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?