Saturday, July 27, 2013

A racist rabbi, peace talks and the soldiers in the field

On the eve of the new Chief Rabbis’ selection, I was sitting in front of a TV set together with N., an old Palestinian friend who managed to get a permit to enter Israel and find odd jobs in Tel Aviv to support his family. Both of us, an Israeli Jew who does not fast on Yom Kippur and a Muslim Palestinian who is not particular about the Ramadan fast, could not ignore the religious-political event which was taking place.

Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu of Safed was among the candidates for Chief Sephardi Rabbi. He is the one behind the “The Rabbis' Letter”, calling upon Israelis  not to rent apartments to Arabs. "What is wrong with that? This is exactly what the Jewish Law, the Halacha, says. We must not allow them to live among us".

The position of Chief Rabbi is an ancient one, dating back to the Ottoman times. The original title was Hakham Bashi - Turkish for "Head of the Wise Men”. It provided a considerable amount of communal autonomy to the Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition in Spain and found refuge under the Ottomans. Should the state of Israel in the Twenty First Century retain this Ottoman institution, amply finance its extensive bureaucracy, and impose by law its jurisdiction in matters of marriage and divorce on its non-religious Jewish citizens? This has often been called in question, even before the advent of the odious Rabbi Eliyahu.

The Supreme Court had refused to touch this hot potato, rejecting on technical grounds the appeal against Rabbi Eliyahu and letting him run. But in the event, he failed to gain the Rabbinical High Seat, garnering "only" a third of the votes in the 150-member Rabbinical Electoral College.

Having tuned in to news flashes from the conclave in Jerusalem, me and N. could heave a sigh of relief and turn to other things. N. was concerned about a little tidbit which is of great importance to daily life in the area where he lives. The IDF just announced the removal of concrete barriers which, since the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2001, prevented any movement on the al-Harayyeq Road which connects the city of Hebron with several villages and towns to its south and which passes near the settlement of Beit Haggai. From now on, the military said, Palestinians will be allowed to travel on this road from 5:00 am to 9:00 am and again from 4:00 pm until 8:00 pm.

“They are tight-fisted” he said. “Even after twelve years, they do not open the road for the whole day. The army wants to show they are still the Boss, and the settlers don’t want us to travel near them. And I want to see if it would really open, even on these hours. It already happened that they announced in the media  the opening of roads but on the ground nothing happened. What I can tell you, when I was going to Tel Aviv we had to wait longer than usual at the Bethlehem Checkpoint. For some two hours they delayed and harassed us until we at last could get through. I'm already used to it, whenever they are speaking about  peace talks and easing of restrictions, the soldiers in the field do the exact opposite".

Even so, N. is in no rush to dismiss out if hand the negotiations between the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, due to be resumed in Washington following the great efforts of Secretary of State Kerry. "We'll see what comes of it. It will not take very long, two or three weeks. We'll see what happens when they start talking about the 1967 borders, if it is serious or just idle chattering  again."

It is quite a lot, coming from this man. Already for some time, N. has effectively lost hope of ending the occupation. Several times I heard him say that it would be better for the Palestinians to dismantle the PA and give up the demand for a state of their own, and to demand instead Israeli citizenship and civil equality - and was certainly not the only one. Now, he is again ready to give negotiations a cautious chance.

Precisely a week ago, when John Kerry declared the resumption of negotiations, was also the day when Sarit Michaeli was wounded by a rubber-coated metal bullet fired by a soldier. Michaeli, spokesperson of the Israeli Human Rights group B'Tselem, was documenting by video the course of a demonstration at the Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh. Already for years, villagers are holding weekly demonstrations, with the help of Israeli and international volunteers, to protest settlers from the nearby Halamish thaving taken over the spring which had for generations provided water to their village.

”This shooting was in violation of army regulations: the soldier fired from a distance of less than twenty meters, well below the prescribed minimum range of 50 meters, aiming at a photographer who posed no threat to the soldiers" read the statement issued by B'Tselem. The bullet penetrated into Michaeli's thigh and was extracted by surgery at Ichilov Hospital. The incident got some media attention, but did not really cause a stir. Sarit Michaeli of B'Tselem recovered and was soon back on her documentation job in the Occupied Territories. The soldier who fired was also back on his own job, and yesterday afternoon he was probably again active in the dispersal of the weekly demonstration. Meanwhile, the settlers continue in possession of the village spring. Would the Washington talks ever have any effect on the situation in Nabi Saleh?

Another coincidence (or is it?). The day when Kerry announced the resumption of negotiations was also the day when hundreds of Israeli actors and theater people rallied to protest the closure order issued by the Israeli Police, to prevent a Puppet Theater Festival for children, which was scheduled to take place at the al-Hakwati Theater in East Jerusalem. Some of the actors made speeches, while  others expressed their protest by playing elaborate pieces on stage. They clearly found if difficult to comprehend why puppet theater had so alarmed the authorities, and why this year (the festival has been going on annually for 18 years already). Why should Palestinian children from East Jerusalem be deprived of what is abundantly provided to Israeli children? (Not one but two Puppet Theater Festivals are held in Israel these very days, one in West Jerusalem and the other in Holon, not far from the room where I sit and write this article…)

No, no one had claimed that the puppet performances intended to entertain the children of East Jerusalem, disrupted by police closure order, had any  subversive or dangerous political content. All that was asserted by Mr Yitzhak Aharonovitz, Minister of Public Security, was that the PA (yes, the very same Palestinian Authority with which the State of Israel is at long last going to restart peace negotiations) had funded the puppet theater. And, as the honourable minister averred, The Oslo Accords Implementation Law, enacted by the Knesset in 1994, duly forbids the Palestinian Authority from hold, financing or sponsoring events in East Jerusalem.

It was no use when the theater director went to police and averred that the  Palestinian Authority, which finds it difficult to pay its own employees, had not given the festival even one penny. The police had determined that it was the PA which provided the funding, and it is the police's word which counts. The PA could send a representative all the way to Washington to negotiate with a representative of the government of Israel, but is strictly forbidden to finance a children's puppet theater in East Jerusalem within a half an hour’s drive from Mahmoud Abbas’ headquarters in Ramallah. The Law is the Law.

So, how should one regard these talks, due (tentatively) to start on Tuesday? The debate on enacting a Referendum Law is already started to heat up. Does that mean that somebody seriously believes that the negotiations would indeed lead to the signing of a far-reaching agreement, which would need to be presented to the citizens of Israel in a national referendum? Or is just one more one of the mirages and illusions to which we have gotten all too used?

Under the title "There is reason for concern" Uri Elitzur, one of the most influential Right-wing columnists, writes today: "The first and most obvious script means that we are due for another round of talks and photo opportunities, which like all its predecessors over the last 20 years will not lead anywhere. And if so,  there is a definite chance that it will be the last round of futile talks, and that everybody concerned would shed their delusions and realize the two-state idea is itself false”.

That is certainly Elitzur’s desirable scenario. In such a case, he proposes that the State of Israel proceed to annex the territories which it conquered in 1967 and grant Palestinians civil rights in a “gradual and controlled process" lasting  about thirty years. In his view, in this way Israel could "digest" the Palestinians and gradually ensure that even after annexation the number of Arab Knesset Members shall not exceed a twenty out of one hundred and twenty. "The Jewish State could endure that”.

However, Elitzur is quite apprensive of Scenario Two: "Most of Israeli society, including most leaders and opinion makers, and including Binyamin Netanyahu, are full of irrational fear of the moment when the dream of two states is conclusively proven impossible. Fear sometimes clogs the mind, and pushes the person to lie to himself and ignore all warning signs. Yes, there is reason for apprehension that Netanyahu would embrace delusional and suicidal options rather than face up to the fact that achieving a Palestinian state on reasonable terms is impossible. The fact that the Prime Minister personally takes the trouble and effort to energetically promote proposal for a referendum is a rather worrying sign. When fear is the main motivation for a major irresponsible step, it would be easier to get such a step approved by a referendum rather than by a political party’s organ or in the Knesset. Under the frightening slogan: “Either a Palestinian state which will live with us in peace, or a Bi-national State which will seal the doom of Zionism”, the majority would be carried along by their leaders’ fear and vote for a Palestinian state . The bottom line, unfortunately, is that I cannot reassure those who feel concerned since John Kerry announced resumption of talks. There is indeed a reason to worry.”

Uri Elitzur knows Binyamin Netanyahu quite well. He had once been Netanyahu’s Chef de Bureau and was privy to the PM’s most confidential strategic planning - though it was quite a long time ago. Do he and his fellows really have a reason for concern?

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The easy part of the task

So it seems that he did it, after all. After so many mocked his mission and  prematurely proclaimed its demise (as did I in one of these blogs). 
The Israeli media accorded John Kerry the ultimate insult of hardly bothering to report on his repeated visits. And for their part, the settlers and their representatives in the cabinet and the Knesset did not regard Kerry and the prospect of  negotiations with the Palestinians as a threat. "So, let there be some talks. Nothing will come of it, anyway" said Naftali Bennett and his friends hardly more than a week ago.

And now, after all the efforts, the repeated trips and shuttles from Washington and back, all the severe problems and the infinite insistence - dubbed as naïve - John Kerry seems to have succeeded. At least, in the easiest and simplest part of the task: bringing a representative of the government of Israel and one from the Palestinian leadership to sit in one room and talk to each other. But what reasons have we, if any, to assume that this time something would really come out of the talks?

There is no festive ceremony planned, no photo opportunity, no formal handshakes, no declaration of “A Historic Moment”. Nothing even remotely resembling, for example, the pathetic show of George W. Bush’s Annapolis Conference. Tzipi Livni of occupying Israel and Saeb Erekat of occupied Palestine, who already met more than once, are to come to Washington without ceremony and talk "in complete secrecy, away from the public and the media, so as to deal thoroughly with all the most sensitive issues, without interruption and without public pressure."

But what is going to happen there, away from the public and the media? Would Erekat ask "What about the 1967 borders" and Livni  answer "I have no mandate from Netanyahu to discuss this" - which would essentially bring negotiations to their end fifteen minutes after they started?

Just maybe, one who sets up talks on such a basis, with no ceremonies and no photo opportunities and just simple plain prosaic talks, might be seriously intending them to bear fruit? Not be just “A Peace Process", of which we have had more than enough, but one which ends with real peace? Getting there will be far more difficult than just getting Saeb Erekat and Tzipi Livni to sit in a single room.

At least, the honorable Naftali Bennett, Minister of Economy, is no longer certain that talks will not lead to anything. He had started to feel apprehensive and also make threats: "Let it be clear, the Jewish Home Party under my leadership will have no part, even for one second, in a government which agrees to negotiate on the basis of the 1967 lines". Maybe Bennet has some inside information causing him to feel apprehension and make threats?

These talks are starting under the shadow of the European Union 's decision to impose a far-reaching boycott on the West Bank settlement enterprise, a decision which alarmed the Israeli political establishment and brought the issue of the 1967 borders to the top of the national agenda. And if talks get into crisis because of this issue – which is very likely - the European Union will be waiting outside for Netanyahu, with another package of sanctions. "Good cop/Bad cop", is a well-known power play, practiced worldwide for many centuries. And maybe it will work for us, too, with the nice American cop sitting inside the negotiating room and the dastardly European cop waiting outside with a club?

Anyway, the fact that we got this far proves that Secretary of State John Kerry is very stubborn. If Kerry really wants the negotiations to produce results, he would have great need of all his stubbornness.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Arab Spring and us

The term "Arab Spring" was inspired by the historic 1848 events known as the “Spring of Nations". When it became known throughout Europe that in Paris the monarchy was overthrown and a republic established, the masses in many different countries took to the streets to make their own revolutions. Some were oppressed peoples suffering under foreign rule, others lived under Kings and tyrannical rulers of their own nationality. In some places there were relatively peaceful revolutions, others burst into bloody civil wars and the intervention of foreign powers.

Most of the 1848 revolutions in Europe ended in failure and frustration. In some cases the former rulers were able to maintain their rule by force. In other places, where the people got to choose their representatives, manifestly unfit people got to power and brought their countries low. But despite all, in historical perspective there is no doubt that these revolutions sowed the seed of present day democratic Europe.

The chain of events known as the Arab Spring began with a young Tunisian named Mohammed Boazizi, who set himself on fire to protest a personal act of injustice. He did not live to see that how his death sparked protests which led to the overthrow of tyranny in his native Tunisia and quickly spread to other countries.

The fall of the regime in Tunis did not arouse too much of an interest in Israel. Most Israelis never heard of the dictator Ben Ali until the day he boarded a plane and fled. Egypt was quite another matter. The demonstrations in Tahrir Square two years ago made headlines in the Israeli press, displacing our own politics. Israelis watched the developing drama with bated breath and a clear and evident sympathy, up to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.

Egyptian bloggers were amazed to hear how deeply many Israelis were interested in and sympathetic to their struggle. The struggle in the city squares of Cairo also affected directly the social protest movement that arose a few months later in the streets of Israeli cities. In the protest tent encampment on Rothschild Boulevard, there were signs and stickers such as "From Kiryat Shmona to Cairo - The People Demand Social Justice" "Corner of Rothschild and Tahrir" and "With Prices Going Sky-High, We Will Struggle Like in Egypt” (this rhymes in Hebrew).

But the honeymoon did not last long. With the increasing signs that free elections in Egypt would be won by Islamist parties and factions, Israeli  enthusiasm for democracy in Egypt noticeably cooled. Writer Amos Oz seems to have been the first to utter the phrase "It's not an Arab Spring, but an Islamist Winter" which at record speed became the most outworn of the cliches used by Israeli commentators and editorial writers.

Meanwhile, Libya got to the headlines for a time. In general Israelis tended to support the decision of the NATO countries to intervene in the war and provide the Libyan rebels with air support, and eventually topple Moammar Gadhafi from the heights of power to a despicable death in a sewer pipe. On the other hand, there was very little interest over here in the brutal suppression of the democratic protest movement focused on Bahrain’ Pearl Intersection, a suppression carried out with the tacit consent of the same NATO countries. To the extent that Bahrain got any mention, the Israeli branded Bahrain Shiite protesters as "pro-Iranian", which by definition made their swift suppression into an Israeli interest.

Attention quickly moved to Syria and the brutal war which developed there. To begin with, many Israelis naturally sympathized with the protesters in the squares of the Syrian cities, who encountered very brutal repression. Netanyahu and his government soon seized their chance and rushed to very loudly condemn the repression in Syria - and note with satisfaction that the   Syrian army’s murderous violence against the citizens of its own country was much worse than the acts of the Israeli Defense Forces in the Palestinian territories. When international Human Rights activists sought to reach the shores of besieged Gaza, each and every one of them got in their detention cells a copy of a personal letter from the Prime Minister of Israel, which  directed them to turn to Syria and forget about Israeli settlements or the siege on Gaza.

Gradually, as the weight of global Jihad activists among the Syrian rebels increased, sympathy for the rebels was replaced by regarding them as a threat to Israel, one of the many threats for which we must remain ever vigilant, and the right-wingers triumphantly reiterated the argument "how good that we did not make peace with Syria and give back the Golan Heights." And when news websites published items of Syrian civil war horrors, anonymous commentators used the talkback section to comment: ”Let them go on killing each other”.

The spread of the Arab Spring from one country to another revived among a certain section of political right-wing the old hope that a fall of the Hashemite Dynasty in Jordan would provide the Palestinians with a substitute  statehood, so that Israel could retain the Palestinian territories west of the Jordan River. But amidst the regional turbulence the throne of King Abdullah II in Amman seemed to shake much less than those of other rulers. Moreover, such challenges to his rule which did appear came especially from non-Palestinian Jordanians. Nevertheless, right-wing circles in Israel have not lost hope for a Jordanian Spring taking up the slogan "Jordan is Palestine", and not a week goes by without an article expressing such hopes appearing in one of their publications.

In the meantime – back to Egypt. The elections resulted in the fulfillment of what had been presented as the nightmare scenario: Mursi became Egypt's first democratically elected President and the Muslim Brotherhood became the ruling party. To the surprise of many here, the sky did not really fall. The peace treaty with Israel was not canceled, and President Morsi played a key role in achieving a cease-fire an Gaza in November 2012, ending the fighting after the number of those killed reached "only" one-tenth of the number killed in the   January 2009 round. This was followed by President Morsi making an effort to help maintain the ceasefire on the Gaza border and authorizing the Egyptian army to take energetic action against the smuggling tunnels at Rafah - more than it did in the time of Mubarak. All of which did not add to the popularity of Morsi in Egypt itself, and in the militant demonstrations his photo was integrated into a huge Israeli flag, appearing right in the center of the Star of David. Yet in Israel he never gained any real popularity.

For a long time, we have not heard so much about happenings in Egypt. Israeli media did report Morsi's decision last year to dissolve the ruling military council and of the momentary support given to this move by the liberal and secular opposition. But then the media seemed to lose interest in the nuances and complexities of Egyptian politics - the belligerent steps increasingly adopted by Morsi to consolidate his rule and the increasing opposition to that rule and the escalating crisis in the Egyptian economy and the Muslim Brotherhood’s failure to implement campaign promises to their voters (in which, it must be noted in fairness, they were far from the only ones among the world’s elected governments).

Until last week, when Egypt was once in the focus. It seemed a replay of the scenario of two years ago – once again the huge demonstrations in Tahrir Square capturing the Israeli headlines and driving out our local news, once again expressions of joy at the fall of another Egyptian President. And at the weekly demonstration by social protest activists outside the home of the Minister of Finance appeared a big sign: "Morsi, Bibi, Lapid – the Same Revolution!”.

Most Israeli commentators felt no more than a slight unease at the fact that a President elected in free elections had been ousted by the Egyptian army. The respected Hemi Shalev on the pages of Haaretz actually questioned whether  democracy should always be the preferred system of government, and the well-known Ben Kaspit went into a paroxysm of joy at the thought that "The Islamists with their galabiya robes had been thrown into the trash can”. But according to the most recent news coming out of Egypt, they are not in the trash but out in the streets. They seem far from resigned to being ousted from the power to which they had been elected, and the death toll continues to rise.

So how will our media report on the following installments of the Egyptian saga?