It's Really The Settlements, Stupid!

Benjamin Netanyahu is in desperate need of a top-of-the-line hearing aid, because evidently he is growing tone deaf. He can no longer hear the voices warning him of Israel's destructively deteriorating international isolation.
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Benjamin Netanyahu is in desperate need of a top-of-the-line hearing aid, because evidently he is growing tone deaf. He can no longer hear the voices warning him of Israel's destructively deteriorating international isolation. He can't (or doesn't want) to hear how he is single-handedly decaying Israel's essential relationship with the United States. It does not seem to reverberate inside him one iota that cries against his government's provocative settlement enterprise is not fooling anyone but himself and his settler supporters. International approbation is rapidly descending on Israel from many new and unexpected quarters. Sweden soon to recognize a Palestinian state. France perhaps following suit. The British House of Commons symbolically reflecting a growing popular UK view. Waiting in the wings: a United Nations Security Council resolution baking in the diplomatic oven "mandating" Israel to negotiate an end to the conflict by 2016, or else.

Apparently, Netanyahu is only willing to hear Alfred E Neuman's adage "What? Me Worry?"

If Netanyahu isn't worried, Israelis should be. With its international standing rapidly eroding, and calls for more punishing economic boycotts against Israel's incendiary occupation, younger Israelis -- the future foundation of the state -- are increasingly calling it quits. In 2013 alone, more than double the Israelis quite Israel than in 2012.

When it comes to the US, Netanyahu is playing a very dangerous game that will never serve Israel in the long run. Calculating he can bend Israel's most essential of relationships to his will at whatever cost to the relationship, he is playing with fire.

A few days after his recent UNGA speech, Netanyahu held another awkward meeting with President Obama in the Oval Office. Just a few hours before Netanyahu's meeting, it was revealed (once again in case anyone failed to notice earlier reports) that Israel was planning to build 2,610 new housing units in a south Jerusalem neighborhood known as Givat Hamatos ("Hill of the Aircraft") -- not the first such messy "new settlements calling card" Netanyahu had left on the White House welcome mat.

Yet, Netanyahu thought he could pull one over on the president. He had the impudence to waltz into the White House and prevaricate to the president of the United States on this latest, ill-timed settlement plan.

When subsequently held to account by an indignant White House (Press Secretary Earnest asserting the settlement plans will..."poison the atmosphere and distance Israel from even its closest allies..") Bibi exhorted the White House to "learn information properly." For good measure, the Prime Minister had the temerity to accuse the Administration of not believing in "American values" since, he implied, the White House dared challenge the right of Jews to live anywhere without discrimination ( no matter if that is on land that ONLY Jews can live on, and not Arabs).

An Israeli Prime Minister lecturing the United States on what American values are? How do you say Chutzpah in Hebrew? Memo to Mr. Netanyahu: Here are the "facts" you conveniently muddied about Givat Hamatos.

1.Givat Hamatos is the first new Israeli settlement in Arab East Jerusalem in 15 years -- on the wrong side of the so-called Green Line that is Israel's internationally recognized border.

2.The new construction would literally cut East Jerusalem off from Bethlehem as part of an Israeli ring of housing to completely encircle Jerusalem.

3.Justifying it, Netanyahu claimed that "Arabs in Jerusalem are free to buy apartments in Jewish Jerusalem and nobody says that's forbidden." HOGWASH, Mr. Prime Minister. A Palestinian native of Jerusalem is not entitled to buy an apartment in Givat Hamatos or to get a title deed there. You see, Mr. Prime Minister, no Palestinian "foreign national" (any non-Israeli Palestinian, including Palestinians of Jerusalem origin) can buy or lease one square inch of land in West Jerusalem or anywhere else in Israel. The 280,000 Palestinians living in East Jerusalem are legally barred from doing so. The State of Israel will only sell real estate to Jews.

When confronted by the real facts by reporters, Bibi went conveniently deaf again. As the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan aptly declared (and an adage Netanyahu should embrace): "You may be entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts."

This incident is just one in a growing list of unwarranted and counterproductive efforts by Netanyahu's government to turn a blind eye to its ever-decreasing list of domestic and international supporters, and the hit parade keeps going on and on.

Just a few months earlier, in yet another sop to his extremist right wing coalition partners, Netanyahu's government expropriated 1000 acres of West Bank land for a new settlement city to be called Givaot -- the largest illegal confiscation of Palestinian lands in 15 years.

That sad reality is that Netanyahu knows exactly what he is doing -- shoring up his feeble political standing at Israel's national expense by indulging hard right settlement supporters defecting from him. And all the while, Bibi pays disingenuous lip service to a two state solution, but by word and deed he is telegraphing his determination to prevent it from happening. Exhibit A -- the "in your face" spiteful settlement enterprise.

Here are a few more settlement facts, for good measure.

According to highly-respected Ha'aretz journalist Bradley Burston, 2013 witnessed the largest number of housing starts in the West Bank in more than a dozen years -- a 124% increase over 2012. Additionally, of the nearly $53 million funneled by the World Zionist Organization (WZO) to small towns in Israel, 75% will go to West Bank settlements. The WZO's settlement division has conveniently become the Israeli government's conduit for settlement construction, but it's budget, funding sources, and operations are intentionally kept secret by Netanyahu's government -- even the Israeli Justice Minister tried to force the WZO slush fund to become public information and Netanyahu's Knesset allies quashed the effort.

Something must be done to curb this runaway train. Netanyahu is invariably dragging Israel onto the wrong side of history. So if the Israeli Government won't voluntarily hear the growing crescendo of criticism, it's high time to make it hear where it matters most -- in the pocketbook.

Let's start focusing on international and American "philanthropies' that fund these settlements and fund the Yesher Council -- the Israeli settlers lobbying group. Innocuous sounding organizations such as "Friends of Ir David Foundation" or the more well-recognized World Zionist Organization, funnel hundreds of millions of tax-deductible dollars to directly fund illegal settlements -- making Americans unwitting subsidizers of those who take a tax deduction from these donations -- no matter that it is in contravention to established American policy.

Although a tad old, but nonetheless still on point, a July 5, 2010 New York Times in-depth examination of public records in the United States and Israel identified at least 40 American groups that have collected more than $200 million in tax-deductible gifts for Jewish settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem over the last decade.

The money goes mostly to schools, synagogues, recreation centers and the like, theoretically legitimate expenditures under the tax law in the absence of regulatory prohibitions by the U.S. government against funding illegal settlements. But it has also paid for more legally questionable commodities: guard housing as well as guard dogs, bulletproof vests, rifle scopes and vehicles to secure outposts deep in occupied areas.

By way of illustration directly from the Times article, take the Capital Athletic Foundation, run by the disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff. In its I.R.S. filings, the foundation noted donations totaling more than $140,000 to Kollel Ohel Tiferet, a religious study group in Israel, for "educational and athletic" purposes. In reality, a study group member was using the money to finance a paramilitary operation in the Beitar Illit settlement, according to documents in a Senate investigation of Mr. Abramoff, who pleaded guilty in 2006 to defrauding clients and bribing public officials.

Mr. Abramoff, had directed the settler, Shmuel Ben Zvi, an old high school friend, to use the study group as cover after his accountant complained that money for sniper equipment and a jeep "don't look good" in terms of complying with the foundation's tax-exempt status.

While the donations by Mr. Abramoff's charity were elaborately disguised -- the group shipped a camouflage sniper suit in a box labeled "Grandmother Tree Costume for the play Pocahontas" -- other groups are more open. Amitz Rescue & Security, which has raised money through two Brooklyn nonprofits, trains and equips guard units for settlements. Its Web site encourages donors to "send a tax-deductible check" for night-vision binoculars, bulletproof vehicles and guard dogs.

The many ruses conjured up by American funders of Israeli illegal settlements to circumvent IRS regulations are too numerous to insert here.

In some ways, American tax law is more lenient than Israel's. The settlement outposts receiving tax-deductible donations -- distinct from established settlements financed by Israel's government -- are illegal under Israeli law. And a decade ago, Israel ended tax breaks for contributions to groups devoted exclusively to settlement-building in the West Bank. So, here we have American non-profits funding what Israeli law prevents Israel's government from doing itself!!!

The U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control and the IRS have the regulatory authority to put an end to this charade. It behooves the Obama Administration to start putting its money where its mouth is, and give a green light to its agency officials to begin turning the screws to these American subsidizers of Israel's illegal settlement operations.

For all of the Administration's bombast against settlement construction, it has long known that U.S. non-profits have been the Israeli government's chosen vehicles to funnel foreign funds directly into illegal settlements, but has never clamped down. Why? No one is prepared to give an on the record response. What is Obama worried about? Congressional opposition? Perhaps. But there is no better, sure-fire way to clamp down on funding that falls within the sweet spot of U.S. foreign policy goals with respect to a future Palestinian state.

It seems to me that rather than engaging in endless acrimonious exchanges between the U.S. and Israel, why not begin taking action that is directed against American funders: homegrown, focused, effective, targeted, and makes the point without giving Netanyahu much pretext to cry foul. After all, we are talking about U.S. funds going to U.S. designated tax deductible recipients for seriously questionable purposes that have already been conveniently investigated and revealed in the media.

What invariably is missing from the Obama Administration's Middle East goals is a strategy and a plan to execute that strategy -- well here is one arrow to add to its quiver.

It's high time for the White House to stop complaining about settlements, and start doing something tangible about them. Tighten up those regulations. Clamp down on the offenders. Stop turning a blind eye to circumstances that totally contradict U.S. Middle East policy.

Those Americans who claim hefty tax deductions while funding these front organizations are doing the sullied work that Israel's government is prevented by Israeli law from doing itself. That is one inconvenient truth, Mr. Netanyahu, that Senator Moynihan would call a fact.

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