Precisely six months ago, on February 3, 2013, various political parties embarked on negotiations to form a new government coalition, with the new cabinet again headed by Binyamin Netanyahu. Uri Ariel, who headed the negotiating team of the Jewish Home and would soon gain the Housing portfolio in the new cabinet, announced at the outset: "The voters have spoken, they decided for an essentially civil agenda, and that will be the new government’s main business."
What exactly is a civil agenda? A lot of people gave the term a lot of different meanings and interpretations. Uri Ariel said on that day that a civil agenda would imply "for example, a greater concern for the poor, and budgetary issues which we would discuss with professionals". The government budget which was actually formulated a few months later, in consultation with economic experts of a specific school, actually included a lot of bad news for the poor, bearing the imprimatur of the new Finance Minister, Yair Lapid - also among the chief upholders of the Civil Agenda.
For Lapid, who entered into a close partnership with the Jewish Home Party to the extent of symbolically proclaiming himself “brother " to its leader Naftali Bennett, the Civil Agenda consists primarily of landing blows on the ultra-Orthodox – leaving them outside the cabinet, and on the other hand dragging them into the army. The law now passing its first reading would remove their exemption and get them all conscripted in four years’ time – that is, of course, unless the government which would then be in power decides to give them another respite of four or eight years ...
So what exactly is this Civil Agenda? It is easier to describe what it is not. A Civil Agenda is not about Palestinians, and settlements, and Territories. It has nothing to do with any of the confusing headaches which preoccupied and troubled Israeli society since 1967. All of this belongs to the Old Politics, which we at last left behind us. Anyway, the bad Old Politics have become irrelevant, because the Palestinians do not want peace and we have no partner and there will be no negotiations and if there will be some talks they would lead nowhere and the Two State Solution is dead and we need to think creatively about other solutions but there is no hurry since time is working in our favor and Israel is prosperous and the world has forgotten the Palestinians and we just need to manage the conflict rather than resolve it and of course we should devote ourselves to the New Politics of the Civil Agenda. This was how nearly everybody in our country talked for years.
Indeed, most of the political parties which gained an electoral mandate in January 2013 had avoided the Palestinian issue like the plague. For example the Israeli Labour Party and its leader Shelly Yechimovitz, who made sure to focus the election campaign on being Social Democratic, vowing to restore the Israeli Welfare State and dreaming of channeling the Social Protest Movement into a Labor Party electoral momentum and taking care not to stray into dealing with the Palestinians and the settlements.
This past week should have been Shelly Yechimovitz’s week, the moment for which she had waited and prepared for years, ever since she had gone over from journalism into politics. The sleepless night in the Knesset when the social militant Yechimovitz fought like a lioness against budgetary cuts and economic austerity and the cutting of social services. But in actuality the opposition filibuster ended with a whimper, and in the media it was pushed into the back pages by the dinner in Washington which marked the opening of the renewed negotiations with the Palestinians (was it just by chance on the very same day?). For the time being Tzipi Livni is the star, Livni whose party gained only six seats at the elections and whose insistence on getting the position of Chief Negotiator with the Palestinians had gotten her a lot of ridicule.
After all, it seems that the dream of emulating the European countries, where it is social issues that determine the difference between Left and Right, must be deferred until (and unless) we achieve peace. While attacking Netanyahu’s socio-economic policies, Yechimovitz has already promised him her party’s support on diplomatic issues against the rampant hawks inside his government and his own party.
The change in line was marked yesterday by Knesset Member Hilik Bar, Secretary General of Yechimovitz’s party: "Yesterday, Minister Naftali Bennett yelled at me in the plenum: 'Tell me, KM Bar, have you gone crazy? '. Bennett was out of his mind when he heard that I hosted a Palestinian delegation in the Knesset in order to jointly offer support for the negotiations just beginning between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Probably Minister Bennett does not really appreciate the idea of opposition members helping the cabinet of which he is a member in promoting and strengthening its own declared policies..."
The Jewish Home Party certainly does not feel easy or comfortable to be in a government which enters into negotiations with the Palestinians - and they are not any more entirely convinced, as they were during the formation of the government, that negotiations, if any, would lead to nothing. It was particularly difficult and unpleasant for them to be in a government which took the decision to release 104 Palestinian prisoners in order to facilitate the opening of negotiations.
These prisoners had been incarcerated in Israeli prisons for twenty or even thirty years, since before the Oslo Accords. They remained in prison for decades after the commanders who had sent them out had already shaken hands with Israeli government officials and some of them even got from Israel VIP certificates which ensure free passage through IDF checkpoints. Even so, after all these decades, the news of their impending release precipitated an outcry about "murderers with blood on their hands", and relatives of Israelis killed in the eighties made very emotional outpourings of pain which were published on the front pages of the mass circulation papers. Naftali Bennett and his party voted in the cabinet against the release of prisoners and were in the minority but remained in the government. Bennett contented himself with announcing publicly that while serving as a combat officer he had managed to accumulate quite a bit of Arab blood on his hands.
It might be noted in passing that the Palestinian cabinet had no need to hold an emotional debate on whether or not to release the Israeli pilots who threw bombs and killed 1300 people in Gaza - since these pilots never were in Palestinian captivity...
Anyway, what could and should one expect from these talks which began in Washington and which are intended to last for nine months and end in a final status agreement that would provide full and comprehensive solutions to all outstanding problems between Israel and the Palestinians? Did Netanyahu change his spots, would he, can he? Is Kerry going to push seriously and would he have the backing of Obama? Will the Europeans do their share by some sort of intensive pressure or at least a threat to use such pressure? Would Bennett eventually leave the government? Would Yechimovitz get in to replace him? The analyses and guesses and predictions and hopes and fears filled the media a few days, and even the commentators wearied themselves.
Only one thing was reported in unambiguous detail from the Washington event: The menu of the dinner eaten by Israelis and Palestinians and their Americans hosts in “a symbolic moment of peace and tolerance at the elegant Thomas Jefferson room”. Dinner consisted of sweet corn and shell bean soup, grilled fillet of Atlantic grouper, saffron Farro risotto and apricot upside-down cake, washed down with peach and mango iced tea.
Apart from the menu, everything remains ambiguous and mysterious and subject to rumors and conflicting interpretations. But one can assume that long before the end of the stipulated nine months we would get a clear idea if the whole thing is leading anywhere.
The last time someone promised an agreement within nine months it was Yitzhak Rabin, in the wake of being elected Prime Minister of Israel in 1992. He did not quite meet that timetable, but it was not significantly later when in September 1993 he did sign an agreement and make a symbolic handshake. It was an interim agreement which was to last for five years and end no later than May 1999 and be replaced with a permanent agreement. By May 1999, Rabin was no longer with us and we will never know if he would have met that deadline.
If John Kerry succeeds in actually implementing what he announced this week, the agreement will be signed at a delay of precisely fifteen years. Too late for thousands of dead, for many Israelis and many more Palestinians and quite a few Lebanese too. Still, it is definitely better late than never.
Maybe, maybe then at last we could start thinking of a real Civil Agenda.