The decision by Minister of Environmental Protection Amir Peretz to include a map of Israel’s pre-1967 borders in a new planning document made headlines in Israel this weekend and took the far-right by surprise. Yet too many on the center-left have regrettably overlooked what amounts to an (unfortunately) rare action to support peace rather than just talk about it.
To understand the significance of Peretz’s decision, it is important to view it in context. The fact that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians support the two-state solution is as well known as the fact that enthusiasm for peace between both peoples has drastically and consistently plummeted. That’s no surprise, considering some of the negative facts on the ground, which have been polluting the environment outside the negotiating room since the latest peace talks began.
Israeli Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz (Uriel Sinai / Getty Images)
Almost seven years since the violent Hamas coup in Gaza, few are optimistic about the prospects of a contiguous Palestinian state, even if the Israeli government does its share. Similarly, even if the PLO was to accept all the demands presented by Prime Minister Netanyahu, the complete removal of settlements (the population of which has tripled in the last 20 years) has become a non-starter.
Remember Silvio Berlusconi's Holocaust misstep, in which the former prime minister compared his experience of being convicted for tax fraud to the persecution of Jews under Nazism?
Berlusconi has tried to settle the issue in the Italian fashion, that is, around a restaurant table.
On Sunday night, the media tycoon-turned-politician showed up at one of Rome's most famous Jewish restaurants, where the head of the Jewish Community of Rome, Riccardo Pacifici, also happened to be dining. Apparently, Berlusconi invited Pacifici to his table and seized the occasion to apologize for his inappropriate remarks, which appeared in a recent book by Bruno Vespa, Italy's most famous TV anchor. Berlusconi also promised that Vespa would remove the statement from the future editions of his book.
Italian former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi smiles as he leaves after the People of Freedom (PDL) party's national convention in Rome on November 16, 2013. (ALBERTO PIZZOLI / AFP / Getty Images)
Part of the meeting was caught on camera, leading to speculation that it might have been staged.
Earlier last week, Berlusconi's young girlfriend also “accidentally” dropped by a Jewish restaurant in Rome. When asked by paparazzi what she was doing inside the Ghetto, one of Europe's oldest Jewish neighborhoods, 28-year-old Francesca Pasquale answered: “You eat well here." To her credit, the cuisine of Roman Jews, the so-called “cucina giudaico romanesca,” is particularly renowned and draws many non-Jewish fans.
There has been much talk about the potential for natural gas discovered in the East Mediterranean to change the regional geopolitical status quo. A noticeable shift has certainly occurred regarding the Israel-Cyprus-Greece entente, but defining Levant Basin gas as the game changer that transformed the equation severely overdetermines the role of energy as a factor that makes or breaks the structure of a complicated part of the world. The existence of significant offshore natural gas reserves has undoubtedly altered the political calculus, but the elements of the Arab uprisings and Turkey’s behavior contributed to these changes to a much greater degree.
Israel’s relationships with Cyprus and Greece have improved measurably in the past few years. Both states were known for aggressively backing the Arab and Palestinian causes since the creation of Israel up until the twenty-first century. One very low point occurred in 2002, when a Cypriot parliamentary delegation was denied entry into Israel after attempting to meet with Yasser Arafat, then under house arrest in Ramallah.
The Tamar drilling natural gas production platform is seen some 25 kilometers West of the Ashkelon shore in February 2013 in Israel. (Albatross via Getty Images)
While Greece and Cyprus still do support the Palestinians―Cyprus having given Palestine full diplomatic status this year and Greece having voted to accord it non-member observer status at the UN General Assembly in November―they have also warmed considerably towards Israel. Cypriot-Israeli exchanges have become particularly frequent since 2011 and occur at the presidential and prime ministerial levels. Moshe Katsav was the first Israeli president to visit Greece in 2006, and in 2010 Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou went to Israel in a bid to repair relations. Since then, similar bilateral diplomatic exchanges have increased.
The screening of Dove’s Cry in New York this week as part of the Other Israel Film Festival couldn’t have come at a better time. As more young American Jews express an interest in studying Arabic—a trend highlighted in the New York Times last month—the American Jewish establishment is being forced to consider whether, how, and at what age it will give them the chance. That makes this a perfect moment for U.S. audiences to see Dove’s Cry, a documentary about an Arab Israeli woman teaching Arabic to Jewish kids.
Hadeel, a vivacious 27-year-old from the Wadi Ara region, teaches Arabic in a Jewish Israeli elementary school. An independent woman who resists her Muslim family’s constant urgings to marry, she is beloved by her students—who are often seen hugging, serenading, and cheering her on over the course of the school year—as well as by her Jewish co-workers. But Hadeel also endures instances of casual prejudice and racism at their hands, challenging her belief that she can effect positive change in Israeli society.
A still shot showing Hadeel from the documentary 'Dove's Cry.' (Courtesy of Other Israel Film Festival)
We first see Hadeel put to the test when, in an attempt to teach her class about Arab culture, she asks her students to build model mosques. The kids are enthusiastic about the arts and craft project, but their parents object. “I can’t do the assignment, because my parents won’t let me,” one student says. “They think it’s against our religion and they even sent an email [to the school].” Instead of supporting Hadeel, the principal yields to parental pressure and orders her to back down.
Another time, we see Hadeel reduced to tears after a student she’s punished throws a tantrum and calls her “a stinking Arab.”
A few months ago, Naftali Bennett published a video on the Internet that depicted his “stability plan” policy for the future of the State of Israel. Of all the factual imprecisions that characterized his political program, one in particular caught my eye as outlandish. At some point in the video, the narrator solemnly states that the Jordan Valley is used to buffer Israel against a possible tank attack from Iran. As someone who dedicated thirty years of his life in service of IDF command positions and the protection and security of the citizens of Israel, I couldn’t help but chuckle when I heard that.
I have no doubt that the propaganda efforts of the Jewish Home Party chairman have been successful, and that not a few Israelis walk around today with their argument for the eminent necessity of the Jordan Valley at the ready. In the last few weeks, with the renewed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in the background, the question of Israel's ability to secure defensible borders in the context of a permanent status agreement found its way back onto the agenda. And then, just as soon as the negotiations began, the usual suspects began singing their old tune, a song known to be aimed at only one thing: provoking panic amongst Israel’s citizenry.
Israel's newly sworn-in Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor and head of Israel's Jewish Home party, Naftali Bennett arrives for the first Cabinet meeting after the swearing in of the new Israeli government, at the Prime Minister's Office on March 18, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Credit: David Vaaknin-Pool / Getty Images) (Pool)
The time has come to bring the public conversation back to the rational, professional track. It is important to understand that the long and narrow state of Israel has never had and never will have "strategic depth". Any attempt to claim that the Jordan Valley provides such depth is patently absurd.
Quote of the day:
"If, as the Prime Minister says, only Israel is responsible for its fate, it must actualize this responsibility at the diplomatic table and not just in the battlefield..."
--Former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy in today's Yedioth on negotiations regarding Iran's nuclear program.
- Israeli forces raid Abu Dis and attack al-Quds University, injuring 40 - Israeli forces shot 40 Palestinians including a large number of university students with rubber-coated steel bullets during a raid on a Palestinian village east of Jerusalem on Sunday afternoon, while students were on their way to class. (Maan)
- Israeli injured from stone-throwing - Israeli woman, 40, was lightly to moderately injured when a rock was thrown at her windshield near the settlement of Ofra. (Yedioth, p. 22)
- Bolstered referendum law has MKs at each other's throats - Upgraded referendum law would make it harder for the government to cede land that has been annexed by Israel, including Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. (Right-wing MK) Yariv Levin: Such matters should be left to the people; that is how the EU decided on the euro. Arab MK Ahmed Tibi: "The Knesset has no legislative powers when it comes to occupied territory; this is arrogant behavior and it is void of relevance." (Israel Hayom)
- Right-wing attacks Minister Peretz - Stormy reactions in right-wing following publication yesterday of Maariv story about book published in cooperation with Ministry of Environment that does not include Judea and Samaria. "The minister has no right to leave out a whole public or part of it from the map of activities of his ministry on the basis of his political views," said Likud Deputy Minister Ofir Ekunis, adding: "It's time the left-wing gets used to it: Judea and Samaria are part of Israel." (Maariv, p. 18/NRG Hebrew)
- Hamas shows off tunnel-digging unit - Weeks after Israel demolishes tunnel network, Hamas reveals tunnel-excavation methods in Al-Jazeera report. (Haaretz+)
- High Court to rule on administrative detainee held for over three years - Samar Albarak, who is suspected of being an Al-Qaida biological weapons expert, has been held in Israel since August 2010. (Haaretz)
- Fearing party takeover, Likud wary of Lieberman’s return - A group of Likud activists wants to tweak the party's constitution in the foreign minister's favor; others propose strengthening Netanyahu's leadership. (Haaretz+)
Ehud Olmert appeared at Dartmouth College on Tuesday. It's hard to remember a blunter defense of John Kerry's peace process, or statement of impatience with the Netanyahu government, than Olmert's talk, which is worth spending some time with. You can see the entire event in the video, below.
Olmert reiterated to me that he is determined to challenge Netanyahu the next time around; he is waiting for the Israeli courts to clear him of charges in outstanding cases against him. Many things would have to fall into place for a challenge to be plausible--about which, more later. But Olmert listed, in private, an impressive array of people who'd be with him if things do fall into place. So if you've been skeptical of him in the past—and who hasn't?—this lecture will be of particular interest.
John Kerry’s quest to bring peace to the Middle East was dealt a severe blow this week when Mahmoud Abbas confirmed that Saeb Erekat, Palestine’s chief negotiator, had resigned and was taking the team with him. Abbas didn’t panic because Saeb Erekat can’t quit quitting. His nickname is, "The Erekat that Came Back," and Abu Mazen had no doubt in his mind that Saeb’s most recent resignation would be shorter lived than Rami Hamdallah’s dabbling was. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was already having the worst week ever and the last thing he needed was to have Team Palestine bail on negotiations.
Last week, Kerry headed back to the Holy Land for the latest episode of “Let’s Make a Peace Deal!” His previous pleas that all parties involved keep their yaps shut, because what happens behind closed doors at the peace talks stays behind doors, had fallen on deaf ears and loud mouths. Israeli Knesset member Zahava Gal-On claimed a little birdie told her that the United States of America had a peace plan of their own up their sleeve, which they were going to force upon the sparring parties if they didn’t reach a settlement by New Year’s Day. Kerry swore no such document existed, but I have seen a copy of these proposed plans. The American solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will allow Palestinians to keep their health insurance plan if they like it while allowing Israel to keep everything else. If you all don’t know I’m kidding by now, I cannot help you.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (C) makes a statement with Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (L) and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat (R). (Win McNamee / Getty Images)
A hot mess awaited John Kerry in Jerusalem. Israel had kept up its end of the bargain and released a paltry 26 more of the 104 pre-Oslo prisoners it promised to release 14 years ago. Instead of freeing all of these heavy hitters at once, Israel insists on doing it in phases so that every few months the world can be reminded that she is making a huge sacrifice by releasing these convicted criminals and therefore should be allowed to build another 5,000 illegal settlements.
As the polarizing—and sometimes satirical—controversy marches on over Quebec’s proposed Bill 60, known as the Charter of Values, the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal has been dragged into the mix in an unsavory way, while at the same time taking the opportunity to issue a principled statement of its own. The bill seeks to ban public service employees from wearing overtly religious symbols, including the Muslim hijab and the Jewish kippah.
According to screen shots obtained by the Montreal-Orthodox Jewish community blog Bill613.com, a Parti Quebecois candidate in Montreal, Tania Longpré, made some incendiary remarks on Facebook. In response to a social media query about the public funding of the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal with special mention of its name, the practice of circumcision, and the wearing of kippot (skullcaps) and peyot (sidelocks) in public, she replied “against, against, against.” She then agreed that this language should be added to the proposed text of the bill.
Girls of Montreal's Muslim taekwondo team posing in a sports hijab on April 22, 2011. They were excluded from competition for wearing traditional hijab. (Géraldine Woessner /AFP /Getty Images)
According to the blog, she soon “backtracked” on her comments, deleting the Facebook thread, and calling the brouhaha “childish.”
Legislators react. They don’t enact. A politician who declares a revolution is actually just announcing the phenomenon that he seeks to legislate can no longer be ignored. The real changes are made by people, by society, by individual choices and actions, not by political statements or election propaganda. The legislator simply updates the law to reflect the changes that the people have already made a reality through individual acts of autonomy and self-expression. This is the true meaning of “creating facts on the ground.” Laws don’t shape society; society shapes the law.
This month, Israel’s Health Minister Yael German announced plans to legalize surrogacy for same-sex couples in Israel, saving same-sex couples and singles that need the help of surrogate mothers to have children expensive and time-consuming medical processes abroad. Four separate civil union bills have been proposed in the first weeks of the Knesset winter session, and indeed, there is a feeling that a point of no-return has been reached. Yet, it is important to realize that legislation won’t enable Israelis who can’t or choose not to wed through the Rabbinate to live together, or to use surrogacy; they are already doing it in record numbers. Legislation must be passed to legalize situations that are already reality, because the absence of such laws is simply an injustice against the citizens.
Bill Pugliano / Getty Images
The Israeli politician is the last in the chain of social change. The legislator does not enact the revolution; he or she only confirms its existence. The true role of the legislator is to bridge the gap between reality and the law. When politicians declare the need for change, we know that the change is already here, and the change was made by us. The legislator should observe the changes society goes through, the demographic changes it experiences, and propose legislation that responds to the changing reality.
Quote of the day:
'Regards from Eden, Revenge!'
--Graffiti spray-painted on wall of Palestinian home in Sinjil village in West Bank that was set on fire while children were sleeping inside.
- Suspected 'price tag' attack: Assailants set (Palestinian) West Bank house on fire, spray 'Regards from Eden, Revenge!' on wall - Five Palestinians suffer from smoke inhalation; Israeli military: Incident undermines regional stability; attack believed to seek revenge for murder of Israeli soldier by Palestinian teen. (Haaretz+ and Maan)
- Some 30 thousand Palestinians sneak in to Israel every month to work illegally - So far 60% of the construction of the separation fence has been completed. Security establishment fears: holes in the fence along with the removal of checkpoints in the West Bank may facilitate the infiltration of terrorists into Israel. (NRG Hebrew)
- Antiquities battle pits Old City merchants against inspectors - The stock of legal antiquities in Israel has not been depleted, despite 35 years of brisk sales; the Israel Antiquities Authority thinks it knows why. (Haaretz+)
- How the Israeli army is raising the next generation of cyber geeks - But Israel’s military is bullish on a special after-school program for smart high school kids - from the country’s outskirts as well. (Haaretz+)
- NGO: Hamas torturing political prisoners - Hamas launches arrest campaign aimed at members of Fatah, other political entities; says arrests have been bolstered to try to pro-actively quell onslaught of protests coinciding with anniversary of Yasser Arafat's death. (Agencies, Ynet)
- CIA declassifies Camp David Accords intelligence - American intelligence warned that Israeli premier Begin's failing health could complicate negotiations, files reveal. (Agencies, Haaretz)
For the full News from Israel.
Many Iran hawks in Washington claim the mantle of human rights advocacy in their push for ever harsher measures against the Islamic Republic, up to and sometimes including the use of military force against Iran's nuclear facilities. But there's a disconnect: While D.C.'s Iran hawks never relent in their push for more sanctions, human rights activists working inside and outside Iran feel that sanctions are impinging on their work. That's the backdrop for the push by the Obama administration to get Congress to hold off on more sanctions. But Members of Congress, especially from the Republican right, appear poised to press on in their quest to further cripple the Iranian economy.
“Adding more sanctions at this stage in the negotiations, when there is a lot of hope about the fate of nuclear talks with Iran, is tantamount to sabotage,” said Hadi Ghaemi, the head of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, in a statement released by the group today. “The idea of adding more sanctions at this crucial point in the negotiations disappoints millions of Iranians who are hopeful these talks will lead to a compromise and help lift the sanctions, and sounds like a drumbeat leading to war.”
Hassan Rouhani, President of Iran, speaks during the 68th Session of the United Nations General Assembly September 24, 2013 at U.N. headquarters in New York. (Stan Honda / AFP / Getty Images)
The release singled out a statement by Sen. Mark Kirk, one of Congress's most avid Iran hawks, to reporters: “How do you define an Iranian moderate? An Iranian who is out of bullets and out of money.” The line refers to Iran's moderate President Hassan Rouhani. While Iran's elections are deeply flawed—only regime-approved candidates can run—it's worth noting that Rouhani was not Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's choice for president. "The 18 million Iranians who defied the odds and voted for change in this year's presidential elections might take issue with Senator Kirk's insulting characterization," noted Jamal Abdi, of the National Iranian American Council, a U.S.-based group that opposes new sanctions, in a press release.
Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, who has made two public speeches over the past two days, was recently the object of some poorly-received mockery. Last week, the Lebanese sketch comedy show “Basmat Watan” took to the airwaves with an episode featuring an impersonation of the black-turbaned cleric. The public reaction—demonstrations in Baalbek, tire burnings in Sin el-Fil, a blocked highway in Tripoli—might have scared more faint-hearted artists into a retraction or an apology, but the show's director, Charbel Khalil, has thus far been defiant.
It's not particularly rare for blasphemy, heresy, impiety, or simple disrespect to spark violence in some corners of the world: witness the way Muslim communities were roiled by the 2006 Jyllands-Posten cartoon controversy. But there's more to public touchiness over last week's sketch than just pious indignation. Hassan Nasrallah is a political figure as much as he is a religious one, and his influence is attested in the way that his constituents have so aggressively risen to his defense.
The head of Lebanon's militant Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah greets the audience after speaking during a massive Shiite Muslim commemoration in southern Beirut on November 14, 2013. (AFP / Getty Images)
One of the many reasons Lebanese admirers of Hezbollah's Secretary-General offer for their support is the claim that Nasrallah is, unlike the region's other outsized personalities, a man of his word. I have heard him compared in this respect to Benjamin Netanyahu and Saad Hariri, to Ariel Sharon and Bashar Assad and Michel Aoun, all in the same breath. Nasrallah's supporters view him as the rare political figure who keeps his promises—a view bolstered by Hezbollah's 2006 rout of the IDF. Israeli military planners, it seems, have since also learned not to doubt the powerful cleric's guarantee.
What do a Reform Jew, a Muslim and a Buddhist have in common, when living in Italy? To put it bluntly: they don't exist—not officially, at least.
Italy has 1.5 millions of Muslim residents, making Islam de facto the second-biggest religion in this predominantly Catholic country. There are Reform Jewish congregations in most big cities (Rome and Florence have one each, Milan has two) and Buddhism has had an organized presence in Italy since the mid 1980s.
The Vatican flag (L) floats alongside an Italian (C) and a European Union (R) flag atop the Quirinale presidential palace in Rome as the Pope meets the Italian President on November 14, 2013. (AFP PHOTO / Vincenzo Pinto)
But officially these three groups have no status. And they are in good company: among communities that are currently awaiting for recognition from the Italian authorities there are also Hindus, a number of Christian Evangelical churches, and Christian Orthodox who are not directly affiliated with the Patriarch of Constantinople.
The crisis of the Syrian civil war long ago reached beyond those engaged in battle to become one of the most pressing issues confronting anyone in the region and, ultimately, the global community. With 2.2 million refugees now beyond Syria’s borders, and 6.5 million internally displaced persons within them, well more than a third of Syria’s population has fled the violence that consumes their country. The collapse of the nation’s health care system has led to an outbreak of polio, and no matter where the the flood of humanity turns, they arrive hungry, largely bereft of belongings, and often badly wounded.
The struggles faced by each family, each individual, are of course unique, and often dependent on the direction in which they ran: on Tuesday, reports emerged that Greek border authorities have maltreated refugees and illegally forced many to sail for Turkey; in northern Iraq, 200,000 Syrians are facing what experts predict will be an unusually harsh winter; last spring The Atlantic reported that Syrian girls in Lebanon are becoming child brides, in the hopes of finding security in marriage.
MAJDAL ANJAR, LEBANON - NOVEMBER 12: A displaced Syrian child walks through a makeshift camp for Syrian refugees only miles from the border with Syria in the Bekaa Valley on November 12, 2013 in Majdal Anjar, Lebanon. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)
Far and away the greatest number of refugees have arrived in Jordan. As of mid-October, the Hashemite Kingdom had reportedly absorbed some 550,000 Syrians; that number is expected to rise as high as a million by year’s end. The Zaatari Refugee Camp alone is home to some 120,000―roughly the same population as Hartford, Connecticut or Santa Clara, California. Bear in mind that Jordan’s own population numbers only 6.3 million.
A deal on Iran’s nuclear program and U.N. sanctions regime has been reached. But the U.S., Iran and Israel seem to be interpreting the same agreement quite differently.