Thursday, November 19, 2009

Letter From The Taxman

Sometimes the IRS or Mas Hachnesah (the Israeli equivalent) send out letters to a
taxpayer demanding hundreds of thousands of dollars, or shekels, in back taxes. These
letters are usually a complete surprise and result in the taxpayer quickly contacting
the IRS or Mas Hachnesah.

That was the government’s point: to get the taxpayers attention. Soon it becomes evident that the sums of money the government demanded in the letter were gross exaggerations. Once the dialogue begins between the IRS and the taxpayer the real reason for the letter becomes clear; some issue of back-taxes or another at a sum greatly reduced from the heart-stopping number in the first letter.

Pundits assume that this is the same tactic U.S. President Barack Obama is using with the Israelis when he makes the statement that the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo is a settlement.

Gilo has nearly 50,000 residents serviced by Jerusalem’s bus lines. Gilo residents pay their city taxes to Jerusalem. Gilo students attend Jerusalem schools. For all intents and purposes Gilo is part of the Jerusalem municipality.

During the Second Intifada that began in September 2000, Palestinians perched in nearby Beit Jalla and fired on Gilo. According to Wikipedia, “Between 2000-2002, during the first two years of the Second Intifada, there were over 400 shooting incidents targeting Gilo from Beit Jalla. Although Beit Jalla is predominantly Christian, it was infiltrated by Fatah's Tanzim gunmen, who purportedly positioned themselves in or near Christian homes and churches in the knowledge that a slight deviation in Israeli return fire would harm Christian buildings…. The shooting included gunfire and mortar attacks. Many civilians were injured and homes facing Beit Jalla suffered extensive property damage, prompting many residents to leave. The Israeli government eventually built a cement barrier and bulletproofed the outer row of homes. The shooting on Gilo ceased entirely only after Operation Defensive Shield.”

During that operation the IDF invaded the West Bank, including Ramallah, and captured Yassir Arafat, putting him under house arrest, and effectively ending the Second Intifada.
The head of Tanzim Mawran Bargouti was also arrested during that operation, and later convicted of murder. He is now serving several life terms, but is still talked about as a possible replacement for Mohammed Abbas, the current head of the Palestinian Authority.

Observers remember when sandbags appeared in the windows of Gilo apartments. When the Israeli government set up the wall of pre-fab cement blocks nine-feet tall stretching the entire length of Gila’s frontier with Beit Jala. The wall protected those Gilo citizens driving along the frontier street, as well as the pedestrians, some of whom were taking their children to the local school, and pre-school centers.

Palestinians snipers firing into Gilo from Beit Jala shot Israelis. One case was a 22-year old policeman who was shot in the heart. He languished unconscious in Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem for months, but miraculously recovered. Other shots ripped into a local day-care center. Cars traveling along a road beneath Gilo heading into the Gush Etzion block were fired at indiscriminately until the government put up the pre-fab nine-foot tall concrete blocks there as well.

The Gilo wall still stands. Local artists painted beautiful pastoral scenes on the wall. The government paid to have bulletproof glass put in the windows of those apartments facing Beit Jala.

Calling Beit Jala a settlement isn’t new. During the second Intifada some foreign news services referred to Gilo as a settlement, using statements like “Palestinian guerillas today fired at the Israeli settlement of Gilo,” giving the impression that Gilo was somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, on an isolated hilltop surrounded by pastureland, not a part of Jerusalem.

Gilo was captured by Israel from the Jordanian army during the 1967 Six-Day War, and sits over the 1967 ‘Green Line’. Other neighborhoods captured then were East Talpiot in the southeast, French Hill in the Northeast, and Ramot in the Northwest. Back in the 1980’s these new neighborhoods were referred to by Israeli Foreign Ministry officials as the ‘New Wall Around Jerusalem.’ They were meant to do exactly what Gilo did during the Second Intifada, absorb the enemy’s fire so it didn’t reach the center of the city.

Today the combined population of these neighboods exceeds two hundred thousand Israelis who think of themselves as living in Jerusalem. When the U.S. representatives visit Jerusalem, however, they are careful not to venture into these neighborhoods that the State Department has long-considered ‘occupied territory.’

During the Bush administration little mention was made of these neighborhoods being ‘occupied territory.’ Mostly they were considered a natural expansion of Jerusalem. Bush wrote a famous letter to then Israeli PM Ariel Sharon saying it recognized that there had been changes on the ground that needed to be taken into consideration when drawing up final boundaries. Former Premier Ehud Olmert said Bush talked about 1967 plus when talking about borders.

But dissension over settlements always existed even in the Bush administration. According to a Jan 2008 article, the Jerusalem Post reported on an upcoming visit by then U.S. Sec of State Rice saying that the “US has consistently opposed all construction beyond the Green Line, including inside Jerusalem.”

A compromise was apparently worked out with the Obama administration to leave the large settlements, like Ariel, Karnei Shomron, Beit El and Ofra, alone. Lumping Gilo in as part of the definition of settlements was, according to some analysts, meant to get the attention of Israel’s P.M. Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu.

During P.M. Netanyahu’s last visit to the U.S. much was made of the lack of a photo-op at the close of his meeting with President Obama. The Israeli media fell over themselves dissecting the reasons for this apparent ‘snub.’ The consensus was that Netanyahu was not as forthcoming on the settlement issue as Obama expected. And that Netanyahu was in no great rush to negotiate a final peace agreement with the Palestinians, public statements to the contrary.

Today’s Israeli press made mention of the announcement that only 400 Jewish leaders would be invited to the White House for Hanukah celebrations, opposed to the usual 800. “Cold shoulder to the Jewish community” was how the Jerusalem Post described the downsizing of the event.

Some observers say this could lead to a very dangerous situation if the trend to ignore the American Jewish community gathers momentum. By minimalizing the Jewish community’s importance Obama could wind up marginalizing that community. Some in the Jewish Community believe it is only their influence that has kept the Jews in America safe and productive. History has shown, say the oberservers, the difficulties that could arise should the Jews become helpless and vulnerable.

Some time back the Israeli press wrote that Obama’s Chief-of-Staff Rahm Emanuel told the President that the only way to get the Israelis to do anything about peace was to play hardball. One commentator in today’s Israeli papers said that Obama may be paying too much attention to his aides who themselves don’t know what is really going on in the Middle East, just what they think, or want to think, is going on.

Some critics go even further, stating that Obama has assembled a team of sophomoric idealists who have not outgrown their unrealistic concepts held when they were part of the anti-Israeli radical-left back in the 60’s. Today, the critics say, these idealists have aged, grown wealthy, but still hold onto unrealistic goals. The sophomoric approach, the critics say, also applies to the economy. Rather than opt for employment schemes as FDR did during the Great Depression in the 30’s, the Obama administration is looking for ways to cut government jobs, creating even high unemployment. These same critics say that Obama seems primed to make all the wrong moves at the right time.

Moreover, columnists like the New York Times’ Tom Friedman have written on a few occasions that Obama doesn’t have the right take on the Middle East, and that anyway he should be focusing on issues like the economy rather that falling into the trap of thinking he can solve the problems of the Middle East in a few months.

The latest flap over Obama’s people calling Gilo a settlement is in the same vein. No serious politician on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict really expects Gilo or any of the other new neighborhoods, the “New Wall Around Jerusalem” to be given up.
Yossie Beilin, one of the authors of the 1993 Oslo Accords, and former head of the left-wing Meretz party, says that Jerusalem is not part of the settlement issue. (Construction within existing settlements was permitted under the Oslo agreements, although the Palestinians later demanded no construction. Analysts say that demand effectively stopped any possibility of negotiations, a situation that continues until today.)

So sending out shocking messages to get attention isn’t always the best way to break a deadlock, or further negotiations. In this instance some say it is more that some college kids broke into the tax authority and started having fun sending out prank letters.