Friday, November 30, 2012

From Hebron to East-Timor - and back

It looks already long ago, but the incident happened this month.  It was totally forgotten because of  the stormy events through which we went immediately after.

November 7, Israel Katz, Minister of Transportation in the Government of Israel, left his office in Jerusalem and under the protection of the Israeli Defense Forces went to the city of Hebron which is forty five years under the military rule of the State of Israel. Located in the heart of Hebron is an enclave of settlers, who are considered as rather   extremist even by other settlers, but with whom Katz has very cordial relations. Among other things, they promised him their support in the primary elections of the Likud party. At Hebron, Minister Israel Katz inaugurated a new highway, created for the exclusive use of settlers and linking their enclave at the heart of Hebron with the settlement of Kiryat Arba to the east.

Thirty million Shekels from the treasury of the State of Israel had been invested in the construction and upgrading of this highway. It was given a clear priority and precedence over other highways which are under the responsibility of the Minister of Transportation of the State of Israel, highways whose users do not command a solid block of voters in the Likud primaries and whose construction does not constitute a blatant political act. Yes, construction of this highway was not just a part of the humdrum daily routine of the Ministry of Transportation. Katz certainly admitted it – indeed, he was quite proud of the fact.

At the festive ceremony in the presence of all the settler leaders, Katz declared: "We are today giving a clear answer to Abu Mazen - Hebron is our home, that is not subject to talks". A few days earlier the Palestinian Authority President had been interviewed on Israeli TV and expressed views that quite a few people here considered particularly moderate (too moderate to the taste of  some Palestinians). Katz, full of humor and good cheer at the decisive counter-blow he was landing on
Abbas' peace offensive, recalled that the settlers' Hebron highway had originally been called "The Patriarchs' Highway", but to please the  Feminists the honorable minister insisted upon it being changed to "The Patriarchs' and Matriachs' Highway".

The settlers, in their publications, mentioned and noted with great satisfaction this ceremony in Hebron. The regular media did not really pay attention. As it happened, this was exactly the same time that Israeli soldiers penetrated into the Gaza Strip and entered into an exchange of fire with armed Palestinians during which a stray Israeli bullet hit the boy Hamid Abu Daka and killed him, setting in motion the cycle of retribution and counter-retribution and counter-counter-retribution, in which six Israelis and one hundred and fifty Palestinians got killed.

Fortunately for Katz and the other contenders in the Likud primaries, the indirect negotiations conducted between the government of Israel and the Hamas leadership in Cairo led to a ceasefire in time for the Likud primaries to be held. Polling stations were erected in the settlements, to give settlers the full opportunity to take part in the democratic process that would deeply affect the fate of the nearby Palestinians, and in which the Palestinians themselves were offered no part. And the settlers came in great masses to the polls and gave their generous support to all who had benefited them and who vowed to continue doing so in the future. Minister Israel Katz, like others of the settlers' friends and well-wishers, scored high on the list.

On the other hand, Minister Benny Begin was removed from the list of candidates, and will not be in the Knesset after the next elections. Not that he opposes settlements, God forbid. There is none to equal him in staunch support for the Greater Israel. But he did dare to assert that when settlers take over a plot of private Palestinian land in a manifestly illegal manner, and when the Supreme Court in Jerusalem orders them to vacate such a plot, it is incumbent upon them to obey the court's ruling. From now on, clearly, no Likud Knesset Member will dare to say any such thing.

It was not only Minister Katz who at Hebron gave a clear and very rude  answer to the peace offers which Abbas had put before the citizens of Israel. The entire Likud party - the ruling party of Israel which has a good chance of being the ruling party also after the January elections – repeated the same answer in its choice of parliamentary representatives. But Abu Mazen had at his disposal a response of his own to this answer, and last night this response was granted a large majority at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Last night - an exceptionally joyful demonstration in front of Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, where the State of Israel was proclaimed sixty four years. One by one the speakers mounted the podium, new and veteran peace seekers. All praised the Family of Nations' recognition granted by a large majority to the State of Palestine in the 1967 borders. Sufian Abu Zaida, who came from Gaza, was received with thunderous applause. Red and green signs declared "Palestinian state - an Israeli interest", "67 is not just a number" and "Bibi, Say Yes!".

A week ago, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Foreign Minister  Lieberman still entertained the hope of forming a block of "The Moral Minority", composed  of Western democracies, which would staunchly oppose the Palestinian initiative. For after all, these countries had just given their backing to the glorious Cloud Pillar Operation, and they all repeated the mantra that the State of Israel has the right to self-defense and that no country would tolerate the firing of missiles at its cities. But it happens that those countries also back the Palestinian aspiration to establish an independent state, and consider that no people would tolerate living under occupation for forty-five years and having its lands  confiscated for the construction and expansion of settlements. It might even lead to the cautious conclusion that Palestinians, too, have some right of self-defense against this occupation. And thus, Israeli diplomacy  suffered an unprecedented defeat, and the European countries either openly supported the establishment of the State of Palestine, or abstained.

And really - what now? This morning, after a night of celebrations and fireworks in Ramallah, Palestinians got up to another day of occupation, of humiliation at roadblocks and settlements which continue to grow and expand. The State of Palestine is recognized by the UN, but is not to be seen on the ground. On the ground nothing has changed, as the Prime Minister of Israel declared this morning. (And in this, skeptical Palestinian agree with him – and proclaim that "Israel understands only force").

Is it, then, a meaningless statement? That is what Indonesia also thought, when the UN recognized a new nation called East Timor. For years after this resolution was taken, Indonesia contemptuously ignored it, and the Indonesian military ruled the territory of East Timor with terrible brutality. Yet today, and already for several years, East Timor is an independent and sovereign state, which was yesterday among  the supporters of establishing the State of Palestine. The same when the United Nations resolved to establish a country called Namibia in a territory which remained under South Africa's military rule for quite a few years after the United Nations adopted this resolution, and later when the  UN resolved to put an end to the racist Apartheid regime in South Africa itself. Only recently, the UN recognized a country called South Sudan, which after a harsh and cruel war became a solid reality. Experience shows that the UN is far from a sham, and that resolutions taken at the General Assembly in New York have a habit of eventually assuming a solid body on the ground (this is, it should be remembered, precisely how the state of Israel itself came into being…).

Meanwhile, today we witness an example of what settlers and their friends call "an appropriate Zionist response". No less than three thousand housing units to be built all over the settlements, the State of Israel under Netanyahu giving the finger to the entire world - to the delight of the newly elected Likud parliamentary candidates.

If the polls are right and the Likud Party will retain power after January next elections, it seems Binyamin Netanyahu will have no more fig leaves left. Ehud Barak will no longer be Defense Minister, and could no longer be sent out as acting Foreign Minister to places where Avigdor Lieberman is not welcome. In his next term, Netanyahu will have to face the world alone; no more real or supposed Liberals to hide behind. "Israel moved right, but the rest of the world moved to the left," wrote one commentator this morning.

So where are we headed? It seems towards a head-on collision, possibly a very big bang. It is certainly not going to be boring.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

After the ceasefire

I give here the floor to my wife Beate, who shared with me the week of war in the sometimes targeted Holon. The following was originally written in Dutch, as a blog for the EAJG site (Een Ander  Joods Geluid / A Different Jewish Voice).

A snake in the grass

The ceasefire brought about a very strange experience:  I agreed with the government.  And that  after a week of pent-up anger against  that same government.

To begin at the beginning:  For the umpteenth time skirmishes around the Gaza border had taken  their toll – with deaths on the Palestinian side, while Israelis suffered  damage, and hours of fear. But it seemed last Tuesday to be really over. Not only was such an  impression given by ministers. Also, the Israeli negotiator Amos Gil'ad went November 14  to Cairo to officially announce that Israel regards   this round to be over. If we hadn’t known it already, it was confirmed  today in the Ma'ariv newspaper that this had been a  deliberate deception. Thus, the Hamas General Ahmed al Ja'abri was seduced to the fatal car ride with  his son – al Ja’abri’s car was subsequently hit by an Israeli precision bomb . In his pocket, the proposal for a long-term ceasefire that had to be worked out in further negotiations. Unofficial negotiator Gershon Baskin, in ordinary life a peace activist, was furious and could no longer keep quiet.

Meanwhile we people of the region went through a thousand fears, counting  hundreds of dead and injured , and the cultural and economic heart Tel Aviv has become part of the Gaza shooting range – not to speak  of  the exploded bus hours before the ceasefire.

And now those same negotiations for a longer-term truce just pick up where they left off. No wonder that Israelis wonder what Israel actually won with its show of force. During the days of warfare you heard criticism against the government only from the handful of "peace-fanats"  to which I count myself. Now I tend to defend  the government against  those who claim that "we should have continued and should have torn Gaza   to pieces"  instead of  "allowing Hamas the victory". Hamas representatives also  saw themselves as the victors, and the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip,  after a week of continuous day and night bombing , were in jubilation now that it was over  .

So, I am glad that Netanyahu & Co dared to interrupt the war euphoria, and this time not to exceed the limits of the American ally, and actually awarding a success  to Morsi, the new Egyptian Muslim Brothers president.  But I fear that there is a snake in the grass. It may lead to the Likud winning  votes in the "pragmatic center" while the ultra-right parties grow, in other words the right block will further gain strength. All that without Netanyahu sacrificing even an inch of  the occupied West Bank. And, maybe the new pragmatic Netanyahu would find it also easier to get Obama on his side for the absolutely ‘surgical and controlled’ attack on Iranian nuclear  targets. 

Beate Zilversmidt , Holon 22.11.12

Friday, November 16, 2012

Sirens and protests

The alarm sounded when we were at the corner of Frishman Street, twenty minutes before the demonstration against the war. The first alarm in central Tel Aviv. I was among those who ran to the nearest stairwell. There is only a small statistical chance the missile will fall exactly where you are. This morning two men and a woman in Kiryat Malachi sitting on their balcony thought they could ignore the sirens. They are dead.

But then, the civilians killed in Gaza:  the three children under the age of four whose photographs were spread widely on Facebook (but not in the Israeli media). Did they even get any warning? Had they any safe place to run to?

In the stairwell we heard a dull explosion, and the radio said it fell in an open area in the Bat Yam suburb. “Is there at all any open space among the crowded buildings of Bat Yam? "Maybe it fell in the cemetery”,  someone thought.

"Will the demonstration be held at all, in such a situation?" "Come on! One missile is not going to deter us who have decided to go against the current and demonstrate against the war. At worst, if there is another alarm, we will run with the signs to a safe place and return after five minutes." However, the new situation did affect my mother, who is 83 and needs a walker but with indefatigable fighting spirit. She had to give up her intention of coming to the demonstration, which considerably frustrated her.

At Dizengoff Square a group of young people were sitting on the benches and debated loudly. "No, I tell you again, you cannot eliminate them. We need another solution" we heard one persistent voice. It would have been interesting to continue listening but we were already late.

Already from a considerable distance it was possible to hear the voices,  resounding through the King George Street: "Jews and Arabs / refuse to be enemies!" and "The people demand / stop shooting!" at the cadence of the Social Justice protests of last summer. Like a breath of fresh air after the ongoing undiluted war propaganda which fills the airwaves. Hundreds of demonstrators on the sidewalk opposite the Likud Party, incessantly chanting: "In Gaza and Sderot / children want to live", "Bibi Netanyahu resign / For the sake of the South", "War is the right-wing government's electoral spin", "Jews and Arabs / refuse to be enemies","No no to war / Yes yes to peace","Arabs and Jews / Together against the war ","Give the funds/To slums and welfare/ Not to new wars"," No to the war of the tycoons ","The people demand / not to be occupiers"," Sderot and Gaza do not despair / we will end the occupation".

On the other side of the street, at the foot of the Likud building, stand  the right-wing counter-demonstrators. It is very hard to hear them. For a moment it was possible to make out that they were singing the National Anthem Hatikva and waving Israeli national flags. There are also some such flags on our side. A young man in a green shirt waves a big Blue and White flag while chanting "Stop shooting!". On the old tree in the middle of the road, which was here long before it was Tel Aviv, press photographers are hanging with cameras aimed both ways.

The Hadash Communist Knesset Members take the megaphone. "We are here, Jews and Arabs, to cry out: Stop the killing, stop the bloodshed! Netanyahu tries to stabilize his rule through war, Palestinians in Gaza and Israelis in Kiryat Malachi pay the price" said Mohammed Barake. Dov Hanin calls out: "War and a cycle of violence are not the solution, they are the problem. This war will not bring peace and quiet to residents of the South nor to the people of Gaza. The only way to break the vicious cycle is through dialogue." Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz was seen in the crowd, but did not speak. "It's better than last time, in 2009 it took Meretz more than a week to come out against the war" said one activist.

People from the south take the megaphone to the sound of prolonged applause. "We are sitting closed at home, hearing the launches and explosions from both sides passing over the roof. Those are our neighbors, five kilometers away. Who decided that they must be our enemies?" Says Ya'ala Ra'anan from Moshav Ein HaBsor, followed by Nir Hefetz of Kibbutz Nirim: "I heard the alarm here in Tel Aviv and before that at my home. My children went to their grandparents to get some rest. I want to say to the Netanyahu Government - stop playing with us, stop playing with our fate, stop conducting power games with us as playing chips!". And Emanuel Yariv of Beersheba: "We in the south are paying the price. It is time to stop this madness. The army has no solution, the only solution is negotiation and a political settlement." After each speaker the chanting arises again, "Jews and Arabs / refuse to be enemies / refuse to be enemies / refuse to be enemies!"

All that was last night. And since then there had been a tense and quiet night (should we return to the routine of the 1991 Gulf War and sleep with clothes on, ready to jump and run to the stairwell?). And again  a missile was fired at Tel Aviv, and today also at Jerusalem, to the chagrin of Jerusalemites who thought that Palestinian East Jerusalem and the Muslim holy places gave them immunity.

The Israeli media reported at very great length the many missiles fired at the south which fortunately did not cause any more Israeli casualties today. Very little report of the Palestinians killed in Gaza (29 deaths so far). The injured Palestinians that fill the Shifa Hospital got no mention at all (about two hundred and fifty wounded). Tahrir Suleiman, aged 22, was this morning at her home in Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip. An Israeli aircraft dropped a bomb and the house was destroyed. Palestinian rescue teams extracted five members of the family from the wreckage. Tahrir Suleiman died in hospital a few hours later, doctors continue treating the other four family members. If it were an Israeli family, all this would have gotten banner headlines in every newspaper in Israel with huge news stories full of pathos about the tragedy of this family. But she was a Palestinian, so those who get  their information from the Israeli media will never hear of her. And if by chance they do hear of it, the government has already explained that Hamas uses the civilian population as human shields, so of course they are to blame.

Meanwhile, the cabinet approves calling up 75,000 reservists. and soldiers interviewed on TV all sound very gung-ho and belligerent, waiting  impatiently for the moment they would plunge into street fighting in the alleys of Gaza. A representative sample? British Foreign Secretary warns that a Gaza ground invasion could bring an end to the European backing which Netanyahu so far enjoys. And what would Egyptian President Morsi do, who sent his Prime Minister to Gaza and made angry irritated statements but so far avoided irreversible damage to the peace agreement with Israel?

Meanwhile, on TV tonight former Army Chief of Staff Dan Halutz spoke in a moderate and restrained tone, strongly urging caution in Gaza – very different indeed from the cocksure and arrogant presentation at the time he conducted the 2006 war in Lebanon.

The Combatants for Peace group is holding tomorrow afternoon a joint march and rally of Israelis and Palestinians, calling together for an end to  this murderous madness. The struggle continues.

(...) We, Israelis and Palestinians, oppose the use of violence as a means of resolving conflicts between nations, and see this as the main problem and obstacle on the way to ending the conflict. We share in the pain and grief of the bereaved families on both sides.

Tomorrow, Saturday Novermber 17, we will hold a joint protest event, where we will together call upon the leaders:

Stop shooting!

We will start with two marches, an Israeli an a Palestinian one, from two different points near Beit Jala (in the C Area of the West Bank) and meet at an agreed point for a joint protest rally and a call upon leaders to cease the fire immediately.


Buses will leave from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, according to the following schedule:

Departure from Tel Aviv Arlozorov St. Railway Station, adjacent to the "Shlomo Sixt" parking lot: 14:45
Departure from Jerusalem, Teddy Stadium, near the western tiers: 15:45

Start of the marches: 16:00
Converging of the marches and rally: 16:30
Approximate departure time for the return: 19:00


Monday, November 12, 2012

A country at war rarely spares a thought for the children of the enemy

A bit more than a week ago, people from communities in southern Israel wrote a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak:

"We, members of 'The Other Voice' from the communities near the Gaza Strip, urge the Government of Israel to stop playing with our lives, and immediately open diplomatic contacts with the Hamas government! We are tired of being sitting ducks in a shooting range serving political interests. Missiles from there and bombing from here do not protect us. This country has tried long enough, over years, the games of war and of brute force. Both sides have paid, and are still paying, a high price of suffering and loss. It's time to talk and strive for long-term understandings which will enable citizens on both sides of the border to live a normal life".

'The Other Voice' is a group of residents of Sderot and Gaza Vicinity communities, who maintain an ongoing contact with residents of the Gaza Strip, and promote neighborly relations and dialogue, in the south and throughout the country.

At the time when this letter was written, there was no escalation cycle going on at the Gaza border, and the issue was not really in the headlines. But there was no need to be much of a prophet to realize that it would get back into the spotlight, sooner rather than later. Especially when you live in that area.

On Thursday last week, Gaza was still not in the news. The headlines dealt mainly with the results of the U.S. elections and their implications for Israeli politics. And a smaller news item told of the collapse of a shopping mall in Accra, capital of Ghana, and of many people being trapped in the rubble, and of the Israeli Defense Forces mounting quick and efficient mobilization to get a rescue mission on its way there within hours, and of three Ghanaians  saved by our soldiers from the rubble. Indeed, a model humanitarian act, which could well warm the heart of an Israeli citizen, fill it with joy and pride.

Gaza was not on the news last Thursday - but the Israeli Defense Forces are busy with Gaza every day, headlines or no headlines.  At the same time that the IDF rescue mission to Ghana went on the plane, Israeli tanks and bulldozers were crossing the Gaza Strip border fence into the Palestinian side, and above them flew helicopter gunships. There was a lot of shooting and counter-shooting and counter-counter-shooting, and during this shooting the bullets from an Israeli machine gun hit a piece of land east of Khan Younis, where boys were at that time playing football.

The machine gun of a tank, or one mounted on a helicopter? We will probably never know and it does not really matter. The important thing is that one of the bullets hit the head of a thirteen year old boy named Hamid Abu Daqqa, and a few hours later he died of his wounds in hospital.

The office of the IDF Spokesman told inquiring foreign journalists that the soldiers had not deliberately aimed their weapons at the boy. And indeed, It is not likely that any Israeli soldier would consciously and deliberately shoot a boy playing football. But still, the boy is dead and buried.

What did the citizens of Israel have to say about this tragic case? The truth is that most citizens of Israel had simply not heard about it at all. Their mass media forgot to tell them, news editors just did not really feel that a dead Arab boy was news. Then came the harsh surprise. On the day after the boy's funeral some Palestinian faction fired a missile at an IDF jeep which was going about its ordinary business of driving along on the patrol road. Four soldiers were wounded and taken to hospital, and full-page articles in the media described the incident in great detail and also provided medical bulletins on the condition of each one of the soldiers. As is right and proper in a country which cares greatly about soldiers who are sent into battle.

The IDF responded immediately and furiously to the wounding of the four soldiers, and in the massive artillery shelling were killed four civilians while sitting in a mourning tent on the east side of Gaza City, and whose families now are even deeper in mourning. This was reported in the Israeli media tersely and with little detail. Without mentioning, for example, that three of those killed were teenage boys. Certainly no editor in Israel considered it worthwhile to mention the 17-year old Mohammed Hararah, who was not hit by the first shell, but ran  to help the wounded when another Israeli shell landed and killed him instantly. That's not really news.

And yesterday there was already a heavy barrage of rockets falling down on the Israeli communities around Gaza and the air raid alarms sounded again and again, and residents ran for cover, and luckily no one was killed. In the media there was much furious talk about the intolerable situation in the communities of the South and of the children growing up in a terrible state of daily anxiety.   No one spoke of the conditions under which children grow up in Gaza, and of those who had the day before yesterday witnessed the death of their brothers.  Which is not surprising because a country at war rarely spares a thought for the children of the enemy. (Tomorrow night an activist group plans to meet in front of the Prime Minister and hold a candlelight vigil, holding signs with the names of the people killed in Gaza, the names which the media did not publish. It will probably not be popular.)

And this morning on the radio morning news bulletin there was a whole string of senior politicians from all the mainstream parties, and they all said that we must strike a painful blow and teach Hamas a lesson and destroy the terrorist infrastructure and more of the usual clichés. And Minister Avi Dichter, the ex-director of Shabak security service, made use of software terminology "reformat the Gaza Strip." But in the meantime, the same government also continues its intensive media campaign calling upon  Israeli citizens to convince their friends and acquaintances abroad to come as tourists to Israel. "Every tourist who comes here spends money, creates jobs and improves the image of Israel in the world," stated the special website opened by the Ministry of Tourism. Is this government going to start a big war  in Gaza? To fill the television screens around the world with images of blood and fire and pillars of smoke, and after the war, maybe have a new Goldstone Commission investigate and ask uncomfortable questions? Not so likely.

So what is going to happen? Probably the shooting will continue for some more days, and perhaps some people who are still now living and breathing will already lie in their graves. And then a shaky cease-fire will be set up and life will return to normal and Gaza will disappear from the news pages and we will go back into the confused hubbub of the elections campaign. Like in the previous round on the Gaza border and the one before and probably the next one, too.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Night of Hope

A few hours and many cups of coffee after a night which seemed like an eternity. The CNN non-stop on the screen and experts arguing  and maps with red and blue spots. Swing states and swing counties in the swing states. Instant lessons in the physical and human geography of Virginia and Florida and Ohio. Here the countryside always votes Republican and the big city there is a Democrat bastion and here live many Blacks and there the number of Hispanics increased in the past decade and in this location Bush won in 2004 but Obama did in 2008 and there might develop a big surprise. And in Florida it was 50% against 49% when a quarter of the votes were counted, and the same when half were counted and when it was three quarters, and suddenly the gap narrows and then widens again, and would Obama's advantage be maintained and when at last would the count be finished in the counties south of Miami, and how long can one stand this tension?

And in the end there was no need to wait for Florida because the die  was already cast in other places and the crowds were celebrating in the dark streets of Chicago while here in Holon in the State of Israel the light of the quiet early morning was already streaming through the window and this decision which was taken overseas will affect our destiny here, no less and perhaps more than our own Israeli elections come January. And on the screen Mitt Romney made a respectable speech and how good to spare him a moment of a generous victor's sympathy, and in another year we will hardly remember who he was. And how wonderful that Sheldon Adelson's hundreds of millions have all gone down the drain and that the Jewish pensioners in Central Florida were not really impressed with the special elections broadcasts recorded by Binyamin Netanyahu.

In a way the achievement of Barack Hussein Obama last night was greater than his achievement four years ago. Then, he was widely regarded as a savior, almost a Messiah, and was swept to power on enormous  waves of enthusiasm. Since then, he has many times disappointed those who voted for him and those who looked up to him. By now, everybody  knows he is no Messiah nor does he posses any magic wand, and that he certainly does not succeed in everything he tries. Yet at the crucial moment  the Blacks came out, and the Hispanics and the Jews and the women and the Ohio auto workers, and also quite a few of the maligned White Men, and they all gave him a chance to achieve in four more years, what he didn’t so far.

And also we here in Israel, who had no vote in these elections, we shared in the dashed hopes. The impressive speech in Cairo and the high-profile clashes with Netanyahu which somehow always ended indecisively, while the settlement freeze dissolved. And the grand confrontation in the summer of 2011, when Obama proposed negotiations based on the 1967 borders and Mahmoud Abbas agreed immediately and Netanyahu burst out in a furious attack in  Congress and got a standing ovation and Obama shelved all the ideas and plans until after the election. After the elections is today.

Yesterday "Yediot Ahronot" had a large headline: "Netanyahu fearful of an Obama victory". Below it was written: "Tension in Israel towards the US  elections. Due to Netanyahu's support for Romney, the PM's aides are apprehensive that Obama, if re-elected, might take vengeful steps. To the contrary, a Romney victory would put the wind in the Prime Minister's sails.   (...) Officials believe that Obama's anger against Netanyahu is so great that Obama would try - indirectly and perhaps also directly – to sabotage  Netanyahu's elections campaign in Israel. There is concern that during the [Israeli] campaign, Obama would voice public criticism of Netanyahu and embarrass him. In addition it is feared that Obama would stop providing automatic backing to Israel in international forums dealing with Israeli policy in the Territories. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a private conversation that in her opinion, after the Israeli elections there would  appear an opportunity to revive the talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and that the Obama Administration will be deeply involved if the President wins a second term.

At noon today, Netanyahu sent Obama a letter of congratulations (what else could he have done?)

Last week I expressed the hope that it might be the American voters would make for the State of Israel the decision which our political system is evading for forty-five years already.  Not everyone who read it was enthusiastic about this passage. Some argued that I was spreading false hopes and that President Obama and his party would never seriously confront Netanyahu, neither in his first term nor in the second one.

It is quite possible such criticism would prove justified; that also this time, Obama would disappoint those who still cherish hopes, Israelis and Palestinians and others of good will who care about the future of this country and this region. It is quite possible. But it is also possible that he would surprise and astonish the sceptics, as yesterday he surprised and astonished the US Republicans and their Israeli supporters and the learned commentators who prematurely wrote him off.

At least, now we will get to check all this empirically.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

A week of democracy

This year there was a fierce struggle over the character of the memorial rally for Yitzhak Rabin. Those who emerged with the upper hand, especially the youth movement identified with the Labor Party, decided to make a drastic change in the rally's content and agenda.

It was nineteen years ago that Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister of Israel, shook the hand of Yasser Arafat, Head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. A ceremony on the White House lawn aroused great hopes, which since then dashed again and again. Seventeen years ago to the day, on November 4, 1995, three shots sounded in a square at the heart of Tel Aviv and Yitzhak Rabin paid with his life for that handshake.

Every year since then, tens of thousands are gathering in this same square to commemorate that murder. At such rallies, speakers used to talk of a life work which was cut off prematurely, and about the peace which was not concluded and the occupation which did not come to an end. Often, also, they pointed an accusing finger at the opponents of peace and supporters of the occupation, at later Prime Ministers who failed to follow through on what  Rabin had started. Quite naturally, there were those who felt they had no place in the Rabin memorial rallies – those who did not want this peace – not during Rabin's life nor after his death, those who do not want the occupation to ever end, and who  want the settlements to continue intact for generations to come.

This time, however, things would be different.

"This is not about the traditional division of Left and Right. There will come all who are united in demanding  that democratic decisions be respected. The memory of the Rabin murder will provide the impetus for creating a Jewish and democratic state, it will provide the motivation for struggle against all forms of racism, against any incitement to bloodshed (...). We believe and hope that focusing the rally on such fundamental issues, rather than on a wistful longing for the policies of Rabin, will in the long run facilitate the attendance of the rally by broader audiences. Anyone to whom Israeli democracy is precious would find it possible to attend - not just the specific and limited section of public which attended the rallies in the past years."

Among the crowd which gathered at the Rabin Square last Saturday night - about twenty to twenty-five thousand according to police estimates - it was difficult to find representatives of public currents other than those which had been there also in the past , those who come to demonstrate for peace and against the occupation and settlements.
But on the podium there were indeed several speakers of a kind not seen before in Rabin Memorials. For example Rabbi Avi Gisser, Rabbi of the settlement of Ofra.

Ofra was established in 1975, much of it on Palestinian private lands. The  settlement movement of the time, known as Gush Emunim (Block of the Faithful) considered its creation to be a major breakthrough.  Literally a breakthrough: settlers for the first time (but certainly not last) breaking into the heart of the densely populated Palestinian territory and establishing themselves there. Ofra is the informal capital of the ideological settlers, who believe that Judea and Samaria belong to the Jewish People by virtue of Divine Promise and Historic Right. Many of their lay and spiritual leaders live there to this day.

Rabbi Gisser, coming from Ofra to the Rabin Square, knew that he was not on his home ground.  Indeed, when he got the podium there was an outburst of  boos and catcalls. One may credit Gisser for having taken care to prepare a speech fitting the circumstances and the expectations of those who invited him. "The Arabs are the children of Abraham, too. It is an absolute imperative upon us to love all who were created in God's image. We have absolutely nothing to do with those who preach hatred of human beings. The Torah which we Jews hold dear does not permit bloodshed. Anyone who denies that has no part in Torah of Israel."

It may well be that all that was said in complete honesty. That, indeed, Rabbi  Gisser is staunchly opposed to such books as "The King's Torah" which specify the circumstances when the killing of Gentiles would be permissible and even praiseworthy, to the rabbis who publish such books and to the ardent supporters who read them and go out of in the night to set on fire olive trees and mosques as well as churches and monasteries. But what of a political solution? What would be the fate and future of millions of Palestinians living under Israeli military rule for 45 years already? What of the residents of Ramallah, the Palestinian city located about five miles southwest of Ofra which Gisser never visited? Are they part of the Israeli democracy for whose defence the rally was held? Well, Gisser and other speakers of a similar political coloration had agreed to speak at the Rabin Memorial Rally on condition that it would not "go into politics" and would not offer political solutions. "We must make sure that the debate on the future of the land does not tear society apart", he told his audience on the square. Perhaps this debate should be dropped altogether. Perhaps we should move on to other issues in the conduct of Israeli politics in general and the current elections campaign in particular?  Shelly Yechimovich, leader of the Labor Party who attended the rally though she did not speak from the podium, would certainly agree.

On the next day, the Knesset held a special session in memory of Rabin. Speaker Reuven Rivlin chose to open the discussion by emphasizing the ideological dispute between him and the late Rabin. "Rabin's political legacy was clear: to seek separation of the peoples by dividing the country and creating two separate entities. I disagreed with Rabin then and I still disagree with him today. I believe that the whole concept is erroneous. It is not applicable in the territory between the Jordan and the sea. It can be said that the idea of ​​separation has failed. Is has not gotten into the hearts of the two peoples." But if division and no two separate entities, what should there be instead? A single democratic state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan? Letting the Palestinians vote in the next Knesset elections, or those after the next? This question was asked by Knesset Members and newspaper columnists in the stormy debate which developed. Rivlin did not see fit to answer.

The Likud Party, Rivlin's party, does not much concern itself with the Palestinians and their rights and whether they would be given a vote in decisions which will determine their fate. Basically, anyway, the members of the Likud Conference themselves were not given much of a choice. The terms of the agreement between Prime Minister Netanyahu and the his new-old partner Avigdor Lieberman were not presented to them, nor were they given the chance for a secret balloting on this agreement. And there was such overt pressure that quite a bit of courage was needed to vote against. A bit like the elections which Vladimir Putin held in Russia a few months ago, to which the partner Lieberman gave his stamp of approval, going especially to Moscow for the purpose...

On the day following, Monday, the spotlight shifted momentarily to Yair Lapid, the rising star of Israeli politics whose new party's name assures us that "There is a Future".  As the venue for talking about this future Lapid chose the  settlement of Ariel in the northern West Bank. The same settlement which got headlines when hundreds of Israeli actors and theater people announced their refusal to perform in its "Hall of Culture", asserting that there can be no real culture in an armed enclave at the heart of an Occupied Territory. Only recently Ariel was at the focus of a new dispute, about whether the college in this settlement should be upgraded to a full university and get enormous budgets and resources.  As he clearly showed Yair Lapid  opposes the boycott of Ariel. In general, he "does not know any map in which Ariel does not belong to the State of Israel." The same with the Ma'ale Adumim settlement east of Jerusalem and the Gush Etzion settlements to the south. And not to mention United Jerusalem, the Capital of Israel, where two hundred thousand Palestinians would continue to live under Israeli rule and settlers would go on taking over their homes. But Yair Lapid certainly does support separation from the Palestinians and has pledged himself not to enter any government which does not embark on negotiations with them. What would be the subject of such negotiations? What exactly would be offered to the Palestinians? In fact, no one really pressured  Yair Lapid with such tough questions.

In any case Yair Lapid quickly dropped from the headlines, which shifted to another  new star Moshe Kahlon. Moshe Kahlon, Minister of Communications with a social conscience, stood for several days with one foot outside the Likud Party. The polls predicted great things for the independent new party that he thought of setting up. The man who struggled mightily against the cellular phone companies and thanks to whom we can all pay less to the bastard tycoons. And this was just the beginning of the great social struggles that he would lead. Labour Party leader Shelly Yechimovich rushed to congratulate Kahlon for his impending departure from the Likud: "I think Kahlon is an excellent representative of the public. His entry into the political arena promotes exactly what I'm struggling for: breaking the dichotomy between the political Right and Left. Two blocks no longer, it's all a mental fixation. We  need to have a new perception of what a political party is. "

And what does this excellent public representative, the man who breaks the dichotomy between Left and Right, have to say about the occupation and the Palestinians? Well, among the settlers he is a very welcome and respected guests, who supports all their demands and protests that the amount of construction in the settlements is not enough. And when asked about the Palestinian appeal to the UN, the social champion Moshe Kahlon had a decisive and  incisive crushing answer: "If the Palestinians get a recognition of statehood from the United Nations, we should immediately annex all the Territories, the very same day. You declare a state? No problem, we also make a declaration. As the kids say - you started it." Does the annexation of Palestinians include the vote in Knesset elections? No one asked Kahlon this question, though most probably such was not exactly his intention.

Activist Amir Shibli, who regularly prepares cartoons and montages and distributes them on the net cartoons, proclaimed Moshe Kahlon and his party (if any) as a good electoral choice for those who want to text cheaply and at the same time keep four million people without basic civil rights. However, by the  latest news, Kahlon now prefers not to run. What a pity.

Last but not least in this week's march of democracy is none other than Natan Sharansky. The man who many years ago was struggling bravely for Human Rights in the Soviet Union and later headed the party which sought to represent the Russian-speaking  Israelis, until Avigdor Lieberman undercut it. Who currently heads the Jewish Agency, a respected institution which usually triggers a yawn with the average Israeli. And this week he recalls his good old days when former U.S. President George W. Bush basked in Sharansky's doctrine of spreading democracy around the world and was influenced by it in his decision to invade Iraq and bring there the blessings of democracy. And so did the champion of democracy write:

"The West must make financial and diplomatic support conditional upon  obtaining concrete evidence of democratic reforms and respect for Human Rights. In this there is no place for selectivity. It must be a coherent, uncompromising policy extending over many years. It must be implemented with the same determination for everyone - from Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority to Egypt and Libya."(Maa’riv, November 1, 2012)

No place for selectivity? All countries that receive aid from the West, with no exceptions? Does that really mean that Natan Sharansky, Head of the Jewish Agency and a good friend of Binyamin Netanyahu, calls upon the United States to halt all financial and diplomatic aid to Israel, as a means of pressuring Israel to accept basic democratic norms of behavior and cease to occupy and oppress millions of people? No need to exaggerate, of course. No one even imagines asking Sharansky such questions.

Still, perhaps it is the voters in the United States who will decide. Exactly they, many of whom cannot point out in the map the location the Middle East and who are far more concerned with the unemployment situation in the Midwest.  Perhaps it is they who, this coming Tuesday, will take the decision which Israeli politicians avoid. Maybe it will be the American voters, by re-electing Obama, who will enable their president – if so he wants - to end the occupation and not let it roll on sedately to its fiftieth anniversary.

Certainly, when you conduct an elections campaign over the heads of the Palestinians and presume to determine their fate without asking them, you can't really complain if the decision is taken also out of your own hands.