Saturday, August 17, 2013

Bloodshed and basketball

Mohamed El-Baradei found out that he had gotten himself into trouble. Baradei, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate who had been at the head of  the Cairo crowds protesting against the rule of President Mubarak, and again two years later against President Morsi. A month and a half ago Baradei and his fellows openly called upon  the Egyptian Army to overthrow the hated Morsi Administration and seize power. Baradei also agreed to serve as Vice President in the government appointed by the army. But this week, at the sight of the blood spilled in the squares, Baradei understood that he had let himself become a fig leaf for a brutal regime of military dictatorship.

This is not only true for Baradei, but for all the liberal secular Egyptians, who had made Tahrir Square into a global symbol of the struggle for freedom and democracy. By supporting  the military coup they had turned themselves into extras in the play in which they had been the main actors, condemning themselves to be crushed  between two millstones - the army and  the Muslim Brotherhood.

Itzhak Levanon, who had been Israel's ambassador to Egypt and who is now considered an expert, strongly condemned  Baradei for his "weakness". Levanon  said that he had been wrong to resign and should have "fully supported" the killing of the  Muslim Brother demonstrators by the Egyptian army. In general, the Israeli government seems nowadays to be General el-Sissy’s most steadfast supporter. As commentator Alex Fishman disclosed in "Yediot Aharonot", the government did its best in Washington, invoking the full authority of the AIPAC lobby so as make sure that the mass killings in the streets of Cairo would not impair the regular flow of generous U.S. aid to Egypt and its government and its armed forces.

The killings in Egypt pushed off the headlines the first meeting of the resumed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, which took place on the same  evening in Jerusalem. In any case it was not hard to push to the background an event which was so deliberately kept low-profile. Probably just by coincidence, it was nearly on the twentieth anniversary of the first Oslo Agreement, that famous handshake on the White House lawn. On this anniversary, not marked in any official way, there started a new round of negotiations, arousing little hope and a lot of doubts. The low profile meant that there were few photos taken  (in future sessions, we are told, there will be no photos at all). No information was provided on what Livni and Erekat spoke about, other  than that the talks had been "serious."

All that seems quite intentional. To hold meetings and discussions (and serious negotiations?) below the media radar, without attracting attention, without media briefings (also no unofficial leaks?). To hold sessions – once in Jerusalem, then in Jericho - to which nobody would pay attention any more. And in nine months? A surprise announcement of an agreement which nobody  expected? Or the anticipated death notice, to which the response would likely be "What? Were these negotiations still going on"?

In the absence of concrete information from the negotiations room, the Israeli media centered on the side effects, especially the release of Palestinian prisoners. One hundred and  four prisoners are to be released from the prisons and detention camps of the State of Israel, of which twenty-six were freed this week , the rest to be released (or not) in later months, subject to the course of the negotiations and to other developments in our unpredictable region. One hundred and four prisoners, who were incarcerated since before the Oslo agreement of twenty years ago, some of whom had been behind bars for nearly   thirty years. It had not been all that hard for Binyamin Netanyahu to obtain a majority in the cabinet for the decision to free these prisoners. Still, the mass-circulation daily papers gave huge front page coverage to very small demonstrations of the kind which usually gets no mention at all. News editors competed for the most belligerent of headlines: "The Black List: terrorists with blood on their hands to be set free", "Bereaved families cry out: The wound has been reopened, the heart bleeds, this is a black day"; "Now it has been proven that over here there is no penalty for murderers"; "The murderer of my brother should have been killed, even Kerry could not get a dead terrorist released”; "Under cover of darkness, the killers are set free! ";  "Going back to negotiations - with a heavy heart".

"I tried to find a spoonful of justification for the murderers, not only for their own sake but also for myself" wrote commentator Dan Margalit on the pages of "Israel Today”.  "After all, if they had killed because of an ideal, if in their own eyes they are freedom fighters, it is slightly easier to accept the injustice done to the victims and the bereaved families. I tried to find a spoonful of justification, but I could not; they are too vile, like lepers of whom nothing good can come. Such they are, and they are different from us. That is the truth, even if it sounds condescending. There were none like them in our history. "

Away from the big headlines, in the sports sections in those same newspapers, there was a news item of another kind, sober and far from impassioned. There is an ongoing  debate in Israeli sporting over whether Dan Halutz should be appointed as Chair of the Israel Basketball Association. Some say that Halutz is a highly capable man who could make an important contribution to promoting basketball in Israel. Others argue that with all due respect, it doesn’t make sense to appoint to a crucial leading position in Israeli Sports a person  with no experience in this field, a person whose qualifications and experience are limited to the military, to having been  Commander of the Air Force and   then Commander in Chief of the IDF.

It is noteworthy that the phrase "blood on the hands" was completely absent from this particular debate. Nobody bothered to quote one of the most well-known of Dan Halutz’s utterings: "When the bomb left the plane, I felt only a slight bump on the wing. I sleep very well at night."

The bomb which had caused just a slight bump on the wing and which failed to disturb Dan Halutz’s later sleep was a one-ton bomb thrown off an Israeli Air Force jet flying over Gaza City on the night of July 22, 2002. A one-ton bomb intended to kill Hamas leader Salah Shehadeh and which incidentally also happened to kill fourteen of his neighbors and family members, including eight children.

All of these facts about Dan Halutz are well known and uncontested, easily located by two minutes’ Googling. These facts are at least just as widely  known as the acts for which 104 Palestinian prisoners got life sentences in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. But this week, there was none of the reporters or news editors bothering to search out or mention the dark patches in the past of the new basketball manager Dan Halutz.

The media did talk quite a bit of the counter-balancing measures taken by Netanyahu and his ministers, so as to sweeten the bitter pill of the release of the despicable Palestinian prisoners. A virtual flood of settlement construction permits, 1200 housing units and another 900 for good measure and the status of "national priority areas" and various other subsidies and benefits. "This is just the appetizer, a lot more will follow” promised Housing Minister Uri Ariel, and he is known as a person who means what he says.
Yedioth Ahronoth reporters Oded Shalom and Akiva Novick went out on the ground, visiting four settlements and finding construction going on at full swing in all of them.

At the entrance to the settlement or Revava, in the northwest part of the West Bank, the two journalists found huge signs bearing the words "Revava Groves, spacious apartments with five rooms and a courtyard, at a special price", under which were Biblical verses emphasizing the Divine Promise and Historic Rights of the Jewish People over the Land of Israel, as well as  computer simulated images of a large detached house surrounded by a green lawn. "It is a huge success. We sell these apartments at a million and three hundred thousand apiece, in Petach Tikva the same would cost a minimum of two millions. Everything we put on the market was snapped up immediately, if we  get more building permits we can easily sell twice as much" said entrepreneur Reuven Gur Aryeh – a former Deputy Chair of the settlers’ Samaria Regional Council, who had moved to the private sector and found the golden path to combining ideology and profit. "Do you not mind that the project you are now marketing is causing the world to feel upset?" asked the reporter. "Do you mind if I speak candidly?” asked Gur Aryeh. "The world is upset? My ass!"

"The World" in this context refers particularly to the EU Commission in Brussels, whose functionaries have become fed up with ineffective verbal  protests at ever-new Israeli settlement projects. For the first time, they have taken concrete steps. Three weeks ago, the EU proclaimed that Israeli participation in European scientific projects could take place solely within the internationally recognized boundaries of Israel, and that institutions located or active in settlements would not be eligible to European grants. Without the Government of Israeli officially acknowledging  and strictly applying this  limitation, Israeli researchers and academic institutions could end up barred from the EU’s highly desirable "Horizon 2020" scientific program, altogether.

Over the past week scientists, researchers and university heads have been crying out ever more desperately. As they point out, government intransigence  over settlements and “National Honor” could lead to 300 million Euros in  grants will just go down the drain - about forty percent of the total research budget available to Israeli academia.

It seems these researchers now do take seriously the things which upset the world. .