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.