Saturday, May 11, 2013

Never a dull moment in this crazy country

Headlines in Israel’s newspapers earlier this week spoke of the "Winds of War", and the Haifa Airport was closed for several days because the Air Force decided to clear civilian traffic off the airspace in the north. An elderly couple, friends of my parents, called me in a panic at a very late hour: "Did the war start?" They heard an unusual lot of airplanes going above their home, and did not get much sleep that night.  When Prime Minister Netanyahu was a child, did no one ever tell him that to play with fire is dangerous? You may get badly burned,  or ignite a big conflagration.

But the war did not start this week, and those who played with fire did not get  burned.  At least for now. A series of bombing was launched into Syria in order to destroy “Tiebreaker Weapons" before these could be transferred to Lebanon. (Were these truly "Tiebreaker Weapons"?" Several experts cast serious doubts on this.) Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ya'alon and the IDF High Command were all betting that President Bashar Assad has too much trouble with his homemade enemies, and that he would decide to hold back even in face of a public humiliation and a gross violation of Syrian sovereignty by a series of bombings carried out by the Israeli Air Force  not so far from his Presidential Palace. Indeed, the Israeli attack was not answered by a barrage of missiles from Damascus, and after two days the alert was scaled down.

What however did happen is that after precisely forty years, there came to its end the Syrian Government's commitment to prevent attacks against Israel from its territory, a policy which had made the Golan Heights into Israel’s most quiet border of the State of Israel. Bashar Assad now formally invited any interested armed group to penetrate the border at its discretion - and indeed, several such groups, from among both Assad’s friends and his foes, might well take advantage of the opportunity. The United Nations has already announced the evacuation of its observers who had helped keep this border stable over the past four decades.

Meanwhile, what of the massacres frequently occurring in Syria? Well, that's not really a matter of concern for the State of Israel (except when the PM needs a stick with which to beat Human Rights activists who dare to say a word about the Palestinians...) 

Anyway,  enough unto the day. For the time being, the situation on the Syrian border is gone from the headlines, which were taken up instead with the new state budget, and the austerity policy decrees introduced by the new Finance Minister Yair Lapid.   His middle class voters are shocked and frustrated by the severe harm which these decrees would cause them. But do Lapid’s voters have a real reason to feel disappointed, or could they have known in advance that such would be his policies?

After all, even before the elections many articles were published describing the  new budget being prepared by the Finance Ministry officials, and already on the same day that Lapid was appointed Finance Minister in Netanyahu's new cabinet was it predicted that such would be the budget he will submit. 

And what will happen tonight at nine o'clock in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square, the focus of the social protests of two years ago? Will the masses again come out in the protest planned for tonight at quite a few locations all over the country?

In Israeli public opinion it is customary to maintain a water-tight division between socio-economic struggles and the question of wars and military preparations. Eyal Gabai, who was until recently Netanyahu’s Chef de Bureau and knew everything that was going on, broke a bit of the hermetic partition and said that last year there had been  preparations for a war against Iran, which did not take place (at least, not last year), and these preparations had cost about ten billion Shekels. Which happens to be a big part of the "Budgetary Abyss" to fill which the citizens of Israel (not necessarily the richer ones) will have to pay more taxes and receive less social services. Gabai’s remarks were made on a live radio program, but somehow did not get much of an echo.

Finance Minister Lapid then stated in a live broadcast of his own that the new budget he had prepared (or that was prepared for him by the Treasury officials)  would "take out of everybody’s pockets, not just those of the middle class" . There were those who objected the budget would not really touch the settlers and the settlements and the settlement budgets. But this is, after all, no more than the worn out argument of the leftists. 

What of the military budget? Is it really going to be cut? And if it is, will the cuts not be returned with compound interest as soon as a new military emergency of one kind or another catches the headlines again? We will have to wait and see.

In the meantime, the Prime Minister went off to China and looked from a distance at the budget turmoil and was perhaps not so sorry to push Lapid to the front. Relations with China are of strategic importance to Israel, Netanyahu reiterated, perhaps looking forward to a future time when the international balance of power changes and the United States no longer dominates the world and an Israeli PM who had just finished forming a new cabinet will rush off to Beijing before flying to Washington. In the meantime, China's President rushed to publish, on the day before his Israeli guest arrived, a detailed plan for peace in the Middle East, which includes establishing a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders. On the other hand, he also signed many economic contracts which Netanyahu said would give a big boost to the Israeli economy. And is that the best way to make the government of Israel take the Chinese peace plan seriously?

Netanyahu’s most profound impression in this visit seems to have been the Great Wall of China. To most visitors this is no more than an impressive tourist site, nearly two thousand years old, but Israel’s Prime Minister found there a lot of practical, present-day ramifications.  "As the Chinese defended themselves and barricaded themselves behind the Great Wall, so we will continue to fortify ourselves along the southern border, at the Golan Heights and on all fronts" stated the PM as he went though the windings of the old impressive wall. Maybe a historian with a bit deeper knowledge of Chinese history would have told Netanyhau that the Great Wall had not always been enough to protect the Chinese, and that some scholars consider seclusion behind the Wall and isolation from the outside world as having had serious negative effects on China. But probably the guide provided to the entourage of Netanyahu did not enter into such nuances.

And while the Prime Minister toured China and occasionally sent messages to the Israeli media, Jerusalem Day was celebrated in Jerusalem, the Eternal Unified Capital of Israel, marking the forty-sixth anniversary of Jerusalem’s Liberation and Unification in 1967. At least, that's how the official statement from the Jerusalem municipality put it, being echoed in some enthusiastic media reports of "A city full of flags." Nearly only on the pages of "Haaretz" was it reported that the masses of Blue-and-White flags were held aloft by a mass of national religious youths, many of whom arrived in Jerusalem in organized rides from settlements all over the West Bank, and marched through the Old City hurling insults at every bypassing Arab they encountered. Barak Shemehs, a Jerusalemite peace activist, sent out a message on Facebook which deserves to be quoted here:

"Many sectors and communities in the Israeli society have their own distinctive holidays, such as the Kurdish Jews’ Saharana or the Moroccans’ Mimuna. The National Religious have taken Jerusalem Day for their own special and distinctive holiday. This is the most important date on the calendar of their education system. Climax - a parade through the streets of the Muslim Quarter of an  occupied Old City, with the shutters closed, and inside the houses parents consolate their children, reassuring them :'lt will soon be over, they will go away and stop harassing us. (...) The nationalist Flags’ Parade closes off the city for hours, the unilateral “Unification” celebrations preventing  many people from returning to their homes. Jerusalem is not a united city. It is a divided city, at least one third of its residents facing severe discrimination,  political persecution, racist harassment, hate crimes, settler associations  taking over homes, harassing municipal bailiffs, lack of building permits, lack of infrastructure – all this  in addition to the usual difficulties in making a living and raising children. "

On Jerusalem Day this year, as on previous years, Israel’s National Police strongly  "adviced" the Palestinians in the Old City to close their shops and stay indoors and wait out the raging storm of young dancers holding Blue-and- White flags abates in their streets. But this year, unlike previous years, there were young Palestinians who did not follow the police directives and who celebrated a Jerusalem Day of their at the Damascus Gate, center of Old City life, holding aloft the Palestinian  Red-Green- Black-and-White, and police came rushing to disperse them. On  Israeli TV there was a reference to "riots marring the joy of the Jerusalem Unification celebrations" .

The Shamasnah family in the Sheikh Jarrah Neighborhood of East Jerusalem is far from sure that next year they will have even the option of closing themselves up in their home while the settlers and their flags come flooding the street. Settler associations have marked the family home as next in line to be taken over, using various sophisticated legal arguments and tricks and a manifestly unfair system of land ownership laws. It already happened to several families whom the police expelled from their homes late  at night and by the morning the settlers had already taken possession and raised the Blue-and-White flag on the roof.

In a bit more than a week - on May 20, at 9:00 am – the Supreme Court will hear the appeal of the Shamasneh Family. Yesterday morning, there were in several  locations around the world demonstrations to express solidarity with the family. In Jerusalem, protesters gathered in Independence Park, opposite the U.S. Consulate. As it happened, just as they stood there with signs in Hebrew and Arabic and English stating "No to deportation in Sheikh Jarrah", the radio carried the report that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will be here in two weeks’ time - to once more try to renew Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and restart the stalled peace process. And it also happens that the Secretray of State’s plane is scheduled to land at Ben Gurion Airport precisely twenty four hours after the deliberations on the Shamasneh Family home.  

Is the Secretary of State able and willing to prevent this impending expulsion,  even before opening his suitcase to pull out the veteran Arab Peace Initiative which had been on the table since 2002 and about which Binyamin Netanyahu is far from enthusiastic? If he is not, perhaps it would be best for Kerry to board the plane right back to Washington and submit to President Barack Obama a report consisting of four French words: "Aprטs nous le dיluge!".

Note: I have written a lot about this crazy week and did not touch even in a nutshell half of the crazy things which happened. For example, the program for settling the Bedouins adopted by the government, which seems to imply expulsion of 30,000 Bedouin citizens of Israel and destroying dozens of "unrecognized" villages and for whose realization the Minister of Public Security demands the recruiting of 250 new police officers (a very optimistic assessment of the force required). And the Governance Bill which passed its preliminary reading which would place many obstacles on the ability of the parliamentary opposition to act against the government on the Knesset floor and on the ability of small parties to enter the Knesset in the first place. And the "Jenin, Jenin Law", named after a controversial documentary film and designed to prevent the future creation of such films, since their maker might face libel suits for having "defamed the Israel Defense Forces." And the uprooting of nearly a hundred olive trees at the small village of Twani  in the South of Hebron Hills and the nasty graffiti left there by settlers. And the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking joining the lengthening list of international VIPs who no longer feel comfortable about popping in for a visit to this country of ours, and the jokes in bad taste, jokes which some people who call themselves "friends of Israel" told of this man, who suffers from such a severe disability and has been able to overcome it in such a remarkable way.  And the great confrontation which took place at the Wailing Wall because a lot of people who consider themselves as religious and as having a right of possession over this site were ready to resort to violence at the sight of women wearing such Jewish religious symbols as prayer shawls and phylacteries which are supposed to be reserved for men only. And last but not least, the proposed government bill which would prohibit migrant workers from Africa to transfer money to their families – a bill supported by the illustrious Finance Minister Lapid.

And so ends another crazy week in a crazy country - and would next week be any less crazy?