Wednesday, February 5, 2014

At SodaStream, Palestinians Hope Their Bubble Won’t Burst. By Elhanan Miller.

Sodastream CEO Daniel Birnbaum stands next to Palestinian and Jewish employees, February 2, 2014 [photo credit: Elhanan Miller/TOI].

At SodaStream, Palestinians hope their bubble won’t burst. By Elhanan Miller. The Times of Israel, February 3, 2014.

Seeing SodaStream for myself. By Simon Plosker. The Times of Israel, February 3, 2014.

Demonizing Israel; Demonizing ScarJo. By Jonathan S. Tobin. NJBR, January 28, 2014. With related articles and video.


A manual worker at the settlement-based factory that sparked the Scarlett Johansson controversy, Nahida Fares of Ramallah earns triple the pay of her husband, an officer in the PA.

MISHOR ADUMIM, West Bank — The SodaStream factory, situated just off the highway leading down from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, was abuzz on Sunday with journalists from across the globe trying to get a glimpse of the action.
The tour of the carbonated beverage-maker plant was organized especially for curious foreign correspondents on the eve of the Super Bowl, which featured an ad starring its glamorous spokeswoman Scarlett Johansson. The factory, SodaStream’s charismatic US-born CEO Daniel Birnbaum proudly declared, used to produce munitions for the Israeli army. It was bought in 1996 by the fizzy drink start-up, seeking to better the world by doing away with polluting plastic bottles.
A statue at the entrance to the plant, Birnbaum pointed out, encapsulated the company spirit with the immortal words of the prophet Isaiah: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
SodaStream’s business has grown exponentially since Birnbaum was hired by the private equity firm that bought the company in 2007. Under the previous management, SodaStream manufactured 20,000-30,000 counter-top soda machines a month. Now it produces that number every day.
As SodaStream’s global market expanded, so did its need for manual laborers. Today, the Mishor Adumim plant — the first of eight Israeli locations and 22 worldwide — employs 1,300 workers; 950 Arabs (450 Israeli and 500 Palestinian) and 350 Israeli Jews. Salaries and work benefits — management asserts and workers confirm — are equal for all workers in comparable jobs, regardless of ethnicity or citizenship. The factory secures Israeli work permits for its Palestinian employees as well as rides from their home and back, SodaStream’s Chief Operating Officer Yossi Azarzar told The Times of Israel.
Proponents of the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanction) campaign posit that any Israeli business located beyond the 1949 armistice frontier known as the Green Line is by definition exploitative, in addition to being illegal under international law. They castigated Johannson for representing the firm; she rejected the onslaught — declaring that “SodaStream is a company that is not only committed to the environment but to building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine” — and resigned as an ambassador for British-based charity Oxfam when they critiqued her role.
Birnbaum, the CEO, was clearly cognizant of the dispute. He spoke of Jewish-Arab coexistence as he stood next to a veiled young Arab woman working on the assembly line across from an older woman with a black head covering who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union in 1993.
Zooming in on Birnbaum and the two women, the camera crews and microphone-holding reporters overlooked another young Palestinian woman standing nearby, fitting plastic valves into a large metal tray. Nahida Fares, 28, graduated Nablus’s A-Najjah University in primary school education. She began working for Israeli companies two years ago, when she could find no work in her field in Ramallah, where she lives with her husband and infant child.
“There are no job opportunities in the West Bank,” Fares told The Times of Israel. “Even the jobs that do exist pay no more than NIS 1,500-2,000 ($430-570) a month.” Fares now earns triple those sums.
Many educated women like Fares were forced to seek work outside the home following the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000 to support the household as the Palestinian economy collapsed, she explained.
Fares’s husband, a first lieutenant in the Palestinians’ prestigious Preventive Security Force, earns NIS 2,000 ($570) per month after 10 years of service.
Given the relatively low levels of political violence in recent years, the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) has increased the number of work permits granted to Palestinians by some 37% between 2010 and 2012. Still, Palestinian men must be above the age 24 and married with a child to be eligible for work permits within Israel. Israeli workers’ unions do not protect Palestinians from exploitation by employers, critics note.
To work in a settlement, however, a Palestinian man need only be older than 18 and have no negative security record. To work in Israel, Palestinians must apply to the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority; to work in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank (like the Mishor Adumim industrial zone) they must apply to the Civil Administration, the branch of COGAT entrusted with Palestinian civilian matters. A COGAT spokesman told The Times of Israel in a written response that 24,000 permits are given to Palestinians wishing to work in the settlements on average every month. More than double that number (49,250) were allowed to work in Israel in January, mostly in the construction industry.
Fares, for instance, first began working at a laundromat in the Mishor Adumim industrial zone (where SodaStream is located), but left because of management mistreatment. At SodaStream she is much happier, working a 12-hour shift from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and receiving a 15-30 minute break for every two hours of work. Food in the cafeteria is great, she said, as she showed me the valve that she boasted is “the most important component of the soda dispenser.”
Another employee, Sa’ida, 28, began studying Hebrew in her hometown of Jericho but only started using it at the plant, where she first came in contact with Israeli Jews. Jews and Arabs mix freely here, she noted; “they even change clothes together,” she said, and blushed.
While declining to discuss the political ramifications of her sensitive employment at Mishor Adumim (working in settlements is illegal under Palestinian law), Sa’ida said she and her colleagues were wondering why SodaStream had been singled out by the media from all the other companies in the industrial zone.
“It’s because of Scarlett Johansson,” she was told.


When asked about the effect of the BDS campaign on SodaStream’s business, Birnbaum pointed to 30-40% growth over the past five years. The people who pay the price for boycotts are the Palestinian workers themselves. Some Scandinavian countries have demanded that their SodaStream products be sourced from elsewhere, instead preferring that they get their goods made in that beacon of human rights, China. Were it not for a boycott like this, the Mishor Adumim factory would employ more Palestinians.
Asked about the current controversy and publicity, Birnbaum stated that it is convenient and popular to demonize Israel and that NGOs such as Oxfam were more concerned with attacking Israel than dealing with human rights. After all, what would be achieved if SodaStream were to lay off hundreds of Palestinians leaving them jobless with no way to feed their families?
Birnbaum also accused Oxfam of funding groups responsible for the BDS campaign.
I was tremendously impressed with Daniel Birnbaum’s commitment to peaceful co-existence and SodaStream’s practical role in promoting it. While the boycotters may wish to see the factory closed down, he would not let his workers down.
Less impressive, however, was the line of questioning from many of the journalists. The same people who had just met with and interviewed Palestinians happy with their lot were still unable to get beyond their preconceptions. It seems that even if Birnbaum were to throw wads of free cash for the Palestinians, it wouldn’t be good enough for them.
In their eyes, the welfare of ordinary Palestinians is secondary to the wider consideration of cleansing Jews from the West Bank. Sadly, some of the journalists’ worldview evidently isn’t that far from that of the BDS movement.

Israelis, Palestinians, and the Status Quo. By Tom Wilson.

Israelis, Palestinians, and the Status Quo. By Tom Wilson. Commentary, February 3, 2014.


With Secretary of State Kerry gradually unveiling his proposal for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is worth asking what it is that Kerry seeks to solve. The present situation is certainly far from ideal. Yet, most Israelis feel safe most of the time and most Palestinians don’t live under “occupation”; they live in areas controlled and governed by the Palestinian Authority. In the last decade this conflict has generated comparatively fewer casualties than those in nearby countries and if one doesn’t count Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon or Hamas-controlled Gaza, which are after all not even being included in Kerry’s peace plan, then the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of recent years has been positively uneventful. A cold war between Israel and the PA.
For most Israelis and most Palestinians the present situation is tolerated with the understanding that this is not a permanent arrangement. What each side thinks a permanent arrangement should look like, however, is still vastly different. In this way the unresolved nature of the standoff leaves open the hope for each side that their vision will win out. Drawing from this, there are those on the two sides that prefer perpetuating and advancing the status quo, even if only as means of keeping open the possibility of achieving more far-reaching objectives in the long run. For these parties it has essentially become about playing the long game. For each the hoped-for future remaining just out of reach.
While the Palestinian population in the West Bank is clearly far from happy with the status quo, it also seems that they prefer an outcome that is unachievable as things stand. Electoral support for Hamas and polling of Palestinians in recent years would suggest most Palestinians either reject the two-state proposal outright, or they believe two states should be used as a step toward eventually eliminating the Jewish state. The dream of seeing Israel ended and Palestinians return in its place has remained prominent and unaltered, constituting the core of Palestinian identity ever since it was formed in the aftermath of Israel’s establishment. This is what most Palestinian politicians continue to express support for–in Arabic at least–and it’s what they broadcast on their television networks and teach in their schools.
The Palestinian leadership also has multiple practical reasons for maintaining the status quo. For one thing, they have long grown fat on the financial aid and sympathy that comes with playing the part of the ever-destitute nation. They are also confident that under the status quo they are better able to advance their strategy for weakening Israel, chipping away at its international legitimacy while believing that demographics are ultimately on their side. With every round of negotiations they have been able to win more concessions from Israel, the consensus about the final-status parameters gradually drifting in their favor. When new talks begin it is with Israel’s previous concessions assumed as given, with the expectation that Israel now agree to further demands. The division of Jerusalem and land swaps being a case in point. Each time the amount Israel is obliged to offer increases.
The Israeli public became sick of policing the West Bank decades ago. The electoral success of those promising to end the impasse has been persistent, even in the face of unrelenting Palestinian terrorism. However, this hope for peace accompanied by the constant background noise of violence against Israeli civilians creates a strange kind of cognitive dissonance. Israelis find themselves unwilling to stay with the present arrangement, while not quite able to embrace a new one.
Land-for-peace compromises only served to weaken Israel’s security, undermining the left-wing peace camp, adding weight to the arguments of Israel’s security hawks who, like many Israelis, still hope for a complete and definitive defeat of Palestinian terrorism. These voices insist that given current Palestinian attitudes and incitement, for now it is safer to manage the conflict than attempt to solve it. For such an agreement would mean evacuating the strategically vital Jordan Valley and abandoning the West Bank hilltops that overlook Israel’s narrow coastal strip where its major population centers, industrial infrastructure, and transit network are all situated. Israel would have to do this knowing a Palestinian state has every likelihood of turning out to be another failed state, a terror state and an Iranian satellite. Far better, they argue, to have the IDF in the West Bank, keeping Hamas and Islamic Jihad at bay, while strengthening the Jewish presence in the settlement blocks ensures that the areas most vital to Israel’s future will be retained in any agreement.
In this way the unhappy status quo at least leaves open the possibility to people on both sides of eventually achieving their most precious objectives. The problem with Kerry’s final-status plan is that it threatens to permanently slam the door firmly shut on these hopes. We have already seen what unsettling the status quo looks like. It was during the Oslo years that suicide bombers first ventured into Israel’s cities. Equally, the failure of the Camp David peace talks in 2000 played no small part in unleashing the horrors of the second intifada.
Israel and the PA have already agreed to disagree, for now. Kerry may yet come to wish he’d left well enough alone.

Welcome to Sochi: Beware the Water. By Stacy St. Clair.

The accommodation and facilities complex, under construction in Sochi, with the Bolshoi Ice Dome in the background, on December 2, 2012. Construction is due to be completed by August 2013 according to organizers. (Reuters/Pawel Kopczynski).

Welcome to Sochi: Beware the water. By Stacy St. Clair. Chicago Tribune, February 5, 2014.

St. Clair:

SOCHI, Russia — The alarms sounded every 45 minutes, with a stern Russian woman advising that a fire had been reported and the hotel needed to be evacuated immediately.
I believed it the first time.
And the second.
I might have fallen for it a third time Tuesday morning, if I hadn’t thrown caution to the bone-tired, jet-lagged wind and decided to stay in bed. Whatever would befall me, it had to be better than wandering along the western Caucasus Mountains in my pajamas.
It was already 5:50 a.m. and I couldn’t fall back to sleep so I figured I would just begin my day. I turned on the water to brush my teeth, but nothing came out. Just the gagging, asthmatic sound of pipes wanting to produce water.
I tried to flip on the shower. It wouldn’t work. The toilets wouldn’t flush either.
I called the front desk.
“It will be fixed in 40 minutes,” the sympathetic man at the reception desk told me. “But when it comes back on, please do not use on your face because it contains something very dangerous.”
Welcome to Sochi 2014, the dystopian-like Games where a simple shower poses a threat to your face, fire alarms ring constantly and several hotels remain unfinished. Russian President Vladimir Putin spent more than $50 billion on these Games — the most expensive Olympics, winter or summer, ever — yet he seemingly forgot to pay the water bill.
No one likes to hear sportswriters complain about their hotels. I’m not a sportswriter, so believe me when I swear that I mock those whiners right along with you.
But this is different.
The Sochi Olympics aren’t just a sporting event. They represent Putin’s pride, his metaphoric muscle flexing in an effort to show the international community just how virile his country has become under his leadership. He dared the world to admire Russia’s ability to produce these Games, so we must.
And, in some respects, the effort looks extraordinarily weak.
Only six of nine media hotels were finished on time, leaving hundreds of reporters scrambling to find temporary lodging.
When the water eventually came back on at my hotel — my temporary housing for a night until my scheduled room could be finished — the water that poured through the faucet was dark yellow. It was the color of apple juice or a performance enhancing drug test specimen. The shower left what looked like fish food flakes coating the tub.
I took a picture of the water and tweeted it out.
“On the bright side,” I wrote, “I now know what dangerous face water looks like.”
My tweets about the water went viral — more than 1,500 people have retweeted it — not because I wrote something exceptionally clever, but because I pointed out the annoyances that many here have endured.
One of my colleagues, for example, went to his assigned hotel room only to find an AP photographer already sleeping there. Others have dealt with a lack of hot water, sheetless beds and baths without shower curtains.
“Congrats to @Dave _Schwartz only media personality who’s arrived in Sochi with a hotel room that’s ready, with doorknob that doesn't fall off,” Minnesota Wild spokesman Ryan Stanzel tweeted.
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach told reporters Monday that 97 percent of Sochi hotel rooms were delivered without a problem. Only 3 percent of the rooms — about 750 total — had some kind of a problem, he said.
“I have some travel experience and I know how embarrassing it is when you arrive after a long flight to a place and your room is not ready,” he said.
I’m not sure why Bach thinks I should be embarrassed by my ‘bathroom faucet spitting urine-colored water. First of all, I ended up washing my face with bottled Evian water, which made me feel like a Kardashian.
And, second, it’s made me extremely popular among my fellow journalists here in southwestern Russia. I’ve received tweets in Russian, German, Danish and languages I have not yet determined.
On a bus down the mountainside Tuesday night a Swedish photographer came up and asked if I was the person who tweeted the hotel photo.
“You are the dangerous face water woman, right?” he said.
I am now. Thanks a lot, Putin.

Sochi hotel tells our reporter: Don’t let dangerous water touch your face. By Scott Kleinberg. Chicago Tribune, February 4, 2014.

The Disaster That Is My Sochi Hotel: Stacy St. Clair had quite the morning in Sochi. By Kate Seamons. Newser, February 5, 2014.

15 signs that Russia is not very ready for the Olympics. By Caitlin Dewey and Max Fisher. Washington Post, February 5, 2014. Also here.

Stacy St. Clair tweet. Twitter, February 3, 2014, 7:02 PM. 7:57 PM. 8:00 PM.


Stacy St. Clair, Chicago Tribune.

Putin Pets a Persian Leopard. By Stephen R. Hurst and Nataliya Vasilyeva.

Putin, Persian leopard in pitch-perfect photo-op. By Stephen R. Hurst and Nataliya Vasilyeva. AP. AOL, February 4, 2014. Also at The Christian Science Monitor.

Putin and the snow leopard: Russia’s leader pictured stroking a big (tame) cat as the country prepares to host the Sochi Winter Olympics. Daily Mail, February 4, 2014.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin caresses a Persian leopard cub as he visits the Persian leopard breeding and rehabilitation centre in the National Park in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, on February 4, 2014. (ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images.)

Stephen Walt Is the George Kennan of the Obama Administration. By Lee Smith

As George Kennan Inspired Truman’s Foreign Policy, Now Stephen Walt Inspires Obama’s. By Lee Smith. Tablet, February 5, 2014.

Plenty of pundits have jockeyed to be the top voice on the Middle East, but only one person’s ideas dominate the conversation.

Stephen Walt is Not Obama’s George Kennan. By Zachary Keck. The Diplomat, February 10, 2014.

Slouching Toward Offshore Balancing. James R. Holmes. The Diplomat, February 9, 2014.

From Preponderance to Offshore Balancing:America’s Future Grand Strategy. By Christopher Layne. International Security, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Summer 1997).

Saeb Erekat and Tzipi Livni Clash Over Historical Narratives at the Munich Security Conference.

Erekat, Livni argue history at Munich meeting. Ma’an News Agency, February 2, 2014.

World should punish “racist” Israel, PA official says. By Gavriel Fiske. The Times of Israel, February 4, 2014.

The Talks, Round Two. By Roger Cohen. New York Times, February 3, 2014.

Saab Erekat: Palestinians Were Here Before the Jews. NJBR, February 3, 2014.

Breakout Session: The Middle East Peace Process. Video. Munich Security Conference, January 31, 2014. Livini-Erekat exchange starts at 50:55. Erekat’s remarks/tirade on his historical narrative as a proud son of Jericho with roots 5500 years before Joshua ben Nun start at 58:35.