Saturday, May 30, 2015

An international roller coaster

Palestinian boys in Nabi Saleh village present a Red Card to an Israeli lieutenant 
Photo: Issam Rimawi

The Eurovision Song Contest, held annually among the member countries of the European Broadcasting Union, is very important to Israelis. Is perhaps more important to them than to the Europeans themselves. Israelis want very much to be part of Europe. It is important to Israelis who originally came from Europe, and perhaps even more important to Israelis who originally came from countries outside Europe. It is important to Israelis  to be part of the Eurovision Song Contest, as it is important to them to be part of the European Soccer Championships and the European Basketball Championships and the European Association of Scientific Exchanges and numerous other European organizations and associations. It is only the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg which most Israeli citizens would prefer stay away from (at one time, this court  strongly criticized the acts of the British army and security services in Northern Ireland…)

This is a tremendous manifestation of reaching out across borders, linking hands between different countries, different cultures!" announced the three moderators to the crowd of thousands at the huge hall in Vienna and the audience of millions at their TV screens at home. Some doubt can be cast on the inter-cultural part, given that almost all the songs were sung in English rather than the national language of the participating countries, and that song after song seemed all derived from a single culture – a rather shallow culture, originating in the United States of the Twentieth Century, though the Americans themselves did not take part in this European event.

Also the song "Golden Boy" sung there by the young Israeli  Nadav Guedj  did not deviate much from this rule, the main Israeli element in it being the refrain "Let me show you Tel Aviv." Before Guedj came on Israel, like the other participating countries, got a chance to present two minutes of its characteristic landscapes to the audience of millions across Europe. In the Israeli footage, a few seconds of  the hotel-lined beach of Tel Aviv flashed across the screen, followed by a long leisurely shot of  alpine vistas of a snow-covered mountain complete with cable car taking skiers to the summit – undoubtedly the most European landscape which Israel could present. No one bothered to mention to European viewers that this was in fact snowy Mount Hermon, part of the Golan Heights which Israel captured from Syria and whose unilateral annexation aroused at the time strong reactions from Europe. Of course, as long as the Syrian Civil War lasts, Israel has a respite from pressures to  give back that particular area.

In truth, even if there was not very much of a real bridging of cultures, this musical event did see some bridging political differences. Despite all the tensions around Ukraine, the Russian song (in English) garnered  considerable  support and was in lead for much of the competition, though eventually overtaken by the Swedish song (in English).

In all, the Israeli public felt satisfied with their Guedj, who managed to gain 97 points and ended at the ninth place in Europe. "I feel that I won, it was an experience greater than life, an enormous experience, I was told that people in the streets were talking about the song contest, I got a lot of likes on Facebook and people wrote nice compliments like 'With God's help you have warmed the hearts of the entire Jewish People'. One can sum up that in the political universe we are in a bad international situation but in the universe of music and interpersonal relations, Israel is much beloved and desired”.

For a moment the political universe did threaten to invade the podium of the Eurovision Song Contest. The Hungarian Singers who presented at the contest  the song "Wars in Vain" originally intended to illustrate their anti-war message with a clip of slides referring to specific wars in the past year and the number of their victims – included among other things, the words "Gaza 2014:  two-thirds of the victims were civilians, including over 500 children”. But the Israeli Ambassador to Budapest had taken decisive action in time, approaching the Hungarian government and pointing out that political statements are not allowed in the Eurovision. It worked, and the offending video clip was censored, and the European viewers were spared the reference to the children killed in Gaza.

Tzipi Hotovely, who was appointed as Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister when Netanyahu decided to keep this portfolio in his own hands, came up with a different approach to Israel’s position in the international arena. Upon taking office she convened the senior diplomats charged with representing Israel around the world, and urged them to play down the argument that Israel needs the territories it occupied in 1967 for security reasons. Instead, they should say loud and clear that the land belongs to the Jews since God Himself promised it to them. Hotoveli provided the diplomats with a quote from the great commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shalomo Yitzchaki). Already in his lifetime in Medieval France – so explained the new Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs - Rashi foresaw that one day the Jews would need to justify their rule over the Promised Land. When faced with moral arguments by the Palestinians, who complain that their land was stolen from them and that they live under oppressive occupation, representatives of the State of Israel should simply cite the clinching counter-argument provided by Rashi – simply, that at the very moment of the Creation of the World, God already designated this land for the exclusive use of the Jews and them only. Reportedly, the veteran Israeli diplomats were not really enthusiastic about the new PR line offered by their new boss. For his part, Prime Minister Netanyahu quickly appointed his loyal Dore Gold as Director General of the Foreign Ministry. Gold is considered a political hawk, not favorable to the Palestinians, but religious arguments in politics are not his forte.

US President Barack Obama did not mention Tzipi Hotovely in his speech at the Adas Israel Synagogue in Washington, nor in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in “The Atlantic ". He did express his growing concern with the direction Israel is going: “When I think about how I came to know Israel, it was based on images of … kibbutzim, and Moshe Dayan, and Golda Meir, and the sense that not only are we creating a safe Jewish homeland, but also we are remaking the world. We’re repairing it. We are going to do it the right way. We are going to make sure that the lessons we’ve learned from our hardships and our persecutions are applied to how we govern and how we treat others.(…) I want Israel, in the same way that I want the United States, to embody the Judeo-Christian values and, ultimately then, what I believe are human or universal values that have led to progress over a millennium. The same values that led to the end of Jim Crow and slavery. The same values that led to Nelson Mandela being freed and a multiracial democracy emerging in South Africa. (…) There has been a very concerted effort on the part of some political forces to equate being pro-Israel, and hence being supportive of the Jewish people, with a rubber stamp on a particular set of policies coming out of the Israeli government. So if you are questioning settlement policy, that indicates you’re anti-Israeli, or that indicates you’re anti-Jewish. If you express compassion or empathy towards Palestinian youth, who are dealing with checkpoints or restrictions on their ability to travel, then you are suspect in terms of your support of Israel. If you are willing to get into public disagreements with the Israeli government, then the notion is that you are being anti-Israel, and by extension, anti-Jewish. I completely reject that.”

Several ministers in the Netanyahu cabinet started an outcry about "Obama interfering in the internal politics of Israel ". The same was also given a banner  headline in Netanyahu’s mouthpiece,"Israel Today “. However, quite a few people on the opposite side of the political spectrum were  less than impressed by the President‘s impassioned worlds, given  the large shipment of arms which Obama promised to Israel immediately following the inauguration of the new government. Moreover, the United States took care to nip in the bud Egypt’s efforts to convene a conference for nuclear disarmament of the Middle East. The Egyptians’ aspiration to have the US demand of Israel the same which is demanded of Iran was dismissed by American officials as “completely unrealistic”.

This week a friend of mine, a Liberal American Jew, got a unique opportunity to speak a few minutes alone with President Obama, and then to continue the dialogue with him in the framework of a small and intimate audience. As she later said: "I דsaid that I wanted to talk to him about the Palestinians, that they are living in hell'. He paused with this sympathetic look on his face and said “I know” in a strong voice. And I said, “I was sure you would say that.” But then, in front of the entire group, he said “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict which is a mess, and will continue to be a mess for a very long time. I have consulted with my generals and the CIA, and we all believe that Israel needs our armaments and all the money we give because she cannot be vulnerable to terrorism”. My friend came out of the meeting with the President feeling acutely sad and disappointed. However, it should be noted that in this meeting – as on other occasions - Obama kept a poker face on the most sensitive issue: is he, or is he not, going to veto the draft resolution which France intends to submit to the UN Security Council in September? Under the proposed French text, the line of June 4, 1967 would be declared the basis for peace border between Israel and Palestine. Before going seriously into all that, Obama clearly intends to complete the agreement with Iran – with the target date of June 30 fast approaching, and a tough fight on Capitol Hill expected to follow.


The Civil Rights struggle of Black Americans is of fundamental importance to President Obama and his supporters, among whom Liberal American Jews are prominent. As it happened, in the direct aftermath of the President's interview Haaretz published a commentary entitled "The line connecting the Palestinian worker with Rosa Parks”.

The occasion for that was the long-lasting, extensive lobbying by West Bank settlers, demanding that Palestinian workers returning home from work in Israel be prevented from using the public transportation in which settlers travel. "For the safety of our children and teens, the young boys and girls from Samaria, it is unacceptable that they be forced  to travel daily in these buses daily along with thousands of Palestinian workers. It is very dangerous to their safety and the Arabs also sexually harass our girls!" declared settler leader Gershon Mesika. Due to the pressures exerted by the settlers, Defense  Minister Ya’alon announced a "test run" of a new plan, whereby West Bank buses would be reserved for settlers only, while  Palestinian workers returning from work in Israel (with permits duly issued by the army and security services...) would be forced to a more tortuous route and go through security checks, prolong their way home by an average of two hours.

Publication of the plan sparked a wave of angry responses. Peace groups and left-wing parties in Israel raised their voices, as did international bodies - and as also did former Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar, who six months ago positioned himself as a potential successor to Prime Minister Netanyahu and who periodically tries to cultivate a "liberal" image. A blatantly displayed separation of buses was the last thing Netanyahu needed on the eve of a crucial visit by the European Union's Commissioner of Foreign Affairs – and within a few hours, Netanyahu summarily instructed Ya'alon to cancel the separation program.

The road connecting Beitin and other Palestinian villages northeast of Ramallah to the city of Ramallah gained much less media attention - hardly any at all. Fifteen years ago, during its effort to suppress the Second Intifada, the army blocked this road to Palestinian traffic and reserved it for the travelling of settlers only - and not just ordinary settlers, but residents of the Beit El settlement, where many leaders of the “Judea and Samaria Council" live. The Palestinians needed to take longer and more difficult routes in order to get to the city. This week the army announced that, “as part of easing the living conditions of the Palestinians", it will allow Palestinian traffic on this road for the first time in fifteen years – though only for private cars, only in one direction, and only provided that Palestinians drivers "give right of way to settlers’ cars". After one day and following a stormy demonstration by the Beit El settlers, the army announced that “the experiment failed”, and military bulldozers were sent to pile rocks and once again block Palestinian access to this road.

All this happened on the day that Prime Minister Netanyahu met in his bureau with the European Union’s Federica Mogherini. The distinguished guest asked the PM  to manifest “a positive attitude conductive to the reopening of negotiations”. Netanyahu responded with the surprise announcement that he would be prepared to discuss the demarcation of the "settlement blocs" in which the State of Israel would be allowed to build and extend settlements. Until now, Netanyahu (like his  predecessors) rejected out of hand any demand to define the boundaries of these  "blocks" - because any attempt to demarcate them drew howls and outcries of protest from settlers who were left out.

Had Netanyahu really changed tack? Or is it convenient for him to make proposals regarding hypothetical negotiations with the Palestinians, knowing that there is virtually no chance of such negotiations taking place? One of the key conditions which Palestinians put for resuming negotiations with Israel is a complete freeze of construction in all settlements, blocks or no blocks. In such negotiations the idea of a territorial exchange might  come on the agenda. The Palestinians might consent to the annexation by Israel of some portions of West Bank territory, containing some settlements - provided that Israel cede in exchange some land within its pre-’67 territory, equal in its size and quality. Following such an agreement, an understanding might be reached that Israel will build legitimately on land which it would retain, and that the Palestinians could also start building on land earmarked to be passed over to them... All of this does not seem a very realistic vision under the current Netanyahu government, whose very narrow parliamentary majority depends on several extreme right-wing nationalists.

Indeed, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel of the Jewish Home Party rushed to protest: “If indeed the Prime Minister told the EU representative what the media reported, this offer creates a dangerous precedent and is clearly contrary to the first clause of the Cabinet Program – stating that the Jewish People have an unquestionable right to a sovereign state in Eretz Israel, our national and historical homeland ". Netanyahu did not seem really disturbed by the criticism of Ariel. Indeed, it might have even given him a greater credibility towards the Europeans. Will this be enough to halt European projects which Netanyahu does not like, such as marking settlement products entering the European market or even blocking them altogether? And how would it affect the French intention to submit the famous draft resolution to the Security Council? The French Foreign Minister is next in line among the distinguished visitors expected to call on Netanyahu next month.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians continue what has been dubbed "The Diplomatic Intifada", and this week the headlines were taken by their effort to get Israel excluded from the International Soccer Association, FIFA. Jibril Rajoub, head of the Palestinian Soccer Federation and a prominent candidate to eventually replace President Mahmoud Abbas, has brought up a series of charges: the blocking of Palestinians players moving between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, or to the outside world; manifestations of anti-Arab racism in Israeli football; and most especially – the participation in the Israeli soccer league of five clubs based in West Bank settlements. "Doomsday for Israeli football?" cried the morning papers’ headlines. "Suspension from FIFA would be a tsunami, we would not be able to play in the World Cup qualifier, nor compete in any international soccer  enterprise, Israeli players will not be able to play in foreign clubs and foreign players will not be able to come here," warned the veteran sports Ya’acov Er’el.

But suddenly a storm came up from a different direction. Coincidentally or not, the rumors which circulated for years about corruption and large-scale bribery in the International Soccer  Association ripened to an open police investigation, just on the eve of the vote on the Palestinian motion to suspend Israel. The Swiss police conducted a raid on the offices of FIFA, confiscated documents and placed several senior officials in custody. "The US is not a soccer power football, but there is a high-profile FBI  involvement  with the FIFA investigation, the Americans demanding that the suspects be extradited from Switzerland and be tried in US courts.”  

Nevertheless, the tense debate of the Palestinian proposal continued throughout the day, with pro-Palestinian protesters besieging the Zurich FIFA headquarters and occasionally trying to break in, and rumors circulating about the struggles behind the scenes. The 75% majority needed to resolve on the suspension of Israel alternately seeming closer or further away from the Palestinians’ grasp. And suddenly, Rajoub mounted the podium to make a dramatic announcement: "The representative of South Africa, whose opinion I  highly appreciate, has asked me to withdraw the motion. So did dozens of delegations from Africa, South America and Europe. Therefore, I decided to withdraw the motion. This does not mean I give up the struggle".

Instead of the resolution to suspend Israel, for which they evidently did not succeed in mustering the required majority, the Palestinians managed to pass a resolution on the establishment of a supervisory committee of FIFA to look into fulfillment of the Palestinian demands, especially with regard to the five settlement clubs playing in the Israeli soccer league. This vote passed with a vast majority for the Palestinians - 165 support, compared with 18 opposed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to declare that "the Palestinian provocation had failed", and Sports Minister Regev called it “a great victory". But the Foreign Ministry experts were less enthusiastic. "At the moneytime, when you drag Israel into a confrontation on vital issues such as the threat of suspension from FIFA, from the IFF, Israel knows how to create international alliances to thwart the Palestinian move, even in cases where the Palestinians seem to have an assured  majority" was what senior diplomat Yuval Rotem, who had coordinated the Israeli diplomatic struggle on the FIFA issue, told the Y-net news website. He added, however: “Creating this deterrence comes at a high price: it leads to an erosion of Israel's status, it forces Israel to spend too much political credit, and puts Israel in a position where she must beg for the help of friends. It is a bad situation that this  campaign has gotten into the sphere of sports at all. While the battle for FIFA was decided the 90th minute, it is clear that the main battle is still ahead. Rajoub wears three hats - President of the Palestinian Soccer  Association, Sports Minister and Chairman of the Palestinian Olympic Committee. There are Olympics in a year. It started in football today, tomorrow it can be volleyball, handball and basketball. We have to stay on our toes and realize there is now a political dimension to Israeli sports. Also in other sports there are clubs and teams based in settlements. Once we have gotten in this kind of dynamics, they will try to entangle us and embarrass us again and again is such campaigns.

By pure chance, the dramatic FIFA vote coincides with date set for the protest march in Jerusalem initiated by Israeli peace and human rights groups to mark the 48th anniversary of the occupation. To the slogans originally resolved upon for this march can now be added: When you occupy and oppress, you can’t play soccer quietly’

End the occupation! Stop the separation!

No to oppression, violence and racism!

Yes to freedom and equality!

Protest March in Jerusalem, Sat. May 30, 2015.

8.00 pm – setting out from the Zion Square

9.30 pm – conclusion of the march, rally outside the Bew Gate in the Old City wall (Tzahal Square)

The lives and fates of over four million men and women in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem are shaped by occupation and separation.

Minors arrests; house demolitions; political persecution and the suppression of the right to protest; over 400 administrative detainees; military violence against women; restrictions to the freedom of movement; lands theft; cutting out water supply; sexual harassment in checkpoints; revocation of residency; collective punishment.

Total violation of human rights

After a year in which our public sphere has been flooded by acts of violence, a year which seen a brutal attack on Gaza and a gruesome and bloody war. Yet another year in which occupation continued and racism intensified. Another year in which the security budget and the budget for the settlements grow while the economic situation in Israel has deteriorated

Especially now, after a new and more racist government has been elected, we all must protest

Marking 48 year for the 1967 occupation, we say end the occupation. We will stand together to remind the residence of Jerusalem, who face daily threats of eviction, demolition or arrest, that there is a different voice and a different way.

We will stand together, because there is no social justice without ending the occupation.

Participating groups:

AIC- alternative information center
coalition of women for peace

Combatants for peace

Daam- workers party
Gush Shalom

Hadash- Democratic front for peace and equality
Israel Social TV

Maan-workers union
Machsom Watch
Movement of Democratic women in Israel
New Profile
Socialist struggle movement
Two flags, One future

Peace NGO forum
Yesh Gvul movement
Women In Black