go for reconstruction. On the ground, Hamas steals cement and other materials that are supposed to be used for reconstruction and building houses in order to rebuild their attacking tunnels — and instead of investing resources and money in reconstruction they use it for rearming themselves and preparing for the next violent round against Israel. They use their people as hostages, perpetuating victimhood and misery in the most cynical manner, calculating their alliances with ISIS Sinai on the one hand and Iran on the other.
The only way I can find that is a reasonable solution, although I am not sure about its chances of success, is an international coalition led by the pragmatic Arab states and supported by the U.S. and the [UN] Security Council that will care for the full responsibility for the reconstruction in its broadest scale and provide Israel with security guaranties. Due to the American weakness, at least as it perceived by most of the local players, Mr. Sanders would have a huge challenge to deal with.
9. If elected, Mr. Sanders says he would demand that Israel stop the expansion of settlements in the West Bank. Specifically, he said recently: “I think if the expansion was illegal, moving into territory that was not their territory, I think withdrawal from those territories is appropriate.” Mr. Michael, this is not an unusual viewpoint among Americans. Can an argument be made that the settlement expansions (no matter where) are at least an unwise thing to do?
Israel is willing to withdrawal/disengage and did it twice in its history. Insisting on territorial issues as if they are the main issue is a mistake. The territories are not the core of the conflict and never have been. Once an agreement based on the two-nation-state principle will be reached, Israel will pay the hurting price. People have no idea about the figures and reality on the ground, they have no idea that the percentage of all the settlements is less than 3% of the WB [West Bank], and with east Jerusalem less than 4%. Israelis live there and they have natural needs and, as long as they are there, the GOI has responsibility for them.
I don’t want to go into a historical debate and argument about the affiliation of the Jewish people to these lands, and I really don’t want to begin a legal debate about the status of these lands as disputed lands, but when he says “territory that was not their territory,” does he have an idea whose territory is it? Those territories were never Palestinian territories; they were occupied territories by Jordan and Egypt and they are occupied from them [by Israel] in a war that was forced on Israel.
Israel will be willing to stop building as part of the negotiation with the Palestinians and not as a pre-condition made by them. Once the Palestinians will be back to the negotiation table and will negotiate seriously, you can bet that they will find Israeli generosity.
10. You’ve written on the subject of how the Israeli public is largely in the dark about moods and trends in Palestinian society. Are Israelis simply uninterested, or is it a matter of most of the Israeli media not delving into the topic for their audiences?
The Israeli public is well-experienced and sober. It has no expectations from the Palestinians and prefers to concentrate on improving its prosperity and quality of life, and has internalized the fact that we live in a crazy and unstable neighborhood. The Palestinian issue became another issue among many others and lost its priority. The Israeli public understands that there is no reason to fight each other politically about imaginable solutions and illusions because it does not believe that there is a Palestinian partner. A mirror image exists on the Palestinian side and they have similar feelings towards the Israelis.
Generally, people in Israel (including its Arab citizens) are happy and satisfied with their lives and country — as weird as it sounds. The Israeli nation is one of the happiest nations in the world. A very optimistic nation and a vibrant society, at the very same time very sober and understands that we are doomed to live with our sword and to be able to defend ourselves by ourselves. The Israeli public is a huge media consumer and we have a very vibrant and diverse media, but most of the public feels that there is nothing new under the sun regarding the Palestinians.
I do think that there is a psychological distance between the Israeli and Palestinian societies and a lot of ignorance, but that will not be the barrier once the political leaderships of both sides will be able to make the right decisions and to bridge the gaps. The situation today is that the maximum that any Zionist government in Israel will be able to give does not meet the minimum that any Palestinian leader will be ready to accept.
The Israelis believe in their strength, while the Palestinians believe in demography and absolute justice and are sure that eventually the Jewish society will collapse and they will prevail because there is no other option — and therefore there is no real incentive for both sides to make the historical compromises. So far, the Palestinian people are on a deterioration path and the Israeli society is flourishing, and the gaps between two societies become broader and broader.
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